Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda

We all have regrets.  Sometimes events don't work out as we wanted them to. When we look back on our failures, we ask, "How could I have made this better?  What should I have done differently?  What would have improved the outcome?"

When we want to change something that is too late to change, we are creating an unreal situation.  For this, we have to use hypothetical grammar.

oops-button-fotolia.jpg

Note in the above sentences, I wrote "could have, should have, would have."  In fast speech, Americans shorten these verb phrases to "coulda, shoulda, woulda."  If you don't believe me, start listening to your native-born co-workers.  They don't say "could...have, should...have" in natural speech.  That would sound slow and robotic.  Slow speech like that is reserved for emphasis, maybe to express anger or impatience.

In order to not sound angry or impatient, you need to learn to combine certain words together.  This week, I recommend you start with verb phrases. In addition to the three above, you can try these:      might have (gone) ---> mighta (gone)      must have (been) ---> musta (been)

The headline of a recent article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune is "Shoulda, coulda, woulda for Vikings after loss to Bears." After losing in the final seconds of their football game, Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier "wishes he had managed the situation better."  Notice the grammar of a regrettable (but unchangeable) event?

"Ohhh! I shoulda sent those files yesterday!"

"Ohhh! I shoulda sent those files yesterday!"

With this headline, the sports reporter emphasizes that whatever could have been done (should have been done, would have been done) is too late.  It sounds like making excuses for poor performance yet one more time.  Therefore, "Coulda, shoulda, woulda" is a way of telling others that excuses are not acceptable; they are responsible for the results.

Ask your American friends or co-workers when they might use "Coulda, shoulda, woulda" in a conversation. And stay tuned for more pronunciation tips to come!

Spelling note:Coulda, woulda, shoulda is mostly for speaking.  An acceptable way to write these words in email is could've, should've, would've.  If you are writing a business letter or technical report, spell them out fully: could have, should have, would have.

Images via fotolia.com

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.

Don’t Sweat It!

"Don’t sweat it!" What does that mean? This expression recently showed up in an article about how to attend your company's picnic.  The writer's advice: don't sweat the details and have a good time.

“Sweat” is an informal word for perspiration—when water comes out of your skin.  This can come from hard work or exercise.  Or it can come from nervousness.

If you are nervous, your American friends may tell you, “Don’t sweat it.”  If they say this, they mean, “Don’t worry; everything will be fine.”  (Note: this is an informal expression that would be too casual to use with your boss, customers, or strangers.)

Supermarket display in the personal care section  (photo: A. Headbloom)

Supermarket display in the personal care section

(photo: A. Headbloom)

This display for men’s antiperspirant uses the word “sweat” in a double meaning.  The company believes its product will reduce how much you perspire.  And they don’t want you to worry about it.

Ask your American friends for examples of when they would say, "Don't sweat it."

(photo: fotolia.com)

(photo: fotolia.com)

New Vocabulary and Pronunciationsweat = informal for perspiration [rhymes with "wet"] deodorant = a scent applied to the underarms (and sometimes elsewhere) to cover the odor of bacteria that naturally form in moist places anti-perspirant = personal hygiene material applied to the underarm to block pores from perspiring (and therefore reduce underarm moisture); may be scented or unscented Don't sweat the small stuff. = Don't worry about little things; keep focused on big-picture, high-priority issues. (A book with this title was published many years ago.)

(source: fotolia.com)

(source: fotolia.com)

Cultural Note The American belief in privacy goes beyond individual space and property. U.S. Americans also prefer that others keep sounds and smells to themselves.  Don't let your music invade my space, that is, turn down your radio!  And control your emissions of odors, that is, I don't want to take in your human smells!  This includes bad breath, body odor (also called "B.O.") from the underarms, foot odor, and others. Note how much shelf space is given to personal hygiene products in American supermarkets and pharmacies. 

If you don't shower daily and use masking scents, powders, or sprays, your co-workers may complain about you to the human resources officer, creating an awkward conversation for both of you.  Bottom line: if you work with Americans, I recommend you adapt your hygiene habits, unless you want to eat alone in the cafeteria!

