Walking the walk = talking the talk

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Lots of good suggestions are turning up for the fugitive word Joanna Carr has requested, about the way people behave on crowded streets. (Keep 'em coming!) In his blog, Jim Fallows proposes "the people of Beijing and Shanghai" for this and talks about the Chinese "walking-style."

I often find myself trying to explain why linguistic fine points -- like using "they" as a singular pronoun -- matter. I don't believe it's just a question of snob appeal. The latest explanatory term I've latched onto is "cultural signifier." It's a bit too ivory-tower for my taste, but I don't know a better one. The idea is that the linguistic fine points we pay attention to -- the accent we have, the vocabulary we use, the knowledge of traditional grammar we exhibit -- say something about us. They hint at both the culture we come from and our place in that culture, and there's no getting away from this.


Fine points of behavior on the street are a cultural signifier too. As Fallows says, they tell you something about a culture and about individuals within that culture. What I like about the analogy with language here is that no one seems to need to have it explained why fine points of street behavior matter. We all notice it, we all judge it, and nobody seems to think it's snobby or pointy-headed to do so.

Maybe instead of invoking "cultural signifiers," I'll start explaining the point of linguistic niceties like this: "You know how you feel when you're out walking and a group of people coming toward you takes up the whole sidewalk?" 


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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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