Robert Lane Greene

Robert Lane Greene

Some people become absolutely apoplectic when speakers and writers make errors in grammar and usage. According to journalist and author Robert Lane Greene, these so called “grammar grouches” are fighting a largely losing battle, and although correctness may seem to be a goal, language wars, he says, are actually battles for political identity. In a new book he outlines what makes a language successful, how and why languages change, and the origins of some of the seemingly arbitrary grammar rules in the English language. Please join us to talk about why we talk the way we do.


  • Robert Lane Greene Correspondent for "The Economist" and an assistant professor in the Center of Global Affairs at New York University.


  • 11:06:55

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Journalist and author Robert Lane Greene sees language as a powerful marker of individual identity, social status, class and our national allegiance. In a new book, he details how languages have evolved and why sticklers for correct usage are aligned with the effort to protect the political status quo. His new book is titled, "You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws and the Politics of Identity."

  • 11:07:43

    MS. DIANE REHMRobert Lane Greene joins me in the studio. He prefers to be called Lane and that's exactly how I shall address him through the hour. You may join us in the conversation, I'm sure we'll hear lots of favorite terrible use of grammar from each of you, as well as from me and from him as well. Join us on 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to, feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning, Lane, thank you for being here.

  • 11:08:40

    MR. ROBERT LANE GREENEThank you so much for having me.

  • 11:08:40

    REHMAnd you dedicated this book to your father, Wayne Greene. Now, I realize that both your father and your grandfather, with totally different approaches to language, had a great influence on you. Tell us about that.

  • 11:09:04

    GREENEThat right. The Robert Lane that I'm named after is my grandfather and he was a proud user of the English language. He was a career army officer and was proud of his service, was a conservative, was -- ran a tight ship at the house and when I used to spend my summers there with my brother and I would rush out the door saying, me and Hank are going to the store, he would stop me and say, who's going to the store? And there was no leaving the house before I corrected myself to, Hank and I are going to the store.

  • 11:09:34

    GREENEThe same time, I grew up at home with my father, Wayne Greene, who was from Macon, Ga., right in the heart of the state and he spoke a very southern English, let's say. He was not a stickler, he was not someone whose English would be the model that you'd want to teach children in the classroom. A lot of ain't, a lot of ya'll, a lot of swear words you might not want your five-year-old learning in the first English class. And he had the accent and the vocabulary and the sayings and the expressions of someone who grew up in that part of the world. So on the one hand, I had this very formal model and on the other hand, this very earthy but vivid and charming example of English that I grew up with in my own home.

  • 11:10:16

    REHMAnd where was your mother in all this?

  • 11:10:20

    GREENESo my grandfather whom I mentioned was my mother's father. She's a Polish-Catholic from Wisconsin and so in that family, my great-grandmother was the English teacher in the family, so she instilled this in my grandfather who did that with my mother. So being from Wisconsin, I tell people that's probably the reason I don't have my dad's southern accent. I probably speak a little more like my mother who was from the north.

  • 11:10:42

    REHMIt's interesting that you talk about the $100 words that your grandfather would teach you.

  • 11:10:48

    GREENERight. He loved to -- an elaborate word, if you could use it, he wanted to use it. He taught us the word plethora, meaning a lot of something and the word paucity, meaning just a little bit. Why say just a little if you could work in the word paucity. It was a little game we had and every week we spent there, my brother and I just learned so much from him.

  • 11:11:07

    REHMInteresting to me that you begin the book with a passage from Chapter 12 of The Book of Judges. Tell me why.

  • 11:11:21

    GREENEThere's the story of the word Shibboleth there in The Book of Judges, the two tribes in the ancient Middle-East there were at war, the Gileadites and Ephraimites. And when the Gileadites were guarding the fords of the Jordan River, they were trying to keep the Ephraimites out and so when someone would try to cross the river, the Gileadites would ask them to say the word Shibboleth. The Ephraimite dialect at the time presumably didn't have the sh sound, so they could only say Sibboleth. And so the Gileadites knew that they had found an Ephraimite by the word Shibboleth or Sibboleth and would kill them. And so it's as in The Book of Judges that 42,000 Ephraimites were killed there at the fords of the Jordan.

  • 11:12:03

    REHMSo therein begins this policing of the use of words.

  • 11:12:08

    GREENERight. In one brief story we see one pronunciation, one word, one little marker that draws a line between Tribe B on this side and Tribe B on that side and we'll see that again and again throughout the book and throughout history.

  • 11:12:24

    REHMSo what you're saying is that the language, as we speak it, defines us.

  • 11:12:32

    GREENEAbsolutely. As soon as you open your mouth, you reveal so much about yourself. And there's a saying that goes around England, for example, that no Englishman can get through a sentence without making another Englishman hate him because you reveal your -- where you come from, your level of education or social class and so much about yourself that you're bound to be in the company of someone else who doesn't share all of those features and immediately begins the judging.