Just "Your" Typical Worker?

"Your"? Does that belong to ME? In an article for Inc. Magazine, Steve Tobak was writing about personal styles in the workplace and used the following sentence:

Melissa's your average, everyday worker.

Non-native readers may be asking, "Why 'your'? She doesn't belong to me!"

In fact, Tobak would have been perfectly fine to write about "a" typical worker. But he didn't.  Why not? This is actually a common way of speaking in American English.

The following is an explanation taken from a clever colleague, journalist Lisa McLendon:

Who, me?

Who, me?

This is a casual expression. Even though it's fine to say "an" average worker, the word "your" indicates a less-formal sentence. It translates as "what you would consider an average, everyday worker" (where "you" means "one" or "a person in general"). This would be found more in speech than writing. In professional writing, it would be "an."

An example: In a news story about a new restaurant, the owner tells the reporter, "We didn't want to be your typical sports bar." If the reporter uses the quote directly, there is no change.  However, if the reporter paraphrases the owner, the article would say, "The owner said he didn't want Bases to be a typical sports bar."

An equally clever colleague, linguist Matthew Kushinka pointed out that "your" in such expressions is always paired with ordinary words: usual, average, typical, run-of-the-mill, regular, basic. • They're nothing special, just your basic printing company. • You didn't miss anything.  It was your typical weekly staff meeting. • You'll like working with Teresa.  She's not your run-of-the-mill intern. In such expressions, "your" is never paired with extraordinary adjectives.  You never see "He's (not) your fantastic employee."

Today's tip for second-language speakers: If you hear "your," it may not be all about you!

image: Fotolia.com

Cultural footnote: The now-discontinued line of GM cars, the Oldsmobile, tried to revive its image as a boring, conservative car by coming up with a new marketing line: "This is not your father's Oldsmobile." General Motors wanted to say, "This is not a typical old person's car."  The advertising backfired, and now this line of GM cars is extinct.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.

What's the Difference between an Expression, an Idiom, and a Saying?

Last week, I shared with my students an explanation of the expression, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”  It gives the advice to choose a guaranteed (or certain) opportunity, rather than wait for a bigger opportunity which may or may not come. I learned later that the expression in Polish is “A sparrow in the hand is worth a canary on the roof.”  In Flemish, people say, “One bird in the hand is worth ten in the air.”  It's great to see commonality in the expressions of wisdom across the globe! My explanation about the birds made a colleague ask about the difference between a saying and an expression.  Technically, she is right to ask.  Generally, an expression is any group of words commonly used together.  A single word is just called a (vocabulary) word. While there are many, many expressions in English, we can think of them as three distinct categories: expressions, idioms, and sayings.

source: Flickr

source: Flickr

birds in the bush

1. An expression is a general cluster of words like "don't know which end is up."  This means to be disoriented or confused.  Example: My cousin Julie is so busy, she doesn’t know which end is up.

2. An idiom is a colorful expression like "raining cats and dogs" (which means raining very hard).  Another idiom is "doing something by the seat of your pants" (which means doing something as you go along, without prior plan).  Example: This process is new for everyone on the team; we’re doing it by the seat of our pants this first time.  The meanings of these idioms have nothing to do with pants or house pets, but they give us interesting ways to express ourselves.

3. A saying (also called a proverb, maxim, or adage) is a piece of wisdom from one’s culture.  Our earlier example (a bird in the hand) is a piece of advice for people trying to choose between two options.  From Chinese culture, I have always liked the proverb, “A journey of 1000 miles begins with the first step.”  This advises us to not be afraid of big undertakings.

How would you categorize the following expressions: saying, idiom, or general expression?

1. What!?  Bob is the new district manager!?  Are you pulling my leg? 2. A stitch in time saves nine. 3. My teacher friends are burned out at the end of the school year. 4. I never watch NASCAR racing, but my neighbor loves it.  To each his own, I guess. 5. Julio is new in the department, so Monica is taking time to show him the ropes. 6. Never judge a book by its cover. 7. The presentation was so amazing that it knocked our socks off. 8. Our group came up with some great new ideas. 9. The early bird catches the worm. 10. My officemate is just nuts about the Detroit Tigers.

