Stories from Miss Pronunciation


I hate to brag, unless I can do so in a manner that appears as if I am in fact being humble. It’s not easy, of course, but humility never is.


In my department at school, my ability to teach ELL students to “talk purty” has earned me the moniker, Miss Pronunciation.

Miss Pronunciation


Since it’s my first moniker, I naturally feel a bit of pride when I hear the other instructors call me that. Most of the time I can’t even mention that I have a moniker because that would be bragging, and as my husband’s mother used to say, “Pride stinks.”


To avoid even the hint of what I like to think of as verbal flatulence, I have to be discreet when I secretly but seemingly casually mention my colleague’s flattering opinion of me. Thankfully I am able to insert it into this post since there is a tenuous relationship between my moniker and the main point. Both concern pronunciation.


In a previous semester, I was the bridge instructor in a speech class for students whose first language is other than English. One of their assignments was a persuasive speech. Before the day of the speech, the students and I had time together to practice. One student chose the topic of young children and the negative effects of watching too much TV. While arguing for reduced screen time for small children, the student repeatedly looked straight at me and urged me to reduce scream time.


While looking through my notes, I was reminded of this good advice. So, for the next week or two, I plan to reduce scream time as much as possible. And I promise not to brag about it, unless I have to or can.



Rather large mouth courtesy of

Word Flummoxery: lie lay lie



The flummoxerization of the average native speaker of English who has unexpectedly wandered into grammar’s slough of despond is never greater than when he/she/they (you choose) have/has to deal with lie, lay, and lie. The three words sound deceivingly like musical non-lexical vocables, sounds singers make up when they can’t think of any more words.



The first lie in this triad is an intransitive verb, which means the action of the verb doesn’t go anywhere because the subject is resting, so please keep your voice down. The prefix “in” in intransitive means “not.” We can think of the subject as no longer in transit, unless they fly first-class and have grown indifferent to the plaintive cries of those in the second-class section, whose seats are marked with a button called “Recline,” which, if you look carefully you will see contains the wash-your-mouth-out-with-soap word of our trilogy. But more of that later, and hopefully less of these long, complicated sentences that are really just rants decked out in commas.



At this point, the reader may be thinking, “This is easy.” Think again. You’ve stepped into one of the muddiest parts of the slough.



Did you lie down in bed last night? Tell me about it. I lied in bed. Well, that may be true, but it’s not the past tense of the “lie” known as rest. Okay, I laid in bed. Laid what, my friend? You see how easy it is to get stuck in the mud. The correct answer is “I lay in bed last night.” Many people are disturbed to wake up and discover they slept all night with what can also be a transitive verb.



To avoid disturbation, use a synonym like “recumb.”


Harold: (at the dinner table) Excuse me, Lydia. I’m not feeling well. I think I need to recumb.


Lydia: (running for the bucket) Here, use this.


Harold: No, dear, I need to find a place to support most of my body in a somewhat horizontal position.


Lydia: That sounds supine.



Lay, the second leaf on our word shamrock lie-lay-lie, means to place or put something somewhere, often in a place you have completely forgotten about. Since it’s perfectly acceptable to lay your head on your pillow, people often say, “I’m going to lay down.” Unless they are planning to lay down their burdens, this is incorrect. If they are planning to lay down their burdens, perhaps you could show a little sympathy and not try to correct their grammar.



The ubiquitous “people” that we have all heard so much about often point to Bob Dylan’s song “Lay, Lady, Lay” as the first of many songs leading to decline of the English language. What these “people” don’t know, and I didn’t know myself until a few minutes ago, was that Dylan’s favorite hen, Lady, was one of the most productive hens ever not recorded. When she hit a rough spot in her career, Dylan wrote this song to encourage her. He thought a change of venue, his big brass bed, would do the trick. Apparently, many chicks were laid there.



That little known “fact” brings us to our third word “lie.” As far as information goes, this is dis- or mis-. A lie is to the truth as a politician is to his or her campaign promises: there is no connection. Many people lie; I lied once myself, but I didn’t inhale.



Quibblers may squabble or prattle or babble over exceptions, other meanings, and other uses of  lie-lay-lie. Brabble on. The English language is full of exceptions, ergo ipso facto hokey pokey, it is an exceptional language.






Image courtesy: Flickr by graymalkn at




The other f-word


This week I used the f-word in a conversation with my grandchild. Not the four-letter f-word; that one continues to grow weaker with each use in its tiresome march toward banality. I used the other one, the three-letter f-word, which according to my grandchild, isn’t nice.


We were poodles at the time, so we had to call our lunch “dog food.” One minute we were talking about how poodles enjoy eating worms, the grandchild’s take on our pesto pasta; and the next minute, we were discussing Santa Claus and pregnant women. If you have ever talked to a poodle, you understand that they have wide-ranging interests. When we talked about Santa, I said his belly was fat. That led to the “not nice” comment.


I agreed and said we shouldn’t call people fat. It’s fine for imaginary people, but real people come in all sizes. Some are big and some are small, I said. We shouldn’t call bigger people fat.



Satisfied that I had learned my lesson about calling people fat, the little poodle said, “We can tell big people, ‘You look fat, but you’re not fat.’”


Small children and poodles are literalists. They understand the denotation, literal meaning, of a word; but they can also understand the connotations, other words and emotions associated with a word. Fat in its literal meaning refers to the size of a person’s body; but it is stuffed with connotations. Fat is more often used as a pejorative, a sign of moral failure, and implies that a person is lazy, dull, or stupid.


We have many synonyms for fat: corpulent, obese, chubby, plump, thick-set, and pudgy, just to name a few. But “fat” appears in print earlier than all the rest. It comes from the Old English word fǽtt and shows up in writings around the late 9th century.


In every day speech, we favor words with Old English roots. According to the University of Texas website, half of the thousand most commonly used words in English come from Old English. That includes pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and all those short, direct words like fast, good, wonder, water, and “word” itself. You can’t open your mouth without one of those ancient words strolling out.


Talking about fat is delicate business because the connotations keep getting in the way. We can use words like overweight, big, and heavy to talk about body size, but “fat” will still be there. Eliminating it from our bodies is possible; eliminating it from our lexicon is near impossible.


In the U.S., about one-third of our children have more stored fat than they need. At school and on the playground they hear the three-letter f-word all of the time. Name-calling causes a lot of emotional pain and suffering, so we need to teach children not to call other people fat. But having too much fat on a body causes a lot of physical pain and suffering, so we need to feed our children real food; then they will be healthy and won’t get called names.

Snacking with the grandchild
Photo by Tom and Pat Leeson, Vancouver, Washington, USA at a

My grandchild and I went to the zoo after lunch. By the time we got home, we were otters, hungry ones, so we munched on carrots and tangerines, and talked about the animals we had seen.


We feed our children both information and food. We can teach them to speak nicely about others, and we can teach them to eat good food. Both are necessary, and both are nice, that is to say, in good taste.