Apologia of a Reformed Grammar Nazi

This semester I took an introduction to linguistics called "The Unity and Diversity of Human Language." It was all interesting and completely new to me, but I didn't find any of the concepts particularly shocking until we started discussing sociolinguistics. I was suddenly informed that, linguistically speaking, there is no such thing as standard English - it is a socioeconomic construct of the elite, and it is therefore improper to place value judgments on different dialects of English because they vary in systematic ways and are all equally linguistically valid. I was profoundly disturbed. I've been a self-proclaimed "grammar nazi" as long as I can remember (thanks in great part to my mother). Suddenly, I discovered that the kind of grammar I'm so particular about has no linguistic basis at all - it's what linguists call "prescriptive grammar" (as opposed to universal grammar), and in terms of the biological basis of human language, there is no reason for it to exist. Rules of prescriptive grammar are the kind you learn in high school English - don't end a sentence with a preposition, don't split the infinitive, use "whom" in the objective case, etc. It turns out that the reason we learn these rules in school is because they're completely unnecessary to our effective communication in English (and by effective communication I mean day-to-day conversations with other speakers). Everything we truly need to know about English comes from the principles and parameters of universal grammar that facilitate our childhood language acquisition - and as far as linguists can tell, there are no parameters involving the usage of whom or split infinitives. Prescriptive grammar is entirely a sociolinguistic phenomenon, a set of language "fads" perpetuated by the dialect of the class in power. I'm not likely to forget all the rules of prescriptive grammar I've so carefully memorized, but you can rest assured that in future I will stop and think before I "correct" your grammar.


Required Reading for Life

This summer, I read a book called You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation by Deborah Tannen. Chances are, if I talked to you around the beginning of July, I told you about it whether you wanted to hear or not. It's one of those books that presents something you have always intuitively known in such a way that you can consciously understand it. We all know about "girl talk" and "guy talk," and most of the time we keep our conversations in the appropriate realms. But we've probably experienced an encounter where we just didn't get the response we expected. Tannen explains this friction as a conflict of what she terms "genderlects."

Her main premise is that men and women have fundamentally different conversational styles and goals, and that ignoring them is more dangerous than acknowledging them. I didn't find her views sexist, since for the most part she avoiding placing value judgments on either style. She claims that women primarily engage in "rapport talk," while men prefer "report talk." My own metaphor for this distinction is horizontal versus vertical conversation. While both genders practice some combination of the two styles, women generally use conversation as a way of establishing bonds with others, while men use it to communicate information and reinforce social status (a sort of verbal one-upsmanship). One manifestation of this difference is in the two genders' handling of what Tannen calls "troubles talk." When men talk about problems, they are seeking solutions; women, on the other hand, are seeking sympathy. Both genders also use their own approaches when problems are brought to them - men offer to solve them, while women try to empathize. These fundamentally different approaches mean that men and women both often end up feeling frustrated with one another because they don't receive the response they expected.

Both these premises only scrape the surface of the content of this fascinating book - I highly encourage you all to read it. It will change the way you view conversations, and may go a long way to helping you understand frustrating situations.


Alternative Giving

For Christmas, my three little cousins are getting chickens. My aunt and uncle are getting a heifer. Don't worry - they fit easily under the tree. This year, my family shopped at our church's alternative gift market, a project of Alternative Gifts International. The church raised about $4000 for various charities represented at the market - not bad for the first year, and the woman who organized it all hopes to make it a Christmas tradition. We purchased livestock through Heifer International, an organization that seeks to end hunger by providing families with sustainable sources of food and income rather than short-term relief. Those chickens and that cow will help families support themselves and hopefully others around them as their animals reproduce.