  • 11:12:57

    REHMRobert Lane Greene, he's a correspondent for The Economist, a term member on the Council on Foreign Relations, an adjunct assistant professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. And by the way, he speaks seven languages, he is the author of "You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws and the Politics of Identity." How come you learned seven languages?

  • 11:13:34

    GREENEWell, I took my first foreign language not as a small, small child when I was traveling with my jet-setting parents. I started my first when I was a suburban high schooler in Atlanta and I began Spanish at age 14 and I just immediately loved it, just the idea of putting words in one end and trying to compose my thoughts in English and then make Spanish come out the other end was fascinating to me and I enjoyed it, I was pretty good at it.

  • 11:13:59

    GREENEAnd so it just began this love affair with languages. I went on to do German and French and Russian and Portuguese in college. And then after college, I have since married a Danish woman so we speak Danish together and I have studies some Arabic, some Italian, which I can get around in and so I just kind of never stopped adding languages to the repertoire 'cause I enjoy it so much.

  • 11:14:21

    REHMInteresting that you've said Arabic is, for you at least, one of the most difficult languages.

  • 11:14:30

    GREENEIt is extremely difficult and I heard on your show before, talking about the unity or non-unity of the Arabic world, and the reason for that -- one reason for that is that the Arabic language isn't a single language. There's the formal classical language which is the language that you use for writing and for formal public occasions. Giving a speech in parliament or something like that. But at the same time, that language was frozen about 1300 years ago when the Koran was written down.

  • 11:14:59

    GREENEMeanwhile, one of the themes of the book is that every language changes. There's simply no way to stop the change in language and so Arabic has since become many different spoken dialects. So much so that a speaker from the countryside of Iraq and a speaker from the countryside of Morocco, though they both speak what they would call Arabic, would not be able to have a conversation in their native dialect, they wouldn't understand each other.

  • 11:15:16

    REHMThey get angry. People get angry about language.

  • 11:15:21

    GREENEAbsolutely. I mean, staying with the Arabic example for one moment, so many people grow speaking one of these dialects, which are real living languages, really, believe that they don't speak real Arabic. The real Arabic is the Arabic that you have to go to school and learn as a second, almost a foreign language.

  • 11:15:36

    REHMClassic, yeah, yeah.

  • 11:15:39

    GREENESo that's a great example of the sort of insecurity and anxiety that so many people feel about language. They want to speak well, they want to speak so that they look educated and fluent and when they attain such a level, or think they have, so many people love finding mistakes and errors in other people's language, like that great stickler, my grandfather.

  • 11:15:59

    REHMBut now, think of those people who grew up in England who speak a very formal kind of English. Do they look down on those of us who speak so-called American English?

  • 11:16:19

    GREENEWell, there's certainly a tiny bit of snobbery, maybe more than a tiny bit, about English from the English who think that after all, it is their language and so when an innovation comes from the United States, it very often tends to get looked down by the British, yeah.

  • 11:16:33

    REHMBut our language here is constantly changing.

  • 11:16:37

    GREENEWell, every language is constantly changing. And when we talk about a language, I think this is where a lot of people make the sort of slip that gets them so infuriated about the real live diversity of language in the world. Take England or Britain by itself. It has so many regional dialects from down in the Southwest to up North in Scotland, you can hear different -- not only pronunciations, not only different vocabulary words, but in some cases, the dialects will differ in their grammar. And this is something that is true of just about every language in the world. It has variety.

  • 11:17:16

    GREENEMany of the languages of the world also have a single written standard and we do have that in English. There is a thing called standard English. It has rules. I don't want anybody reading the subtitle of my book quickly thinking that I'm one of these people who thinks that there's no such thing as English rules. There absolutely are rules to a language called standard English. It's the language of writing. And like I said with the Arabic example, it is the language of writing, it is the language of formal speech, of political speeches or sermons or at a university lecture, but it's not the only form of English that ever was, nor should it be and there's no reason that a formal standard and all this wonderful variety can't coexist at the same time.

  • 11:17:51

    REHMWhat do you think about the language used in Twitter.

  • 11:17:55

    GREENEWell, Twitter constricts you to 140 characters and so you see a lot of abbreviation, you see a lot of innovation. A lot of people, the more educated, typically the older, the more stickler like, find any innovation to be bad by its nature. And the simple syllogism seems to be, the language I love's good, therefore any change to it is bad. But it doesn't have to be that way. The language changes, but not all change is degradation, not all change is falling to pieces. There can be mistakes, there is such thing as a mistake in English, there is such thing as poor usage of language, but no every change is a mistake.

  • 11:18:32

    REHMRobert Lane Greene, "You Are What You Speak," that's the title of his new book. When we come back, we'll hear from lots of you. Stay with us.

  • 11:20:03

    REHMAnd if you've just joined us, we're talking about a brand-new book titled, "You Are What You Speak." Robert Lane Greene is the author and he's here in the studio. As you can imagine, we've heard from lots of you already on Facebook and Twitter. Susie says, "Too many likes. However, could we all remember that the correct response to thank you is, you're welcome? The incorrect response is, no problem." Kathy says, "Him or her and me." Terry says, "There's lots drives Terry crazy." Myron says, "Can't hardly wait and could care less." Just a few of the things that drive people crazy.

