Speaking as David Brooks is hard

David Brooks has an opinion piece in the New York Times called “Speaking as a White Male…”. It’s about identity politics and it features the usual headscratcher ideas that we have come to expect from the Times‘ opinion page, including this nonsense right here:

Brooks Opinion Speaking as a White Male - nonsense paragraph


Brooks’ column may be full of the stuff that only white dudes could ever think of, but I want to look at one particular thing that he says:

Now we are at a place where it is commonly assumed that your perceptions are something that come to you through your group, through your demographic identity. How many times have we all heard somebody rise up in conversation and say, “Speaking as a Latina. …” or “Speaking as a queer person. …” or “Speaking as a Jew. …”?

Brooks’ choice of words is telling (“rise up”, “Latina”, “queer”, and “Jew”), but I’m not going to get into that here (or just yet). I can’t remember hearing anybody rise up in conversation and say “Speaking as a(n) X”. So I thought I’d have a look at the SPOKEN section of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) to see if we can find this phrase. The data in the SPOKEN section of COCA comes from transcripts of news shows. Not all of it is entirely spontaneous, but it’s good enough for what we’re looking for. Here’s a search for “SPEAK as _at*” (that is: all forms of the lemma speak, followed by the word as, followed by an article):

COCA Spoken - SPEAK as _article_
Search in COCA for “SPEAK as _a*”

The first thing we can see is that speaking as a is the most common form of this construction, but that it seems to be trailing off in usage from the 1990s to 2017. On top of that, 63 hits are not that much (48 hits for speaking as a + 15 hits for speaking as an = 63). Let’s take a look at the two most common constructions.

Of those 63 hits, 35 fit the form that Brooks used. I’m excluding examples like “I’m not speaking as X” or “I was speaking as X” or when the speaking as X was put into the person’s mouth, such as in this example from NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! Show:

Peter Sagal: And speaking as an esteemed historian, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, do in fact, in your scholarly opinion, the Yankees suck?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Without a question.

Peter Sagal: Thank you.

Of the 35 hits that are similar to the form Brooks made up, most of the words that appear after speaking as a(n) are unique, so most of them appear only once. Some favorites of mine are

Speaking as a(n)

old-time criminal defense lawyer


reporter who missed that story

There are 2 hits each for Speaking as a followed by woman, individual, and mom. The words Latina, queer or Jew do not appear in the search results. There is, however, one example of speaking as a homosexual and one example of speaking as an Israeli dove. So two out of three ain’t bad?

What’s going on here, then? My guess is that Brooks inflated the number of times he has heard Speaking as a(n) X to suit his argument. It’s probable that he has heard it a couple of times, but he makes it seem like it’s an everyday thing. Of course, maybe just hearing speaking as a queer person once is one too many times for some people.

The scant results from the search could also indicate that the data in the corpus doesn’t include speech from enough people who identify as a Latina, queer or Jew. That is probably true (these people need to be represented more on our news shows), but I also think that people do not need to say speaking as a(n) X because often in conversation a person’s identity is known by the participants. Think about it: would any of your friends or family members unironically say speaking as a(n) X? When people are being interviewed, their identity is often spelled out before the interview starts. And of course there are many other ways to indicate aspects of your identity in conversation without saying speaking as a(n) X.

I don’t recommend you read Brooks’ column (read this instead). It’s bad. It’s by a white guy who claims he doesn’t understand identity politics. Come on, David. You have a column in the New York Times. You get it. You just don’t want to. If you really need some help, give up your column and hand it to a Latina person, or a queer person, or a Jewish person. Then sit back and read what they have to say. I guarantee it won’t “Speaking as a(n) X…”


Language achievement: UNLOCKED!

TFW Merriam-Webster is writing about the same thing you wrote about:

It’s a discussion of no problem and other phatic expressions which are more informal than you’re welcome and also seem to imply that saying thank you was not necessary. M-W didn’t pick up on my predating of you’re welcome but that’s probably for the best. They’re the professionals, after all. Check the M-W article here.

In other news, this morning my 9-year-old texted “no problem” to me after I thanked him for something. Kids these days. Pssh.

10 Words You Should NOT Delete from Your Vocabulary

Don’t believe the hype. There’s nothing wrong with these words.

Based on a little Twitter rant of mine…

and the fact that I felt like I’ve seen this article online before, I decided to go looking for around for advice about which Words You Should Not Use Ever™. It turns out, the Time article I was ranting about was actually written by someone at Muse. My social media slaying of that article unfortunately didn’t keep Time from tweeting it out again less than a month later. I know, I was as shocked as you:

Some things never die.