When my mom told me about the alternative gift market, it seemed like one of the best ideas I've ever heard. It's a new and better answer to the question "what do you get the person who has everything?" - give them the gift of giving. After all, if they already have everything, it's not as though they're going to appreciate a material gift. They just may think an attractive gift card telling them they've provided clean water for a village in Africa, or a medical kit for a doctor in Cambodia, is the best Christmas present ever. And if they don't like it...well, better to give them an unappreciated gift that does some good for the world than one that languishes on the top shelf of their closet forever.

You can order alternative gifts online and either have a gift card for any occasion included or have it mailed to the person in whose honor you're making the gift. Or you can buy yourself a present anytime - nothing feels better than making a difference.


A Call to Arms, or, Why I Hate Victoria's Secret

I've been wanting to write on this subject for a long time. As you may be able to tell from the title, I have some pent-up frustrations with the bra industry. In this case, capitalism and the law of supply and demand are a huge problem because the market is dictating to women what they want, rather than the other way around. What we need is some education about bras. After all, you don't go around with ill-fitting shoes, and a bra is a little more basic than that.

As an illustration of the larger problem, let's consider Victoria's Secret, which many people suppose to be high-end lingerie. One would think they'd know what they're doing. Victoria's got a secret all right - she knows very little about good bra fitting. First of all, the range of sizes the store carries is abysmal: 32A-C and 34-40A-DD. That's about average for most department stores and clothing catalogs (even Walmart carries larger band sizes, and most places have a few DDD cups). A good lingerie store (and by that I mean a real one) should have, in stock, 32-56A-J, and online the range of possible sizes is practically endless (you can find, for example, 28AA or 56L). Right now you're probably thinking "but most people wear normal sizes!" And that's where the market has done such a terrific job of brainwashing us about what a "normal" size is. Because it takes some effort and previous knowledge to find anything outside the standard department store range mentioned above, many women are under the impression that those are the only sizes that exist, and so, if they even realize that they can't find a bra that fits them, they don't know they have other options and so go on with their lives and their ill-fitting undergarments. And because women only buy the sizes stores have to offer, those are the only sizes the stores ever will offer. It's a self-perpetuating problem. That's the reason around 80% (estimates vary, but that's the most oft-quoted figure) of women are walking around wearing the wrong size bra. And hardly anybody knows. Something's wrong with this picture!

Maybe you're thinking "I'm not part of that 80%. My bra fits fine! Why, I even got fitted by a lingerie saleswoman." A word of warning - she might not know any better than you. I speak from experience when I say that saleswomen (even if they wear little nametags that say "fit specialist") will try to convince you that, if you don't fall within the "normal" size range, the flaw is in your body and you'll just have to accept it and buy the closest thing to fitting they can offer you. "Sister sizes" are the mortal enemy of well-fitting bras because they generally increase band size in an effort to find a large enough cup size - the most common fitting error (but we'll come to that later). Also, a real corsetière (i.e. a bra fitter who knows what she's doing), shocking as it may sound, needs to see you wearing a bra before she can tell you if it fits or not. If the whole idea makes you uncomfortable, read on. If you know for yourself how a bra should fit, you won't need help, though you'd be surprised how not-awkward and rewarding a professional bra fitting can be.

This brings us to the most important section of all...how a bra should fit. I've synthesized the following guidelines out of lots of internet research combined with personal experience -- there's a lot of conflicting information out there, but if you look at what shows up the most often you can't go too far wrong. First, let's correct a series of myths about bras.

Myth: Most women wear the correct bra size.
Fact: Around 80% of American women wear ill-fitting bras. Most women who wear the wrong size bra try to compensate for a too-small cup with a too-large band, leading to problems such as inadequate support, back pain, “double bubble” and “back bulge.”

Myth: Bra sizes are standard.
Fact: Not only do bra sizes vary by manufacturer, but no two sets of instructions for determining bra size are alike. While measurements can provide a starting place, the only way to find a correctly fitting bra is trial and error, bearing in mind how a bra ought to fit.

