Caveat: I have a BA and MA in Literature, and like the rest of the English-speaking world, I have absolutely no understanding of how English actually works or why it does what it does. Zero.
Hidden Secret: No one does. And if they tell you they do, they're lying. They just know different parts than you do of the imperfect whole.
Case in Point: My use of the phrase "wail on" in today's strip. Growing up in Southern California, I always heard surfers use the phrase to describe punishing surf. I thought I was using a slang phrase correctly with "wail", but I had a dozen professors and professional editors pounce on me this morning. In the interest of sharing, here's how my intensive, five seconds of subsequent research netted out:
Apparently, there are two official ways it works: Both whaling on and waling on. I honestly didn't even realize it had been codified, and thought I was using some street-slang form: waling on. As it turns out, all I ended up doing was picking the one conceivable form where it *doesn't* officially work! :)
Interestingly, if you type in "wail on" into Google (always useful to see how commonly used a phrase is in everyday life -- English ain't following L'Academie francaise rule book, after all), you get 366,000 matches.
Typing "whale on" gets you 7,500,000 matches.
And typing "wale on" gets you 2,670,000 matches.
So there you have it! Even in the court of public opinion, I failed utterly, and picked the absolute worst option of the three. English: It's Awesome!