That Muse article which appeared on Time has also appeared on the websites of Forbes, USA Today, Federalist Papers, Business Insider, and Mashable. Talk about mileage. I was able to find 12 other articles slinging the same snake oil. I don’t have the time or space to go over all of the words on each of the listicles. Let’s just go over the ones that appear on three or more lists instead. They are: actually, but, honestly, just, literally, maybe, never, really, should and very. You can see a spreadsheet of the entire word lists here (I am not including one list which turned up in my search because it’s actually honest advice on how to be a better person, rather than a language shaming trash piece like the other listicles). Here we go!


Appears on 3 lists: Inc.com, Diana Urban and Dictionary.com

Dictionary.com calls their banned words “crutch words”, invoking the idea that a sentence isn’t strong enough to stand on its own without them. But then removing them would mean… I don’t understand the metaphor. They say about crutch words that “crutch words slip into sentences in order to give the speaker more time to think or to emphasize a statement. Over time, they become unconscious verbal tics. Most often, crutch words do not add meaning to a statement.” What is curious about this is that they list a meaning for each of the crutch words that they list. Maybe these are just the meanings that they don’t like? Besides, emphasizing a statement is a perfectly fine and natural thing for some words to do. Not every word has to bring some definition of content along with it. If it did, we wouldn’t be able to use words like if and not.

For actually, Dictionary.com says “Actually is the perfect example of a crutch word. It is meant to signify something that exists in reality, but it is more often used as a way to add punch to a statement (as in, “I actually have no idea”).” Ok, so what’s wrong here? We’re not allowed to add punch to our statements? Why not? And wouldn’t that make our language blander? I don’t think the bloggers at Dictionary.com have thought this one through. (The lexicographers over there are off the hook, though. They know what’s up and they have nothing to do with this clickbait nonsense.)

Inc.com’s problem with actually is that it will put distance between sales people and their customers, especially in phrases like Actually, you can do this under “Settings.” The idea is that the actually implies the customer was wrong and that’s a no-no in bidness. So it should be replaced by something like sure thing. So their problem isn’t with the word actually, it’s with the sentence adverb actually. But Inc.com hasn’t picked up on the fact that actually might have more than one meaning and more than one use in a sentence, so they’ve banned it from all sentences everywhere. Somebody should put them in touch with Dictionary.com.

Diana Urban says only that actually doesn’t “add information” and that it should be removed if the sentence makes sense without it. Ok, let’s pretend that actually doesn’t add information to a sentence (even though it totally does). Why stop with removing actually? Articles (the and a) don’t add information to a sentence and many languages do not have articles. So should we remove them? No, because there are other things that words besides pass along pieces of lexical information. Words can allow speakers to relate their feelings about the information. Like, I actually want to punch my screen when I read these banned words lists.


3 lists: SelfGrowth.com, Inc.com, Forbes 10; Also appears on the Forbes 7 as “I’m no expert, but”
Inc.com says this about but:

As for “but,” look at the difference removing it makes, she* points out.

I really appreciate you writing in, but unfortunately we don’t have this feature available.

I really appreciate you writing in! Unfortunately, we don’t have this feature available.

It’s a subtle fix that makes your message more positive.

* The advice on actually and but in the Inc.com article actually comes from this post by Carolyn Kopprasch.

Hold the phone. You didn’t just remove the word but, you changed it to an apostrophe. Am I supposed to always do this? [Song lyrics, poems]

Over on Selfgrowth.com, it’s all about removing obstacles to achieve your dream:

When used as a conjunction, “but” negates whatever statement that precedes it. “I want to study law, but it will take a lot of hard work.” Your mind does not focus on your desire to become a lawyer or judge; it only sees the hard work you will need to perform. Replace “but” with “and.”

You know what? I’m going to get behind this one. Do that hard work and become a lawyer. You got this! (The Forbes 10 list says pretty much the same thing as this)

Now, back to the grind! The Forbes 7 list says this:

Women often preface their ideas with qualifiers such as, “I’m not sure what you think, but…”

Did you think we were going to get out of this without criticizing women? Ha! Such wishful thinking…


4 lists: Muse 15, Forbes 6, Business Insider, Dictionary.com
Honestly? Honestly.

