Brian Shute, Ph.D., CCC
Speech-Language Pathologist
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On Upbeat and Downbeat Words
Article By: Brian Shute, Ph.D., CCC

Originally published in Kids: For Moms and Dads, May 2008.

When kids and adults think of speech-language therapy, they often think of it as working on the sounds that form the words we say. Certainly this is true, but speech is a lot more than just the articulation of sounds that stream from our mouths. Speech communication is a two-way street, an intricate system that includes deciphering elements of meaning, understanding, word finding and vocabulary, sentence formulation, and speech processing. The reasons why we speak to each other are important too. Along these same lines, speech includes the way we present ourselves during the process. Things like facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, presentation speed, and word selection are crucial facets of our speech.

In speech-language classes, we sometimes talk about word choice and the importance of being upbeat in our words and conversations. It's easy to select words that are negative over ones that are positive and most people don't give it much consideration. Have you ever spoken to someone who left you feeling depressed because of their word choice? Words that are upbeat give listeners a feeling of contentment and ease. They have a calming effect and brighten conversations. Importantly, they offer some of the building blocks to leadership, making friends, and effective communication. On the other hand, words that are downbeat create negativity and dampen the conversational mood. They can be offensive and often restrict the message and distract from the communication process. They leave listeners with a bad feeling. Interestingly, both upbeat and downbeat words are conversationally contagious.

A third category of words termed, neutral are neither upbeat nor downbeat. They serve as nondescript nouns, verbs, and articles. Typically, neutral words carry no implications or connotations, and lack linguistic color and zest. Words such as home, walk, plant, of, and, the are examples of neutral words. Importantly, neutral words can be converted into upbeat ones with a little skill. Consider the following changes: Castle/home, Mosey/walk, Greenery/plant. There is not a lot that can be done with connector words like, The, And, Of, and Is. But that's alright...articles or connector words have no content, and they make up only a small part of our language.

Moms and dads can try this fun activity that increases awareness of upbeat, downbeat, and neutral words, sentences, and ideas in our conversations. After explaining the difference between the three word categories have your child identify which are which in examples that you give. Start with individual words like, Happy, Smelly, Boring, Street, Exciting, Ugly, Colorful, and Cruddy. Then try sentences like, I really like that artwork or What stinks in here? or This tastes really good. Ask your child if the word or sentence is upbeat positive, downbeat negative, or free wheeling neutral. Talk about how each of you determined which words or sentences were which. You can also make up fictitious words and determine the feelings they exude, like, Superlicious or Ginormous or Crudola. Make up your own sentences and have fun. Try experimenting with ways you can re-word an idea using all upbeat words and sentences. With a little practice, you'll be surprised at how fast children tune into the difference. You will also be amazed at how easy it is to replace downbeat words with upbeat ones.


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