Tag Archives: grammar

Ask The Language Lady

The journalist Dave Barry once wrote a weekly humor column for the Miami Herald.  Periodically he would do a column called “Ask Mr. Language Person”.  In these columns, he would answer alleged questions from readers (who I’m quite sure were totally fictitious).  For the purposes of this post, I’m slightly co-opting Dave’s title of Mr. Language Person, but all my examples are real.

First, from an ad seen on email: “Annette Funicello dies from symptoms of multiple sclerosis”.  Is that right?  Does a person die of the symptoms of a disease, or does one die of the disease?  Perhaps one always dies from the symptoms of a disease, since if a disease had no symptoms, you couldn’t die of it, could you?  The Language Lady confesses to being mystified about this one, and any help is welcome.

Most Grammar Nazis have particular pet peeves, such as the misuse of  the words “their”, “there”, and “they’re”.  Generally, The Language Lady (henceforth known as LL) just cringes and moves on, and has no particular abuse she singles out as being more or less acceptable.  Also, with auto-correct and auto-complete on cell phones and computers, even the most scrupulous Grammar Nazi can fall prey to misspelling and usage errors.  Correcting people who make mistakes is misplaced when it might not even have been the fault of the user, takes too much energy, and besides, it’s rude.

That said, LL corrected someone on Facebook in the last week or so.  In LL’s defense, here is the backstory.  A Facebook friend of a friend type of friend (as opposed to someone you actually know, who is also your friend on Facebook) took one of those quizzes, called something like “How Well Do You Actually Speak English?” and aced it.  In a comment, she remarked that she was especially proud of knowing when to use “who” versus “whom”.  LL was highly amused, since she already knew this person has it totally backwards.  In common speech, it actually would be very rare to use “whom”.

Last week, on a post by LL, this person misused “whom” and LL corrected her.  Was LL just in a particularly snarky mood that day?  It wasn’t the misuse that got on LL’s nerves, it was the bragging and being wrong.  LL forgets the content of that particular comment, but subsequently this person posted a photo of a crying child with the caption “This is my niece ‘Janie’, whom didn’t want her picture taken”.  (LL left well enough alone, having already been rude once.)

The end result is that this person is no longer speaking to LL, and here is the difference between this person and LL.  LL would much prefer to be corrected, rather than continuing to make a damn fool of herself repeatedly.

But this is the one that takes the cake:  also seen on Facebook, a post with the caption “Shameful.  Baby birds are ground up alive to make Hellmann’s mayonnaise”.  It’s accompanied by a drawing of baby chicks being forced into an open jar of Hellmann’s, with blood dripping from the mouth of the jar.  What this SAYS is that baby birds are an ingredient in Hellmann’s mayo.  Right?

What they MEANT is that an ingredient in mayonnaise is egg.  In an egg-producing operation, male chicks are useless, because well, they can’t lay eggs.  (Of course, a few must have escaped, since without male chickens, there would be no baby chicks, male  or female.)  Actually, of course, you have to keep some male chickens around, because hens get old and eventually stop laying eggs, so you have to have males to make new female chickens.  But for the most part, males are destroyed at birth.

In this case, The Language Lady learned something.  Not that ground-up male chicks are used in mayonnaise, but that it’s possible to sex baby chicks at birth.  Large operations use chick sexers.  (Q: “Hello, what do you do for a living?” A. “I’m a chick sexer for Hellmann’s.”)

In closing, The Language Lady would like to thank her readers, without whom she might be reduced to chick sexing, while slowly dying of the symptoms of bird flu.

Ms. Language Person Discusses Language Abuse

First, a disclaimer:  Fakename does not claim to be an expert in this field, and is all too aware that she is guilty of some of the same abuses she is about to make fun of.  (Or would that be, “of which she is about to make fun”?)  The difference is, that when you do it, it’s funny, and when Fakename does it, it isn’t, and certainly should never be mentioned in polite company.

Before we begin, Fakename will commit her first faux pas by switching from third person to first person, because that third person thing is really hard to maintain.  It’s ever so much easier to type “I” than it is to type “Fakename”.

Now then, I said that when you do it, it’s funny–but not always.  Sometimes I laugh, and sometimes I gnash my teeth.  I mean, let’s take George W. Bush, always my favorite source of language abuse.  I mean, come on, the guy went to Yale and can’t say “nu’-clee-ar”?  Every time he mangled that word I felt those chills you get when somebody scrapes their fingernails down a blackboard.  For now we will call this particular form of language abuse “mispronunciation”.

It turns out that linguists, having not much else to do, have come up with all sorts of words to describe language abuse.  Not having much else to do, I love linguists.  There is, for example “malapropism” and “neologism”, but there are many more words to describe words.  Turning once again to GWB, my favorite quote from him involves the word “misunderestimating”.  I mean, you know just what he means, don’t you?  Technically speaking, I think this might be a “portmanteau”, a combination of the words “misunderstanding” and “underestimating”.  A successful portmanteau, like a successful neologism, will come into common usage.  My guess is that “misunderestimating” will not fall into that category. 

I actually first became fascinated with language in the 7th grade, when our entire English class was devoted to grammar.  Everyone but me hated it.  I loved its orderliness.  And I loved that only when you know the rules can you successfully violate them.  It’s like using a salad fork.  It’s fine to say, the hell with the salad fork, I’m using the dinner fork for my salad, as long as you’re doing it voluntarily.  Not knowing what the salad fork is for, or where it should be placed, is uncouth.  Rejecting it when you do know is perfectly acceptable, and is a sign of intelligent rebellion.  Damn.  I have a sudden urge to use an inappropriate semi-colon. 

I next became enamored with language as an anthropology student in college, where differences in language set cultures apart–from the Inuit with their 50 or so different words for snow, to the tribe in Africa with only two words for plants: edible or inedible. 

And now, just as I thought I’d left linguism and salad forks behind, there is NPR, specifically “Fresh Air” and real life linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, whose first book was “Going Nucular”.  In that book, he speculates that GWB said “nucular” on purpose, believing that most people pronounced it that way, so he did too–thereby making himself seem more accessible to the imaginary “common man”.  Oh what nonsense.  The easiest explanation (see: Occam”s Razor) is that GWB really is stupid.