I illustrate with two jokes, but here’s the lesson: Be sure your readers know where you’re coming from. I remember a quip used in religious circles: A text out of context is a pretext. But that’s not one of the two jokes.
Joe: A WAVE is a person in the Women’s auxiliary of the navy, right?
Moe: Um, yes, the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, back in WWII, yes.
Joe: And a WAC is in the Women’s Army Corps, right?
Joe: Then what’s a WOC???
Moe: Hmm. I give up.
Joe: A WOC is what you thwow at a wabbit!
You remember that one from Bugs Bunny, right? Here’s the other one. (It works better if you say it rather than read it. Try it on some all-knowing teenager.):
Joe: How do you pronounce M, A, C, D, O, N, A, L, D?
Moe: MacDonald, the guy who had a farm.
Joe: How about M, C, H, E, N, R, Y?
Moe: Well, McHenry, like the historic fort in Baltimore.
Joe: Then how do you pronounce M, A, C,-, H, I, N, E?
Moe: Hmm. Mack Hiney? Mac Hein?
Joe: Nope! Machine!
I’d tell a third joke, but I might be endangering Joe’s life. Anyway, you can see how setting up a misleading context directed the victim’s thinking down the wrong trail. Here’s a longer version of the advice at the top of this post:
When you proofread your material, think of ways it might be misunderstood, and prevent it.
Of course sometimes it is the reader’s fault:
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…Be sure to get this right: The hill is Cal-vary, not Cav-alry! It’s easy to get these mixed up, just like the other examples in this Fox Trot comic:
With that title to this post, and this Baby Blues comic, I hardly need to say more…
…but I will: If you write instructions, always test them.
I think I found another false English construction promulgated by stuffy English teachers. Certainly you were taught this in English class:
Don’t use two negatives in a sentence, because two negatives make a positive.
I illustrate with a joke that you have no doubt heard:
The English professor was in front of the classroom saying that whereas two negatives make a positive, two positives don’t make a negative. Someone in the back of the room said, “Yeah right.”
I guess linguistics doesn’t have a lot to say about sarcasm.
That aside, if I were to say
I don’t want to hear no more of your language jokes.
You’d actually know exactly what I mean, that I don’t want to hear the jokes. Logic and math notwithstanding, where two negatives do make a positive, we can argue that language came before either, so it has priority. In fact, in Classical Greek, using a double negative is considered grammatical, and doing so strengthens the negativity. The usual way of saying this was to use οὐ μη (pronounced oo may (the eta is supposed to have a grave accent, but I can’t make it do that here)). Both of these words translate as “not,” and the construction should be translated something like “definitely not!”
Am I advocating low-class English? Well, no. I said all that to say that I learned a new term, negative concordance, when two negatives make a stronger negative.
So there you have it. Understand it, but don’t do it.