Pedantry and Autism: a love story

Pedantry: noun. Excessive concern with minor details and rules; over-commitment to formalism, accuracy and precision; prioritising of simple knowledge (facts and rules and obscurantism) over more general knowledge and/or common sense. Used in a negative context.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am a pedant. I have always been a pedant and likely always will be. It stems from the black-and-white thinking style of my autism, my propensity for rote learning and my obsession with the little things, especially my ability to see the minutiae of the trees yet somehow spectacularly miss the forest. I speak ‘correctly’, even though I acknowledge there is no ‘correct’ way to speak; I try to ensure that I am one-hundred percent accurate in everything I say and write, while accepting that perfection is an impossible dream; and I follow the rules, no matter how stupid or seemingly arbitrary.

Despite its negative reputation, I don’t think being a pedant is necessarily a bad thing.

True, if you correct people on their grammar or point out the factual and logical fallacies of their arguments, it’s often seen as arrogant, condescending and belittling. To quote Ben Shapiro, however: facts don’t care about your feelings. Thanks to my autism, and unfortunately for those around me, I’m far more committed to the facts than I am to anybody’s feelings.

It is not my intention to hurt people’s feelings, though. Correcting them when they make a mistake is how I communicate and share my love of language and history with those around me. Much of the time, when I interrupt the flow of the conversation to tell somebody the true meaning and origin of a phrase they’ve misused, it is done with good intentions and because I think it’ll enrich their understanding and appreciation of the world around them. Partly, it’s to show off and try to impress people.

Only sometimes do I do it to be a dick.

But while I can say it comes from a place of genuine concern for the intellectual development of my fellows, another and probably equally important factor is that I can’t not do it. Inaccuracies cause me pain. My cringe-factor is turned up to eleven every time I hear something that’s patently wrong and the only way of alleviating that crushing horror is to put them straight. I can’t let them walk around being wrong. Entitled? Yes, you could probably call me that. But would you rather suffer a momentary embarrassment and then go through the rest of your life being right, or keep on exposing your ignorance to everyone who knows the truth?

It’s been said that the moment an Englishman speaks, another Englishman judges him, so it’s important to get it right. It’s not ‘I drunk it’ but ‘I drank it’, not ‘could of’ but ‘could have’, and there are no such words as supposably, irregardless, and expresso. I imply, you infer; a chicken lays an egg but people lie down; and if I affect something, I create an effect. Unique means ‘one of a kind’, so things cannot be quite unique or very unique, and if you say ‘reverse back’ or ‘past history’, you’re using one word too many. Little things, but they go a long way.

It’s hard to blame people, however, when everywhere they’re exposed to poor grammar. Songs called ‘Beneath Your Beautiful’; pop culture expressions like ‘You sunk my battleship’; movies entitled Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. No wonder so many people think that you are hanged, not hung, or that you can ‘literally’ die of embarrassment, yet still be able to tell the tale. And don’t get me started on there, their and they’re.

Misused idioms also hit my ear like nails down a chalkboard. It’s not ‘chomping’ at the bit, it’s ‘champing’, referring to an eager horse biting down on its metal mouthpiece; a damp ‘squib’ is a small explosive device, not a tentacled sea-creature; and ‘tenter hooks’ stretch hides over a wooden frame to make them anything but tender. Language evolves, sure, but there have to be standards, otherwise we’ll all end up speaking gibberish and nobody will be able to understand each other.

I can’t stand people promoting falsehoods either, like the guy who sat in front of me on a ferry into Portsmouth one time, who pointed to HMS Warrior and told his wife it was HMS Victory. That might seem minor, but come on – how can you mistake the legendary Victory of Trafalgar and Nelson fame, a wooden-hulled 1765 first rate triple decker ship-of-the-line that is an integral part of British history and national identity, with an iron-hulled 1860 armoured frigate? How could I not correct that error? It’s something every schoolboy should know.

