Tuesday, January 31, 2012

misnomer: Entry for Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A misnomer is a mistake in naming a thing; calling a debit card a “credit card” is a misnomer. Do not use the term more generally to designate other sorts of confusion, misunderstood concepts, or fallacies, and above all do not render this word as “misnamer.”

Monday, January 30, 2012

denied of/denied: Entry for Monday, January 30, 2012

denied of/denied

If you are deprived of your rights you are denied them; but that’s no reason to confuse these two expressions with each other. You can’t be “denied of” anything.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

unpleased: Entry for Sunday, January 29, 2012

“Unpleased” is considered archaic; the standard modern word for your reaction to something you don’t like is “displeased.”

However “unpleasing” is still current to describe something that fails to please: “the arrangement of ‘Silent Night’ for truck air horns was unpleasing.” But “displeasing” is more common.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

squoze/squeezed: Entry for Saturday, January 28, 2012

The standard past tense of “squeeze” is not “squoze” but “squeezed.” Even most people who write “squoze” know this, and use it jokingly.

Friday, January 27, 2012

offline: Entry for Friday, January 27, 2012


When your computer is connected to the Internet, you are online. When you disconnect from the Internet, you are offline.

People who don’t understand this often say of things they get from the Internet that they downloaded them “offline,” evidently thinking that the word means “off of the Internet.” Nothing can be uploaded or downloaded to a site when you are offline.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

invite/invitation: Entry for Thursday, January 26, 2012


“Invite” (accent on the second syllable) is perfectly standard as a verb: “Invite me to the birthday party and I’ll jump out of the cake.”

But “invite” (accent on the first syllable) as a noun meaning “invitation” is less acceptable: “I got an invite to my ex-wife’s wedding.” Though this form has become extremely popular, even in fairly formal contexts, it is safer to use the traditional “invitation.”

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

expressed/express: Entry for Wednesday, January 25, 2012


One of the meanings of “express” is “explicit”: “Izaak claimed that his old boss had given him express permission to shop on eBay for fishing rods during work hours.” Some people feel the word should be “expressed,” and that form is not likely to get anyone into trouble; but if you use it you should not presume to correct others who stick with the traditional form: “express permission” (or orders, or mandate, or whatever).


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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

how to/how can I: Entry for Tuesday, January 24, 2012

how to/how can I

You can ask someone how to publish a novel; but when you do, don’t write “How to publish a novel?” Instead ask “How can I publish a novel?” or “How does someone publish a novel?” If you’re in luck, the person you’ve asked will tell you how to do it. “How to” belongs in statements, not questions.

Monday, January 23, 2012

degree titles: Entry for Monday, January 23, 2012

degree titles

When you are writing phrases like “bachelor’s degree,” “master of arts degree” and “doctor of philosophy degree” use all lower-case spelling. Less formally, these are often abbreviated to “bachelor’s,” “master’s,” and “doctorate”: “I earned my master’s at Washington State University.”

The only time to capitalize the spelled-out forms of degree names is when you are specifying a particular degree’s name: “Master of English Composition.” However the abbreviations BA, MA, and PhD are all capitalized. In modern usage periods are not usually added.

Be careful not to omit the apostrophes where needed. Some schools have adopted a spelling of “Masters” without an apostrophe, and if you work for one of them you may have to adopt this non-standard form for institutional work; but usage guides uniformly recommend the apostrophe.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

souse chef: Entry for Sunday, January 22, 2012

souse chef

What’s a “souse chef”? Is it the fellow who adds a dash of brandy to your dessert?

No, it’s just a misspelling of sous chef, a French phrase meaning “assistant chef.” The first word is pronounced just like “sue.” 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

maddening crowd: Entry for Saturday, January 21, 2012

maddening crowd
When Thomas Hardy titled one of his novels Far from the Madding Crowd he was quoting a phrase from Thomas Gray’s 1750 poem “Elegy on a Country Churchyard” which used the archaic spelling “madding.” The only reason to refer to “madding crowds” is to show how sophisticated you are; but if you update the spelling to “maddening” it will have the opposite effect: you’ll look ignorant.

Friday, January 20, 2012

recent/resent: Entry for Friday, January 20, 2012

There are actually three words to distinguish here. “Recent,” always pronounced with an unvoiced hissy S and with the accent on the first syllable, means “not long ago,” as in, “I appreciated your recent encouragement.” “Resent” has two different meanings with two different pronunciations, both with the accent on the second syllable. In the most common case, where “resent” means “feel annoyed at,” the word is pronounced with a voiced Z sound: “I resent your implication that I gave you the chocolates only because I was hoping you’d share them with me.” In the less common case, the word means “to send again,” and is pronounced with an unvoiced hissy S sound: “The e-mail message bounced, so I resent it.” So say the intended word aloud. If the accent is on the second syllable, “resent” is the spelling you need.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

road to hoe/row to hoe: Entry for Thursday, January 19, 2012

road to hoe/row to hoe

Out in the cotton patch you have a tough row to hoe. This saying has nothing to do with road construction.


