Dear Straight Dope:
Today at work I noticed that the state flag was sort of at 3/4 mast. Does this mean somebody important is seriously ill?
I’d say more likely either someone has serious depth perception problems or was in a hurry to get inside to use a restroom. When one raises a flag to half mast, you’re supposed to raise it all the way, then lower it to half. To lower a flag that is at half mast, you’re supposed to raise it all the way first. But these are the rules (or traditions if you prefer) for the US flag. You didn’t specify in what state this occured. The different states have been known to have silly laws.
Incidentally, some will quibble that the correct term isn’t "half mast" but "half staff." While the latter seems to be the preferred term in U.S. statutes, dictionaries tend to define "half staff" by saying "see half mast." For what it’s worth, the two terms show up about equally often in a Google search. For a fuller discussion, see: http://www.usa-flag-site.org/faq/half-staff.shtml.
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