It’s All In How You Say It

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I believe that most people don’t obsess about language as much as an English teacher does.  It’s our curse.  We can’t overlook a misplaced apostrophe, an incorrectly spelled word, or a dangling modifier.  English teachers know language, and we have radar to catch those who abuse it.
It’s all really for a good cause.  Language experts are all about communication.  Using the written word to convey our thoughts, opinions, emotions and information is our forte.  And when it’s misused – watch out.  You’re no match for us. 

Surprisingly, I don’t have a problem with ‘net speak’.  My students use it as they do any other second language, and they know when to switch back and forth.  And if they forget, well, I surely remind them. 

What really gets me going, though, is poor word choice.  It’s laziness, simplicity and thoughtlessness combined.  Word choice really ruined my week. I had an unfortunate encounter with a word that no educator wants to have in the same sentence with his or her name: layoff.  Use of this word in schools from now through March 15 is sure to create high anxiety and low productivity, which is exactly what happened to me. 

I received an email indicating that I would be ‘bumped’ in lieu of a potential ‘layoff’ and I had 48 hours to respond.  End of email. 

Now, communicating by email is a dangerous thing for those who are unable to express themselves well with the written language.  Unlike handwritten letters, email has very little emotion or personality to help the recipient understand the nuances of the message.  Word choice becomes critical, and unfortunately this week, word choice was just plain….wrong. 

When I read the words ‘bump’ and ‘layoff’ my heart dropped into my stomach.  I have 10 years seniority in my district and could not imagine what this meant.  Twenty-one years of teaching and I’m still worrying about a layoff?  This was definitely not the message I wanted to receive at the end of a long school day, but there it was. 

I pulled my jaw shut and started to process.  I went back into my head and began to spin all sorts of scenarios about what might be going on and how I would react.  In other words, I panicked.  Layoff is not a good word. 

After lengthy discussions with colleagues, friends, the assistant superintendent, and a night spent tossing and turning, another email provided clarification came that ‘layoff’ was the wrong word choice.  ‘Bump’ was correct, ‘layoff’ was not.  ‘Bump’ isn’t ideal, but it’s sure better than ‘layoff’.  One wrong word choice, and my day and night flipped into a tailspin. 

Precision of language may be a curse of the English teacher, but there’s a good reason.  Words have power.  They can bring elation and devastation.  They can show emotion and action.  Words well chosen and precise give us the ability to communicate at a high level, and words chosen thoughtlessly and carelessly can bring us to the lowest depths of all. 

The next time you’re typing an email or texting someone, remember:  it’s all in how you say it. 


Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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  1. lay-off is definitely a word we shouldn’t be carelessly putting on an email. I do hope the “bump” will just sort itself out. When I write emails I always try to review over and over especially if it is an important business email… but somehow there are times that I miss on relaying what I really what to say. Not to add the language barrier I may have with my different colleagues at work. Anyways, the key word is prudence I guess on our choice of words.

    Spanish Pinay

  2. —Great Post.

    So much can be lost in between the lines.

    Even the Greatest Writers cannot tell one how to interpret their words…

    One person might see this & another that…


    1. Yes; interpretation is one thing, but carelessness is entirely another, Kim. We all bring our ‘back stories’with us when interpreting each other-I can’t control that. But I can control using incorrect words, or editing my work. Thanks for commenting!

  3. As one who labors (too long) over a perfect word, I relate completely to this post. What’s in a word? The difference between love and the alternative. I realize we toss our words around with reckless abandonment until we are faced with the clean up. Great post. (new look is good, too).

  4. What happens next?

    True, language is important. The problem with quickly written emails, is the intonation is removed, the hesitant pauses the writer experiences.

    Let us know where you are in this process of ‘bumps’.

    1. Thanks, Susan. You’re so right about the ‘hesitatnt pause’ – only so much can be added with emoticons! I’ll keep you posted…I’m hoping it all just works itself out.

  5. Dear Jennifer,
    And even when we choose an exact word to fit what we want to say, someone’s personal connotation may be worlds away from ours.

    Remember that old saying, “Sticks and stone can break my bones, but words will never harm me”? How quickly we learn as children that this adage is absolutely false!


    1. Dee, I do remember that. And I remember it as being false, too! With today’s teens able to put words out there for everyone to see, the words have much more power than ever before.

  6. This could not be more true. I am very careful when choosing my words, very careful, and yet, we can not control others’ perceptions of how they receive the words. And even when we say, “what I meant was…” it doesn’t matter, the damage is already done. As it sounds like in your case. Glad they changed the wording, layoff is a scary word.

  7. The beauty about blogging/writing is that you get to see how people react to your writing through a thoughtful comment or exchange. It’s then you can see how they took your words. It’s the best training ground for becoming an good communicator since you learn a lot.

    I’ve posted a few questions in forums wherein I meant one thing and the responses showed me I wrote another. So I’ve had my share of misses but I’m able to adjust quickly.

    By the way, love you new theme since it’s easy on the eyes. The font is easier to read too.

    1. Yes, this has happened to me, too. It’s hard to not have a miss once in awhile, but when the stakes are high it’s important to be accurate! And I’m glad you like the new theme!

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