Dictionary.com says that this word “is used to assert authority or express incredulity, as in, ‘Honestly, I have no idea why he said that.’” However, it very rarely adds honesty to a statement.” What is the problem here? Why can’t we use a word to assert authority or express incredulity? Honestly, Dictionary.com, don’t you know how language works? You’re a goddamn dictionary, fer crissakes!

Muse, the list that started this whole ball rolling, says that “the minute you tell your audience this particular statement is honest, you’ve implied the rest of your words were not”. What? No. That’s not how things work. I used honestly in the last paragraph. Does that mean that all of the other words in this post are dishonest? What kind of black magic linguistics is this? Honestly is one powerful word if it can make the rest of the words sound dishonest. Maybe you shouldn’t use honestly until you’ve received a license and the proper training.

The Forbes 6 list and the Business Insider info-tainment video both parrot the Muse advice. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I don’t really care. Moving on!


6 lists: Muse 15, Forbes 6, Inc.com, Diana Urban, Forbes 7, Dictionary.com
Six lists! This word is on six lists! Way to go, just!

The Forbes 6 list goes hard on just:

Just. This seemingly simple word is often used but rarely needed. It also packs a big punch to detract from your credibility and confidence and negates from the importance of your message. Instead of sending an email that begins with “Just wanted to check in…” say “I’m checking in on X, Y and Z.” The adjustment is small, but there is a big difference in the resulting impression you leave.

How often is “often”? Don’t ask because Forbes don’t know. They just know it’s too often. But apparently using this little tiny word can make you seem less credible (for… reasons?), less confident (because… Cobra Kai, show no weakness!), and less important. That’s a tall order for a four-letter adverb.

Dictionary.com also claims that just is too common and (oddly) that overusing just makes paying attention more “effortful” for listeners. I don’t know how they come to that conclusion. They say that just is used “to signify a simple action”, so to me it would seem useful. If I introduce what I’m saying with just, it means that what I’m saying is simple. If I don’t, then you should pay more attention. If you ask me, this use of just makes language better.

Inc.com gets its knickers in a bunch over just. They say:

No matter the context, this one smacks of negativity. Consider phrases you might hear and how someone might interpret them.

“Just a minute.” Your priorities are somewhere other than helping me.

“Just do XYZ.” You think I’m having a hard time figuring this out.

“I’m just an intern.” You think your power or influence is limited, in which case it certainly is.

Blogger, speaker, and consultant Matt Monge takes special issue with the latter example. “You’re not just your position. You’re an integral part of your organization,” he writes. “You’re an individual with goals, dreams, abilities, and ideas. You can be a motivated, empowered, positive, valuable member of the team if you just decide to put forth the effort and work it takes to be those things. (bolding mine)

Again we have Inc.com outsourcing their culpability here. I notice that Mr. Monge’s qualifications do not include linguist or editor. Interesting. Is that why he uses the word just while telling people not to use the word just?! Huh, IS IT? Sometimes I wish these people would reread the brain farts that they smear across their Word docs. What are the chances that I’m going to find Matt Monge using the word just in his blog, his speech and his consultations? I’ll tell you: about 100 million percent certain.

Diana Urban goes easy on just, which is good because she uses just after her section advising people not to use just. Confused yet?

The Forbes 7 list warns that saying “Sorry, I just wanted to check in” is code for “Sorry for taking up your time”. Yep, that’s exactly what it is. Nothing wrong with that. It’s called pragmatics. You should learn about it, Forbes, before prognosticating on it. The Forbes 7 list also says that removing all of the justs from your emails and texts will make your statements sound “much stronger and straightforward”. In other words, you will sound like an asshole who has no concept of subtlety. Congratulations, you are become David Brent.


3 lists: Muse 15, Diana Urban, Dictionary.com
The Muse 15 list gives us the old “literally means actually, it can’t mean figuratively” mumbo jumbo. They even come right out and say that people usually mean figuratively when they write literally, thereby contradicting their own argument because if someone uses a word and you know what that word means THEN IT’S NOT THE WRONG WORD.

From Dictionary.com (WHO SHOULD KNOW BETTER!):

This adverb should be used to describe an action that occurs in a strict sense. Often, however, it is used inversely to emphasize a hyperbolic or figurative statement: “I literally ran 300 miles today.” Literally is one of the most famously used crutch words in English

The phrase I literally ran 300 miles today looks weird to me. Would anyone actually say that, i.e. use the figurative literally with an exact numeral after it? I think the people at Dictionary.com just made that sentence up and it shows they don’t know how to use the figurative literally. I mean, why didn’t they just check THEIR OWN GODDAMN DICTIONARY (their files, as it were)?