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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

orders of magnitude: Entry for Wednesday, January 18, 2012

orders of magnitude

Many pretentious writers have begun to use the expression “orders of magnitude” without understanding what it means. The concept derives from the scientific notation of very large numbers in which each order of magnitude is ten times the previous one. When the bacteria in a flask have multiplied from some hundreds to some thousands, it is very handy to say that their numbers have increased by an order of magnitude, and when they have increased to some millions, that their numbers have increased by four orders of magnitude.

Number language generally confuses people. Many seem to suppose that a 100% increase must be pretty much the same as an increase by an order of magnitude, but in fact such an increase represents merely a doubling of quantity. A “hundredfold increase” is even bigger: one hundred times as much. If you don’t have a firm grasp on such concepts, it’s best to avoid the expression altogether. After all, “Our audience is ten times as big now as when the show opened” makes the same point more clearly than “Our audience has increased by an order of magnitude.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

not all: Entry for Tuesday, January17, 2012

not all
The combination of “not” and “all” can be confusing if you’re not careful about placement. “All politicians are not corrupt” could theoretically mean that no politician is corrupt; but what you probably mean to say is “Not all politicians are corrupt.” When “not all” is a minority, it’s sometimes better to replace “not all” with “some.” “The widescreen version is not available in all video stores” can be made clearer by saying “The widescreen version is not available in some stores.”

Monday, January 16, 2012

forbidding/foreboding/formidable: Entry for Monday, January 16, 2012


“Foreboding” means “ominous,” as in “The sky was a foreboding shade of gray” (i.e., predictive of a storm). The prefix “fore-” with an E often indicates futurity, e.g. “forecast,” “foreshadowing,” and “foreword” (a prefatory bit of writing at the beginning of a book, often misspelled “forword”). A forbidding person or task is hostile or dangerous: “The trek across the desert to the nearest latte stand was forbidding.” The two are easily confused because some things, like storms, can be both foreboding and forbidding.

“Formidable,” which originally meant “fear-inducing” (“Mike Tyson is a formidable opponent”), has come to be used primarily as a compliment meaning “awe-inducing” (“Gary Kasparov’s formidable skills as a chess player were of no avail against Deep Blue”).

Sunday, January 15, 2012

shone/shown: Entry for Sunday, January 15, 2012

“Shone” is the past tense of “shine”: “long after sunset, the moon still shone brightly in the sky.”

“Shown” is a past tense form of “show”: “foreign films are rarely shown at our local theater.”

Saturday, January 14, 2012

got to: Entry for Saturday, January 14, 2012

got to
“Gotta go now. Bye!” This is a common casual way to end a phone conversation. But it’s good to remember that it’s a slangy abbreviation of the more formal “I have got to go now.” In writing, at least, remember the “have” before the “got” in this phrase meaning “have to.” In fact, you can omit the “got” altogether and say simply “I have to go.” For a slightly less formal effect, contract “have” thus: “I’ve got to go.”

Friday, January 13, 2012

needs -ed/-ing: Entry for Friday, January 13, 2012

needs -ed/-ing
In some dialects it is common to say “my shoes need shined” instead of the standard “my shoes need shining” or “my shoes need to be shined.”


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Thursday, January 12, 2012

ethics/morals/morale: Entry for Thursday, January 12, 2012


Strictly speaking, ethics are beliefs: if you have poor ethics, you have lax standards; but your morals are your behavior: if you have poor morals, you behave badly. You can have high standards but still fail to follow them: strong ethics and weak morals. “Morale” formerly had both these meanings and you will find them attached to the word in some dictionaries, but you would be wise to avoid it in either of these senses in modern writing. By far the most common current use of “morale” is to label your state of mind, particularly how contented you are with life. A person with low morals is bad; but a person with low morale may be merely depressed.


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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

goal/objective: Entry for Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Most language authorities consider “goal” to be a synonym of “objective,” and some dismiss the popular bureaucratic phrase “goals and objectives” as a meaningless redundancy.

However, if you have to deal with people who insist there is a distinction, here is their usual argument: goals are general, objectives are more specific. If your goal is to create a safer work environment, your objective might be to remove the potted poison ivy plant from your desk. In education, a typical example would be that if your goal is to improve your French, one objective might be to master the subjunctive.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

media/medium: Entry for Tuesday, January 10, 2012


There are several words with Latin or Greek roots whose plural forms ending in A are constantly mistaken for singular ones. Radio is a broadcast medium. Television is another broadcast medium. Newspapers are a print medium. Together they are media. Following the tendency of Americans to abbreviate phrases, with “transistor radio” becoming “transistor” (now fortunately obsolete) and “videotape” becoming “video,” “news media” and “communications media” have been abbreviated to “media.” Remember that watercolor on paper and oil on black velvet are also media, though they have nothing to do with the news. When you want to get a message from your late Uncle Fred, you may consult a medium. The word means a vehicle between some source of information and the recipient of it. The “media” are the transmitters of the news; they are not the news itself.

