Focusing on Words Newsletter #04

(the fourth newsletter of a series that was formerly presented to subscribers by the Sr. Scribe, a.k.a. John Robertson)

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The Senior Scribe is trying to find more info for his project.

Failures are divided into two classes--those who thought and never did, and those who did and never thought.

—John Charles Salak
Instructions for Use of Commercial Products

These statements were found on actual products. Really! Why? Is it ignorance on the part of companies or is this something out of “Instructions for Dummies?” Not all of them are blunders in English.

The warning labels are real because some companies are afraid of being abused by frivolous lawsuits that U.S. courts should be throwing out without further consideration. Instead, it is costing consumers millions of dollars because companies are actually required by law to pay large sums for nonsense lawsuits and, of course, these costs are passed on to those who buy their products.

Robert Dorigo Jones, president of the Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch, a consumer advocacy group says, "Wacky warning labels are a sign of our lawsuit-happy times."

  • On hairdryer instructions: Do not use while sleeping.
  • On a bag of Fritos: You could be a winner! No purchase necessary. Details inside.
  • On a bar of Dial soap: Directions. Use like regular soap.
  • Frozen dinner that says: Serving suggestion, Defrost.
  • On a hotel-provided shower cap in a box: Fits one head.
  • On Tesco's Tiramisu dessert: Do not turn upside down. (Printed on the bottom of the box)
  • On Marks & Spencer bread pudding: Product will be hot after heating.
  • On packaging for a Rowenta iron: Do not iron clothes on body.
  • On Boots (pharmacy chain in the UK) children's cough medicine: Do not drive car or operate machinery after use.
  • On Nytol: Warning, may cause drowsiness.
  • On a Korean kitchen knife: Warning, keep out of children.
  • On a string of Chinese-made Christmas lights: For indoor or outdoor use only.
  • On a Japanese food processor: Not to be used for the other use.
  • On Sainsbury's peanuts: Warning, contains nuts.
  • On an American Airlines packet of nuts: Instructions, open packet, eat nuts.
  • On a Swedish chainsaw: Do not attempt to stop chain with your hands.
  • Contributed by Doron, As seen in Joke of the Day! Date: Tue, 27 Oct 1998.

  • Label on a baby stroller (British, "pram"): Remove your child before folding the stroller for storage.
  • A Batman costume carried a warning stating: "PARENT: Please exercise caution. FOR PLAY ONLY. Mask and chest plate are not protective. Cape does not enable user to fly.
  • A plastic sled advises users to wear helmets and to avoid trees, rocks, or "man-made obstacles."

    It also states: "This product does not have brakes."

  • Addicted to Milk? A self-described milk-a-holic is suing the dairy industry, claiming that a lifetime of drinking whole milk contributed to his clogged arteries and a minor stroke. Norman Mayo, 61, believes he might have avoided his health problems if he had been warned on milk cartons about fat and cholesterol.

    "I drank milk like some people drink beer or water," he said. "I've always loved a nice cold glass of milk, and I've drank [sic] a lot of it."

    The Associated Press, 6/6/97.

  • Milk Lawsuit - Featured in Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" [a Talk-Show Host and comedian on American T-V].

    As Jay Leno noted in his monologue on June 10, 1997, "Here's another reason why Americans hate lawyers. A man in suburban Seattle is suing the dairy industry because he's become addicted to milk and it has raised his cholesterol to dangerous levels. It's just as dangerous as tobacco. The government should have warning labels on milk, in fact this is the proposed warning label:


Letters from Readers

[Editor's note: There's always at least one joker as shown by the first reader/writer].

  1. The principal reason for this discussion is to decrease one’s spelunking spills.
  2. Some of us should live by no particular moral principles; I live by the immoral Principal Corruthers.
  3. The principal character in the play is ill.
  4. His political principles are not acceptable.
  5. As a matter of principle, he refused to borrow money from anyone over three meters tall who fancied avocados.
  6. The principal invested in that project was $100, 000, 000, 000.
  7. We must install computer chips into the hypothalamusi of our youth which will instill principles of honesty and morality and the urge to vote Republican.
—By Michael McK in Watertown

I hope that my cooperation will be of help. I can't wait to read what this is all about . . . and to hear from you regarding how I scored.