But the most egregious recent example I’ve come across is in Jon Sopel’s bestseller If Only They Didn’t Speak English. As North America Editor for BBC World News, he should know a thing or two about a) facts and b) accuracy, yet when writing about race relations in the US, an incendiary topic that demands care and attention, he displays an unforgivable ignorance. He writes about ‘the literally millions of Africans rounded up and shipped off in the most appalling, fetid conditions to the East Coast of America’, and how ‘twelve and a half million people left the ports of Africa and came to America in leg irons’. All of this suggests that the slave trade was centred on the US and that it’s an exceptional case in world history, a view that supports certain political ideologies but is entirely inaccurate.

Don’t get me wrong, slavery was awful and I don’t wish to minimise the suffering of those affected, but sensationalism and emotion should never take the place of cold, hard facts. Luckily, these are readily available at the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, thanks largely to the work of professors David Eltis and David Richardson of Emory University. Of around 12.5 million slaves shipped across the Atlantic in the period 1519-1867, fewer than 350,000 – less than 5% of the total – went to what is now the United States. Around 40% went to the Portuguese colonies in Brazil, 11% to Jamaica and the rest around the Caribbean and South America.

It is therefore wholly inaccurate to claim that ‘literally millions’ of Africans were shipped to the East Coast of America’ or that ‘Twelve and a half million people…came to America in leg irons.’ More than that, it’s irresponsible as it feeds into the myth of American Exceptionalism and continues to inflame racial tensions. I would have expected a person of Sopel’s background to be more careful with his facts. I would also have expected this misinformation to be picked up on and corrected in the subsequent editions, but it has not, meaning thousands of readers around the world will read it and believe that ‘millions’ of Africans slaves were shipped to the US, and use this ‘fact’ to inform their erroneous view of the world. And that annoys the hell out of me.

(To provide further context, the peak figure of American slavery was 3.9 million, recorded in the 1860 census. Furthermore, in the same period that less than 350,000 African slaves were shipped to America (388,000 according to some sources), more than a million Europeans were held as slaves in Africa.)

Pedantry might be seen as bad, petty, unkind and inflexible, but sometimes, as in the Jon Sopel slavery case, it is by far the better approach than playing fast and loose with the facts. As an autistic individual, pedantry is in my nature, as it is in many others who share my condition. We thrive in academia, in the sciences, in linguistics, where accuracy and obsession over the minutiae are seen as strengths instead of poor social skills. And who knows? One day, the difference between the survival of the species and our unfortunate extinction might come down to somebody spotting a single misplaced integer.

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Out the mouths of babes

There’s this idea out there that children, because they aren’t tainted by the vices and peculiarities of society, are possessed of a special kind of wisdom that we lose as we age. They haven’t yet learned to lie, so their utterances are factual, and honest, and tap into a purer, more innocent state of being. If you want to hear truth, so the logic goes, ask a child – they’ll tell it to you straight, without sugar-coating or prevarication. People have even written books about how we can learn to live a fuller, happier life simply by listening to the instinctive wisdom of our children and incorporating it into our daily lives.

What a load of bollocks.

I’m not saying that kids don’t have their moments, but I’m really not sure we should be taking life advice from people who think it’s okay to scratch their arseholes in front of mixed company.

While it’s true that children can be very honest and address subjects normally taboo in polite society, that doesn’t mean they’re right – and they’re normally pretty far from it. It’s not because they’re stupid, but because they just don’t have the experience. Like tonight, when my two-year-old delighted in telling me that ‘Mummy’s got really big nipples’ – given she’s only ever seen three other pairs (mine, hers, and her baby sister’s), she has nothing to compare them to. Honesty is therefore not a measure of truth or reality – it’s just a two-year-old’s very unqualified opinion about something she knows nothing about. (For the record, my extensive knowledge of slightly more than three sets of nipples suggests they’re pretty-much average-sized, not ‘really big’ at all).

