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.