  • 11:21:02

    GREENERight. Well, like is a common one. You hear it a lot. The thing is, like is a pause-filler, is it something you say when you don't quite know the next thing you're going to say.

  • 11:21:12

    REHMDo you really think that's it or is it bad habits?

  • 11:21:16


  • 11:21:17

    REHMThat people get into?

  • 11:21:19

    GREENEYou could say that other pause fillers like um and uh are also bad habits.

  • 11:21:22

    REHMUh-huh, true.

  • 11:21:23

    GREENEAnd you'll notice that every language has its own slightly distinct pause-filler. If you talk to a French person and they pause for a thought, they'll say, oo instead of, uh. And an Israeli will tend to say, ay instead of, uh. So everyone has a pause-filler and the less confident you are about what you're saying, the more you'll lean on them. And so the reason you hear them so much from teenagers and young people is because they're not yet accomplished confident speakers about everything they want to say and so they pepper it with a lot more like, which means that not nailing the colors to the mass so clearly, they want to say, he was, like, so cute or there were, like, 50 people there. That's a way of saying, he was, like, cute, there were, like, 50 people. I don't want to stand fully by that statement.

  • 11:22:02

    REHMHere's an e-mail from Sayedu (sp?) in Cincinnati, Ohio. He says, "I moved to the U.S. 14 years ago from a French-speaking country. While I was gone from my home country, the internet and instant text messaging happened. Now I can hardly make out some of the comments my younger siblings, who still reside in my home country, leave on my Facebook page. Is technology going to substantially transform written language?"

  • 11:22:41

    GREENEI don't think so. The thing is that people can basically distinguish between different modes of language. I will be more formal here on this radio show than I will be sitting around with friends telling a story. You'll hear people who will speak one or more dialects of the language using one fluently in one circumstance and another fluently in another circumstance. And the same goes for writing. Most people are aware that the same standard doesn't apply to Twitter and Facebook posts as applies to a paper for a college professor or a newspaper article.

  • 11:23:11

    GREENESo you see a tiny bit of it and I think the technology might speed up the churn of new slang phrases and abbreviations that entered the language, but those are just little items that enter and live for a while. And then some will stick around and some will leave, but they won't fundamentally change the grammar or the structure of English or any other language. But one of the other things I would point out is that you see complaints about the language going to pieces, not just today, not just in English, but in every prestigious standard language there is in the world.

  • 11:23:41

    GREENEThe French are just as worried about the falling apart of French as so many grammar grouches and sticklers here in America and in the UK are about English and that has also been the case for hundreds of years. There's a whole chapter, I call The Brief History of Sticklers in the book, explaining how Jonathan Swift in 1712 thought that the language was going to pieces, that the poets and the young people and the kids were ruining the language and his solution was what the French have. He thought that the English needed an academy that would specify exactly how the language should be used.

  • 11:24:14

    GREENESo 300 years ago next year, we had one of our great writers of the English language saying the language is being ruined by the kids and these new forms of poetry and so forth, so it's not that nothing ever changes, but this idea of decline is certainly not new to the late 20th and early 21st century.

  • 11:24:32

    REHMYou know, when I was in high school -- junior high school and high school, we used to diagram language sentences. Is that still happening?

  • 11:24:45

    GREENEYou know, I remember diagramming sentences myself. I was in eighth grade, I think about, when I learned to diagram sentences. I'm sure it still goes on in some schools, but I understand it's not done as often as it used to be done. And I think it's broadly a good idea to learn how to take apart a sentence and figure out how phrases are made and how big your clauses are made and how the whole thing pulls together in a sentence. At the same time, there were some mistakes made in sort of 19th century, early 20th century analysis of how English worked and so some things have been taught again and again in English classes that really don't have a basis in English as long history.

  • 11:25:21

    REHMNow, you're a writer for The Economist. Do you have an editor working over your sentences?

  • 11:25:30

    GREENEAbsolutely. And we take language very seriously at The Economist.

  • 11:25:33

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:25:34

    GREENEIn fact, we even sell our stylebook, which begins with a very entertaining essay by our stylebook editor about how to think about writing. And it's not only how to avoid grammatical mistakes and misusing words, but it's also how to think about clarity of expression. And we have a -- we have a philosophy of short words, short sentences, clear language...

  • 11:25:53


  • 11:25:54

    GREENE...the language of plain speech and a plain thought, not the language of bureaucrats and governments and those who would sort of mislead or misdirect the language.

  • 11:26:02

    REHMWell, and the same is true for radio, especially because you're only going to hear it once you have to understand it, has to be short sentences, have to be declarative. The passive doesn't really work on radio. It can work in written language. But I have-- you know, those are my rules. Anyhow, we've got lots of callers here, but one thing I wanted to ask you about, with all these languages that you have learned, do you think that your brain has expanded?

  • 11:26:45

    GREENEYou know, I'm not exactly sure if my brain has expanded (laugh). I -- that would be hard to test, but the fascinating thing about learning languages is that children are so fantastically good at it...