—Christine C.

I know I don't have to make any comments but I have to say that this was a real eye opener. I felt as if I was back in school.

—Susan E.

Just wanted to add a note of thanks. I've really been enjoying your messages.

—Veronica P.

Dear John,

Many thanks for your efforts. I just wanted to let you know I always look forward to your newsletters.

—Sincerely, Leila

It might be of interest for the purposes of your survey that I am not, in fact, a native English speaker; my mother tongue is German.

[Ed. note: All of your answers were correct].


I learned these differences in 5th grade! - The princiPAL of the school is our PAL - he's a number-one (principal) guy; I'll admit cheating on number 6 - I've probably spelt it wrong all my life!

Diane P.

"The principal 'pal' of the principal . . ." came in useful.

—Joy B.

Bravo for tackling this one. Why not try "lay" and "lie"; my students love to confuse those two, also. And believe it or not, they mix up the plurals of "this" and "that".

—Virginia B.

Are you trying to make a point about our country's lack of principles?

—Shilo P-E

Interesting examples. Using one word or the other changes the meaning of the sentences in interesting ways. But I guess "principle" can,t be used as an adjective?

—Sharon V.

After the quiz, I checked the dictionary on my PC, and I was in for a rude awakening. I certainly have a better understanding of the two words, because I did not realize that principal had a monetary meaning. I'll not forget the definition anytime soon.

—best regards,
Wayne H.
(aka 10 degrees below a rock)

Hi, John.

This is a good idea. I look forward to learning the results. I suggest you test us with "affect/effect" and "stationary/stationery." Others, doubtless, would be useful, but none comes to mind. On another topic, how about a test for subject/verb agreement, like "none-is/none-are" or "data-is/data-are"?

—Thanks for your work.
Frank P.

Hi John,

I just mentally replaced "principal" with "main" and "principle" with "scruples" and made my choices based on that. I paused on #6, but I stayed with the same definitions, because you have the "main" money (principal) and the interest, which is earned from it.

—Ann C.

After looking at these sentences, I can easily see that many folks could be quite confused. It was a fun mental workout.


Hello Mr. John Robertson,

Thank you very much for allowing me to join your Focusing on Words Newsletter. I am Japanese. I am trying to learn English.

—Masamichi O.
[Ed. note: Masamichi answered ALL of them correctly.]

Hey John, this is tougher than it first appears! Good challenge! Bestest,

[Editor: When asked what system this subscriber used to choose the right "princip-", his response was as follows]


I don't think it qualifies as a system, but here's my thought process: I know that one of the words refers to abstract decision-making guidelines for things like morals, ethics, professional decisions, etc., and I know that that word isn't "principal" because Principal was the sign on the office door of the guy who ran my grade school, and I remember walking past that sign in the first grade and thinking "He's no pal of mine."

The logic doesn't track, but I walk through this little personal memory each time I have to distinguish between these two words, and it seems to get me to the right answer.

I rely on an obscure personal memory to determine that "principal" does not refer to abstract values and decision-making guidelines. If "principal" doesn't refer to them, then "principle" does.

Hope this helps.


I used the word principle anytime it was talking about one's moral belief system. Principles are beliefs or values. I used the word principal meaning the central or main thing. Also, principal means an amount of money.

I teach 6th grade language arts and math. My boss is a principal with few principles.

—Mark C. G.

The oldest trick in the book. My high school principal, who is the main person in the school, is my pal. Works for nouns and works for adjectives. The only one I wasn't sure of was principle/principal meaning money in the bank. I made a good guess (or inference.)


More Denglish

Another article about “Denglish” this one from the Berlin Journal which has a Copyright of 1998, of The New York Times Company and was written on December 6, 1998. Sent in by Douglas B. in Berlin.

The same article also appeared in the International Herald Tribune, on December 7, 1998, with the title, “Germany Debates ‘Denglisch’ ”

Some parts of the article from the Journal include the following (partly edited to make it shorter):

“Berlin Has a Word for Its Ambitions: English” by Roger Cohen.

