Sunday, November 18, 2007

When statements? Sound like questions?

Warning: This column could get ugly. There is a trend in current speech that is so pervasive that, well, I hate to say it, but it might be found in your own family. And it is, to put it nicely, obnoxious.

The headline? For this column? Shows you what I mean?

The trend is for an increasingly large number of speakers to put a question mark where there is no question, often in the middle of a statement as well as at the end. It is said that this unappealing tendency began in California – certainly a state that has some wonderful things going for it, but if the San Fernando Valley and Valley Girls started this, then I am not happy with them.

I can hear a teenaged Valley girl now: “So, like, Heather goes, ‘Josh is like happy? When he like plays baseball? Or when he’s like drunk?’ And I go, like … what-EV-er.”

How do we put an end to this assault on our sensibilities? I have, in fact, a remedy – a little phrase that we can use to correct such behavior. Surely you have little tricks that stay with you from childhood (how do you spell arithmetic? A-r-i-t-h-m-e-t-i-c … a-rat- in-the-house-may-eat-the-ice-cream! Easy. Memorable.).

Here’s one little thing to remember to help fight The Question Inflection. It’s only two words. You can simply say these two words to anyone vocally misbehaving. Here they are: “Stop it!”

Do you know who Terry Gross is? She is the host of “Fresh Air” on National Public Radio, and many listeners feel that she is arguably the most accomplished, effective and entertaining radio interviewer there is. But I have bad news – over the last year or two, she has become the stereotypical teenager parodied above.

Her inflections are constantly and needlessly rising, and she even intersperses the aggravating and unnecessary “like” uses to match.

The truth is, how we speak is a choice on many levels, and people who go up? In their inflections? When they don’t need to? (OK – I’ll stop.) I say that talking like that is a choice. Terri Gross is an adult who makes her living by talking. If she chooses to adopt the language of a Valley Girl, we should blame her, not the girl in California.

Let me use one more name: Mark Niegelsky. He’s local, and he’s one cause for hope. I have never met or talked to 15-year-old Niegelsky, but he is brilliant with language. He writes occasional columns for the section of this newspaper called “the ’boro,” and without ever having heard him speak, I can guarantee he’s no Valley thing.

Niegelsky is, as I said, a hope. He is a teenager, and his writing is engaging, insightful, considered and at times elegant. Young people do not have to speak in cadences that are irritating, in words that are imprecise, in sentence fragments that reveal no awareness of language. They can, instead, be like Mark.

Mark, if you ever meet Terry Gross, tell her for me: Stop it!


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