  • 11:26:56


  • 11:26:57

    GREENE...and adults are so bad at it. And so sometimes people ask me, how did you do it? Or you must be some kind of linguistic genius. I don't think that's true. I think it's, if anything, might -- you know, maybe that part of the brain that is good at learning language as a child, which changes overtime, might just have changed a little more slowly in my own brain. But it's not some miraculous ability to learn languages as an adult. It's just that some adults have kept an ability that every human child has.

  • 11:27:23

    GREENEAnd that's the fascinating thing. When you see a three-year-old or a four-year-old start to put together what were just babbling phrases a couple of years ago into these elaborate constructions, that a three and four-year-old can say a sentence that has never before been said. When I hear things like that I think language is amazing and I just take a sense of wonder from it. And that's why I push back against this sense of anxiety or anger about it because there's just so many fascinating things to learn about.

  • 11:27:48

    REHMAll right. And let's open the phones now, 800-433-8850, to Douglas, Mass. Good morning, Bob, you're on the air.

  • 11:28:04

    BOBHi. I'm finding it increasingly common for people to ask a question of like do you understand within a statement of fact. Your guest is a specialist in language and it's interesting because there really is no way to write that. If you put a question mark at the end of a statement of fact, it would be completely incorrect. I was interested to hear your comment on that.

  • 11:28:25

    GREENEDo you mean someone who gives you a statement of fact and then asks, do you understand afterwards?

  • 11:28:30

    BOBNo. They -- it's -- I find it -- especially on this coast -- I come from -- I've moved here from California -- that it's expressed -- it's basically putting a question mark as part of a statement of fact.

  • 11:28:43

    REHMIt's sort of the voice going up...

  • 11:28:46

    GREENEOh, okay.

  • 11:28:47


  • 11:28:47 the end.

  • 11:28:49

    GREENEThere's a phenomenon -- they call that up talk in linguistics...

  • 11:28:52


  • 11:28:52

    GREENE...where you have that rising intonation at the end of every sentence. And it's commonly associated with, for example, teenage girls. I went to the movie and it was really good. And it's something that traditionalists dislike, they deprecate it. But you hear it a lot. For example, Australian English, it's very much more common in Australian English than it is in standard American or British English, so it doesn't necessarily mean that the person saying it is unsure of what they're saying.

  • 11:29:16


  • 11:29:17

    GREENEIt can, but it doesn't always mean that.

  • 11:29:19

    REHMThanks for calling, Bob. To Detroit, Mich. Good morning, Reed.

  • 11:29:25

    REIDHi. Reed here from Detroit, Mich. So I'm calling to challenge this thought that those for the status quo are sticklers for language.

  • 11:29:35

    GREENEWhich part of it specifically?

  • 11:29:37

    REIDAnd specifically -- I mean, I'm in the business of trying to create new tech companies and new paradigms. And what I find a lot of trouble with is trying to explain things to people and, yes, I'm sure it's partly my inability to clearly distinctly explain things, but it's also oftentimes, I think they don't have the kind of fundamental knowledge and language capacity and ability to understand what specific words mean to be able to even have a direct conversation with these individuals. So I'm trying to destroy the status quo and at the same time saying, gosh, if people had basic fundamental skills in language, it would be a heck of a lot easier, I think, to relay new concepts.

  • 11:30:21

    GREENESure. Well, let me be clear. I'm absolutely not against good fundamental teaching...

  • 11:30:26

    REHMRight, right.

  • 11:30:26

    GREENE...of the standards of standard English. What I am against is the idea that there can only be one variety that must encompass all situations, all people at all times. Standard English is absolutely a part of our society, it's a part of our written culture and it's a part of good oral expression and so forth, but where I connect sort of the status quo into some extent political conservatism is the idea that it's the only legitimate variety of language. And as someone who grew up with southern English in the home, no one would say that who knew my father that that man can't use the language. He was brilliant, he was charming, he was persuasive, he was funny.

  • 11:31:03

    GREENESo there are different forms of language appropriate to different situations. Those who insist only on formal standard English are often unspoken, they're often stigmatizing Black English, southern English, any kind of regional dialect or something that doesn't conform to their way, when in fact, language and dialect can be additive. Teaching someone to use good standard English doesn't mean that they mustn't ever use any other kind.

  • 11:31:26

    REHMWhat about Ebonics in your mind?

  • 11:31:29

    GREENEThere is a lot about Ebonics in the book and I think this is one of the most misunderstood stories in the past 20 years of language. Unfortunately, it was one of those few times when everyone was talking about language. Unfortunately, it was badly misunderstood. What the Oakland school board did in 1997 when it decided to recognize Ebonics as the language of the students who were coming from African-American homes is it was trying to help them learn standard English by recognizing that they come from a foreign dialect background.