There are only 20 hits for “PRONOUN literally ran” in the 450-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English. None of them include the figurative use of literally; they are all literal literally. So, no, Dictionary.com doesn’t know what it’s talking about. (Side note: I wonder what the ratio of figurative literally to literal literally is in the BYU corpora. Would be fun to check out.)

Diana Urban says that literally doesn’t add information to a sentence, once again completely missing the point of the pragmatic uses of hyperbolic literally.


3 lists: Muse 15, SelfGrowth.com, Business Insider
Muse 15 thinks that maybe makes you sound “uninformed” and “unsure”. Business Insider says the exact same thing. But isn’t that the whole goddamned point? They say that you should write an informed piece, but sometimes that just ain’t possible. Maybe our universe is a tiny speck inside another universe. Maybe there are 9 dimensions. Maybe the people who write these lists didn’t do their research.

Selfgrowth.com takes the personal development angle and says that maybe should be replaced with I will or I will not because these words are more positive and they will lead to you emitting feelings of confidence and resolve. That’s a definite maybe.


5 lists: Muse 15, SelfGrowth.com, Inc.com, Forbes 10, Business Insider
All of the lists argue that never (and by extension always) are discouraging because they do not allow for possibilities. The Muse 15 list has this to say about never (and always):

Absolutes lock the writer into a position, sound conceited and close-minded, and often open the door to criticism regarding inaccuracies. Always is rarely true. Unless you’re giving written commands or instruction, find another word.

I’m sorry to tell you, but never using never is not going to save you from criticism regarding inaccuracies (hint, hint: your language thinkpieces are inaccurate and they suck). Just like how you are sometimes unsure of something (maybe), sometimes you’re totes sure of it. Don’t be afraid to use always and never. Remember: Goonies never say die.


6 lists: Muse 15, The Balance, Forbes 10, Business Insider, Diana Urban, Dictionary.com
We have a winner, folks! Really tops the charts by appearing on six lists! Really well done, really. Hats off.

We also see the Balance’s list for the first time in this article. Don’t get your hopes up, though. Their advice sucks as much as the rest of the lists:

In a business sense, the word “really” is a very casual expression that attempts to place extra emphasis and importance on a particular outcome, without really quantifying what exactly that extra emphasis is.

That advice is making go cross eyed. Since when do we have to quantify emphasis? And what does that even mean – do you want, like, numbers? Should I use weights – three pounds of emphasis? Or length – a 39-and-a-half-foot emphasis.

Forbes 10 (quoting someone else) says that really is a “poor attempt to instill candor and truthfulness that makes clients and coworkers question whether you’re really telling the truth.” Get the hell out. Just go. This makes it sound like there’s some conspiracy of people judging others who say the word really. Or that your coworkers are incapable of questioning people who use the word really around them. It’s nonsense. I think the people who made these lists are the only ones judging your usage of really and it’s good to remember that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Business Insider, Diana Urban and Dictionary.com all promote the idea that really is useless. Dictionary.com’s advice on really: It’s not that bad, but you still shouldn’t use it anyway. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Really and very are bittersweet adverbs in English; on the one hand, they provide a lexical boost to the description at hand—“That was a really entertaining show,” “The talk was very interesting.” Using these adverbs helps the listener understand that the show or talk provided more-than-average engagement for the speaker.

The problem is that, like fantastic and great, really and very are terms that chain speakers to unremarkable language. To eliminate the really/very crutch and enliven your speech, select one punchy or creative adjective instead: breathtaking, provocative, knee-smacking, charitable.

I don’t understand this advice. Surely not every show can be breathtaking or provocative or whatever punchy adjective. Some shows are just really interesting, right? So why can’t we describe them that way? Why do I have to do so much work coming up with some rare adjective? Will it make my language more remarkable or will it be more work for my listener/reader to follow along? There’s a reason that really and interesting are so common – they do what’s needed and no one is asking for more. We save the words like knee-smacking for things that are actually knee-smacking (just kidding, no one use knee-smacking unironically).


