What's funny? What isn't? And why do I never get a laugh when I tell that joke about the moose?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Grammar? I Hardly Touched 'Er!

Okay, here’s where I hear the Awkward Silence a lot: I think grammar jokes are funny.

Seriously. Jokes about proper English usage make me laugh out loud. You can blame my late mother, a woman who had both a wicked sense of humor and a terrible passion for correct usage. (She was a copy editor at Time Magazine, for God’s sake, back when a single published typo meant the head of the copy department had to commit hari kari.) Her bible was The Elements of Style.

Anyway, due to nature or nurture, I love grammar jokes. Almost nobody else thinks they’re funny. In fact, most people don’t get the jokes at all: after you’ve told them, you usually have to explain them. Then people get them. They still don’t LAUGH, but at least they get them.

Here are three examples:

1) Back in the 1980s, my mom was working as a managing editor for a high-tech magazine and was fighting a losing battle over usage. Specifically, the fact that one piece of data is “datum”, and that one or more pieces of “datum” were “data”.

Ultimately, she had a large sign typeset and set above her desk. The sign read:

“Data are a word that are plural!”

Well, SHE thought it was funny.

2) Bob and Joe are new emigrants to America from the non-English speaking country of your choice. The two of them diligently study English, and are constantly testing one another and correcting grammar and pronunciation.

One day, Bob comes home from work to find his wife undressed, in bed and looking a little—um, excited, let’s say. Suspicious, Bob stalks to the bedroom closet and flings the door open. There he finds, much to his shock, his friend Joe, completely naked.

“Joe,” Bob exclaims, “I am surprised!”

“No, no,” says Joe. “I am surprised. You are shocked!”

Joe is surprised because he didn’t expect Bob to open the door, see, while Bob is shocked because of WHO he found when he… Sigh.

3) A couple of men fall overboard from an ocean liner. The first one loses his head and screams “I will drown, no one shall save me!” and sinks like a stone.

The second man, a grammar pedant, cries out, “I shall drown, no one will save me!” and is promptly rescued.

You see, in the first person, ‘shall’ indicates a simple future, something that the speaker believes will happen. Whereas, in the first person, ‘will’ indicates the subjective, a determination obligation to do something. In the second and third person, the definitions of ‘shall’ and ‘will’ are reversed, with ‘shall’ indicating the subjunctive and ‘will’ the simple future.

Thus, the first man indicates that he is DETERMINED to drown, and that no one will be allowed to rescue him.

By contrast, the second man utters his belief that he will drown, and that no one will be able to rescue him. But this doesn’t mean he will not allow himself to be rescued, and so he is. Hahah!

Get it? Isn’t that a knee-slapper? Doesn’t that make you want to…

Ahhh…that Awkward Silence.

Anybody else got a grammar joke they’d like to share?


  1. You mean, besides "Eats, shoots and leaves"? (Yes I know, that's a punctuation joke, but I'm sure your mom was a stickler for that too.)

    Anyway, I'd better make this quick. (Yeah right, quick? Me? The guy whom your sister named an adjective after meaning "long-winded"?) The grammar police are after me for not paying my syntax.

  2. Two verbs walked into a bar (or into a blog, if you prefer). "Go" said "Is this where the action is?" "Is" said "Anyone else feeling copulative tonight?"

  3. Come to think of it, much of the (in)famous "Who's on first?" routine is a series of grammar jokes.

  4. The bane of the high-tech editor: plural of "virus".

  5. And then there's the plural of "moose". (Yes, Jerry, we're going to make you tell the moose joke ...)

  6. 1. congratulations on the new blog. i think it's an idea whose time has come. and gone. and perhaps come again. come again?
    2. your sainted mother did not have that quote typeset. it was something she yelled at me and her other copyeditor who spent most of our time cowering in our office hoping she wouldn't come in and yell at us. we then had it typeset and framed and it was presented it to her as the first winner of "Quote of the Year" at the magazine's annual offsite.
    3. "Bob and Joe are new emigrants to America"? I think not. Try "immigrants."

  7. Good photo, by the way.

  8. 1) Thank you

    2) Credit where credit is due.

    3) Bite me.