Ask Mr. Language Person
by Dave Barry
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
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
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
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
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
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?
FIRM UP YOUR BOTTOM
You Can Raise Your Child's IQ
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"
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
RIGHT: "I have photographs of you naked with a squirrel."
GOT A QUESTION FOR MISTER LANGUAGE PERSON? That is not our problem.