Mind your P's and Q's, it's the Kansas State Fair

Questionable grammar and bad spelling are more fun than tantalizing the mechanical bull.

My favorite thing used to be to call the Eagle copy desk and ask if "none" is a plural or singular noun. (Although my editor and I disagree on how closely the rule should be observed, "none" is singular. If the sentence, "None of them is attending" makes you a little queasy at first, remember that "none" is essentially a contraction of "not one": "Not one is attending.") The beleaguered-sounding clerk would answer, "singular," and I'd say, yes, I thought so too, and then read back to him whatever copy I'd found in that morning's edition in which it was used with a plural verb. The plural "none" was my favorite to call about, but there always were and still are other gaffes. When the noun "court martial" is pluralized in the Eagle there's a 50/50 chance of the correct form ("courts martial") being used. Once, in a headline, they used the word "seldomly," a neologism my word processor corrects so persistently that I can barely get it to stay on the screen.

The point of my calls was that if anyone or anything in Wichita should be held to a high standard of grammar it's the Eagle, because tens of thousands of people read it daily and they trust that what they read there is grammatically correct. After all, Eagle writers write for a living. They're the professionals where language is concerned.

It's a dangerous business for a writer to get into the business of faulting the grammar of others. (Ask Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation; reviewing the book for The New Yorker, Louis Menand began by identifying dozens of grammatical errors in its opening pages.) I write against a weekly deadline, and if you go back to previous issues I guarantee that you'll find the mistakes you're looking for. (For which you're looking?) Many Eagle writers publish daily, and there is thus a part of me that knows they deserve a bigger break than I give them.

Last Friday at the Kansas State Fair the extent to which I nitpick on the Eagle was brought into sharp focus for me. I was looking at a sign on a concessions kiosk that read:

Hand Dipped in Chocolate
I wasn't much interested in the cheesecake, but what about this hand?

A Breakfast Offer

I know I'm being a snob and I understand that the people responsible for the infractions I'm about to recount to you don't write or teach English for a living. They're farmers or carnival workers or whatever else, and they have more important things to worry about than whether they need "it's" or "its" for their sign about high-yield grains. I acknowledge that the vast majority of them understands the difference and that tolerating my attitude toward lapses is harder than tolerating the lapses themselves.

Still, these hands dipped in chocolate fascinate me. If you're creating a permanent sign for your business, why not run the wording past somebody else before committing it to paint or carving it into your business? Why ruin your leather jacket, as did a guy a friend of mine once saw, by painting "Posion," rather than "Poison," on the back? How did proofreaders miss the unintentional meanings in such infamous (and maybe apocryphal) headlines as British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands and Syracuse Residents Can Drop Off Trees?

While driving down Kellogg once, a friend of mine suddenly began to veer crazily and to pass through his nose the 32-ounce Dr. Pepper he was drinking. The cause, I soon discovered, was this all-time greatest, unintentional double entendre, posted on a Port-A-Sign in front of a Wendy's: BREAKFAST UNDER A BUCK. The speed limit on that stretch of Kellogg is 60 MPH; my friend and I might easily have been killed. Still, I'm grateful to the Wendy's employee responsible for having created that sign, because Jesus! Breakfast under a buck? No one can ever take that away from me.

How Do Worms Breathe?

If you have only one day at the fair and you've gone specifically to read funny signs, your one-stop headquarters is the Pride of Kansas building. I love this agriculture building, with its 600-pound pumpkins, glassed-in hive of honey bees, Kansas Noxious Weeds exhibit, jars of brown recluse spiders (these look scarily different from what I thought), and refrigerated butter sculpture. But the butthole grammarian in me finds other attractions there as well, even beyond the perennial MENS and WOMENS RESTROOM signs. This year, examining a tag on what appeared to be a sculpture of the Pillsbury Doughboy, I found this information: "Subclass: celebrity or look a like scarecro"; and something about that "look a like," combined with the misspelling of "scarecrow," gave the thing a crazy, E. E. Cummings feel. In a display detailing the hardships that befell Kansas wheat farmers last season, I ran across more poetry: someone had hopefully titled one section "Wheat... against all odds." I liked its succinctness and tried a few myself. "Suddenly sorghum." "From adversity, soy." My favorite sign – a clear winner – read, "Is there a GUARANTEED floor under your current investments? Ask me how!" How?!

In AgriLand, a walk-through agricultural exhibit "for children of all ages," I was right away confronted with the prohibition, "Do not climb on the soil tunnel." A few minutes later I learned that Harney silt loam was designated in 1990 the official soil of the state of Kansas. Probably everyone else who was in AgriLand at that moment uses compound nouns like "soil tunnel" and "Harney silt loam" every day — they know all about them — but I don't, and to me they were exotic and weird. I loved them, and I answered people with the words "Harney silt loam" for the rest of the day, no matter what they asked.