Likewise, innocence doesn’t show us a purer way to live – it just shows us ignorance. Like when my daughter tries to play hide-and-seek in the car, pulls her T-shirt up over her face, and cries, ‘Where am I, daddy? You can’t see me! Me hiding.’ Or when after clearing the dinner plate because I tell her eating it will make her grow up big and strong, she stands on tiptoes, reaches to the sky, and says, ‘Me bigger now?’ Or when she tells me that she’s not old enough to be a boy yet, but will be one day – although, to be fair, given the current predilection for transgenderism, she may well be right on that one.

Even so, you can’t trust a child’s judgement because the way they think is just too weird and unpolished. Over dinner this evening, my daughter leaned over towards me and said, ‘Me hope you fart,’ and then went straight back to eating. And she will not stop stripping all her dolls from her Sylvanian Families playsets because, ‘Me like them naked.’ And a few days ago she said, ‘Me not like you paint my nose. Me not like bogies.’ I’m not entirely sure what ‘wisdom’ I’m supposed to glean from these little pearls.

She can be snarky too. My wife was busy today so I took the little one to swimming lessons. Since I’ve not done it in a while, I said to her, ‘You’ll have to tell me what to do.’

From the back of the car, this sarcastic little voice replied, ‘You get in the water…and then you swim.’

Gee, thanks.

She can also be rather creepy at times. The other day she came up to me and, out of the blue, said, ‘Daddy, please may me have a knife?’

‘What on earth do you want a knife for?’

‘Nothing. Me have one?’

She’s two, for God’s sake!

Just as bad was when we were out driving. She suddenly said, ‘Daddy, me wearing pants or a nappy?’

‘Pants.’

‘Oh. Okay.’

And then an ominous silence.

‘Do you need the toilet?’ I asked.

‘No,’ she replied. That was one uncomfortable car journey, I can tell you!

But then, I guess there was one positive thing she did this week. For the umpteenth time while bathing my daughter, my wife asked for help putting the baby to bed, so I snapped, ‘For crying out loud, just give her her dummy like I’ve said fifteen times already.’

My daughter looked up at me, subdued, and whispered, ‘You mean to mummy.’

‘No, I wasn’t being mean, I was…okay, maybe I was being a little mean.’

‘You say sorry to mummy.’

And she wouldn’t let it rest until I had apologised. And she was right.

So maybe we can learn some things from our children. As a general rule, however, I think I’ll be happier not taking guidance on how to live my life from someone who, this evening while sitting on the toilet, was sobbing because, ‘Me not like poo coming out of my bottom!’

Not exactly worthy of the Dalai Lama, is it?

Where’d my toddler learn THAT!?!

The other day I was sitting on the sofa when, out of the blue, my toddler came up to me and said, ‘Daddy, c+nt.’

As you can imagine, I looked at her in shock. ‘What did you just call me?’ I gasped.

‘Daddy, c+nt.’

I got down on her level and looked her in the eye. ‘If you ever say that to me again -‘

‘Daddy c+nt, me hide.’

She wanted to play hide-and-seek. Thank God.

The way kids learn to talk is nothing like the way you learn a language at school. There, it’s hideously formulaic. Nuance? Nah. Emotion? Hell no! But can you ask directions to the train station where you’ll buy a return ticket to an A-ha concert? You bet I can! (This was already a dated reference even when I was at school – we’d moved on to New Kids On the Block by then).

The way to truly learn a language is to do it the way kids do it: by immersing yourself in it, listening to the way it’s spoken, the way it’s used, and experimenting with it to find ways of expressing your thoughts and ideas that are unique to you. Sure, you’re going to make plenty of mistakes along the way, but it’s the only way to become fluent. And it’s damned entertaining for the rest of us.

My two-year-old is at this stage now, and it is a daily dose of fascinating. Except that, as she attends nursery, mother-toddler groups, play dates and the houses of family members, I’m not always in control of the influences she’s exposed to.

Like the other night when I was hurrying her up to bed. ‘Come on, get a move on,’ I said, halfway up the stairs.

She turned to me, slowly took out her dummy, and in the manner of a person around thirteen years older said, ‘What’s the rush?’