  • 11:31:58

    GREENEIn other words, Ebonics was a bit silly and got a lot of laughs and they tried to connect Ebonics to the West African languages. They were spoken in the communities where slaves were taken from and that probably wasn't correct and wasn't necessary. But the point is they were trying to help kids learn standard English and all the rest of white America heard was that these kids are too dumb to learn real English and now Oakland is going to start teaching in Ebonics, that they were going to do algebra in Ebonics and Shakespeare in Ebonics and that was never the intention. The intention was to recognize that these kids will need standard English and so it was to get them to transform their Ebonics, essentially, into standard English.

  • 11:32:34

    REHMRobert Lane Greene, his new book is titled "You Are What You Speak." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Thanks for calling, Reid. Now to Mary, she's in Oklahoma City. Good morning.

  • 11:32:54

    MARYGood morning, Diane. Thank you and Mr. Greene for taking my call.

  • 11:32:57


  • 11:32:59

    MARYThis is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. My daughter and I frequently discuss the use of proper language when especially that she's going to a public school with a lot of different children from different socioeconomic backgrounds. I'm curious whether you address in the book the effect of improper or informal speech on interpersonal relationships, especially when people are first starting to meet each other.

  • 11:33:25

    GREENERight. One of the least solideric things you can do when you meet someone is correct their language. It's a way of saying, I have it right and you have it wrong. And on the -- there's a flipside to that, which is that people often, when they have good will to one another, find themselves speaking more like the other person. If you ever find yourself traveling in Britain or Ireland, many Americans find themselves coming out with more and more British words or they find themselves using a little Irish brogue in their accent that they never knew they had there.

  • 11:33:52

    GREENESo if you approach the other person's language and kind of accommodate how they speak and they do a little bit to you as well, that is a way of two people basically acknowledging each other's humanity. And by contrast, you can very clearly draw a bright line between you and someone else by correcting them, by telling them that they're doing it wrong.

  • 11:34:11

    REHMMary, is that what you mean?

  • 11:34:15

    MARYFor the most part. I feel like the -- not so much the degradation, but as you were speaking of earlier, the evolution of language or the de-evolution of it in time, how it just kind of erodes that formality -- or not necessarily the formality, but the respect that two individuals might build up between each other when they first meet.

  • 11:34:36

    GREENERight. Well, can I tell a brief joke?

  • 11:34:38

    REHMSure, please.

  • 11:34:39

    GREENEThis joke is in the book, I'll tell the slightly cleaner version of it on the air here. There's a Georgia boy visits Harvard University and stops a passing Harvard student and says, excuse me, can you tell me where the library's at? And the Harvard man says, here at Harvard, we do not end a sentence in a preposition. And the Georgia boy says, oh, let me try that again. Can you tell me where the library's at, jerk (laugh) ? So now, what do we learn from this occasion? That first of all, the Harvard student understands the Georgia student absolutely perfectly clearly.

  • 11:35:05

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:35:06

    GREENESo, you know, taking his question as an affront because it didn't meet his standard of language is a way of saying, I am superior to you, so it draws that distinction right away. The second part of the joke, and this is something I go into the book, is that there's absolutely no reason for the so-called rule that you can't end a sentence in a preposition. In formal writing, it's somewhat more common to read words so that you don't do it, but in natural speech, throughout the history of English, it has been common for people to end sentences and clauses in prepositions.

  • 11:35:33

    REHMAnd the French do it all the time.

  • 11:35:35

    GREENEThe French, actually not so much. The Canadian French do it somewhat more than the French French do, but plenty of other languages do it. Danish is a cousin language to English, it's in the dramanic family with English and it's absolutely necessary and correct to do it in formal Danish, so this rule isn't necessary for logic. It's not a part of good communication. It's something that the poet and essayist John Dryden in the 17th century complained about and somehow, his complaint managed to marinate through grammar books. And so now a lot of educated people think that they know it's a simple fact that you can't end a sentence in a preposition, when in fact, people who have investigated this question have found sentences ending in prepositions throughout the history of English writing and it's obviously completely common in English speech.

  • 11:36:16

    GREENESo yes, it is good to learn the proper formal standard for formal occasions, but to insist that that's the only way to use it and to insist on these rules that were seriously just made up out of nothing is a way -- is really -- it seems more about gotcha. It's more about putting a little distance between me and him.

  • 11:36:33

    REHMIt's power.

  • 11:36:34

    GREENEYeah, it is because those who master the formal language had access to -- they had education almost -- by definition they have education, they have status and so forth. And so it's a way of saying, until you get to my language, 'til you accommodate me I can sort of dismiss you as someone not even able to communicate, when in fact we all probably know speakers of Black English or southern English or Scotts English who can communicate brilliantly even if they don't do it in the standard.

  • 11:36:59

    REHMBut if you shut them down, I mean, not only is there a defensive reaction, but there may well be an offensive reaction.

  • 11:37:12

    GREENEWell, absolutely. When we go back to the Ebonics story, the whole idea was to give Black students a sense of pride in that language that they grew up with and that they heard in the home and they heard on their streets, while also saying, you're going to need standard English to get ahead in this society.

  • 11:37:29

    REHMRobert Lane Greene, the book is titled "You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws and the Politics of Identity." Stay with us. Short break. We'll be right back.

