January 14, 2005

Dave Barry, linguist

Dave Barry is retiring from journalism in order to devote himself full time to linguistics.

Well, that's not quite right. He's been more of a humor columnist than a journalist. And he's being coy about his future plans.

But Bryan Curtis sent up a balloon at Slate about Dave Barry taking over for William Safire at the New York Times. Curtis pretends that this is about socio-political commentary, with Dave in line to become the Times' resident libertarian. But surely what's really on the table is replacing Bill's On Language column with Dave's Ask Mister Language Person.

In academic settings where language is discussed, the Mister Language Person columns are already cited more frequently than any other modern source, with the possible exception of The Simpsons. At the University of Otago in New Zealand, for example, there is a course on "Writing for Psychology" whose entire section on "Mechanics and style of writing" consists of links to eleven Ask Mister Language Person columns, five additional Dave Barry selections on punctuation, and a poem (apparently not by Dave Barry) about the effect of psychotropic drugs on apostrophes.

And as Dave himself put it:

Mister Language Person is the only authority who has been formally recognized by the American Association of English Teachers On Medication. ("Hey!" were their exact words. "It's YOU!")

Let me say right up front that I'm a fan of William Safire's writings on language, so I would hate to see him replaced. But I can think of a long list of other NYT regulars that could become less regular without any protest from me. If the NYT can't pull the trigger, maybe the New Yorker should hire Dave Barry to play James Thurber to Louis Menand's E.B. White. (Seriously, Dave Barry is not a New York (whether Times or -er) person. But consider that Mark Twain spent much of his working life in Hartford, CT.)

I'm going to close with selected quotations from old Mister Language Person columns. But first I want to persuade you not to accept Dave's claim that his main themes are booger jokes and exploding livestock, and not to substitute Bryan Curtis' evaluation that Dave is really a political commentator. In fact, even outside of the Mister Language Person series, his central issues are linguistic ones. Consider his 11/30/2003 column on herring communication, featured in an earlier Language Log entry. He begins with a basic linguistic question, adding an etymological note in passing:

A question that we have all asked ourselves hundreds of times is: How do herring communicate?

I'm pleased to report that we may, at last, be getting closer to an answer, thanks to an important recent discovery by fish scientists. This discovery involves a bodily function that some readers may find distasteful to read about (even though I bet they do it) so before I tell you what it is, here is a:

WARNING TO PEOPLE WHO ARE OFFENDED BY THE PHRASE ''BREAK WIND'' -- The following paragraphs contain the phrase ''break wind.'' So if you don't want to see the phrase ''break wind,'' go read a classier part of the newspaper, such as the bridge column. Although if you think bridge players don't break wind, you are clearly not aware of the origin of the word ''trump.''

OK, now that we've gotten rid of Attorney General Ashcroft, let's get to the amazing recent discovery that has fish scientists in such an uproar, which can be summarized in three words:

Herring break wind.

After some discussion of the scientific background, he asks

The critical question now facing the scientific community is: WHY do herring break wind? Scientists quoted in the article speculate that the herring might be using these sounds -- which they make mainly at night -- to communicate with each other.

This raises another question: What, exactly, would a herring need to communicate? I mean, we're talking about creatures with roughly the same IQ as a Tic-Tac. They are not down there discussing Marcel Proust. My guess is they're probably breaking wind to convey extremely simple messages such as: ''Hey, it's dark!'' ''I know! The same thing happened last night!'' ''Who said that?'' ''Me!'' ''Who are you?'' '' A herring!'' ''Wow, that's amazing! I'm also a herring!'' ''Wow! I'm also a Yankees fan!'' ''Wow, that's amazing! I'm a Yankees. . .'' etc.

and in keeping with recent trends in the MLA, he problematizes the gendered status of these communications:

I asked [Dr. Ben Wilson] if, by any chance, the wind-breaking herring happened to be males. Because if they were, that might explain it: It is a well-known scientific fact that human males deliberately break wind purely for the sense of accomplishment it gives them.

But Dr. Wilson said he was unaware of any correlation between the sex of the herring and the FRT noise. He also noted that it's difficult to tell male and female herring apart. Maybe that's what they're communicating about: ''Hey, you want to mate?'' ''Sure! My name is Bob!'' ''Hey, my name is Bob, too!'' ''UH-oh!'' etc.