  • The fight to be the leading newspaper of the city with ambitions to be Europe’s new capital is a ferocious one, so when executives at the Berliner Morgenpost sat down recently to dream up a new advertising slogan, they thought long and hard. What they came up with was:“Simply the Best.”
  • Not “Einfach besser,” German for the same idea, but “Simply the Best,” as in Tina Turner’s popular song. “ Our target group was young people,” said Rolf Buer, the paper’s marketing manager, “and this slogan was young, fresh, simple and sure to get people talking. German words are just too long.”
  • That may seem an unjust accusation to level at “Einfach besser,” but it is true that if precision is a hallmark of the German vocabulary, brevity is not. In any event, the issue is clearly a broader one, for the English encroachment on Deutsch has assumed epic proportions, giving rise to a form of speech widely known as “Denglisch.”
  • Consider this city, whose passion for reinventing itself is very much of the New World. As you drive past posters advertising Volkswagen’s “New Beetle” (not “Der neue Kafer”), you may hear a radio advertisement for an Audi that gives you “die power,” only to see a newspaper headline about Germany’s lack of “jobs” (forget “arbeit”), as the radio turns to a discussion of Berliners’ growing attraction for “the American way of life.”
  • English, of course, is advancing everywhere, propelled by the Internet and the dominance of American popular culture. It is the most widely studied foreign language in German schools, where most children start learning it at age 11. Its advance appears particularly marked here, strong enough to set off a debate on what it is to be a German.
  • “I don’t like to think in terms of national borders,” said Ulrich Veigel, head of the Bates advertising agency in Germany. “I live in Germany, and was born here, but I’m a citizen of the world, and that is the way we should all think. In the medium-term, nationalities have no chance.”
  • English, Veigel continued, is a wonderful language precisely because it is the most cosmopolitan. “I look forward to the day,” he said, “when I go to France and do not have to speak French.”
  • Until that day -- some way off if the Academie Francaise has anything to do with it -- Veigel will be pushing his message in Germany, where the Bates agency is responsible for the current campaign of the cargo division of the national airline, Lufthansa. Slogan: “Thinking in new directions.” It is also promoting a new German telephone company called “First Telecom” with the jingle “You can’t beat the First.”
  • Such catchwords clearly reflect a perception that Germans see English as more contemporary or modish. “New Beetle sounds more hip than neue Kafer,” said Sabina Metzner of Volkswagen. “We wanted to make clear that the Beetle might have some resemblances to the old Kafer, but it is very much a modern car.”
  • The Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder, devoted much of a recent summit meeting with French leaders to the issue of defending “Franco-German culture” against the cultural pull of America through the establishment of a new Franco-German university in Saarbrucken and other measures.
  • Of course, France and Germany have a basic problem: the unfettered, dynamic, creative culture of California is more attractive to many young people than European societies often identified with high unemployment and rigidity.
  • “The young want to hear English,“ said Buer of the Berliner Morgenpost. “It’s seen as free and flexible.”
  • Besides, he noted, if the Berliner Morgenpost had chosen “Einfach besser” instead of “Simply the Best” as a slogan, it might have violated the German law known as the “Unzulassige Alleinstellung,” which forbids sweeping assertions of superiority in advertising.
  • “We would have had to answer a lot of questions,” Buer said. “Better than who? Better than what? Why better? Better in what precise respect? It was just too much bother, whereas in English we could do what we wanted.” Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

  • Mnemonic devices can guarantee greater accuracy in spelling certain English words.

    Before you read this section about mnemonics, please STOP here NOW, and take a “pre-test” over the words that will be discussed. Even if you do well on this test, you may still come back for the presentation. So, please go to (click on) the Mnemonics "Seed" Quiz over -cede, -ceed, -sede words to see how well you can spell words that have the endings that are pronounced “seed”.

    How to decide between -cede, -ceed, and -sede.

    The spelling of many English words is confusing even to those whose first language is English.

    Problems: Is it supercede, superceed, or supersede? Is it accede or acceed? Is it proceed or preceed, and is it excede or exceed?