  • 11:40:03

    REHMAnd here's an e-mail on language. This from Anne, who says, "As we becoming increasing aware of the sexism implicit in our usage of English, we've stopped using he and expanded to the more awkward he or she or the plural they when we want a gender neutral pronoun reference. Though it sounds stuffy, wouldn't the pronoun one help us get around this problem? Is the fact that we have an aversion to one indicative of latent sexism in our thinking?"

  • 11:40:49

    GREENEThis is a great question. It opens so many answers, I'll only hit a couple of the topics here. First of all, a lot of people think that they as a singular, you know, everyone has their own opinion, is brand-new in English, it's one more symbol of decline. In fact it appears in the King James Bible, one of the -- probably the greatest of book of English in a single work, you know, that's ever been produced in the sense of its impact on the language, so they with a singular has a very long history in English, which is one of the reasons why people say it so naturally in speech so often.

  • 11:41:19

    GREENEThat said, the traditional stickler answer is he must be used with any singular, so everyone has his own opinion. Then we get the late 20th century and the sexism in that becomes apparent and we start prescribing he or she, but then the pushback is that's wordy and awkward. Here we have a suggestion to replace that with one. There have also been a number of just invented pronouns, whon and various things with, you know, W-H-O-N and various other alternatives that people have tried to suggest to get around this problem.

  • 11:41:47

    GREENEThe problem with that is you can't really innovate pronouns. A lot of words come into English all the time. You know, you can look at any -- you know, any page of the Internet to find new fashionable terms. One thing you don't get a lot of new things in is pronouns. It's -- you just don't invent a pronoun and get everyone using it. They're among our most fundamental particles. So this question vexes me particularly. When I write I don't like he or she, I don't he and I don't like they, because I know sticklers will dislike it, so I reword the whole and thing and make...

  • 11:42:14

    REHMAvoid it.

  • 11:42:15

    GREENEI usually just make it a plural, so...

  • 11:42:16


  • 11:42:17

    GREENE...all students have their own opinions and then you have no problem. I feel like it's a bit of a fudge, but it's a way of not having to either offend a stickler, offend a woman or offend common sense.

  • 11:42:29

    REHMBut even in church, you have this awkwardness in reference now to God.

  • 11:42:37

    GREENERight. Well, you know, God is a -- God is pretty straightforwardly He in the Hebrew Bible and in the Greek New Testament. What can you say? That goes beyond language to a whole host of topics I'm not quite qualified to talk about.

  • 11:42:51

    REHMAll right. Let's go back to the phones to Safety Harbor, Fla. Good morning, Roy. You're on the air.

  • 11:43:01

    ROYGood morning. We always had a bilateral language, one for mixed company and one among men, but after World War II it all gravitated together. And now everyone speaks -- or not everyone, but many people speak foul language and we see in books all the time. Are we going to a point that there will be no foul language anymore because it's all used up?

  • 11:43:23

    GREENEI don't know about that. America is still in particular pretty conservative about foul language. You still see big fines by the FCC against broadcasters if a four-letter words slips past in a live broadcast. So in particular, in this country, we have a pretty conservative attitude. The New York Times will only very, very rarely produce a four-letter word in their pages and it has to have pretty strong news value. When Dick Cheney told Patrick Leahy to go F himself, so to speak, that was printed in The Washington Post, but for example, The New York Times talked around it. In the UK and other countries, you have a slightly more relaxed attitude towards foul language.

  • 11:44:02

    REHMInteresting. To Parma, Ohio, good morning, James.

  • 11:44:09

    JAMESHello. I want to give an example and then on the example ask a question. Lawrence and Prince Feisal were giving a presentation to the main 10 leaders at the Paris Peace Conference in 1916. Lawrence, he was only 28 years old at the time, was translating Arabic into English and Woodrow Wilson, then President of the United States, asked Lawrence if he would translate in French. And to everybody's amazement, Lawrence translated in fluent French.

  • 11:44:38

    JAMESNow, this made Lawrence not only the hero of the First World War, but also with his astute political knowledge, his linguistic skills and his Arab dress, he was the most prominent person at the Paris Peace Conference, the most stand-out person that people were impressed by. So the question I have is this, we try to be a world ruler and yet we don't know other languages. And if you go to Europe -- if you travel through Europe, even kids will know four languages.

  • 11:45:08

    JAMESAnd so what you do is you find the common language and you speak that. But then if you come back to the United States, you know, second and third generation people usually only speak one language. And I would like to ask your guest why the great difference between Europe or maybe most of the world and the United States?

  • 11:45:26

    GREENERight. They certainly don't make them like they used to, with Lawrence of Arabia. Another very brief example is it was a British civil servant in India, in Calcutta, who discovered that the Sanskrit language, the modern Indian languages in the north of India and the European languages, Greek and Latin and English, were all related to one another in this huge family called Indo-European.

