Modern English has people speaking in tongues

September 01, 2002|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight Ridder / Tribune

It is time for another installation of "Ask Mister Language Person," the penultimate authority on grammatorical issues, the column that puts the "p-u" in punctuation, the only language column that was endorsed by both Jane Austen and William Shakespeare just before they died together in a romantic car crash.

Today we regret that we must begin our column with this:

Terrorist Threat Warning

We have received some alarming information from very high sources in the federal government.

Q. How high were they?

A. They were wearing their underpants on their heads.

According to these sources, terrorists may be planning an attack on America's linguistic infrastructure. The targets will be critical strategic phrases without which this nation cannot function, including "Like"; "You know"; "Like you know"; "Like you know what I mean?"; "Like you know what I'm saying?"; "Have a nice day"; and "Your call is very important to us." Keep a sharp ear out, and if you hear anybody using any of these phrases in a suspicious manner, you should immediately notify Attorney General John Ashcroft. Speak directly into the fly of his briefs.

We turn now to answering common language questions, starting with one sent in by an anonymous resident of Washington, D.C., who writes:

Q. I am the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and I'm hoping you can settle an argument. I say that the correct wording is: "My mother says to choose the very best one and you are it!" Whereas my colleagues insist that it should be: "My mother says to choose the very best one and y-o-u spells you!" Please answer promptly, as this involves the death penalty.

A. We put your question to the American Bar Association, which sent us a 127-page response.

Q. What does it say?

A. We have no idea.

Q. What is the correct usage of the phrase "being as how"?

A. It is correctly used as follows: "Steer clear of the gumbo, being as how Bernice can't find her hairnet."

Q. As far as grammar, what is the difference between bring and take?

A. Bring is a prehensile imprecation that must used in the vindictive tense.

Example: "Earl should of never brung Silly String to the viewing."

Whereas take is used in fraternal exhortations.

Example: "Take a gander at them headlamps!"

Q. How come airplane pilots always tell you to "sit back and enjoy the flight?"

A. They find it amusing when you break the nose of the person sitting behind you.

Q. As a fourth-year medical student, I am wondering if there is any way to remember the difference between prostrate and prostate.

A. We contacted the Mayo Clinic, which informs us that surgeons there use this simple poem: "If two Rs are found, it is down on the ground. / If one R is on hand, then it is a gland."

Q. What about transpire vs. perspire?

A. That one still has them stumped.

Q. Do you have any true examples of strong grammar usage that you are not making up, sent in by alert readers?

A. You are darned tooting:

* Pat Anthony sent in a letter to the editor published in The El Dorado (Ark.) News-Times, which begins as follows: "I would like to apologize for my stupid acts and irresponsible behavior. I know I shouldn't have rode my horse into town drunk much less in Wal-Mart."

* Terry Zeri sent in a sign from the wall of a restroom in Fremont Lake, Wyo., which states: "This restroom is cleaned by volunteers. Please help us keep them clean."

* Anne Morter sent in a police blotter item from the Lake County (Ore.) Examiner, concerning a woman arrested for allegedly abusing geese. The item states that the woman "was released under the conditions that she is to have no contact in person, by telephone or through a third party with geese."

Q. What about e-mail?

A. This is a legal loophole that needs to be closed.

Today's writing tip: In writing a letter of recommendation for an employee, be sure to give it a "positive spin."

Wrong: Bob occasionally has a problem with his temper.

Right: Bob took full responsibility for the firebomb in Accounts Receivable.

Got a question for Mister Language Person? He like knows what you mean.

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