Moretti: What’s wrong with right?

“Right” with an upward inflection has slowly invaded the Ivy League idiom. If you listen for it, you will quickly find the new crutch-word ending many spoken sentences. You will also discover it interrupting and, inexplicably, beginning sentences. A professor I had in the fall sometimes asked us, “Right?” before telling us what he wanted verified. Flagrant solecisms like these are normally brow-raisers even to mouth-breathing YouTubers in back rows. All brows, however, have stayed down, and instead people have been incorporating this tick into their own parlance, as though it were only politically correct to do so.

It is an intellectual epidemic, and the bug afflicts young intellectuals almost exclusively. In his recent “Person of the Year” interview with Time, Mark Zuckerberg used “right” in this troublesome way 11 times in 10 minutes. By contrast, his interviewer, Richard Stengel (age 55), never used it once like that. Perhaps this suggests that the tendency to change speaking style, like the ability to learn a new language, wanes with age. In any case, if you have not noticed the prevalence of “right?” yourself, you should stop skipping section.

What makes the “right” bug so contagious? Like any verbal crutch, uttering “right” affords a brief pause useful for finding the right word or refocusing the mind. But this alone cannot explain the limits on the infected pool nor the swiftness of the spread. It must give an additional bonus to the user, perhaps one that is two-fold: one that both exploits the audience’s insecurity and boosts a speaker’s projected confidence.

First, it rattles the audience. If I were speaking to you, you should be digesting my opinion while simultaneously generating your own. If I were to suddenly insert a “right?” into my speech, ostensibly your opinion would be abruptly solicited … right? This demand (more urgent in face-to-face conversation) could unnerve any listener who suffers from a smidgeon of intellectual insecurity. This is advantage number one: it effects a small infringement on the listener’s freedom from having to give his or her opinion.

While appreciable, this infringement is only slight because the listener is not really being asked to give his opinion. Herein lies advantage number two. After a speaker drops a “right?” on his listeners, he usually goes right on talking. He does not pause to hear an answer. A speaker who asks “right?” and then offers no time to respond must not care whether his crowd thinks he’s right or not. The conveyed indifference reads as confidence. In other words, the subtext of this usage is: “Even though I just asked you whether I’m right, there is no need for you to answer, since it goes without saying that I am correct.”

This makes the bug attractive, and therefore interesting. While its siblings “like” and “um” patently worsen speech, “right” seems to improve it. More evidence: a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a YouTube video of a college parliamentary debate. The video’s description and comments lauded the first speaker for his oratorical flair. The praised man, a rotund Asian gentleman, arose and, gripping the sides of the podium before him, began to make his case. During his impassioned but mediocre discourse, he followed every fifth word or so with a fat, ruinous “right?” Despite this — or perhaps because of it — his online audience loved him.

Sixty years ago, George Orwell wrote, “A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.” Although he was taking aim at writers, his saying bears more harshly on orators, whose real-timeness makes crutch-words utile and cannot fluster the tucked-away typer. One must always be on guard against these catchy habits of speech. After all, what else could the use of a verbal crutch signify other than a limping tongue?

Marcus Moretti is a sophomore in Berkeley College.