Humor by Dave Barry

It is with great verisimilitude that we present another installation of "Ask Mister Language Person," the column that answers your common questions about grammar, punctuation and unwanted body hair. This is the ONLY language column to receive the coveted Lifetime Bathroom Pass from the American Society of University Professors Who Are Never in Their Offices.

We will commence the onset of today's column by beginning with our first question, which concerns a basic rule of business grammar:

Q. What is the proper way to begin a formal letter?

A. The proper beginning, or "salutatorian," for a formal business letter is: "Dear Mr. or Ms. Bob Johnson as the Case May Be." This should be followed by a small dab of imported mustard.

Q. What if the person's name is not "Bob Johnson"?

A. Then he or she will just have to change it.

Q. What is the correct way to conclude a formal business letter to a cable television company?

A. "I Spit on Your Billing Department."

Q. Like millions of Americans, I cannot grasp the extremely subtle difference between the words "your" and "you're."

A. Top grammar scientists are often confused by these two words, which are technically known as "bivalves," or words that appear to be identical and have hinged shells. The best way to tell them apart is to remember that "you're" is a contraction, which is a type of word used during childbirth, as in: "Hang on, Marlene, here comes you're baby!" Whereas "your" is, grammatically, a prosthetic infarction, which means a word that is used to score a debating point in an Internet chat room, as in: "Your a looser, you morron!"

Q. What about "yore"?

A. That refers to "the days of yore," when there was a lot of yore lying around, as a result of pigs. Also in those days, men would augment their personal regions by wearing "codpieces," which were pieces of actual cod.

Q. Yuck.

A. Yore telling us.

Q. What is the correct usage of the word "compunction"?

A. It may be used as a medical term ("a compunction of the left exterior vestibule") or in the name of a rock band ("DeWayne Hurlmont and the Compunctions of Soul").

Q. Speaking of music, does it make you suspicious that "Barry Manilow" and "Busta Rhymes," in addition to sounding EXACTLY alike, have "conveniently" never once appeared onstage together?

A. It is time to end the charade.

Q. While viewing ESPN's broadcast of the Indiana-Kentucky football game, did you hear an example of language usage so excellent that it caused you to spew beer from your nose?

A. Yes. The color commentator referred to a former coach as "a living legend when he was still alive."

Q. Can you give some other examples of powerful language, sent in by alert readers?

A. Certainly:

-- Trudy McDaniel sent in the instructions for putting together an Ikea desk, which state: "It is advisory to be two people during assembly."

-- Doug Gordon sent in the instructions for a set of Tama brand drums, containing this warning: "Stay away from the drum set if an earthquake occurs."

-- Dave Zarrow reports that he saw a sign making this appealing offer: "I Lost 40 Lbs. in Two Months! Call for Free Samples!"

-- Joe Bays sent in a glossy color brochure for the American Standard "Cadet II" model commode, featuring the slogan: "Get more out of your toilet."

-- Sandra Bowers sent in a story from the Akron Beacon-Journal headlined, "Police Find Man Dead to Death in Motel."

-- Paul Morrill sent in a story from the Santa Cruz County Sentinel, concerning a man who was arrested when he attacked some sea lions "because they constantly defected on his boat."

-- Jeanne Reed sent in a bulletin from Weatherby Health Care, a physician-placement firm, with this headline: "Born and Raised in the Midwest, This Very Talented Surgeon Is Looking for His Nitch Back Home."

Q. You hate it when a surgeon loses his nitch.

A. Let's hope he didn't leave it inside a patient.

TODAYS "TIP" FOR FICTION WRITERS: To make your writing more vivid, insert a literary device.

WEAK: "Detective Jake Turmoil slowly opened the door to the killer's room."

STRONG: "Detective Jake Turmoil slowly opened the door to the killer's room and a metaphor sliced off his head."


This column was originally published December 5, 1999.

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