(This Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, April 9, 1989.
Today we are pleased to present another episode of the highly popular feature "Ask Mister Language Person." We were prompted to do this by the unprecedented volume of mail we recently received from Ted Brown of Austin, Texas, who wrote us a letter stating that he and his wife are studying the Japanese horticultural art of "bonsai." Mr. Brown raises a linguistic question that we are sure has been nagging at many of our readers:
"I have learned, " he writes, "that 'bonsai' means 'tree in a tray.' My question is, why did the Japanese soldiers of yesterday shout 'Bonsai!' ('Tree in a tray!') when they attacked? I want to know before we get in too deep."
Mr. Brown, very frankly there have been times when we have asked ourselves whether being an internationally respected language authority is really worth all the effort we put into it. But just when we're about to give up, along comes a thought- provoking letter such as yours, clearly demonstrating the caliber of our readership, and we are reminded, once again, why we had a security system installed in our home.
But to answer your question: The Japanese soldiers, except for the members of the much-feared 157th Tactical Shrubbery Division, did not, in fact, yell "Bonsai!" What they yelled was "Banzai!" which means: "There is a cheese in my clarinet!" Is everything clear now, Mr. Brown? Just nod your head. Good! Now get some rest.
Now that we've straightened that out, let's address some other common grammatical questions that many of you readers would probably have written to us about if you were allowed to possess sharp objects:
Dear Mr. Language Person: Please explain the correct usage of the phrase "real good success."
A. It is used in sports broadcasting to connote that somebody has had an unusual amount of good success, and it should always be followed by the phrase "Boy I'll say." For example:
ANNOUNCER: This Gomez has had real good success hitting the ball.
COLOR PERSON: Boy I'll say.
Dear Mr. Language Person: I've been having a debate with my friend Bob over the use of "further" vs. "farther." I say the two words have come to mean pretty much the same thing, but Bob insists that "farther" may be used only in reference to linear distance. I'm going to kill him with a wrench.
A. We know what you mean.
Dear Mr. Language Person: Please explain the difference between "lay" and "lie."
A. The key to using these similar-sounding words, or "hormones, " correctly is to understand that "lay" is a transient verb whose past particle is "laden" or sometimes "loan" (as in "Loan me some of them Doritos"); whereas "lie" may be used either as an article of injunction ("That's a lie!") or in a marsupial phrase ("I told you kids never to lie kangaroo parts on the ottoman!"). The easy way to remember all this is to simply memorize the phrase: "Nan Found Grubs in the Veg-O- Matic."
Dear Mr. Language Person: What does "per se" mean?
A. "Per se" is a phrase that was invented by the ancient Latins to express the concept "If you catch my drift, " as in: "Unfortunately your blind date is not exactly Kevin Costner per se."
Dear Mr. Language Person: Recently the company where I work received the following letter: "A bomb has been placed on one of you're airplanes." My supervisor says this is correct, but I think the proper punctuation is: "A bomb has been placed, on one of you're airplanes." We have been arguing about this for days and are dying to know whom is correct.
A. Neither of you are. The correct version is: "A bomb has been placed IN one of you're airplanes."
Dear Mr. Language Person: Which is preferable: "The Rev. Swaggart was real fond of this here pose, " or "The Rev. Swaggart was real fond of this pose here."
A. They are both preferable.
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TODAY'S TIP FOR FICTION WRITERS: A good way to "liven up" the plot of a novel is to give the characters some romantic interest.
WRONG: Doreen entered the room.
RIGHT: Doreen entered the room and had sex with Roger.
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YOU GOT A GRAMMAR QUESTION? Write to Mr. Language Person, c/o The Miami Herald, 33132, being sure to include the phrase "with regards to the aforementioned."