The words "Harney silt loam" reminded me of a time many years ago when I walked into my parents' house and found my brother Tom reading a book really, really intensely.

"What are you reading about?" I asked him.

"Complementary metal-oxide semiconductor field effect transistor logic,"he said. Duh.

Pinned to the side of the soil tunnel — I found it; the problem was that I had been looking around at eye level rather than down — were some common questions about worms. AgriLand had been fun for me up to this point because it imposed a new vocabulary on me, but this worm FAQ was a document worthy of any state fair. It read, in part:

Q: How do worms breath?
A: Through their skin that is covered by mucus.

Q: How do earthworms eat?
A: They do not have teeth but instead they have strong mouth mussels.
We can all understand how "mussels" slipped past the spell check, but "Through their skin that is covered by mucus" reveals a writer facing a classic that/which quandary, and choosing wrongly.

AgriLand left me with the most perplexing yet of this year's written communications. (And it wasn't "5 tons of topsoil spread over an acre is as thick as a dime," which is easy enough to understand but feels like some kind of weird, hillbilly adage: "A woman who won't holler is nine beatings for eight beers" is a make-believe example of the kind of weird thing I mean.) Near the exit, a sign set off to itself read, "If soybean oil was part of the formula for all U.S. commercial carpets, 47,000,000 bushels of beans would be consumed." I can't cipher it; I leave it to you. Enjoy.

"Please Prepare Yourself"

Just outside the Pride of Kansas building you'll see a banner reading RENTAL'S. You'll be offered "freshly battered cheese curds," deep-fried Twinkies on a stick, and peanuts ("Pnuts" on the sign) sold by men of too few words and advertised with the slogan, "More you eat, more you want." (This is a big improvement on the catchy slogan with which fudge is pitched to fair-goers elsewhere: "You know it's fresh when you see it made.")

Are you looking for a frame for your license plate? Why not choose I KNOW, I KNOW, LICENSE AND REGISTRATION? It will go with your personalized tag, provided that your tag says DRUNK or DEALER. An edgier choice might be CAN'T SLEEP. CLOWNS WILL EAT ME. You can buy "stamping nail art" or a T-shirt reading, "We'll always be friends but you know to [sic] much."

Make your way to the Midway and you'll have an opportunity to win "'live fish' or 'stuff' toy"; simply "stick 2 dart in the yellow of Spongebob to win." A few booths away you'll be instructed to "Buy Tokens from the game Operator. Insert tokens in shooter and aim at black flame area. Use your timing and skill to push blue tokens and prizes off of front edge to you. Trade the blue tokens for larger prizes. The push button will stop the moving target and allow multiple shots. Tokens that fall into side out-of-bounds areas are retained by game operators. Please ask game operator if you have any questions. Thank You."

The rides lie ahead. The Mega Drop, which was imported from Italy in June, 2002 ("the fifth unit to enter the USA"), is a "140 foot super spectacular attraction [that] accelerates to almost 60 m.p.h. before coming to a stop. Braking," the information posted on the ride continues, "is accomplished by the latest in magnetic technology... It is a fail safe system that exploits the features of a magnetic field against metal thereby creating an intense friction. No fear...? Fear this." I did. "Guests should expect rapidly changing turbulent forces. Guests should not ride this ride if... you are not able to sit upright, hold on or be restrained."

Even if the Mega Drop didn't caution that the "mentally challenged may not find this ride suitable," I wouldn't have ridden it because the magnetic technology stuff represents, for me, a creepy example of over-reassurance. I prefer the more straightforward advice given at the bumper cars ("Avoid Head on Collisions") or the poetic ambiguity of the mechanical bull directives ("Hold on underhand with One Hand — whichever feels better. Right Hand right of middle ring or Left Hand left of ring. IMPORTANT NOTE: Tantalizing bull or harassing operator could prove to be hazardous to your health").

I probably will never need those instructions either as I probably will never mount a mechanical bull. Part of what's so great about the state fair, though, is that it throws all of us in together: those of us who wish to sustain the six G's of the Mega Drop and ride the mechanical bull, those of us who know all about Harney silt loam and soilborne wheat mosaic, those of us who hanker for deep-fried Twinkies and Pronto Pups ("A banquet on a stick"), and those of us who, like me, make our way slowly to the NOW booth, worrying about the wording on every poster and sign we see. One sign, posted outside a ride on the Midway, says, "Please prepare yourself. You will be seated with others." And in my opinion that's the best sign of all at the fair this year because that's what it's like for me.