  • 11:45:45

    GREENEAnd this was in the late 1700s. This was a such a scholar -- he was a civil servant, he wasn't a professional linguist. So like I said, they don't make them like that anymore I don't think. Europeans are definitely more multilingual than Americans are. Also, continental Europeans typically are much more multilingual than British people are and that is a common complaint in Europe is that, you know, British and American tourists will show up and expect you speak English, but they won't typically learn the language.

  • 11:46:10

    GREENEThere are a lot of problems with that. One is that we don't -- by not learning the languages, we don't learn the cultural fingertip feel that we need to understand other cultures that we interact with. They understand us, we don't understand them. Whether you're a diplomat or a business negotiator, that is a problem. It's not just literal language, but everything that goes with it.

  • 11:46:29

    REHMThanks for calling, James. To Syracuse, New York. Good morning, Jeffrey.

  • 11:46:36

    JEFFREYGood morning. I was traveling to Europe, this was many years ago, maybe 30 years ago and I was passing through Heathrow Airport and was having a chat with a person beside me and I had been sitting next to a Brit on my over and somehow their language affects mine a little bit and so I -- I guess I had a little taint of a British accent, enough to be confused as a Canadian because soon two men who were sitting behind me came over and asked me where I'd been coming from and where I was going and it sounded -- they were getting a little, you know, too personal like.

  • 11:47:19

    JEFFREYSo I hesitated and then in true cinematic fashion, they pulled out their badges from their coats and they were from Scotland Yard and they were looking for a Canadian bank robber who robbed banks in London and retreated to Canada (laugh). And my little infectious accent sort of tipped them off that I might be the man.

  • 11:47:43

    GREENEFascinating situation in Canada, actually. There are a couple of interesting dimensions to that country's language situation. One is that they have an accent that to many foreign ears sounds like an American accent, which drive Canadians understandably a little crazy sometimes.

  • 11:47:55

    REHMI love their o.

  • 11:47:56

    GREENEAnd there's that vowel in words like about and so forth that say quite differently from Americans, but they use some British spellings and some American spellings. They also have the language situation is Quebec where the French speakers in that province have really fought back hard for the French language after many years of French being more or less suppressed. They've made it completely supreme to the point where now English speakers complain that there's not a tolerance for English that they should be there.

  • 11:48:21

    REHMSo Jeffrey, I gather you were not arrested?

  • 11:48:24

    JEFFREYNo (laugh).

  • 11:48:27

    REHMI'm glad to hear to that. Thanks for calling. Here's an e-mail from Marta. She says, "I'd like to know what your guest thinks about the mixing of languages such as English and Spanish resulting in Spanglish. My family is multicultural. I'm continuously struggling with my kids to keep the correctness on the two languages that they speak, but the tendency is increasingly to mix them with very frustrating results."

  • 11:49:05

    GREENERight. Well, I think bicultural kids in this situation, they are caught between two worlds. There's native Spanish speakers or from a native-Spanish speaking background and they're in a New York or someplace in America and they may not feel like they fit in either culture. They're not fully American, they're not fully of their heritage culture. And so they find their own culture. They make that mixing, that Spanish Espangles or whatever you call it, something of a marker of their own identity and they find each other and they use it with each other as a way of saying, we don't want to be fully assimilated, so we're no different from any Joe Smith who doesn't speak Spanish.

  • 11:49:37

    GREENENor do we want to be fully associated with the old country. And, you know, if you can also succeed in making sure that the children speak good Spanish and good English, there's nothing to worry about with this kind of behavior because it's fascinating. It's pretty normal and it comes about when cultures of two kinds mix all over the world. You have a version called (speaks foreign language) on the border between say Uruguay and Brazil where you have basically half Spanish and half Portuguese. And all around the world, it's very, very common.

  • 11:50:06

    REHMAll right. To Jackson, Mich. Good morning, Aaron.

  • 11:50:11

    AARONGood morning. I would just like to thank the author for writing a book like this that exposes the lack of a need for very finite limits to the English language. I think the English language is beautiful overall. I was also wondering if his view on things became larger the more languages he learned so that he saw that there wasn't a need for this black and white. And I will take my answer off the air, because I'm at the Secretary of State. Thank you.

  • 11:50:35

    REHMAll right. Thanks.

  • 11:50:37

    GREENEI think that the more languages the learn, the more you see there are so many different ways of getting to express something. And absolutely -- I think when learn a second language, you just fall in love with it. You get really into it and it creates this idea that the second language is truly special and you really have a romantic attitude towards it. When you get to sort of three, four, five, six, you start to see that there really are underlying universals about language.

  • 11:50:57

    GREENEThere are things that every language can do. And then you also see that there are so many different solutions to various little technical language problems. You see that the double negative is considered a non-standard in English. I don't have no money or ain't got no money. In French, it's required. (speaks foreign language) are both negative particles. They're both needed in a standard French sentence. You know, kids are taught in English-speaking classrooms, don't have no, means two negatives equal a positive, that means I do have some. But this is required in Spanish, it's required in French, it's required in Russian. So when you learn that story and 10,000 others like it in the course of learning language, you realize there's a lot of different ways to skin the linguistic cat here and you learn to love them all.