  • Let’s examine the simple facts and basic principles behind the spelling patterns of all of the English words that end with the pronunciation of seed. There are just twelve words that have the seed pronounced endings.
  • To avoid doubt and confusion, to be able to make an instantaneous, self-assured, and accurate decision on the spelling of any word whose final syllable is pronounced seed, you have to know two things:

    1. Of the twelve words, one, and only one, ends in the four letters -S-E-D-E. That one word is supersede
    Supersede, is the only word in the entire English language that is spelled with the -sede ending.

    Supersede was born in Rome thousands of years ago. It comes from Latin super, “above”, and sedeo, “to sit”.

    If one thing supersedes another, it figuratively, and by derivation, “sits above or over it”; that is, “it replaces” something. An example: “The year 2000 will supersede 1999.”

    Supersede is the only verb in English that derives directly from Latin sedeo, to sit, hence the only word with the -sede termination.

    There are many nouns and adjectives that come indirectly from sedeo or one of its forms:

    president, one who sits before a group;
    sedentary, moving little, hence sitting, as in a sedentary occupation;
    session, a sitting or meeting of a group of people;
    sedate, calm, hence sitting still, etc.

    2. There are three other unique words that you should learn, the three words that end in the letters -C-E-E-D: succeed, proceed, and exceed.

  • These two facts, that only supersede ends in -sede, and that only succeed, proceed, and exceed end in -ceed, permit you to make an immediate and correct choice between -sede, -ceed, and -cede.
  • Obviously, with two of the three possible spellings accounted for, the eight remaining words of the original twelve can end in only one way: -C-E-D-E.
  • 3. It’s unnecessary that you learn what these eight words are or that you learn how to spell all or any of them because you know that they all end with -cede.
  • For your information, here are the eight words:

    accede, to give consent; to become a party to an agreement or treaty.

    antecede, to precede; that is, to come before in time or order.

    cede, to surrender possession of formally or officially; to yield or grant, as by a treaty.

    concede, 1. To acknowledge as true, just, or proper, often unwillingly; to admit by conceding the point. 2. To give or grant as a privilege or right.

    intercede, to argue on another’s behalf; to act as a mediator in a dispute; to come between.

    precede, to come before in time, in rank, or order.

    recede, to move back or away from a limit, point, or mark.

    secede, to withdraw formally from membership in an association, organization, or alliance, especially a political one.

  • How can you remember that succeed, proceed, and exceed belong in a class by themselves, and are not to be confused with the eight -cede words? How can you fix these three crucial verbs permanently in your mind, nail them down for all time?

  • Keep these facts in mind:

    Succeed starts with “s”.
    Proceed starts with “p”, and means go ahead.
    Exceed starts with “e”.

  • Now think of, and remember, the key phrase: “Full Speed Ahead”. This one phrase, Full Speed Ahead, and in particular the word speed, will be your guarantee against two unpleasant possibilities:

    1. Any annoying doubt as to whether a word correctly ends in -ceed or -cede.

    2. Any error in writing -cede for -ceed, or vice versa.

  • Notice how simply this mnemonic works:

    Speed ends in -eed.
    The “s” of speed identifies succeed.
    The “p” of speed identifies proceed.
    The “e” of speed identifies exceed.
    The ending of speed identifies the endings of all three words: succeed, proceed, exceed.
    Finally, the word “ahead” in “Full Speed Ahead” identifies proceed, which means “go ahead”, and eliminates “precede”, which means “come before”.

  • There is one irregularity that you should be aware of:

    Proceed, as you know, belongs to one of the three -ceed verbs, but the noun and adjective forms do not follow the same format. Contrary to what you might normally expect, these forms are spelled: procedure and procedural.

  • That’s all there is to the problem of making a choice between -cede, -ceed, and
  • Here are the basic principles again:

    Only one word in English ends in -sede, namely supersede.

    Only three words in English end in -ceed, namely succeed, proceed, and exceed (mnemonic: Full speed Ahead).

    All of the other words with a similar “seed” sound end in -cede.

    Procedure and procedural; however, do not follow the pattern of proceed.

    Now is a good time to test yourself.

    Would you like to see if the mnemonic devices I have given to you function properly? If so, just click on this self-grading Mnemonics "Seed" Quiz again so you can re-take the -cede, -ceed, -sede words so you can see how easy it is to recognize the correct spelling of these words.

  • See this Focusing on Words Newsletters Index for other newsletters.