Warning: upspeak can wreck your career

A caution to my daughter that’s worth passing on

15 February 2014

9:00 AM

15 February 2014

9:00 AM

A few weeks ago, I accompanied my daughter to an Open Day at Roehampton College, where she is hoping to start a teacher training course in September. I enjoyed it — and was impressed by the broad mix of motivated young men and women who, if all goes well, will soon be teaching the next generation of primary school children.

Towards the end of the afternoon, the co-ordinator said she wanted to offer a few tips about the interview process that would begin once all the applications have been submitted. It turned out she had only one main tip: avoid upspeak.

She stressed the point vigorously. Indeed, her message for twentysomethings like my daughter seemed to be that it’s perfectly acceptable to turn up in torn trousers with safety pins through their noses and carrying cans of extra-strength lager but they must at all costs dispense with what officially is called the high rising terminal (HRT), otherwise known as that modern plague that does its best to kill off the spoken word by turning every statement into a question and ending every sentence with a rising inflection? Just like that, actually.

Alicia Silverstone in 90’s movie Clueless Photo: Paramount/Kobal

Of course, it’s tempting to assume that upspeak is a condition uniquely affecting young people, a phase that will soon pass — like acne or putting up posters of One Direction. In fact, it’s far more serious than that.

Tune into the Today programme and most mornings you’ll hear adult interviewees answering questions with statements packaged as questions. Junior civil servants, council officials and health workers seem particularly susceptible. What’s more, upspeak seems impervious to background, social mobility, money.

Just as frightening is the ever-increasing predilection of grown-ups to break up sentences with redundant fillers such as ‘like,’ ‘whatever’ and that old favourite ‘you know’. So the recounting of a Friday night might come out as: ‘We like thought we’d see that film about slavery and I was like totally not sure I was up for it and so I like asked my boyfriend and he like said, you know, whatever? In the end we like you know stayed in and ordered a pizza?’

There’s a stream of consciousness there — but not a lot of authority. It’s as if the speaker has deliberately adopted a tentative tone, going out of her way to appear flaky while at the same time hoping the person to whom she is speaking will empathise with her and keep the conversation going by also saying something that ends with a statement but which sounds like a question.

While writing this, I have just taken a call from the press office of Visit Orlando. The woman at the other end of the telephone was English, not American, and extremely polite. As I do a lot of travel writing, she wanted to excite me about Orlando. She sounded a little nervous as she told me how the big push this year is to attract families to the Sunshine State and the more hesitant she became the more pronounced was her upspeak.

This makes me think that HRT belongs in the politically correct camp. A rising intonation is a linguistic trick to make the world seem a more inclusive sort of place. You summon up the courage to tell it like it is, expressing a personal — and perhaps even controversial — opinion, but couch it as a question just in case it might cause offence. Keep everyone on side. Don’t alienate your audience. Just bore them rigid instead.

But there’s hope. A survey by a company called Pearson in Australia (a bastion of HRT, due in part to long-running TV shows such as Neighbours and Home and Away) has concluded that upspeak can damage people’s careers. This is because when looking for a job or seeking promotion, upspeakers come across as if always questioning their own judgments, which in turn makes them sound uncertain, tentative, weak.

I would go further. Upspeaking tells the listener that you don’t really believe in yourself or in what you are saying — and that you badly seek approval. Hardly attributes to inspire confidence in a potential employer.

What’s undeniable is that HRT has spread like a virus across the globe. No one knows how to stop it and there is disagreement among experts over how it started in the first place. Some people point a finger at California’s ‘Valley girls’ in the 1980s, while others think it came from New Zealand. It’s also true that some UK dialects, especially mid-Ulster and Belfast, have a lot in common with HRT — but that’s a different issue.

Last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that benefits claimants should be able to speak English if they are to receive government money. I wonder what he means exactly. Making yourself understood is one thing, speaking proper English is another.

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Show comments
  • Emilia

    I think you’re right about there being a PC element to HRT. It seems to be a strange combination of uncertainty (in the speaker’s mind) about what she means and uncertainty as to whether the listener will understand; partly “I’m not very bright, I hope you are getting this” and partly “I’m much brighter than you, are you managing to follow me?”. Yes, I’m sure it is a bad thing to do in interviews, as is the new-ish habit of starting every reply, to anything, with “So …”. That really does make people sound thick; “I’m replying but I have no idea how to insert a remark intelligently into a conversation”.