Monday, January 9, 2012

fearful/fearsome: Entry for Monday, January 9, 2012


To be “fearful” is to be afraid. To be “fearsome” is to cause fear in others. Remember that someone who is fierce is fearsome rather than fearful.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

faithful/fateful: Entry for Sunday, January 8, 2012

That decisive, highly significant day is not “faithful” but “fateful.” Although the phrase “fateful day” can refer to a day significant in a positive way (“the fateful day that I first met the my lovely wife”), “fatal” is always negative (“the fatal day that I first tried to ride my bike ‘no hands’”).

Saturday, January 7, 2012

anyone/any one: Entry for Saturday, January 7, 2012

anyone/any one

When it means “anybody,” “anyone” is spelled as a single word: “anyone can enter the drawing.”

But when it means “any single one,” “any one” is spelled as two words: “any one of the tickets may win.”

Friday, January 6, 2012

like/as if: Entry for Friday, January 6, 2012

like/as if
Since the 1950s, when it was especially associated with hipsters, “like” as a sort of meaningless verbal hiccup has been common in speech. The earliest uses had a sort of sense to them in which “like” introduced feelings or perceptions which were then specified: “When I learned my poem had been rejected I was, like, devastated.” However, “like” quickly migrated elsewhere in sentences: “I was like, just going down the road, when, like, I saw this cop, like, hiding behind the billboard.” This habit has spread throughout American society, affecting people of all ages. Those who have the irritating “like” habit are usually unaware of it, even if they use it once or twice in every sentence: but if your job involves much speaking with others, it’s a habit worth breaking.

Recently young people have extended its uses by using “like” to introduce thoughts and speeches: “When he tells me his car broke down on the way to my party I’m like, ‘I know you were with Cheryl because she told me so.’” To be reacted to as a grown-up, avoid this pattern. 
Some stodgy conservatives still object to the use of “like” to mean “as,” “as though,” or “as if.” Examples: “Treat other people like you want them to treat you” (they prefer “as you would want them to treat you”). “She treats her dog like a baby” (they prefer “she treats her dog as if it were a baby”). In expressions where the verb is implied rather than expressed, “like” is standard rather than “as”: “she took to gymnastics like a duck to water.”

In informal contexts, “like” often sounds more natural than “as if,” especially with verbs involving perception, like “look,” “feel,” “sound,” “seem,” or “taste”: “It looks like it’s getting ready to rain” or “It feels like spring.”

So nervous do some people get about “like” that they try to avoid it even in its core meaning of “such as”: “ice cream flavors like vanilla and strawberry always sell well” (they prefer “such as vanilla . . .”). The most fanatical even avoid “like” where it is definitely standard, in such phrases as “behaved like a slob” (“behaved as a slob” is their odd preference).

Thursday, January 5, 2012

setup/set up: Entry for Thursday, January 5, 2012

setup/set up 

Technical writers sometimes confuse “setup” as a noun (“check the setup”) with the phrase “set up” (“set up the experiment”).

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

coffee clutch/coffee klatsch, coffee klatch: Entry for Wednesday, January 4, 2012

coffee clutch/coffee klatsch, coffee klatch

“Coffee klatsch” comes from German Kafeeklatsch meaning “coffee chat.” Like English “kindergarden” from German Kindergarten, this is a compound word of which only one element has been translated, with the other being left in its original German spelling.   Many people anglicize the spelling further to “coffee klatch” or “coffee clatch.” Either one is less sophisticated than “coffee klatsch,” but not too likely to cause raised eyebrows.   “Coffee clutch” is just a mistake except when used as a deliberate pun to label certain brands of coffee-cup sleeves or to name a cafe.

careen/career: Entry for Tuesday, January 3, 2012


A truck careening down the road is swerving from side to side as it races along, whereas a truck careering down the road may be simply traveling very fast. But because it is not often clear which meaning a person intends, confusing these two words is not likely to get you into trouble.

abstruse/obtuse: Entry for Monday, January 2, 2012


Most people first encounter “obtuse” in geometry class, where it labels an angle of more than 90 degrees and less than 180. Imagine what sort of blunt arrowhead that kind of angle would make and you will understand why it also has a figurative meaning of “dull, stupid.” But people often mix the word up with “abstruse,” which means “difficult to understand.”

When you mean to criticize something for being needlessly complex or baffling, the word you need is not “obtuse,” but “abstruse.”