ANSWERS

Sayings: 2. A stitch in time saves nine.  (If you take care of maintenance issues early, you avoid big problems later.) 6. Never judge a book by its cover.  (A person or thing may have qualities that you cannot see on the surface.) 9. The early bird catches the worm.  (If you show up late, the opportunity may be gone.)

Idioms: 1. to pull someone’s leg (to kid or tease someone, to make up information) 5. to show someone the ropes (to give someone orientation training) 7. to knock our socks off (to impress us)

Expressions: 3. to be burned out (to have no more energy left) 4. to each his own (Every person has different tastes and preferences.) 8. to come up with (to create or think up something new) 10. to be nuts about (to be enthusiastic about or in love with)

Many people are familiar with the Golden Rule.  This is a proverb (saying) that advises us to “Treat others as we would have them treat us.”  Recently, I learned an interculturally improved variation called the Platinum Rule: “Treat others as they would like to be treated.”

Do you have a favorite saying or proverb?

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.

Prima Donnas, Jerks, and Other Bad Apples at the Office

In a recent article called "Why it's so Hard to Deal With Office Jerks,"Stephen Balzac talks about why we tolerate bad behavior among our co-workers, even when they are really unpleasant people. His final suggestion is to fire these "bad apples" before they destroy the whole office. From the analogy with rotting fruit, Balzac is referring to an old saying in English: One bad apple can spoil the whole barrel.

Balzac gives good reasons for getting rid of such poisonous workers, even though they are often the most productive workers on the team.  His business advice is sound, but a big attraction is his use of many terrific slang expressions for the office.  Below are explanations of the tricky vocabulary he uses.  After reading the list, check out the article via the link above.

Sometimes the really productive workers are the biggest jerks.

Sometimes the really productive workers are the biggest jerks.

I have highlighted the top ten most useful expressions for you to know.

Vocabulary and Cultural Concepts

palpable = able to be felt

sidelong glances = short looks to the side

set Jim off = made Jim angry

set Jim off he did = This word order is for emphasis. It means: Making Jim angry is what he did.

laced into = attacked, strongly criticized

in no uncertain terms = very clearly, without any doubt

top player = best performer

cut him some slack = be flexible with him, don’t monitor him so tightly

lest = so it won’t happen that

not go there = avoid it, don’t talk about that topic

drag on = continue for too long

get on with = get along with, have a good relationship with

bad apples = people with rotten personalities (like spoiled fruit)

No one approached... = Nobody was even close to (his level).

egregious = horrible, offensive, obviously bad

contagious = spreading, infectious

bite back = criticize in return, attack back

pick on = criticize, be unkind to

edgy = nervous, on edge, uncomfortable

irritable = grumpy, in a bad mood

jerk = person with bad or rude behavior

spiral = increase, continue going

pretty much everyone = almost everyone

thrive = grow, prosper, succeed

After all, = Here’s a logical reason for this.

take = tolerate

obnoxiousness = being really unpleasant or rude

or whatever = or other bad traits

ambiance = atmosphere, environment

take his pick = have a choice of whatever he wants

all the while = the whole time, during

disengage = disconnect, retreat, pull away

mushy = soft, (about fruit/vegetables) over-ripe

this apple is pretty mushy = this guy is pretty bad (We expect apples to be crisp, not soft.)

skyrocket = to increase dramatically, to shoot upward

refrains I often hear = repeated stories that I often hear

inevitable = unavoidable, inescapable, destined to happen

What took you so long? = Why didn’t you do this sooner?

Stephen Balzac is a writer on leadership and organizational development. Contact him at  steve@7stepsahead.com.

Boston Marathon Bombing: Two Dozen Vocabulary and Cultural Concepts

As the world follows the developing news of the police hunt for the men who triggered two bombs at Monday’s Boston Marathon, a number of expressions have been used in the media.  This list is meant to help you understand the breaking reports.