Myth: All cups with the same letter name are the same size.
Fact: Cup sizes are proportional to band sizes. Therefore, the cup of a 34B is smaller than that of a 36B. This is important to remember when trying to correct problems in your bra size. If your band size is too big but your cup size is correct, remember to go up a cup size each time you go down a band size.

Myth: Underwire bras are uncomfortable by nature.
Fact: A properly fitting underwire bra is both supportive and comfortable. It should not poke or leave marks in the skin. The underwire should encompass the breast and rest on hard bone, not soft tissue. The place where the wires meet between the breasts should lie flat against the breastbone, and the wires under your arms should sit far enough back that they don’t lie on soft tissue.

Myth: The straps provide most of the support of a bra.
Fact: The band of a bra should bear most of the weight of the breasts. This is why it is extremely important not to wear a too-large band size. If the band is too loose, more of the weight rests on the bra straps, leading to painful red marks and eventually permanent grooves in the shoulders. A firm, supportive band alleviates strain on the shoulders and leads to less back pain and better posture.

Myth: "Back bulges" are caused by a too-tight band.
Fact: Actually, the opposite is true. If the band is too loose, it tends to ride up too high on the back. The bust line is usually about halfway between the shoulder and the elbow, and the back of a bra should be level with the front. A tight enough band will fit straight and low around the ribcage, where there is less fat to cause unsightly bulges.

Surprised yet? Let's move on to some general guidelines about proper fitting.

The cups: Breasts should fill bra cups, creating a smooth line. A “double bubble” means the cups are too small. On the other hand, if the bra cups are baggy and full of wrinkles, they’re too big.

The band: The bra band should be tight and firm and fit straight across the back, halfway between elbows and shoulders. If you stand sideways to a mirror, you should see that the front of the bra is level with the back.

The underwires: The center gore (the place where the wires meet between the cups) should lie flat against the breastbone. If it pops out, the bra cups are too small. The underwire should lie on bone all the way around the breast. If it cuts into the soft breast tissue, the bra cups are too small.

The straps: Bra straps aren’t meant to support all or even most of the weight of your breasts. If they’re so tight they leave red marks in your shoulders, try a bra with a more supportive band. Otherwise, you can end up with permanent grooves in your shoulders.

The label: The label is the least important part of your bra. Please, don't get hung up on a particular size. All that's important is finding a bra with a comfortable, supportive fit. If you've spent most of your life thinking you wear a 36C and after being properly fitted find you really wear a 32F, rejoice! Our society has an odd double standard about breast size - many women bemoan having small breasts, but are often unwilling to admit that they might be larger than they thought. Don't get hung up on the label. Bra size should be like shoe size - if it fits, it fits, and that's all there is to it.

Now that you know how a bra should fit, chances are you may need to do some shopping. And odds are good that you may not find what you need at the mall. Don't despair! Good-size cities often have specialty lingerie stores with real corsetières. Look for the ones that have been in business for some time, since the more experience, the better. This website provides a list of bra fitting locations in 48 states and 6 Canadian provinces. If you know your size, or don't mind spending a lot of time shipping things back and forth, check out figleaves.com. They have a wide range of bra sizes from many manufacturers, as well as swimsuits in bra sizes (a huge blessing, since if you don't wear a "normal" bra size, chances are you have trouble finding swimsuits as well). There are countless other online shopping sites with a great selection of sizes and styles, but nothing is better than a physical store, as the whole secret of proper bra fitting is trying on bra after bra until you find the magic fit.

Hopefully you've found this information useful and enlightening - please, take it and use it! Share it with all the women in your life. 80% is a huge number, but hopefully if we pass on what we know we can reduce it. My hope is that one of these days, as the knowledge spreads, manufacturers and retailers will catch on and women everywhere will wear properly fitting bras. Now that would be a lovely thing.


I've created this blog for my less personal, more theoretical musings on life. Therefore, it may be updated only infrequently (there's a reason it's called "second thoughts"). If you're looking for my mundane rants and ramblings, you want my livejournal.