3 lists: SelfGrowth.com, The Balance, Inc.com
I have to admit, I had no idea why this word would be on these lists. But check out the downward spiral that will happen to you if you use the word should:

“‘I should be [doing something more]’ leads to ‘Man, I lack discipline’ which leads to ‘What’s wrong with me?’ which leads to ‘Maybe I don’t have what it takes … why do I even bother … I should just quit now …’” says psychologist and master violinist Dr. Noa Kageyama. “And pretty soon we’re sitting on the couch watching reruns of The Office and eating a six-pack of Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches.” (from Inc.com)

Yikes! That’s fucking scary (except for watching reruns of The Office, that show was great). Who knew should is the crystal meth of language? And what the heck is a Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich? Are they like really bad? Are they what… what losers eat? What losers who say the word should eat? *shudder*.


3 lists: Muse 15, Diana Urban, Dictionary.com</span>
Oh my god. This is the part of the Muse 15 article that advised using woebegone instead of very. Here’s the pic, so you know it happened:

Muse 15 very description

So now we’re not allowed to qualify adjectives anymore? Ugh. Listen, I’m going to say this again for the people at the back: Sometimes you don’t need to be specific. Sometimes you’re not ecstatic, you’re just very happy. And the fact that these kinds of articles keep getting churned out doesn’t make me melancholy or depressed – it makes me very sad. Sure, be specific. But don’t be so specific that you sound like a robot.

-zzkkt- She’s 6’3” and it’s 13 degrees below freezing -zzkkt-

Oh yeah, if you were wondering whether Muse practices what they preach, they don’t. Scroll down that article a bit and you’ll be presented with a popup that says “Answer a few (very) short questions…” BUT HOW SHORT ARE THEY? Y U NO be MOAR specific?!

Muse 15 very

We covered Dictionary.com’s bungling of very in the section on really above. Diana Urban says something about it, but who cares?

We’re done here

If you hate these words or hate people for using these words, just stop it. If you use these words, just keep doing it. If you’re an editor and you see too many of these words in someone’s article, then do what you do and take a few out.

If you are a competent speaker, then you know how these words are used – where they belong, where they don’t, where you need them, what they mean, all that jazz. So don’t take the “advice” from these listicles. Hating on people for their use of language is an old game and its siren song is so strong that people will literally tell you to stop using some of the most common words in the English language. Because they don’t know what they’re talking about and they have nothing better to do.

Mistakes will be made…

When economists do linguistics

There’s an article coming out in the Journal of Comparative Economics called “Talking in the Present, Caring for the Future: Language and Environment” (Mavisakalyan et al. 2018). The authors claim:

  • We identify future tense marking in language as a determinant of environmental action.
  • Individuals speaking such languages are less likely to behave pro-environmentally.
  • Climate change policies are less stringent in places where language marks the future.

This has my Whorfian alarm bells going off like crazy. The language I speak determines how I feel and act towards the environment?! Say what? That is just too bonkers to be true.

Because it’s not true. But let’s check out why.

Note: This article is long, so I’m adding a Read More tag here. If you’d prefer reading this as a PDF, click here. Continue reading “Mistakes will be made…”

More on I or me in coordinated subjects

I said I would get back to this topic with some notes on my sources and here they are. The first comes from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994). I love this book, but unfortunately this is a case where it comes off looking rather judgmental.

We next come to two separate constructions involving coordination, usually with and. The first is characteristic of less educated English, or, as it is delicately put these days, non-mainstream varieties of English. This is the use of the objective case [me] before the verb when the pronoun is coordinated with a noun or another pronoun:

Me and my baby goes back and sleeps the day – Anonymous speaker, quoted in Walt Wolfram, Appalachian Speech, 1976

Quirk [et al. 1985] says that the objective pronoun can even occur in the position next to the verb. Wolfram notes that the objective pronoun does not occur by itself in subject position, only in combination with another noun or pronoun. (p. 778)

It’s unfortunate that MWDEU uses the term “less educated” and then cites a speaker of Appalachian English because this “non-mainstream” usage of the objective pronoun me can be found in the mouths of everyone everywhere. Seriously, just go listen for it and you will find it. But would they call it “less educated” if the source was a politician or professor? MWDEU even makes a note of how the objective case of the first-person singular pronoun seems to be the unmarked case used “everywhere there are no positive reasons for using the nominative” (p. 778). What they should claim is that the nominative (or subjective) case is required only in the subject position directly before the verb in standard English varieties. Another thing is the last sentence of the block quote above. It shows that no one – not even the speakers of “less educated English” – use me alone in the subject position. With the exception of Cookie Monster, of course.