BAA logo

1. IED (improvised explosive device) = home-made bomb used in other ways than traditional military applications

pressure cooker (source: beprepared.com)

pressure cooker (source: beprepared.com)

2. shrapnel = pieces of metal which fly out from an explosion

3. pressure cooker = a metal pot that seals completely shut and cooks food by pressure heat

4. amputation = cutting off a body part (usually an arm or leg)

5. tourniquet = a cloth or other material used to temporarily stop blood flow of an injury and prevent blood loss

6. a suspect = someone the police believe took part in a crime

7. a person of interest = a person the police want to talk to about a crime (not necessarily a suspect)

8. police hotline = a direct, toll-free number to call to give information to the police (in this case, the number was 800-CALL-FBI)

9. Chechnya = southwestern region of Russia populated by 1 million ethnic Chechen people who are culturally Muslim and seeking to separate from Russia

10. Kyrgyzstan = former state of the USSR in central Asia, west of China and south of Kazakhstan (where the two suspects were born)

11. radicalized = made radical; influenced to have extreme political or religious beliefs

Boston, Massachusetts (source: Wikipedia)

Boston, Massachusetts (source: Wikipedia)

12. sleeper cell = a non-active unit of  a secret organization, waiting to be called into action by remote leadership

13. lone wolves = people acting on their own, without connection to a wider organization

14. SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team = law enforcement unit using light military-style weapons and specialized tactics

15. K-9 unit = a police unit that uses dogs for their attack skills and their smelling skills.  The name “canine” (the scientific Latin word for “dog”) is pronounced K-9.

16. a booby trap = bomb which is wired to explode when someone enters the space

17. a trip wire = a wire which causes a bomb to explode when it is (unknowingly) pulled

18. a man-hunt = when police are actively searching for someone

Boston skyline (source: Wikipedia)

Boston skyline (source: Wikipedia)

19. a car-jacking = taking over a vehicle by force (sometimes taking the driver along)

20. to bail out = to leave suddenly, to abandon

21. a shoot-out = a gun fight

22. on lock-down = a situation where police restrict movement of citizens for their own safety

23. to shelter in place = to stay where you are, to not go out because of safety concerns

24. to evacuate = to remove people from a dangerous area

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.

Stay tuned? What Does That Mean?

A student asked me about an email he’d received this week.  His co-worker had signed off with “Stay tuned.”  This was new to him.

1959 radio with tuning knobs (source: Wikipedia)

1959 radio with tuning knobs (source: Wikipedia)

In general, the word tuning means “adjusting.”  When a piano doesn’t play accurately, we call a piano tuner to adjust the strings.  If a business project isn’t exactly the way we want it, we say it needs some small changes or fine-tuning.

The expression in my student’s email is related to televisions and (before that) to radios.  To find the station you want to listen to, you have to tune in by turning the tuning knob to the right location.  Once you’re tuned in to one station, the broadcaster wants to keep you there, so you will hear all of their programming--and their commercials!

Just before a commercial, the announcer would say, “Stay tuned” (or “Don’t touch that dial”).  We’ll be right back after this message.”

The meaning in the email is, “I’ll get back to you soon with more information.”  It’s an informal expression you can use in both email and in conversations.  Try it out!

______________________________________ Note: When I was writing to a friend about my new television show called Feel Like You Belong, I closed my email with “Stay tuned.”  I intended this as a double meaning.  First, I meant to say that there would be more information coming soon.  But also, I chose these words because they are originally a broadcasting expression.  ☺

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.

Embracing Triplets: How We Sometimes Repeat Ourselves

An old American joke goes like this.

A tourist on the streets of New York asks a resident, “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”  The New Yorker replies, “Practice, practice, practice.”

Carnegie Hall stage (source: Wikipedia)

Carnegie Hall stage (source: Wikipedia)

This joke is only funny if you understand the double meaning of “get to” in the opening question.  The tourist’s meaning is concerned with finding the location of Carnegie Hall, a famous venue for concerts.  The New Yorker’s meaning of “get to” is “be invited to.”  Of course, only the best musicians can play there, so it will take lots of practice to “get there.”

The line, “Practice, practice, practice” is famous in American culture, and you might hear it being adapted to other situations. 

