In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and the classic film My Fair Lady, Dr. Henry Higgins takes a common flower girl and turns her into a lady by teaching her how to speak more refined English. He knew that other people draw certain conclusions from the way we talk, whether they are fair or not.
No one needs to be refined all the time, but knowing how to sound when you want your voice to be heard can be a powerful tool for any woman. Follow these five simple suggestions for more sophisticated speech.
When I find myself speaking too quickly, it’s usually for one of two reasons:
- Sometimes I’m more excited about what I have to say than I am about communicating to my conversation partner. It’s an especially big problem when I’m talking to my octogenarian grandmother who can’t understand fast speech.
- Sometimes I’m thinking out-loud instead of taking the time to consider my ideas.
The solution to talking too fast is to think before we speak. Consider the audience and what speed (and volume!) are appropriate. Take the time to make sure an addition to a conversation is valuable and to communicate thoughts as clearly as possible.
Take control of like.
Even though they are frowned upon in formal contexts, filler words and phrases such as like, umm…, and you know account for as much as 20% of spoken English. Overusing them can make a person look uneducated, thoughtless, or ditzy.
Slowing down is a great first step toward controlling filler words—it is easier to keep track of words when we think before we speak. A second great step is to practice more socially-appropriate alternatives where we normally use like. For example, He said instead of He was like.
When I was in elementary school, I thought of every word I used that my classmates didn’t know was a mark of distinction. I didn’t understand that the purpose of language is to communicate. There is a time and a place for “SAT words,” but most often, simplest is best.
As I tell my students, use the simplest word that expresses the fullness of your meaning. Sticking to a simple, but precise vocabulary can also prevent those embarrassing moments when we make up a word we think exists or, horror of horrors, use a word the wrong way in front of someone who knows better. The most misused words in English include decimate, disinterested, enormity, and irony.
Agree on things.
It’s nice when two people having a discussion agree, but it’s more refined when a speaker uses good agreements: subject/verb agreement and pronoun/antecedent agreement.
For example, “Jane and Kelly eat dinner,” but “Jane or Kelly eats only meat.” And, for the record, they only refers to more than one person. If you’re looking for a gender-neutral, singular pronoun, go for “he or she” or “it.”
Don’t be classy.
Certain words carry socio-economic or regional prejudices. It doesn’t mean those words are good or bad—just that conversations partners may make certain assumptions about you based on the words you choose. Think carefully before you use regional words like a’int and catty-corner, slang words like lame (as in “That movie was lame!”) or nuke (as in “Nuke it in the microwave”), and non-standard constructions like double negatives.
What qualities do you think mark a refined speaker of English?