Category Archives: Odd Language

Some uses of language can be very peculiar-sounding or can be ambiguous in unexpected ways.

Odd Language #201: No Passing

A British Columbia road sign I have seen many times: “DO NOT PASS SNOWPLOWS ON RIGHT”

The issue: Due to elision of words to fit, it is ambiguous. Does it mean to not pass snowplows that are on one’s right or to not pass snowplows on their right? Actually, neither is a particularly good idea, but it is the latter. Where do you think they throw their snow?

Odd Language #200: Initial Reading Declined

“There would be no more overpopulation; the hordes in East Asia would decline to adjust themselves to the food supply.” — Misbegotten Missionary by Robert A. Heinlein

The issue: When I first read this sentence, it seemed to mean the opposite of what it should. Then I caught that there were two meanings of “decline” to consider. It was meant in the sense of “to go down in number”; I had initially read it as in the sense of “deciding against something”.

Odd Language #199: Look Over This!

RISKS 30.22 has an interesting April Fools item (which came from EFFector Vol. 30, No. 7 of April 1, 2017).

Apparently, politicians have not been keeping tabs on the intelligence community in the last several years because of a confusion over the words “oversight” and “overlook”.

The issue: The intended meaning of “oversight” in this context is monitoring; “overlook” means failing to see or notice. Since an oversight can also be a case of overlooking, there is a definite possibility for confusion of the two words. Not that the politicos should be able to use this in real life.

Odd Language #198: Just Great

An old chestnut: Someone learning English asks for help from his teacher. “I understand this: ‘Mary is great with child.’, but what does ‘Mr. Smith is great with children.’ mean?”

The issue: Languages have many exceptions which they use to ambush you.

Odd Language #196: Three Is First

I recently bought a trilogy from my local used bookstore. It is Legends of the Duskwalker by Jay Posey. Book 1 is entitled Three.

The issue: The dissonance between it being book one and the title being Three. (Three is the name of a main character.)

(I have not read enough of it to have an opinion yet.)

Odd Language #195: Crossed Words?

Why is it that when you transport something by car, it’s called a shipment, but when you transport something by ship, it’s called cargo?

The issue: Different word uses can develop that, by themselves, look fine, but when compared with other word uses look very odd, the reverse of what one would expect. Another variation is “Why do we park on a driveway and drive on a parkway?”

Odd Language #194: Word Duplication

“… and the plane plain ran out of fuel …” — More on the LaMia crash involving the Brazilian soccer team, RISKS 30.01, item 1

The issue: Somehow, many of us think that duplication (or near-duplication) of words is cute.

Do you go for that sort of flimflam?

I know I do. It is plain to me that I might have made it worse: it could have been a plain plane plain running out of fuel. I bet that some of you are too too, too, too often to be ignored.

Odd Language #193: Fast Writing

From a USENET post about an author: “He also writes a bit faster than he can.”

The issue: Obviously, this can not be literally correct, but it is strikingly clear what is meant, and I think more so than the previous sentence in the post: “Christopher Nuttall is still in dire need of a good editor.”