    • BritishSauce

      Spot on. Could not have put it better myself.

  • Jambo25

    ‘Valley Girl’ by the late Frank Zappa and his daughter ‘Moon Unit’. Absolutely brilliant.

  • Gwangi

    Oh come on – a teacher training course at a London college, not Oxbridge. They tend to accept you if you’re vertical and breathing on such courses, apparently. But, to be honest, it was ever thus (so a few 80 year old former teachers have told me). I do agree with the need to speak and write good standard English, however, but I can’t see how such a course would bother much – I have seen people who speak pidgin English who seemingly can barely string a sentence together on such courses.

    I take it by ‘broad mix’ you mean ethnically diverse? I actually went to one group interview for a teacher training course once (at a London uni in the bottom 5 unis in the UK) – I was the only white face there (except for the interviewers), and almost everyone else was African. I decided there and then that it wasn’t for me. Lots of men want to do these courses (and PGCEs in maths/science) because of juicy bursaries – and also primary schools are one of the very few areas where so-called ‘positive discrimination’ works in favour of men, as all such schools are keen to employ more (as at least a third of them are man-free zones).

    I once had the opportunity to peruse the notes written by teacher trainers on such a course – riddled with errors of all kinds. Don’t became don’t; there became their; whose became who’s etc. Apostrophes were sprinkled like dandruff, seemingly at random, throughout their scribblings. And I hear that English is not the real weakness of primary teachers – it’s maths. Thank goodness I didn’t have a chance to check their sums then…

    • Fergus Pickering

      Don’t overestimate Oxbridge. There are plenty of brainless twats there, I can assure you.

      • Gwangi

        Oh indeed. I was merely comparing its tough (if esoteric) interviewing and selection process with those at teacher training colleges.
        Many of these places (often former polytechnics – or ‘factories producing idiocy’ as Jim Broadbent says in Le Week-end) – will take almost anyone so long as they’re vertical and breathing. They have a particular penchant for ethnic minority teachers and I have seen with my own eyes written work done by those on these courses which, I kid you not, is of primary level itself! And these people will be teaching kids how to read and write (which should be at least partially the job of all teachers, no?)
        They often award places at the last minute if courses are not yet full to those with no GCSEs or A-levels at all (all you need is an easy-peasy foundation year of a degree and what is known as APL – approved prior learning – which can mean a candidate’s claim that going shopping and taking their kids to school shows excellent numeracy, literacy and management skills).
        Having said that, primary level teacher training courses have always been more competitive than secondary – so candidates often have to show they’ve done unpaid experienced in local schools, helping out etc.

  • Dodgy Geezer

    Upspeaking tells the listener that you don’t really believe in yourself or in what you are saying — and that you badly seek approval. Hardly attributes to inspire confidence in a potential employer.

    You are right that the world has moved to a position where pretty much anything that is said needs checking before saying to make sure that it doesn’t offend social norms. (note that I don’t say ‘doesn’t offend ANYONE’, because social norms at the moment make it pretty well obligatory to offend some sections of the population – Christians, for instance, or anyone who believes in free speech).

    Following social norms precisely may not inspire confidence in an employer – but breaking them is likely to result in rapid dismissal. So I’m not at all sure that it’s a good idea to suggest changing speech patterns. Modern culture has us caught in a trap – you’re dammed if you speak out, and dammed if you don’t…

  • alexander

    The modern day verbal cliff between London and Essex is the Stylistic,
    artificial multicultural English of London and the equally artificial
    moronic interrogative high rising Essex terminal as popularized in

    To imitate a speech pattern based on the most vacuous, shallow upper class section of Los Angeles society is indicative of where mainstream culture is at in the UK today with the south east and London at the forefront of soulless globalized corporate consumerism

    • post_x_it

      One might also question the origins of the redundant preposition in “where mainstream culture is at”.

      • alexander

        I’m being ironic by throwing in an americanism