Besides English, I know many languages use repetition as a colorful way of emphasizing an idea.  In the West African language of Hausa, the word kaɗun means “little."  To say “very little,” Hausa speakers say kaɗun-kaɗun.  In one aboriginal language of Australia, the word binji means “stomach.”  Binji-binji is the expression for “pregnant.”

Real estate yard sign (source: Prudential Realty)

Real estate yard sign (source: Prudential Realty)

What is interesting for me is the use of the triple form to emphasize an English speaker’s point of view.  If you ask a real estate agent the most important aspects of a piece of property for sale, the famous response is “Location, location, location.”  In other words, the top three selling features all involve where the property is located.

Triplets in English can also be used for complaining.  “Work, work, work!” someone might grumble to a friend.  “Don’t you ever take time to have fun?”  More examples are given below.

TRIPLETS FOR EMPHASIS: Meaning

Go, go, go!: To encourage people to go/run faster (sports)

Yes, yes, yes! / No, no, no! Strong affirmation (or negation)

Ho, ho, ho.: How Santa Claus laughs

Jobs, jobs, jobs.: Interviewee on radio re: needs in this economy

La, la, la. [with fingers in ears]: I’m not listening to you.

Surprise, surprise, surprise!: In famous military sitcom, Gomer Pyle gets a visit from his cousin

Location, location, location.: The top three considerations when buying real estate

Practice, practice, practice.: The answer when a NYC tourist asks, “How can I get to Carnegie Hall?”

Penny, Penny, Penny!: A neurotic physicist tries to get his neighbor’s attention

(source: Wikipedia)

(source: Wikipedia)

COMPLAINING TRIPLETS (spoken by...)

"Work, work, work! That’s all I do around here!" (tired person)

"Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!" (frustrated younger sister)

"Sports, sports, sports! Is that all you watch on TV?" (frustrated wife or girlfriend)

"Bitch, bitch, bitch." (someone tired of another’s complaining)

BLASé TRIPLETS (lack of enthusiasm) (meaning)

Yeah, yeah, yeah. (Curtly spoken: Okay, I got it. Now I gotta get out of here.)

Yadda, yadda, yadda. (And so on and so forth.)

Blah, blah, blah. (Ongoing talking. Meaningless chatter. This is tiresome. Et cetera. And so on.)

Please write to share other examples you can think of.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.

What Do Americans Mean By TGIF?

On Fridays you may hear co-workers or classmates say “TGIF!” This is a common acknowledgment that the end of the work week or school week is here, and the weekend is ready to begin. As you are learning, Americans are very fond of acronyms and abbreviations.  In this case, TGIF stands for “Thank God It's Friday.”

TGIF

If you want to start using this expression at your school or workplace, there are three things you should know about saying it correctly.

First, it’s pronounced /tidʒiyai'ɛf/, with stress on the final letter.

Next, there is no –s at the end of “Thank” because it is a verb, not a noun.  You are probably familiar with the noun form “Many thanks!”  The meaning of TGIF is sort of like “I thank God” or “We thank God (that it’s the weekend).”

Also, the word “it’s” is a contraction for “it is.”  Many of my Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking friends try to say “is” because in their language, the word “it” is optional.  In English, “it” is grammatically required.

Getting over the hump: Quitting time on Wednesday is 3/5 of the way to the weekend!

Getting over the hump: Quitting time on Wednesday is 3/5 of the way to the weekend!

Finally, let me make a cultural observation.  Some people are not accustomed to using religious language.  If so, you can substitute “Goodness” for “God” in similar expressions.  For example:   • Thank goodness my paycheck came today!  I’m traveling tomorrow and my bank account was at zero.   • I left my apartment key in my room.  Thank goodness my roommate was there when I got back home. By the way, did you know that some Americans call Wednesday “hump day”?  A hump is a small hill.  If you see the week as an obstacle to arriving at the weekend, then you are happy when Wednesday is done and you are more than halfway through the week.

Have a great weekend, everybody!

One restaurant chain knows people like to celebrate after work.

One restaurant chain knows people like to celebrate after work.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.