  • 11:51:38

    REHMBut it -- but if you let them all, then all the rules fall apart.

  • 11:51:44

    GREENERight. No. I don't ever want to say there are no rules.

  • 11:51:46


  • 11:51:46

    GREENEI mean, I can say this again and again and people will still maybe think I'm saying something else, but there is a set of rules to standard English. This is what descriptive linguistics spends it time doing is trying to describe the rules that English speakers use when they produce English. And there are such things as mistakes and there are such things as bad communication, but there's also fully grammatical English that is terrible communication and there is brilliant, fluent communication in what we'd call non-standard English, so...

  • 11:52:11

    REHMTo Lanham, Md. Good morning, Tom.

  • 11:52:16

    TOMGood morning. Hi. I understand the distinction between formal and informal speech and twittering shortcuts and text shortcuts, but I do have a problem, a pet peeve, with like supposedly educated people like journalists, commentators, politicians, mixing up subjective and objective pronouns. You know, her and I went to the hill. The letter was given to him and I. And the other thing is constant mispronunciation of the word nuclear and nucular, and have went instead of have gone. But the thing that really bothers me, because I think it's so deliberate and I wish somebody would call Republican politicians on this, they use the word Democrat as an adjective.

  • 11:52:57

    REHMYeah, but that's deliberate.

  • 11:52:59

    TOMIt's a deliberate slight, right. It's like the Democrat bill, the Democrat...

  • 11:53:02


  • 11:53:04

    TOM...and it puts a juvenile slight into (unintelligible).

  • 11:53:06

    REHMThat's a real putdown.

  • 11:53:08

    GREENEWe'll I'll -- the Democrat thing is, I don't know exactly what they think they're doing there, but they're just ignoring the preferred usage of their own party. If somebody says, I want to be called the Democratic Party, than usually it a sign of respect to call people what they want to be called. As with between you and I and the mixing up of subjective and objective, I share that same peeve. I don't do that myself, I don't like it, I consider it a mistake. There are some linguists who say it's become so common in the language that they would describe it as part of the language.

  • 11:53:30

    GREENEI avoid it. I share that peeve. And so as a writer I avoid it, as a speaker, I avoid it. As a student of the language, I would say it is becoming more common and maybe in 200 years time, the distinction will erode just as so many other pronoun distinctions and other case markings disappeared from the English of Beowulf which had lots and lots and lots of them.

  • 11:53:49

    REHMRobert Lane Greene, the book is, "You Are What You Speak." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Jim.

  • 11:54:07

    JIMGood morning, Diane. Thank you for having me on...

  • 11:54:09


  • 11:54:09

    JIM...and thank you for your guest. This is a fascinating, fascinating discussion.

  • 11:54:13


  • 11:54:14

    JIMMy concern in the word well, W-E-L-L. I work in the same business you work in, Diane, and I have the very good fortune to interview people on a regular basis. And every time I ask a question, they start the answer with well and then they go for the answer. And I'm wondering where that falls into the history of our language. It seems like everybody who speaks American English, and for that matter, British English, starts their sentences with well.

  • 11:54:57

    REHMAnother filler?

  • 11:55:00

    GREENEI would say it is a kind of filler. Obviously, it's not quite in the same category as uh or um, not quite the same as like, but most people don't know exactly what they want to say as soon as they open their open.

  • 11:55:10

    REHMIt's time to think.

  • 11:55:11

    GREENEIf you're a professional speaker, if you work in radio professionally, you know to take a moment to think a little bit, to speak a little more slowly and composed in your head. Most people don't do that professionally and so they're more likely to just fill space with words. Sometimes you can see a politician who clearly doesn't have any idea what they want to say and they will just literally say word after word after word that you can later look at the transcript and find no meaning in.

  • 11:55:36

    REHMDo you share my feeling that English is particularly difficult for foreigners to learn?

  • 11:55:46

    GREENEMost languages are difficult for foreigners to learn. English has unique challenges and -- for example, the -- what linguists call the aspect system where the verb includes -- we say, I am walking, I do walk and I walk. And those are three different present tenses of to walk. Most languages don't have that kind of distinction and so we find it very hard to learn. You mean slightly different things when you say each of those three things. The spelling is absolutely terrible.

  • 11:56:10


  • 11:56:10

    GREENEThis is a big problem. We have a thing...

  • 11:56:11


  • 11:56:12

    GREENE...called a great vowel shift in the medieval period that moved a lot of our spellings along and we don't spell like other European languages do. And then there are just so many exceptions to any so-called rule, that writing English is one of the biggest challenges. But overall, English doesn't have genders, for example. It doesn't have complicated very paradigms. We say, he speaks, he -- I speak and I spoke, I have spoken. That's about as complicated as an English verb gets. It has four forms. Some are even simpler than that.

  • 11:56:40

    REHMRobert Lane Greene, his new book is titled, "You Are What You Speak." You've represented yourself and your book very, very well. Thank you.

  • 11:56:53

    GREENEThank you.

  • 11:56:54

    REHMThanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 11:56:57

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.

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