OK, enough background. Here's a Mister Language Person sampler:

Q. Please explain how to diagram a sentence.
A. First spread the sentence out on a clean, flat surface, such as an ironing board. Then, using a sharp pencil or X-Acto knife, locate the "predicate," which indicates where the action has taken place and is usually located directly behind the gills. For example, in the sentence: "LaMont never would of bit a forest ranger," the action probably took place in a forest. Thus your diagram would be shaped like a little tree with branches sticking out of it to indicate the locations of the various particles of speech, such as your gerunds, proverbs, adjutants, etc.

Q. Please explain the correct usage of the word "neither."
A. Grammatically, "neither" is used to begin sentences with compound subjects that are closely related and wear at least a size 24, as in: "Neither Esther nor Bernice have passed up many Ding Dongs, if you catch my drift." It may also be used at the end of a carnivorous injunction, as in: "And don't touch them weasels, neither."

Q. When should I say "phenomena," and when should I say "phenomenon?"
A. "Phenomena" is what grammarians refer to as a "subcutaneous invective," which is a word used to describe skin disorders, as in "Bob has a weird phenomena on his neck shaped like Ted Koppel." Whereas "phenomenon" is used to describe a backup singer in the 1957 musical group "Duane Furlong and the Phenomenons."

Q. Please tell me which is correct: ``Bud, you should never of fed them taffies to the dog,'' or ``Bud, you never should of fed them taffies to the dog.''
A. According to Strunk & White, it depends on the context.
Q. The context was a brand-new Barcalounger.
A. Whoa.

Q. What is the purpose of the semicolon?
A. It can be used to either (1) separate two independent clauses, or (2) indicate an insect attack.
(1) ``Well, I'm a clause that certainly doesn't need any help!''; ``Me either!''
(2) ``Be careful not to bump into that ;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;; AIEEEEEEE!''

Q. In the song ``The Joker,'' what is the mystery word that Steve Miller sings in the following verse:
"Some people call me the space cowboy
Some people call me the gangster of love
Some people call me Maurice
'cause I speak of the (SOMETHING) of love.''
A. According to the Broward County Public Library, the word is "pompatus.''
Q. What does "pompatus'' mean?
A. Nothing. Steve made it up. That's why some people call him ``the space cowboy.''
Q. How come we say "tuna fish''? I mean, tuna IS a kind of fish, right? We don't say "tomato vegetable'' or "milk dairy product'' or "beef meat,'' do we? And how come we call it "beef''? How come we don't say, "I'll have a piece of cow, rare''? And how come we say "rare''? And how come the waiter always says, "DID you want some dessert,'' instead of, "DO you want some dessert?'' Does he mean, "DID you want some dessert, before you found those hairs in your lasagna?'' And how come everybody says "sher-BERT,'' when the word is "sher- BET''? And how come broadcast news reporters end their reports by saying, "This is Edward M. Stuntgoat, reporting.'' What ELSE would we think he's doing? Hemorrhaging? And how come some people call Steve Miller "Maurice''?
A. Those particular people call EVERYBODY "Maurice.''

Q. Please explain the correct usage of the phrase ``all things being equal.''
A. It is used to make sentences longer.
WRONG: ``Earl and myself prefer the Cheez Whiz.''
RIGHT: ``All things being equal, Earl and myself prefer the Cheez Whiz.''

Q. Is there any difference between ``happen'' and ``transpire''?
A. Grammatically, ``happen'' is a collaborating inductive that should be used in predatory conjunctions such as: ``Me and Norm here would like to buy you two happening mommas a drink.'' Whereas ``transpire'' is a suppository verb that should always be used to indicate that an event of some kind has transpired.
WRONG: ``Lester got one of them electric worm stunners.''
RIGHT: ``What transpired was, Lester got one of them electric worm stunners.''

Q. Please explain the expression: ``This does not bode well.''
A. It means that something is not boding the way it should. It could be boding better.

Q. Like most people, I would like to use the words ''parameters'' and ''behoove'' in the same sentence, but I am not sure how.
A. According to the Oxford English Cambridge Dictionary Of Big Words, the proper usage is: ''Darlene, it frankly does not behoove a woman of your parameters to wear them stretch pants.''

WRITING TIP FOR PROFESSIONALS: To make your writing more appealing to the reader, avoid ``writing negatively.'' Use positive expressions instead.
WRONG: ``Do not use this appliance in the bathtub.''
RIGHT: ``Go ahead and use this appliance in the bathtub.''

TODAY'S BUSINESS WRITING TIP: In writing proposals to prospective clients, be sure to clearly state the benefits they will receive:
WRONG: "I sincerely believe that it is to your advantage to accept this proposal."
RIGHT: "I have photographs of you naked with a squirrel."




Posted by Mark Liberman at January 14, 2005 08:52 AM