Mr. Language Person: Idiot's Guide to Englesh


(This classic Dave Barry column was originally published June 8, 2003.)

It is time once again for Ask Mister Language Person, the column that provides you with the grammar, punctuation and vocabulary skills you need to verbally crush your opponents like seedless grapes under a hammer.

Today's first language question comes from author Joyce Carol Oates, who writes to ask:

Q. At restaurants, I often order the soup du jour. My question is, what is ``jour''?

A. It is a French word meaning ``bat spleens.''

Q. Speaking of restaurants, can you give an example of pretentious menu language?

A. Yes. We were dining recently with Mrs. Language Person at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Fla., and the menu listed the following item, which we are not making up: ''Chef's Daily Inspiration of Soup.'' When the waiter came around, we asked him: ''What is the Chef's Daily Inspiration of Soup?'' And he answered, quote: ``It's the soup of the day.''

Q. I have a question about the correct pronunciation of the word ''aunt.'' I say it's pronounced ''aunt,'' but my husband insists that it's ''aunt.'' Who is right? We argue about this all the time! Also I'm pretty sure he's sleeping with his secretary.

A. According to the American Association of English Professors of English, the correct pronunciation is ``nuclear.''

Q. Like many people, I am troubled by the part of ''Humpty Dumpty'' that goes: ''All the king's horses and all the king's men, couldn't put Humpty together again.'' Why does it mention horses? Does anybody seriously believe that if a bunch of horses saw a giant egg broken into pieces, their response would be: ''Hey! Let's try to reassemble this!''? Also, in ''Cinderella,'' are we really supposed to believe that the prince -- this guy who danced with Cinderella all night and wants to MARRY her -- believes that the only way he can recognize her is to make her TRY ON A SHOE? As if a shoe is some kind of medieval DNA sample? So if Cinderella's foot swells up, the prince is going to say: ``Well, you LOOK exactly like the woman I love, but the shoe never lies!''

A. You have given this a lot of thought.

Q. At least once a day, my phone rings, and I answer it, and the person on the other end -- the person who called ME -- starts the conversation by asking: ''Who is this?'' Is that rude?

A. It most certainly is, because this person is committing the grammatical ''faux pas'' (literally, ''bat spleen'') of using a pre-emptive connubial pronoun in an infricative phrase. The proper wording is: ''Whom is this?'' Or, more formally: ``Just exactly whom the heck is this to whom I am speaking to?''

Q. I would like to use the word ''synergy'' more often. What does it mean?

A. ''Synergy'' is one of the key words used by business professionals to indicate that they have no clue as to what business they are actually in. (''The Harbingle Organization: A Paradigm of Synergy'')

Q. Is it time now for examples of actual language usage sent in by alert readers?

A. Yes.

--Veronica Peterson sent a newspaper ad for a Watertown, N.Y., dental clinic offering ``Personalized Dentures.''

--Bob Emerick sent an ad for a fundraising dinner in Tampa, Fla., with this headline: ``Shaquille O'Neal Attacks Literacy.''

--Ed Lacy reports that he saw a sign in the men's room of an Office Depot that said: ''EMPLOYEES MUST WASH YOUR HANDS.'' (Ed writes: ''I waited 15 minutes for someone to wash my hands.'' )

--Susan Tudor sent an article from the Anderson, Ind., Herald Bulletin, headlined: ``MINORITIES IN SHORT SUPPLY.''

--John Noren sent an informational document from the Internal Revenue Service containing this statement: ``The definition of a child living at home is a child who lives at home.''

--Bill Belt sent a letter that his elderly mother received from BlueCross BlueShield that begins with this cheerful and personal salutation: ``Dear Catastrophic Member:''

--K. Houser sent an article on shark attacks from USA Today, quoting a shark expert as follows: ``To have shark attacks, you have to have people together with sharks in the water.''

Q. You need BOTH?

A. Yes. To create synergy.

(c) Dave Barry

This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Electronic or print reproduction, adaptation, or distribution without permission is prohibited. Ordinary links to this column at may be posted or distributed without written permission.

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