Saturday, 13 October 2007

A Word to the Wise...

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...


Matt Chingduvé said...

Agnes! If the animal rights league get wind of this blog, your father's life will be in jeopardy!

It is worth the risk, as it is indeed a very entertaining blog entry.

Agnes Mildew said...

Well, since you pointed this out, Matt, I realise that my sentence was rather misleading (oh, the shame, when I am blogging about how important it is to avoid confusion in your writing) and have thus corrected my statement. Father was under strict orders from the Gestapo and these orders had to be obeyed - he didn't want to do it, and felt very sick over it - but his hot dinners each night were slightly more important to him than Lucky and her glowing uvula.

Mark Dykeman said...

Lynne Truss is extremely fun reading and she makes excellent points!

Interesting thing about your "Will Smith" story: I've heard the same story before, many years ago, except that it was featuring Eddie Murphy. Perhaps it's an urban legend. Still a great story thought.

Agnes Mildew said...

Mark: I did have my doubts as to whether it was an urban myth or not...I shall make judgement and assume it is fictional until I see proof: oh, me of little faith...

Linda and her Surroundings said...

That lift story sounds good enough to be true. My mother was telling a story about how the bank manager made her so angry that she was "rapeable"and wondered why we almost wet ourselves laughing. To this day she insists she meant "ropeable" but I just tell her she fancied the guy.

Emmy said...

I found this sad as I am a HUGE animal lover. :(

deathsweep said...

Great post Agnes. I can't begin to tell you how many times I've heard words misused and have had to act as though it never happened! Dealing with the public daily often offers a real education in language. I don't think I can even count the number of times I've heard that a family member was "pre-diseased" instead of pre-deceased or when I have been given names of "pall barons" instead of pall bearers. This made me laugh!

Stealth said...

My daughter & I read Eats, Shoots & Leaves. It was the most entertaining grammar book I've ever read. By the way, did you notice Heather's newly invented adjective "Shitteous"? I thought of you when I read it.

fishwithoutbicycle said...

Poor ol' lucky :-(

Love the bit about Will Smith. When I first moved here one of the first girls I met used to work as one of his assistants at his agency in LA. She said he really is as nice as he seems. Her friend was Ben Affleck's assistant around the time he was dating Gwyneth - apparently Ms. Paltrow was a bit of a cow :-)

Agnes Mildew said...

Linda: You have educated me here, again - never heard of the word, 'ropeable', so had I been there, I certainly would have believed that she purely fancied the bank manager. Either that, or poor service turned her on.

Emmy: It also upset me. Lucky had cost me a fortune in vet's bills! At least I am assured she was well fed down at the docks as she was dropped near the abattoir...I think...

DS: I do hope that your clients don't get even more confused and refer to them as 'porn barons'!

Stealth: It certainly is a smashing book, and appeals to my anal sense of proper grammar and vocab.
Yes, I have seen Heather's use of 'shitteous'...many years ago, it was an adjective me and my friends used to bandy about a lot - e.g. 'That homework is most shitteous today...'! Not one I have heard in an eternity, though, so it is excellent to see it returning to common parlance again!

Fish: You name dropper, you!! Can't take you anywhere, can we? Good. Glad Gwyneth is a cow - Chris Martin might dump her and come to me, where he rightly belongs.

Anonymous said...

I thought and thought and couldn't think of a single clever thing to say.

Then I happened to go over to Stealth's just now and I tried to guess at the photos and what they represented. (I didn't get a single one right, by the way.) Anyhow, I noticed that you had been there, too. And then I noticed what I thought was a funny little coincidence.

Perhaps I am being naive to take you as serious and not kidding, but when you asked Stealth what "assaulted peanut" was it really made me smile. Maybe something is lost in the pronounciation. I'm not sure. But "assaulted peanut" is a play on words. "A salted peanut" would be the actual meaning.

The timing stuck me as pretty neat. That is, if you were serious. Otherwise, I'm 0 for 3. :0)

Agnes Mildew said...

HAHAHAHAHA!!!!! I WAS being serious, Karen, and now I feel such a berk! I just couldn't hear that at all when I read the answers - I think I had got my head into thinking they were all brand names. Gosh, I can be so dumb at times! Many thanks for pointing it out to me...

Keli said...

I feel your pain upon stumbling across appalling typos. I think there should be some sort of support group for victims.
Agnes, you give very sound advice about proper enunciation and word usage. But I'm wondering, what about people say, who have a tendency to make up words by joining two together or who often abbreviate? Not that I know anyone who actually does that. Just curious.

Agnes Mildew said...

Keli: Well, if I was to answer this with anything but the truth, Matt would possibly call me a pompous hypocrite! Being from Liverpool, I am bound to abbreviate my words - it is a Scouse trait, I'm afraid. Thus, breakfast becomes 'brekkie', television, 'telly' etc (everything seems to end in 'y' for some reason!), but as for eliding two words into one, I can't think of a particular example there (although it sounds somewhat twee and mumsy?).
I would imagine if I could think of one I would have a strong opinion, though!
Trouble with me is that where written English is concerned, I am very anal, but not so fussy when it comes to opening my mouth!

Keli said...

I had a feeling you were a fellow abbreviator.
The sliding of two words into one....stuper (short for an incredibly stupid person) for instance. I think I may require therapy.

Agnes Mildew said...

Keli: I seemed to have been somewhat slow yesterday in not picking up on the 'stuper' example! I have always liked that simply because it is a homonym with stupor, which is exactly what the stupers will put you into if you give them an inch!
I think what was coming into my head last night were baby talk coos when you mentioned it.
Even now, though, I still can't think of an example!

Jayne said...

Reminds me of the time my college roommate's slightly kooky and homophobic mother told me conspiratorily "I could finger a lesbian from across the room!"

I broke out laughing and COULD NOT stop. It was one of the most inappropriate moments I'd ever had at that point. I hadn't, as yet, learned to nod politely in the face of such things.

alcoment said...

Poor Lucky!

I work with someone who prides herself on using 'proper English' and never tires of correcting my grammer and reminding me that she has an English degree. However I spend a lot of my time laughing because she gets some phrases completely wrong and then her sentences just don't make any sense. Maybe I should just show her this post!

thewishfulwriter said...

jesus god i can't stop laughing.

it was all terribly funny, but you especially lost me at the "hit the floor" part.

and will smith.

i love that man.

i'll look for this scene to end up in one of his movies.

you know it will.

Agnes Mildew said...

Jayne: That reminds me of my friend who was an air hostess for the Royal Flight in Oman. She had an Indian VIP on board one day and was getting tired of him calling her for all sorts of stupid requests. He started ringing his bell, yet again, so Tracey ignored him. After ten minutes of constant dinging, she went down to him where he burst out: "Where have you been? I have been fingering you for ten minutes and STILL you have not come!"

Alcoment: Those people are the worst, most definitely! If you are going to be a Superior Person (buy the books, they are fantastic!), you've got to show it at all times. Yes, put her on to me. I'll sort her out!

Heather: We are still not sure if this is a true story, but yes, we were all in hysterics when Claire related it to us. I hope it is true!

Anonymous said...

Hey, I am checking this blog using the phone and this appears to be kind of odd. Thought you'd wish to know. This is a great write-up nevertheless, did not mess that up.

- David