Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

Which speaker is a cannibal?

a. Let’s eat, Grandma.
b. Let’s eat Grandma.

The answer is that the speaker in the second sentence is the cannibal because, without the comma, Grandma becomes the object of the verb eat.

To discover how a slight difference in wording and punctuation can make a vast difference in meaning, examine each pair of sentences and choose the one that answers the question correctly. Answers repose at the end of this column.

1. In which case is Percy cashing in on his father’s power?

a. Percy flaunts his father’s authority.
b. Percy flouts his father’s authority.

2. Which person is more skeptical?

a. She is an incredible reader.
b. She is an incredulous reader.

3. Which invitation is more dangerous?

a. I invite you to desert.
b. I invite you to dessert.

4. Which structure got bombed?

a. The soldiers raised the fort.
b. The soldiers razed the fort.

5. Which marriage is stronger?

a. My wife likes golf better than I.
b. My wife likes golf better than me.

6. Which woman is a magician?

a. She embellished her talk with a series of allusions.
b. She embellished her talk with a series of illusions.

7. In which situation should you be careful about lighting a match?

a. In the room stood a tank of inflammable gas.
b. In the room stood a tank of nonflammable gas.

8. Which nation is safer?

a. Our country has the ultimate defense system.
b. Our country has the penultimate defense system.

9. Which statement definitely includes two people?

a. Mary inferred that she was unhappy with the job.
b. Mary implied that she was unhappy with the job.

10. Which town boasts strong educational leadership?

a. I admire the town’s principles.
b. I admire the town’s principals.

11. Which man could be called a Romeo?

a. He spent a lot of time repelling women.
b. He spent a lot of time repulsing women.

12. Which company is in more trouble?

a. The company is floundering.
b. The company is foundering.

13. Which car is worth more?

a. The car is of infinite value.
b. The car is of infinitesimal value.

14. In which statement can you put a sock?

a. It’s darned good.
b. It’s darned well.

15. Which airplane poses the greater danger?

a. The plane will be in the air soon.
b. The plane will be in the air momentarily.

16. Which employee should be fired?

a. The butler stood at the door and called the guests names.
b. The butler stood at the door and called the guests’ names.

17. Which is the greater compliment?

a. I know you’re superior.
b. I know your superior.

18. Which situation is worse for the Democratic party?

a. Democrats who are seen as weak will not be elected.
b. Democrats, who are seen as weak, will not be elected.

19. Which scene is more threatening?

a. I saw a man eating lobster.
b. I saw a man-eating lobster.

20. Which speaker is Ishmael’s girlfriend?

a. Call me Ishmael.
b. Call me, Ishmael.

 

*****

Answers
1. a 2. b 3. a 4. b 5. a 6. b 7. a 8. a 9. a 10. b
11. a 12. b 13. a 14. b 15. b 16 a 17. a 18. b 19. b 20. b