The next source is Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 4th edition, edited by Jeremy Butterfield. This is a good edition of Fowler’s famous usage guide. Check it:

There are many contexts in spoken or informal written English in which me is the normal form, and to use I would sound inappropriately formal. (a) At the head of clauses introduced by conjoined subjects me is very common in informal conversation, but will be considered non-standard by some and is best avoided in other kinds of speech. It should not be used in writing except to convey the authentic flavor of speech. [Examples given] Of course, in standard or formal speech or writing the structure X and I is used. (p. 509)

Short, sweet, direct and correct. Nice.

Finally, there’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar by Huddleston and Pullum (2005). This is based off the much larger work, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. If you really want a momentous grammar of English, the CGEL is the book for you. It’s gonna cost you a pretty penny, but it’s so, so good. Anyway, here’s what they say about the topic at hand:

For many speakers the above rules extend to constructions where the pronoun is coordinated, but there are also many who use special rules for coordinative constructions. Note the status markers on the following examples:

[57]        i. a. Kim and I went over there.          b. !Kim and me went over there


Construction [ib] is not accepted as Standard English, though it is very common in non-standard speech.” [That’s what the exclamation point before the phrase means.] (p. 107)

Again, short and sweet. The authors don’t dwell on this usage, they simply mark it as non-standard and note that it is very common. That’s all we need. Why can’t advice articles do the same?

Code-switching in the Atlantic

There’s an excellent article on the linguistic work of Prof. Julie Washington in the Atlantic. It’s about code-switching and Prof. Washington’s work in figuring out better ways to educate kids who speak African American English (AAE).

Right at the start of the article, there is a profound quote from Washington. She is talking about a 4-year-old speaker of AAE. Washington read a story to the young girl and asked the girl to recite the story, which she did in her native dialect, AAE. Then Washington says:

 “She had to listen to a story in a dialect she doesn’t really use herself, understand the meaning, hold the story in her memory, recode it in her own dialect, and then say it all back to me.” The girl’s “translation” of the book might not sound like much, but translating it? “That’s hard,” Washington said, especially for a young child.

I never thought about it like this, but Washington is exactly right. That is hard. Code-switching can be like translating one language to another.

There is an unfortunate paragraph, though, which seems to drag linguists for no good reason:

At the conference in Madison, linguists threw around phrases such as auxiliary alternation and diachronic precursor, speaking an academic code Washington avoids. She mostly kept her distance, skipping talks with boring titles; she lacks a linguist’s tolerance for obscure grammatical disputes, declaring herself more interested in “functional” matters. (“Oh my God,” she remarked after one particularly pedantic lecture.) […]

I’m willing to bet journalists have their own phrases and code that no one understands.  So why the shade? Also, everyone skips talks with boring titles. That’s how academic conferences work. Also also, not all linguists have a tolerance for obscure grammatical disputes and that’s ok. What is an obscure grammatical dispute, by the way? Does it involve auxiliary alternation or diachronic precursors? Did you maybe just make it up?

Besides that paragraph, though, the article is gold. Later on after the linguist dissing, the article has two paragraphs that are excellent in explaining the stakes of the situation.

Labov’s recommendation was largely overlooked outside his field. But last June, Washington completed a four-year study of almost 1,000 low-income elementary-school students in a southern city—the most extensive study ever of the dialect’s role in education—which led her to a similar conclusion. Strikingly, she discovered that African American students’ lagging growth in reading was accounted for almost entirely by the low scores of the students who speak the heaviest dialect. And location mattered: The majority of kids in the city she studied, Washington found, use a regional variety of AAE that is especially far from standard English. This suggests to her that children who speak one of the dialect’s “really dense” varieties are having an experience in the classroom not unlike that of, say, native Spanish speakers.

Compounding these challenges is the fact that most AAE speakers have teachers who are hostile to their dialect. In an illuminating investigation published in 1973 (but, according to several linguists I spoke with, still reflective of classroom conditions today), Ann McCormick Piestrup portrayed the AAE speaker’s experience as one of incessant interruption. Black children at the California schools Piestrup studied often answered questions correctly, only to be pounced on for irrelevant differences of pronunciation or grammar. This climate had a drastic effect: As time went on, Piestrup saw students withdraw into “moody silences”; when they did speak, their voices were soft and hesitant. The interrupted students had the lowest reading scores of any children Piestrup observed.