It stopped me in my tracks. Where the hell did that come from?

Possibly the same place as her accent. My wife and I were both raised in the south, so we speak Estuary English with just a touch of West Country. I therefore have no idea why my daughter has started to speak as though she’s from the West Midlands.

It’s not a train but a ‘trine’, not a table but a ‘tie-bull’. We get on a ‘boose’ and wave ‘boy-boy’, and when mummy brushes my little one’s hair, she doesn’t ‘loik’ it. It’s like having a miniature Frank Skinner running round the house – every vowel sound is everso slightly off.

She also has no idea about social niceties – that just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should. I asked her to describe someone to test her communication skills. Is he tall or short? ‘Short.’ Is he thin or fat? ‘Fat, like daddy.’

Out the mouths of babes…

And that’s before we mention the profanities. The other day I got cut up at a junction and snapped, ‘Asshole.’ Driving on down the road, I suddenly heard this little voice from the back going, ‘Ash-hole. Ash-hole.’ My wife made the mistake of laughing, and lo, we now have a potty-mouthed toddler whose favourite word is going to get us banned from the church playgroup.

Her storytelling is a bit bizarre at the moment too, focusing on the trivialities and glossing over the important stuff. After a whole day with granny on Monday, she summed it up with, ‘Natasha came to see granny, and Barry came to see my tongue.’

I have no idea what that means.

Still, if you really listen, sometimes she gives you pearls of wisdom. When she noticed the dog had a sore foot, she asked me what was wrong, and I told her to ask the dog. This she did, waited for an answer, then said to me, ‘Dog food needs butter.’ Problem solved.

But for me, the funniest thing was when I was putting her to bed the other night. My wife made a clatter in the kitchen and my daughter said, ‘Mummy noise.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Mummy made a noise.’

‘Mummy upstairs?’

‘No, she’s downstairs in the kitchen. It’s right below us.’

‘Kitchen?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, pointing. ‘It’s below, right here.’

Pushing back her covers, she climbed out of bed, got on her hands and knees and blew on the carpet.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked.

‘Kitchen,’ she replied.

‘Yes, it’s below here.’

And she bent forward and blew on the carpet again.

‘Why are you -?’ I started, and the penny dropped.

You forget that kids can’t always differentiate your words.

I can’t imagine why she thought daddy was pointing at the floor and saying, ‘Blow here.’

 

My Life With Autism

For anybody in the Dorset area, I am doing a talk tomorrow night for DAAS (Dorset Adult Asperger’s Support) at the United Church in Dorchester (49/51 Charles Street, DT1 1EE).

The same talk was very well received in July at a similar event at Bournemouth University. Doors open at 6.45. It would be great to see some of you there.

Gillan

 

My Funny Toddler

‘No chi-shen no poo daddy!’

That’s what my daughter shouts every morning when I let the chooks out of their house – no, chickens, don’t poop on my daddy.

Like most of the things she says, you have to train your ear to hear it properly. Having a toddler, you spend your life picking through the mispronunciations and the comedy juxtapositions, fighting to make sense of it all. Every morning when I brush her teeth, I have to put poo-paste on the poo-brush. All day I’m asked to shit on the phwoar. And every night I put boo-balls in the bart so she can have a bubble-bath.

But sometimes, I frankly don’t have a clue what she’s saying. That’s when she shouts at me in frustration. Because what’s plain to her isn’t always obvious to everyone else.

Like yesterday, when I asked her what she wanted for lunch. ‘Piss, please,’ she said excitedly.

‘Piss?’

‘Piss, please, daddy.’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Piss, daddy. Piss. Pissssss!’

‘Honey, she says she wants piss for lunch.’

‘She means crisps.’

‘Oh thank God for that.’

At least it’s different to what she normally requests – ‘Cheese and marmite,’ morning, noon and night. I’m fine putting it on her toast, in her wraps and croissants. Not on chips or fish fingers. I refuse to put it on her yoghurt. Tonight, just to shut her up, I put a big dollop of marmite in the risotto I was making. It’s not an experiment I intend to repeat.

