Perfecting the language

October 25, 1998|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight Ridder/Tribune

At this juncture in the time parameter we once again proudly present "Ask Mister Language Person," the No. 1-rated language column in the United States according to a recent J.D. Power and Associates survey of consumers with imaginary steel plates in their heads.

Q. I often hear people use the word "irregardless," as in: "Irregardless of what you may or may not think, moths are capable of remorse." So finally I decided to look "irregardless" up in the dictionary, but I can't figure out what letter it begins with.

A. Grammatical experts disagree on this.

Q. I am never sure when I should use the word "principle" and when I should use "principal." Is there an easy way to remember the difference?

A. Here's a simple memory device for distinguishing between these two similar-sounding words (or "sonograms"): Simply remember that "principal" ends in the letters "p-a-l," which is an antonym for "Police Athletic League"; whereas "principle" ends in "p-l-e," which are the first three letters in "Please Mister Postman," by the Marvelettes.

If this memory device does not work for you, we have a more effective technique involving a soldering iron.

Q. When the Marvelettes sing, "Deliver de letter, de sooner de better," are they using correct grammar?

A. No. The correct grammar would be, "Deliver de letter, irrregardless."

Q. Can you cite some examples of language usage sent in by alert readers?

A. Certainly:

* John Triplett sent in a "Heartland America" catalog advertising baseballs that were "hand-signed by Mickey Mantle before his death."

* W. Michael Frazier sent in an editorial from the Dec. 6, 1997, Huntington (W.Va.) Herald-Dispatch containing this statement: "We believe if you have too much to drink at a holiday party, insist on driving yourself home."

* Susan Olp sent in an Associated Press story concerning a lawsuit verdict in which a lawyer is quoted as saying: "It sends a message to gas companies in Wyoming that gas companies better operate safely because people are not going to tolerate being blown up."

* Thomas Caufield sent in an Aug. 11, 1996, San Jose (Calif.) Mercury-News story about a Stanford University instructor, containing this statement: "Since his suspension, Dolph has continued working as a manager in the university's lab for cadavers. In that position, he deals mainly with faculty members, Jacobs said."

* Several readers sent in a June 19, 1998, Associated Press story concerning a Vermont high-school student who disrobed during her graduation speech; the story quotes school administrators as saying the incident "was not reflective of our student body."

* Renee Harber sent in a police log from the July 24, 1997, Corvallis (Ore.) Gazette Times containing this entry: "12:38 p.m. July 20 - report that a man near the Crystal Lake boat ramp was threatening to kill the next person he saw wearing a kilt."

Tip's "for" WRiter's: In writing a screenplay for a movie, be sure to include plenty of action.

Wrong: "To be, or not to be."

Right: "Look out! Giant radioactive squirrels!"

Got a question for Mister Language Person? Send it in, and you could receive a baseball hand-signed by William Shakespeare shortly after his death.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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