Misunderstandings seem to happen easily - sometimes they cause irritation; sometimes they cause laughter. Lynn Truss wrote Eats, Shoots and Leaves as an example of how important correct grammar, punctuation and vocabulary is in our day to day writing. At the moment, I am proofreading our company website which has to abide strictly to pharmaceutical and medical legislation. So, it is quite horrifying to stumble across typos stating, "Sue, as instructed by your pharmacist."
Yet misunderstandings are more common from our speech, I have discovered. A muffled exchange, or a simple misuse of a word can lead to great confusion. Take these examples:
In my tender youth, I worked for a main High Street bank. The bank's Regional Manager was called Richard. We had a very mouthy rep working at the bank who often gave talks on how to close deals, how to make sales, and generally, how to annoy people. One particular talk resulted in great hilarity, however.
"Imagine our illustrious Regional Manager is walking down the corridor in front of me, about to pass through the swing doors. I am bearing a tray full of drinks (which was completely inaccurate, as he never made a round of drinks for anyone) and so, naturally, I could call, 'Please leave the door open for me, Richard!' Alternatively, the same thing could be said completely differently if I called, 'Don't shut the door on me, Dick!'"
At my next place of work, I was introduced to a very old chestnut. I needed to dictate a letter and my dictation machine's batteries had run down. I asked Chris, my Line Manager, if I could borrow his dictaphone. "No," came the response. "Use your finger like everyone else."
I once had a very lovely boyfriend called Mike. He was lovely; his mother was a nutcase. She suffered with severe vocabulary malfunction in the style of Mrs Malaprop. As we passed by a row of houses one day, she pointed out one small terraced front with an enormous picture window, declaring to me that if she lived in a house with such large windows, she would always feel 'ever so gullible'. It was all I could do not to burst out laughing at her, especially as she was eating a Cornish pasty at the same time and pastry flakes were flying around the rear of the car while she ate and spoke. 'Gullible' issues forth a lot of food if you talk when your mouth is full.
My mother, too, is guilty of malapropisms. I once owned a cat. I'd called the cat Lucky - why, I have no idea, as she had been knocked over twice; got an infection in one of the wounds; and had only a partially successful sterilisation: part of her ovaries remained, so she still came 'on heat' but was, thankfully, unable to get pregnant. It was when she came on heat that she yowled at high decibel levels, and stalked every available Tom cat in the neighborhood. She was a feline nymphomaniac, which I found quite startling, having been rather virginal (then) with men.
Whenever my mother walked out to the village shops, Lucky would follow her, yowling, and calling 'come hither' utterances to any cat willing to give her a good time. Upon my return from work, my mother expostulated to me, angrily, that she was "sick and tired of that bloody cat!"*** who followed her round everywhere, wailing and carrying on. "Look! Look at her!" she ordered. I looked. What? "Look at her uvula, it's bright red and she's on heat!" My mother was far too angry to listen to me as I attempted to explain to her that a 'uvula' is, of course, your 'clack' - that dangly piece of flesh which hangs at the back of your throat and everyone seems to think is a spare tonsil. Unless the Toms had got lucky with Lucky and she was now performing oral sex...
One of my new work colleagues recounted a tale to us this week of a very recent misunderstanding which allegedly happened to her friend in a New York hotel. Two weeks ago, this friend (let's call her Stacey, because that is her name) and her pal visited NY for a shopping expedition. Stacey's friend, Julie, had shopped until she dropped and wished to return to the hotel for a rest. So, off she went, armed with her shopping bags, and tottered in towards the lifts of the hotel. Julie and Stacey are both small-town girls and when Julie saw two young black men, wearing sports gear: hoodies, trainers, tracksuits etc. in the lift she had just called, she quailed, remembering all the stories of NY street crime she had read in The Daily Mail. She was about to turn tail and wait for another lift, but the men turned and saw her, so she had no option but to join them in the lift. The doors shut, and she looked down. One of the men turned and said to her; "Hit the floor."
Julie dropped her bags, fell to the floor, face down, and begged them not to hurt her. She was astonished to suddenly hear gales of laughter coming from the two men.
"We meant for you to hit the floor you wanted! On the buttons!"
Julie got up, shaking, feeling completely stupid, and allowed the two men to calm her down and assist her to her room, carrying her bags for her.
Next day, she and Stacey went to reception to check out. They were astonished to discover that their bill had been covered, and informed the receptionist that there had been a mistake.
"No, ma'am, no mistake. Your bill was settled last night by a gentleman who has left you a note - here." Julie was handed a note which read, "I have paid your bill, as you gave me one of the funniest nights of my life last night. Thanks, Will Smith."
The two women were shocked, amazed, and then furious that Julie had been so stupid as to have been in a lift with Will Smith and not realised because she was so terrified.
We are still waiting for photocopied evidence of this letter, and until we see it, the story shall remain alleged. But it's a jolly good one, isn't it?
So, always ensure that you enunciate your words clearly, make sure you use the correct ones, and punctuate accordingly so that confusion is avoided. Remember, your audience does not possess extra-century perception.
*** Lucky went missing shortly after this incident. For weeks, I walked the village roads calling her name, wondering where she had gone. Three years ago, my mother finally admitted that she had nagged my father into taking Lucky for a very long drive down to the docks. She has never been seen since...the cat, not my mother...