Then there’s her favourite expression. Every few minutes she sits on the floor among her toys, looks up at me and says, ‘Punch me, daddy. Punch me.’ Or she’ll be hanging halfway over the stairgate. ‘Punch me, daddy, punch me.’ Or slipping off her seatbelt while I’m doing sixty along a country lane, forcing me to pull over yet again. ‘Punch me, punch me.’ Don’t tempt me…

From contextual clues, I think it means some combination of ‘Play with me’ and ‘help me,’ but where she’s got it from, I have no idea.

Driving has become awkward of late. Every time I stop – at lights, in traffic, at a junction – she shouts, ‘Doe!’ and scares the life out of me. And no matter how I try to explain that I can’t go because there are four cars in front of me, it makes no difference to her. ‘Doe, daddy, doe, doe!’

In the car, she also has a captive audience. I’m fine with the singing – it’s mostly Wheels on the Bus. ‘The conductor on the bus says “All Aboard”‘ becomes ‘Ad-jee boose “ball baball,”‘ but that’s okay. What’s definitely not okay is when she says, ‘Daddy, a diddin?’

‘What am I doing? I’m driving, sweetheart.’

‘Ah. Daddy, a diddin?’

‘Driving. I literally just said it.’

‘Ah. Daddy, a diddin?’

‘Conjugating Latin verbs. I’m teaching a class of underprivileged children to read Martial’s epigrams in the original language.’

‘Ah. Daddy, a diddin?’

‘Quadratic equations. It’s part of a project to solve the energy crisis using quantum mechanics.’

‘Ah. Daddy, a mummy diddin?’

But if I don’t answer, I just get an endless stream of ‘daddy, daddy, daddy,’ so I pick the lesser of those two evils, and die a little inside each day.

She thinks I’m the master of horses, too. We’re lucky enough to live on the edge of the New Forest, so wherever we go in the car, we have to avoid scores of ponies walking in the road. And every time we pass a horse or two, she says, ‘More gee-gee. Daddy, more gee-gee. Daddy? Daddy!’

‘I can’t magically conjure up horses out of thin air!’ I reply.

‘Oh,’ she replies, subdued. And then, ‘More gee-gee, daddy. More gee-gee!’

She’s started experimenting with her voice too. She’ll scream with excitement. And then, discovering the wonderful noise, walk around screaming for the next ten minutes. Same with crying – she gets over whatever made her cry, but then becomes so enamoured of the noise she’s making she keeps it going. On and on and on. Until she asks you to punch her again.

This has made bedtimes somewhat unpleasant. I read to her at night – we’ve finished Treasure Island and are halfway through Black Beauty – and she’s started making this weird groaning hum every time I talk. I can hear it as I’m reading, but every time I stop at the end of a sentence or pause to take a breath, she stops. It’s like I’ve got a ghostly echo.

This same experimentation has spread to many of her reactions, which have become completely over-the-top. If I show her anything, draw anything, make anything, she looks at it, puts her hands flat on her cheeks, and goes, ‘Whooooooooaaaaaaa daddy! Wooooooooow! Daddy, whoooooaaaaa!’

She’s either incredibly impressed or her understanding of sarcasm is well beyond her 25-months.

That said, she seemed very enamoured of the tower I built this morning. She held up her index finger – ‘Wait,’ she said, rummaged through her toy box, returned with a pretend pink camera and proceeded to photograph it from all angles. Then, the tower preserved in pretend posterity, she kicked it down and laughed.

Impressively for her age, she can count to ten. Unfortunately, she thinks there are eleven numbers, since clearly it goes, ‘One, two, three, go, four, five…’ And she has her colours, too, although she gets very annoyed when I can’t tell if she’s talking about daddy’s ‘wed car’ or mummy’s ‘whet car’ (red or white).

But the worst thing she does, the most horrible thing she manages to say, is whenever she sees me without my top on. She smiles, points at my belly, and says with delight, ‘Baby girl!’

