The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on July 29, 2010.

“It’s like hearing a priest swear.”

That’s the way a friend described the sound of an expression I say regularly that I wasn’t even aware I was using. It does not involve swear words, and it was nothing rude or offensive. It was something grammatical, and her description of it in relation to priests swearing was to emphasize how unexpected and uncharacteristic it was to hear me say this – which, apparently, I do a lot.

I appreciated her calling my attention to it, first of all because she did it in such a kind and gentle way that it was totally helpful and supportive, and not the least bit critical. And second of all because I’m acutely aware that the words we use speak volumes about us in addition to whatever message we’re using them to convey.

This is something that’s relevant to everyone. Right or wrong, accurate or not, most of us make snap judgments or assumptions about others based on how they look and act, and how they speak. Not so much on what they say, but on how they sound when they say it. And as a writer and speaker, as well as a coach who talks one-on-one with people for an hour at a time, I take things like this very seriously.

It’s not that I try to be Miss Perfect, or to talk like the queen of England. I don’t put on airs, and I don’t, as a rule, either write or speak in formal, stilted English. My style is much more casual and informal, and there are a number of grammatical rules and guidelines that I break or ignore regularly, such as those about starting a sentence with “and” or ending sentences with a preposition. Still, I don’t want to be sloppy, careless, or clueless in my wording, and that’s how this expression was making me sound.

My friend’s observation came during a “Girls’ Weekend” I was enjoying with three close friends. I spent the rest of the weekend trying to catch and correct myself whenever I started using this phrase. It became a game of sorts, similar to something we do in Toastmasters, where a person in the role of “Ah Counter” listens throughout the meeting for the use of distracting or annoying crutch words and filler phrases like “ah,” “um,” “like” and “y’know.”

What I’ve learned from Toastmasters, and what was reinforced during our Girls’ Weekend, is that there are stages we go through in order to correct things like this – or any bad habit, for that matter. First we have to become aware of what we’re doing, and then we have to start catching ourselves doing it. It helps to have others working with us at this point. The next phase can seem paralyzing, because as we become more and more aware of what we’re doing, it can distract us and knock our train of thought totally off its tracks. Eventually, though, we start to catch and correct ourselves automatically, and finally, we self-correct often enough that it becomes a habit and we don’t even have to think about it anymore.

I’m not at that point yet, but I’m working at it. And in case you’re wondering what the expression was that I’ve been using, it’s the improper use of the word “real.” As in, “That was real good.” Or, “She was real smart.” Or, “I’ll be real happy when I don’t have to think about this anymore.” The grammatically correct form of the word would be “really,” but “very” would be a better word choice altogether.

I’m going to be real – that is, really – no, I mean, very careful about this phrase in the future. And about anything else that makes me sound sloppy, careless, or inconsistent in what I say and how I say it. And although I can’t swear to it, I’m pretty sure I’ll be a better and stronger writer, speaker, and coach because of it.
© Betty Liedtke, 2010