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Say What? 3 Speech Habits to Avoid

Violating these simple speaking rules can make you sound both vague and pompous–neither of which is going to do you any favors.

I had just landed in Atlanta on a Sunday night and was taxiing down the runway when a female voice came over the intercom. “I’d like to take this opportunity to be the first to welcome you to Atlanta International Airport,” she said. Except she said it like “Eeatleana Innerneashunul Earport.” In other words, her voice was a monument to her nose.

That was the first thing. But then, when the bell went off indicating we had stopped, and I was elbowing my way into the aisle to stake out some turf so that I could pull my carry-on luggage out of the overhead bin, I realized she had violated not one, not two, but three cardinal rules of speech in the world according to me.

First, she had vowels that emanated from her nose. Second, she said she would “like to welcome” me but never actually did. And third, she used that pitiful, predictable piece of puffery, “I’d like to take this opportunity”–instead of saying the simple thing, which in her case was, “Welcome to Atlanta.”

Why It Matters

Now the big question here is, does it matter? Why should we care that a flight attendant talks this way? We know what she means, and yes, there are all sorts of conventions in language that allow for vagueness and indirect expression, but on a Sunday night flight these verbal behaviors struck me as singularly unattractive, long-winded, and pompous, as though she were speaking as an institution, and not as an individual.

William Zinsser said it best. In writing and speaking, our national tendency is to inflate, and thereby sound important. We puff things up to make them seem grand. Airline pilots will occasionally say, “We anticipate experiencing considerable weather,” when in reality they mean “the ride will be bumpy.” Business people do this frequently as well. “Our strategic plan calls for us to leverage our market share to occasion brand attachment before the advent of competitive intrusion.” In other words, “let’s get ’em hooked on our stuff before the other guys come out with theirs.”

Language hides little and reveals much. It often looks to me like business is jealous of the language of the professions of law and medicine, and puffs out its chest to proclaim its legitimacy. Who knows, maybe deep down we’re ashamed of ourselves. We got all this education to do what? Sell Tidy Bowl?

And now, with apologies to John Steinbeck, I would like to take this opportunity to make some promises to you, dear readers.

Whenever you’re talking as if your nose is the only way out for your vowels, I’ll be there.

Whenever you find yourself lacking a little starch in your spine, saying “I’d like to” when you really mean “I will,” I’ll be there.

And whenever you find yourself yearning for significance, clearing your throat and puffing out your chest and eager to inflate a passing moment into an “opportunity,” I’ll be there.

Like a battle-crazed Marine, like a heat-seeking missile, like a defender of the faith, I’ll be there to leap to my feet, and cry out in pained exasperation, “No, no, say what you mean! You are turning yourself and our amazingly expressive language into a mealy-mouthed embarrassment.”

Say something interesting, or say something ordinary, but for God’s sake, say it with less nose. And say it minus the verbal flab. Puh-lease!


    



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Say What? 3 Speech Habits to Avoid
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