No, I’m not pregnant. It’s just fat.

‘Daddy baby girl!’

I’m now on a diet. Punch me.

I speak English, sort of

As the father of a twenty-month old daughter, the issue of learning to communicate in the English language is obviously high up on my list of current interests. We’re lingering at the monosyllabic phase, and while it’s fascinating that the word ‘bear’ can mean biscuit, water, bath, yoghurt, playroom, daddy sit in that chair, I want to watch Peppa Pig, and a number of other concepts we haven’t yet been able to figure out, all at the same time, it can make life a little more stressful than it needs to be. I mean, being able to tell us what she wants (biscuits), and being able to understand our response (no, you’ve already had three, you greedy little madam), would probably avoid a few of the meltdowns we’ve been experiencing lately – although, on second thought, maybe not, since the answer would still be no and she’d still have a tantrum because she wants biscuits! Regardless, learning to express our thoughts, feelings and desires through language is an important step on the road to becoming a fully-fledged member of society i.e. the moment at which you can leave home and give mum and dad a break.

Unfortunately, learning to communicate in English is easier said than done, pun entirely intended. Normally, way before the formal teaching of language in schools, kids learn to speak by being immersed in the language of their parents, and develop their communication skills through both imitation and experimentation. With two parents on the autism spectrum, however, there may be some problems with this process.

‘But you can clearly speak English!’ I hear you yell. What you really mean is that I can clearly write English, because in actual fact, a written language and a spoken language are two completely different things. I am only now realising just how true this is.

It is a well-known fact, and one I have written about before, that people with autism often take things literally, and therefore struggle with the nuances of language. While this is true, the reality of communicating in English when you have autism is far more complex than simply struggling to interpret homonyms, homophones and idioms. I mean, there are plenty of books out there that explain all of these things, and oftentimes you can work out the meaning by context. By focusing on this ‘literal interpretation of language’ spiel, it overlooks the other really weird and confusing ways that we communicate in spoken English. I’m talking about the vagaries of language that only English teachers and pedants tend to know about.

Like the way we add negative tags to positive questions, and vice versa. This morning, I said to my daughter, ‘You will be good for Granny, won’t you?’ Will you, won’t you – way to confuse the poor kid! Or when I say, ‘You haven’t done a poo, have you?’ you can almost hear the cogs whirring away as she thinks, ‘I haven’t have? Does yes mean no or yes mean yes? I don’t know, so instead I’ll just say “pooooooooo,” and leave daddy guessing.’

These constructions – a declarative statement followed by a question – are called tag questions (or question tags, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re reading this), and these parts of spoken English can cause problems for people with autism. The modal ones – that is, those those that request confirmation of information of which you’re not certain, like, ‘You’ve just pissed in the bath water, haven’t you?’ – aren’t overly important since they simply concern knowledge. It’s the other type, the affective tag questions, that can screw up your relationships.

These are the ones that soften statements or include people in conversations – the ‘I care about you and invite you to share in my life’ questions. My wife, bless her, is a lovely lass, but she sucks at affective tags. She thinks ‘Get me a drink,’ and ‘Get me a drink, could you?’ mean the same thing, no matter how much I try to explain to her that the first is an order and treats me as a slave, without respect or consideration, while the addition of the softening tag ‘could you?’ in the second turns it into a request, that acknowledges I am a person with feelings and a need to be treated with dignity. If you can detect hurt feelings in the previous sentence, well done – even though I know she doesn’t mean it, I do sometimes wish she could speak to me with a soupcon of grace.

