Don’t Get Me Wrong


I was once sitting in the movie Happy Gilmore. If you have seen this it features Adam Sandler as a fragile tempered wannabe hockey player turned golfer who makes headway into golfing tourneys despite an unorthodox swing. As he is a hockey player, he doesn’t do the traditional static golf swing, but rather dances forward in a crow hop of sorts, winds up the golf club, and takes a huge slapshot.

It’s the quintessential mid-90s Sandler movie. A high volume comedy that was ridiculous, but not I Now Pronounce you Chuck and Larry ridiculous. We happily suspended our disbelief at the door. I can’t say the same for the guy who was sitting behind us who spent the majority of the golfing scenes critiquing and commenting to his date on the main character’s absurd slapshot and slapstick swing. “There’s so much more to golf than just driving, you know,” he said. “This is ridiculous, you can’t drive like that. What about his short game, huh?” He asked the screen.

I didn’t hazard a glance at his date, but I can only hope that he was single less than five minutes after the film’s end.

I couldn’t understand the man’s motivation. Why not simply sit back and enjoy the movie? It’s a movie, we willingly suspend our disbelief so that we don’t spend the whole time asking stupid effing questions and driving people nearby insane with those stupid effing questions. And also, did he think the absurdity of the movie’s details were lost on the rest of us? Did he think we didn’t know that usually a gold swing doesn’t work out like that?

Two things have happened recently. The first happened while watching my all-time favorite sleuth, Lt. Columbo, take down a dastardly chess player who killed a fellow chess player. The dead chess player was from some unnamed Eastern European country and the guy in charge of his security detail manager was no doubt upset that the man he was to protect had ended up in the bottom of a trash compactor in thousands of little pieces. It was during this scene of stress that he erupts in anger, spewing the following(ish) in an accent so “Eastern European” that is was made of borscht.

“Why is it so impossible for you to figure out what’s going on, Lieutenant? How can you be so in the dark about what’s happened? He would never have stolen off into the night on his own. He would have …. (searching for word, asks his colleague) notified one of us.”

And then, between handfuls of popcorn, laid out an argument to invalidate the language being used. “There’s no way he would be using that phrase or that other phrase or that grammar. No way. Figure out. What’s going on. Be in the dark about. What has happened. Steal off into the night. On his own. Never would have. And then ‘notify’ is what trips him up? Nah. Nope.”

Burke kept her thoughts to herself, but I read in the sardonic (and a little sad) look over a handful of popcorn a loud and clear statement: shut up, man, can’t you just enjoy the show?

I could. I did. I set all subsequent notes to mental and quelled my distaste with popcorn.

As a language teacher, I spend a lot of time looking at, working with, and thinking about language. Since I teach English and am a non-native Czech speaker, these are the two languages that mostly occupy my brain’s time. And while I have actively and definitively avoided the ideology of Grammatical Nazism, my pet peeve has become misrepresented non-native English speakers in films and shows.

Everyone would have a guess as to what a non-native speaker of your language might have trouble understanding or using. Big words. Complicated grammatical points. Hard to pronounce words. But there’s a good chance you’d forget about the words and phrases that we use each day without even a moment’s thought. Take off your pants. Change off to any other preposition and it’s a radically different meaning. Take in your pants. Take out your pants. Take away your pants. Each of these phrasal verbs have vastly different meanings. So it’s no wonder that a film or TV director would misrepresent the language difficulties that a non-native speaker of English might have.

Another example from one of my favorite shows of all time. The West Wing was written by probably the greatest living screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin. In one scene, one of the president’s aides played by Rob Lowe is telling his colleagues about a meeting that he had with two aides to the Russian president. One of the meeting’s goals was to reschedule the meeting between the Russian and the American presidents. Lowe comments that the Russian aides spoke “conversational” English, but not “idiomatic” English. We then see the conversation that occurred:

Rob Lowe: Can you pass this along to President Shogurn?

Russian Aide 1: ‘Pass along’? Is this not bad?

Rob Lowe: No, it means give ‘go’. I think you’re confusing it with ‘pass over.’

The two Russian aides speak in Russian for a moment and then thank him for the language lesson.

Rob Lowe: We need to talk about the time of the meeting.

Aide 2: Is not the time OK?

Rob Lowe: It needs to be an hour later.

Aide 1: Why?

Rob Lowe: The president will be getting in too late the night before. Don’t get me wrong, this president can do two shows a night, but you’d be hard pressed to find a person with a worse reaction to jet lag.

The Russian consider the point, agree to it, and then, moving on, hand Rob Lowe a paper with suggested additions to the American president’s speech. Lowe reads it aloud and is surprised when he hits the phrase ‘stem the tide.’ He asks the aides who had written the edits and the first aide claims that he had. At this point, Rob Lowe, because of the trip up with ‘pass along’ and ‘pass by’ knows that someone else besides this aide had written the addition.

So, the Russian aides didn’t understand idiomatic English, but Rob Lowe uses three highly nuanced phrases “don’t get me wrong,” “he can do two shows a night,” and “hard-pressed?” These would almost certainly be understood by high-level English speakers and fall, by the way, directly in the category of “idiomatic” English. The inconsistency has driven me nuts for years.

I have been jokingly toying with a niche company in which I offer editing services for scripts which feature non-native English speakers. Until then, I’ll keep my mouth shut so Burke doesn’t smother me to death with popcorn while I sleep. Maybe I’ll track down that golf guy and we can put together a joint company of language editing and golfing skills.

I’ll be sure to….notify the lot of you once it comes to fruition.

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