Thoughts on titles, typos, aspirate h's and more

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 3, 2011 - 4:14 PM

Louis writes: "I have a friend whose parents are both professors. Naturally, I address them collectively as 'The Professors Smith,' but if I am standing in front of both of them and I would like to verbally address Mr. Smith, how should I do so in a way that respects his title as a professor (not Mr. Smith), does not create ambiguity with his wife (not Professor Smith) and is not long-winded (certainly not Mr. Professor Smith!)? This has been bothering me for quite some time."

I don't have an easy answer, but despite it being long-winded, I recommend you use both first and last names, as in Professor Patty Smith or Professor John Smith.

However, if both people have the same first name, as in Professor Drew Smith, there's no solution to your problem and you should stop associating with the Smiths.

•My daughter's doggie day care sent this warning: "When dogs are placed in group situations, they are often exposed to the orgasms that cause kennel cough."

•Keith wonders if the following is true: "I was taught when referring to a person one would say, 'Lincoln, a historical person,' but when referring to an event one would say, 'the coronation, an historical event.'"

English has two main articles, the indefinite a and the definite the. An is a variation of a. A pronunciation aid that enables you to run your words together more easily, an is used before vowel sounds -- not vowels necessarily, but vowel sounds, as in an evening and an MBA.

Its use before h depends on whether the h is aspirate or pronounced: an hour if the h is pronounced, and a historical person or a historical event if the h is not pronounced. "An historical event" is a common error even among educated writers and speakers.

•Henry writes: "If you will is used by many in speech, but I recently encountered its use in a report. I am interested in your opinion."

Like you, Henry, I've noticed the overuse of if you will, particularly after figures of speech. Its use seems intended to call attention to a departure from literal meaning. For some reason, the phrase seems especially prevalent within the military and among people associated with military culture. I'm not sure why, but I'm guessing the phrase is like music to their ears, if you will.

•One more. The answer to this one depends not on an eye for grammatical errors, but on an ear for amphibologies -- ambiguous statements with two, sometimes contrary, meanings, as in "If you think I'm rude, you should talk to my boss."

Joe asks me to explain the error in "a humorous item" sent to him by a friend:

"A wife asks her husband, 'Please go shopping for me and buy one carton of milk, and if they have eggs, get six.'

"A short time later the husband comes back with six cartons of milk. The wife asks him, 'Why did you buy six cartons of milk?'

"He replied, 'They had eggs.'"

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at His website is

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