She’s equally bad at using the other kind of affective tag, the so-called facilitative tag, in that she doesn’t use it at all. This is the tag question that’s all about sharing and reassurance. I’ll show her a video of 2Cellos playing Thunderstruck and say, ‘This is so freaking awesome, isn’t it?’ In this manner, I am sharing my excitement and tastes with her, and inviting her to join in by agreeing with me that yes, it’s the greatest ever video on YouTube, or bringing her own opinion to bear, such as, ‘No, it’s shit’ (although nobody who has seen 2Cellos doing Thunderstruck has ever or will ever say that). If there’s something my wife is thinking about – the weather, for instance – she’ll say something like, ‘It’s so much warmer than yesterday.’ Full stop. And I look at her and think, where’s my ‘isn’t it?’ Where’s my ‘don’t you think?’ How is our daughter meant to incorporate question tags into her speech if her mother, thanks to her autism, doesn’t use them?

In all fairness to my wife, though, I tend towards the opposite extreme and use enough for the both of us. Given my problems with Theory of Mind (understanding how other people think and feel), I’m paranoid that the people I’m talking to don’t understand what I’m saying, or that I’m not understanding them correctly, or that they’re bored, or that they don’t like me, or that I’m doing something wrong, or that my thinking is flawed, so that, constantly seeking reassurance and feedback, I litter my speech with modal and affective tags – you know? Right? Yeah? Innit.

A constant problem of conversing with my wife is that she fails to respond to these cues, making me even more paranoid, and that is another aspect of spoken English usage that totally differs from the written – instant feedback. You know what I mean? You see? Do you?

Silence. As an autistic individual, she again doesn’t get that during conversations, she’s meant to go, ‘Uh-huh,’ or ‘Oh,’ or ‘Yes,’ or ‘Hmm,’ or make any one of a hundred different random noises to indicate she is listening, understanding, and involved. The silence freaks me out. Has she slipped into a coma? Have I lost her completely? Am I making any gosh-darned sense?

But then, perhaps she’s right and I’m wrong. Whenever we have an argument, I’ll throw a line at her, something like, ‘How many times have I told you not to leave your wet towel on the floor?’ and she’ll reply, ‘Sorry,’ because she knows that’s how rhetorical questions work. I don’t. So I’ll reply,  ‘I’m not asking you to say sorry, I’m asking how many times I’ve told you not to leave your towel on the floor?’ And she’ll say, ‘Sorry,’ again, because that’s still how rhetorical questions work, and I’ll reply with, ‘Sorry is not a number! I’m looking for the response, “Somewhere between dozens and hundreds,”‘ because I can be quite a dick and if someone won’t argue with me the way I want to be argued with, I’m not above telling them exactly what to say.

Then there are these wonderful things called hedges, which we slip into sentences where we’re being negative in order to reduce the impact on the other person’s feelings, because most of us don’t actually want to be mean. In spoken language, hedges often take the form of making our statements a little vague – expressions like ‘sort of’, and ‘kind of’, and ‘a bit’. I don’t think either of us use them properly.

You’re meant to say things like, ‘You’re looking sort of unwell, today,’ or, ‘Your work is a tad below what I was expecting.’ The way I use hedges is that when my wife asks me how she looks in a particular outfit, I’ll be honest and reply, ‘You look kind of like a pregnant whale with a thyroid problem.’ And then she’ll say, ‘You’re a bit of an arsehole.’ And I’ll say, ‘You’re a bit of an arsehole, aren’t you?’ confirming that, yes, I am an arsehole.

And lastly, for the people still reading, in spoken English people fill their sentences with crutch words, something I tend to incorporate into my speech and my wife does not. These are, basically, those utterly pointless words that, honestly, aren’t even, actually, effective as intensifiers, but that we use anyway to, like, buy ourselves time to think and, well, can turn into vocal tics if we’re not careful, really. You get the picture.

Given that our biggest problem at the moment is teaching my daughter to say down (‘Nom.’ Down. ‘Nom.’ D-d-d-down. ‘D-d-d-nom.’), these problems may be a way away. But, monosyllabic as she is, we’re already encountering problems with the weirdness of spoken English.

‘Have you finished your dinner?’

‘Yes.’

‘So you don’t want any pudding, do you?’

‘Yes.’

Dammit. ‘Yes, you don’t want pudding?’

‘No.’

My English teacher never taught me how to resolve this impasse!