That is what speakers of AAE have been dealing with. It has been hard for linguists to convince schools and parents to adopt the idea of code-switching, especially when it comes to AAE. But this paragraph shows Washington’s great thinking:

A new insight of Washington’s might offer a new path forward, however. In presenting code-switching lessons as a way to ward off catastrophic reading failure, she says, advocates have failed to convey the upsides of speaking African-American English. In a recent paper, Washington points to research showing that fluent speakers of two dialects might benefit from some of the cognitive advantages that accrue to speakers of two languages. She hopes that this line of thinking might at last persuade teachers and parents alike to buy in. “We see value in speaking two languages,” Washington told me. “But we don’t see value in speaking two dialects. Maybe it’s time we did.”

I have seen the positive aspects of AAE spoken of before, such as in McWhorter’s book Talking Back, Talking Black (review coming soon) and on his show on Lexicon Valley, as well as in the work of Walt Wolfram, most recently his film Talking Black in America (see the website here). And we have all seen the articles about how bilinguals are super smart and they live longer and they never get dementia and all the other claims made about what comes from speaking two languages. But I’ve never thought about code-switching as being the same thing as speaking two languages, even though it pretty much is.

Great article. You should read it. You can find it here.

Do we really not say “you’re welcome” anymore?

So there’s a news article about language and the journalist interviewed… linguists! Actual, real life linguists! I know, I’m as shocked as you are. Does this mean the field of linguists has finally made it? May Helena Plumb put it perfectly:

I’m joking around, but the article, which appears in the Huffington Post, is really good. It’s about the decline of the phrase you’re welcome and the article does a great job in explaining the ins and outs of phatic expressions and the social uses and meanings of the things we say.

But is you’re welcome really on the decline? Are no worries and no problem really on the increase? There weren’t any figures in the article to back this up, so I thought I’d have a look. The first thing to notice is the claim that you’re welcome as a response to thank you is relatively new. Linguists call this form of you’re welcome a minimizer. According to the Huffington Post article, which is citing other sources, the term first appears in writing in 1907 (cited in the OED). Of course, the phrase you’re welcome as in you’re welcome to come over anytime is older than that, but why doesn’t the minimizer you’re welcome (as a response to thank you) date back any further than that? It seems like such a natural part of our language, doesn’t it?

I was able to find two hits in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COHA) that might predate the OED’s 1907 citation. I say might because I’m not a lexicographer, so take these with a grain of salt. We all know what happened last time I tried to predate a dictionary entry. (The citations here don’t predate the OED by much anyway).

The first one is from 1862, in a play called Davy Crockett written by Frank Murdoch (redo my COHA search here). Apparently the play was first shown in 1872. You can see the keyword in context result from COHA by following the link. I was able to find the script in a book called Davy Crockett & Other Plays (ed. by Goldberg and Hefner). That book is from 1940. Here are the lines in question:

Davy Crockett using the minimizer you’re welcome in an 1862 play by Frank Murdock.

This one looks an awful lot like the minimizer you’re welcome. It’s even said in response to thank you very much.

Then there’s this hit for “you are welcome” from 1848 in a book called Anecdotes for Boys by Harvey Newcomb. (Redo the search here) The book is online at the Internet Archive here (just flip to page 98). A screenshot of the page in question is below. This one also looks like the minimizer you’re welcome.

Anecdotes for boys - p98 - youre welcome
Minimizer you are welcome in a book from 1848.

Lynne Murphy, a professor and linguist at the University of Sussex, has a theory that replying to thank you with you’re welcome might come from Irish English. In her post on the topic, she also has this insightful paragraph:

Reading around a bit on the topic now, I’m interested to see that several researchers (all cited in Schneider 2005) have found that English speakers are less likely to give a verbal response to thanks than speakers of other European languages and that British English speakers are the least likely of all to verbally respond to thanks with a ‘minimizer’ like no problem, my pleasure, or you’re welcome. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that in Britain thank you/thanks is often used for purposes other than thanking, or maybe it doesn’t. (It depends on how the research was done–and I don’t have access to all of it at the moment.)

Maybe the minimizer you’re welcome isn’t so natural. Murphy might be on to something with the Irish connection though. After all, the playwright cited above has the Irish-sounding name Murdoch. He was born in Massachusetts, though, and it seems the name Murdoch ultimately comes from Scotland (according to my crack search engine research), but maybe the Murdochs in question picked up the minimizer thank you on their way through Ireland?

Figures of minimizer you’re welcome

Now let’s try to see if minimizer you’re welcome is really on the decline. This one is tricky to research because the form which is used in constructions like you’re welcome to VERB will muddy the results. But let’s see what we can do.

