I was having lunch with a friend when our server asked if we were finished. She didn't say done; she said finished. As any educated person knows, a cake in the oven is done; a task or activity is completed or finished.

I was so impressed I left her a 451 percent tip.

Her word choice reminded me of a joke I once heard about academics at a linguistics conference. After a few glasses of wine, the linguists started showing off, as academics are wont (not want) to do.

"Whoever can distinguish between the words complete and finish gets a free copy of Requiem for the American Dream," a linguist named Noam declared.

Piqued (not peaked) by the challenge, the winning linguist said, "If you marry the right person, you're complete. If you marry the wrong person, you're finished."

Then after a pause he said, "And if the right person catches you with the wrong person, you are completely finished."

I was still laughing, tears streaming down my cheeks, when I boarded my plane.

"Please stop laughing," the flight attendant (not stewardess) said. "We cannot takeoff until you're done."

I hadn't meant to become disruptive over her word choice, but before I knew what was happening the cabin crew was dragging me toward the emergency exit. When I awoke, the paramedics were loading me into an ambulance.

"Now just lay still," an earnest young man named Oscar said. "You need to learn the importance of not making trouble."

I demanded another ambulance with a better educated paramedic and was immediately provided one. At the hospital I was told to lay still.

"Lie still," I shouted, my arms and ears aching with pain (not pane), my wrists held with preventive (not preventative) straps. "To lie is to recline; to lay is to place," I screamed.

"Now, now," said a burly man with forearms the size of my thighs. "If you'll just lie still, I'll remove those straps and then I can shove this 12-inch needle into a vein with fewer tries."

"You're a wonderful nurse," I said. "You said lie and fewer rather than lay and less. Where did you get your medical training?"

"Oh, I'm not a nurse," he said with a big-toothed grin, "I'm an English major."

"I knew it!" I said. "Poke away!"

Later a young woman made a deft swipe with her scalpel down the length of my forearm.

"Hey, shouldn't you have administered some anesthetic first?" I asked.

"Oops," she said. "They didn't say anything about anesthetic when I earned my English degree. Now just lie still. We'll soon be finished."

"You're an angel," I murmured. "Slice away."

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.