Mr. Language Person: Weird word problems


(This classic Dave Barry column was originally published Dec. 21, 1997.)

Once again, our glands are swollen with pride as we present ''Ask Mister Language Person,'' the column that answers your common questions about grammar, punctuation and sheep diseases. Mister Language Person is the only authority who has been formally recognized by the American Association of English Teachers On Medication. (''Hey!'' were their exact words. ''It's YOU!'')

So, without farther adieu, let us turn to our first question, which comes from a reader who has just returned from a trip to England.

Q. I have just returned from a trip to England, and ...

A. We know that. Get to the point! You're wasting space!

Q. OK, sorry. Anyway, I have just returned from a trip to England, and I noticed that the English put an extra ''u'' in certain words, such as ''rumour,'' ''humour'' and ''The Roulling Stounes.'' Also, they call some things by totally different names, such as ''lift'' when they mean ''elevator,'' ''bonnet'' when they mean ''lorry,'' and ''twit'' when they mean ''former Vice President Quayle.'' My question is, don't they have any dentists over there?

A. Apparently nout.

Q. Please explain the correct usage of the word ''neither.''

A. Grammatically, ''neither'' is used to begin sentences with compound subjects that are closely related and wear at least a size 24, as in: ''Neither Esther nor Bernice have passed up many Ding Dongs, if you catch my drift.'' It may also be used at the end of a carnivorous injunction, as in: ''And don't touch them weasels, neither.''

Q. My husband and I recently received a note containing this sentence: "Give us the money, or you seen the last of you're child." I say that the correct wording should be "you have done seen the last of you're child, " but my husband, Warren, insists it should be "you have been done seeing the last of you're child." This has become a real bone of contention, to the point where Warren refuses to come out of the utility shed. What do you think?

A. We think that an excellent name for a band would be: "The Bones of Contention."

Q. I have noticed that newspapers often state that they have obtained information from ''informed sources.'' Who are these sources?

A. We cannot tell you.

Q. Why not?

A. Because the Evil Wizard will turn them back into snakes.

Q. As an employee of the Internal Revenue Service, I have been tasked with the paradigm of making our income-tax forms more ''user friendly'' for the average American citizen, who, according to our research, has the IQ of a sugar beet. I am currently working on this sentence from the Form 1040 instructions: ''A taxpayer who dies prior to the fourth trimester of the previous non-exempt year must, within 10 fiscal days of kicking the bucket, file Form 94-82348-RIP, which has not been available since the Eisenhower administration.'' How can I make this sentence less confusing?

A. According to the Association of Professional Tax Professionals, a much clearer wording would be:

'' ... which has not been available since the Eisenhower administration (1952-60).''

Q. When should I say ''phenomena,'' and when should I say ''phenomenon''?

A. ''Phenomena'' is what grammarians refer to as a ''subcutaneous invective,'' which is a word used to describe skin disorders, as in ''Bob has a weird phenomena on his neck shaped like Ted Koppel.'' Whereas ''phenomenon'' is used to describe a backup singer in the 1957 musical group ``Duane Furlong and the Phenomenons.''

Q. What was their big hit?

A. ``You Are the Carburetor of My Heart.''

Q. What is the most fascinating newspaper photograph caption you have ever seen?

A. That would be the caption to a 1994 photograph from the Billings, Mont., Gazette, sent in by alert reader David Martin. The photo, which accompanies a very serious story on efforts to end the civil war in Angola, shows some bikini-clad women on a beach, looking at a man who is holding a monkey. The caption states, in its entirety: ``An Angolan carries his pet monkey Sunday on a beach in Angola as leaders of the country sign a new peace agreement.''

Q. Can you please reprint the top two headlines from the cover of the October 1996 issue of Reader's Digest?

A. Certainly:



Q. In Publication No. 51 of the U.S. Postal Service, which was sent in by alert reader Oljan Repic, how is the term ''Special Handling'' defined?

A. It is defined as ``a service that is optional except when mailing honeybees to Canada.''

TODAY'S BUSINESS WRITING TIP: In writing proposals to prospective clients, be sure to clearly state the benefits they will receive:

WRONG: ''I sincerely believe that it is to your advantage to accept this proposal.''

RIGHT: ''I have photographs of you naked with a squirrel.''


© Dave Barry

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