On first glance, you’re welcome doesn’t seem to be declining. Most of the hits for you’re welcome in the 1800s were for the you’re welcome to VERB kind, not the minimizer kind. Of the decades in the latter half of the 20th century, I did a rough check for minimizers and came up with the following stats:

Decade Minimizer thank you / total (%) Freq. per million words
1960s 11/38 (29%) .458
1970s 20/68 (29%) .840
1980s 15/44 (34%) .592
1990s 36/71 (50%) 1.29
2000s 51/92 (55%) 1.72

Minimizer youre welcome in coha

Remember that these are very rough numbers. I didn’t have time to check all of the expanded displays and I tried to exclude any insincere minimizers of you’re welcome (where it seems like you’re welcome was said sarcastically). But it looks to me like minimizer you’re welcome is not in decline.

The COHA data should be taken with another grain of salt because it’s written English rather than spoken English. Maybe people really are saying you’re welcome less often these days. If we look at the SPOKEN section of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), it seems that the phrase is slightly on the decline, but the frequencies for the 2010s are still higher than the early 1990s. A cursory glance at the concordances shows that most of the hits are for the minimizer you’re welcome and not the you’re welcome to VERB. Things were the opposite in the COHA texts. If I ever get the time, I’ll go through the 2,000+ hits. (Redo my search here)


The data in the SPOKEN section of COCA is taken from television news and news opinion shows, so it’s not a perfect representation of spontaneous spoken language. It’s sometimes scripted and most of the time formal. But that second fact is maybe a positive – I would expect to see the (sincere) minimizer you’re welcome show up in more formal registers. For a more accurate look at spoken data, we can head across the Atlantic and check out the British National Corpus (BNC). In the BNC’s SPOKEN section, 21 of the 41 hits are for minimizer you’re welcome. That’s fewer overall hits than I expected, but more hits for minimizer you’re welcome than I expected. Its frequency per million words is 2.1.

The spoken data from the BNC was recorded between 1991 and 1994. For a more modern look at things, we can check out the BNC 2014, which has spoken data recorded between 2012-2016. In the BNC 2014, there are 111 hits for you’re welcome in 85 different texts, of which 57 hits come after the words thank you. I didn’t have time to read through all of the expanded contexts, so I’m not sure of the situations in which these were used. But the results mean that just over half of them look like minimizers. Of the 57 you’re welcome minimizers in the BNC 2014, 15 were recorded in 2012, 9 in 2014, 19 in 2015, and 14 in 2016. The frequency per million words for the hits overall is 4.99. That’s higher than the BNC data from the 1990s.

In comparing the rate of minimizer you’re welcome, it would be good to look at a few of the phrases which the HuffPost article claims are replacing it. The minimizer no problem is tricky to search for because it can also be used in phrases such as “I have no problem with X”. There are 1,788 hits for this phrase in the SPOKEN section of COCA and I just don’t have time to go through them for this blog post. Instead, let’s look at no worries. There are only 59 hits for this phrase in COCA’s SPOKEN section and from my rough review, only four of these are minimizers in response to a thank you – three from 2017 and one from 2014. That’s not a lot. I’d be hesitant to say that this phrase is replacing you’re welcome. But again, COCA doesn’t capture casual and spontaneous speech as well as we would like it to. So these numbers are far from definitive. The other minimizers, such as okay, sure and anytime, would be even harder to search for because of how many other roles and meanings they can have besides being minimizers. And I don’t have the time to go through them for this post.

So where does that leave us? First, I’m not sure we can say that the minimizer you’re welcome is on the decline. But people clearly think it is. They may be right that people are saying minimizer you’re welcome less these days, but I would worry that that’s a case of recency illusion. I’d say it’s possible that the other minimizers (no worries, no problem, etc.) are on the rise and making it seem like minimizer you’re welcome is on the decline. It’s possible that minimizers in general are on the rise. Or, as the HuffPost points out, the minimizer chosen is becoming more dependent on context and situation:

When you’re in a more formal setting, it makes sense to say “you’re welcome” rather than something like “No worries.” In more informal situations, like a text message conversation, the reverse is true. […] So it seems the politeness formula may simply be shifting in many situations, from “thank you” → “you’re welcome” to “thank you” → “no worries”/”no problem”/”sure thing”/etc.

As always, you’re welcome to comment on this post. But please don’t say “thank you”. I can’t take the pressure of choosing which minimizer to respond with.

Just kidding, we all know that English should have only one minimizer: fuhgeddaboudit.