Sunday, May 31, 2015

dual/duel: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Sunday, May 31, 2015

dual/duel
“Dual” is an adjective describing the two-ness of something—dual carburetors, for instance. A “duel” is a formal battle intended to settle a dispute.



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Saturday, May 30, 2015

flounder/founder: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Saturday, May 30, 2015

flounder/founder
As a verb, “founder” means “to fill with water and sink.” It is also used metaphorically of various kinds of equally catastrophic failures. In contrast, to flounder is to thrash about in the water (like a flounder), struggling to stay alive. “Flounder” is also often used metaphorically to indicate various sorts of desperate struggle. If you’re sunk, you’ve foundered. If you’re still struggling, you’re floundering.



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Friday, May 29, 2015

ink pen/pen: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Friday, May 29, 2015

ink pen/pen
If there were any danger of confusing pens for writing with other kinds of pens (light-, sea-, pig-) the phrase “ink pen” might be useful, but it seems to be mainly a way of saying “not a pencil.” Plain old “pen” will do fine.

 
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Thursday, May 28, 2015

dove/dived: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Thursday, May 28, 2015

dove/dived
Although “dove” is a common form of the past tense of “dive,” a few authorities consider “dived” preferable in formal writing.

 
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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

jewelry: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Wednesday, May 27, 2015

jewelry
Often mispronounced “joolereee.” To remember the standard pronunciation, just say “jewel” and add “-ree” on the end. The British spelling is much fancier: “jewellery.”




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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

away/a way: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Tuesday, May 26, 2015

away/a way
“Jessica commented on my haircut in a way that made me think maybe I shouldn’t have let my little sister do it for me.” In this sort of context, “a way” should always be two distinct words, though many people use the single word “away” instead. If you’re uncertain, try substituting another word for “way”: “in a manner that,” “in a style that.” If the result makes sense, you need the two-word phrase. Then you can tell Jessica to just go away.

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Monday, May 25, 2015

verse/play against: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Monday, May 25, 2015

verse/play against 
Some young people use “verse” as a verb meaning “to play against,” as in “I’ll verse you at basketball after school.” Computer gamers are particularly fond of virtual opponents versing each other. Presumably this bit of slang derives from the word “versus,” but it’s not standard English and is likely to confuse outsiders.

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

disinterested/uninterested: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Sunday, May 24, 2015

disinterested/uninterested
A bored person is uninterested. Do not confuse this word with the much rarer “disinterested,” which means “objective, neutral.”



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Saturday, May 23, 2015

John Henry/John Hancock: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Saturday, May 23, 2015

John Henry/John Hancock
John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence so flamboyantly that his name became a synonym for “signature.” Don’t mix him up with John Henry, who was a steel-drivin’ man.


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Friday, May 22, 2015

mind of information/mine of information: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Friday, May 22, 2015

mind of information/mine of information 
A book, a person, or any other source stuffed with gems of useful knowledge is a mine of information, a metaphorical treasure trove of learning. The information involved may or may not be in someone’s mind.

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

hors d’oeuvres: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Thursday, May 21, 2015

hors d’oeuvres
If you knew only a little French, you might interpret this phrase as meaning “out of work,” but in fact it means little snack foods served before or outside of (hors) the main dishes of a meal (the oeuvres). English speakers have trouble mastering the sounds in this phrase, but it is normally rendered “or-DERVES,” in a rough approximation of the original. Mangled spellings like “hors’ dourves” are not uncommon. Actually, many modern food writers have decided we needn’t try to wrap our tongues around this peculiar foreign phrase and now prefer “starters.” They are also commonly called “appetizers.”


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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

ad nauseum/ad nauseam: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Wednesday, May 20, 2015

ad nauseum/ad nauseam
Seeing how often ad nauseam is misspelled makes some people want to throw up. English writers also often mistakenly half-translate the phrase as ad nausea.

This Latin phrase comes from a term in logic, the argumentum ad nauseam, in which debaters wear out the opposition by just repeating arguments until they get sick of the whole thing and give in.

 
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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

prejudice/prejudiced: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Tuesday, May 19, 2015

prejudice/prejudiced
People not only misspell “prejudice” in a number of ways, they sometimes say “he’s prejudice” when they mean “he’s prejudiced.”

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Monday, May 18, 2015

could care less/could not care less: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Monday, May 18, 2015

could care less/could not care less
Clich├ęs are especially prone to scrambling because they become meaningless through overuse. In this case an expression that originally meant “it would be impossible for me to care less than I do because I do not care at all” is rendered senseless by being transformed into the now-common “I could care less.” Think about it: if you could care less, that means you care some. The original already drips sarcasm, so it’s pointless to argue that the newer version is ironic. People who misuse this phrase are just being careless.




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Sunday, May 17, 2015

hero/protagonist: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Sunday, May 17, 2015

hero/protagonist
In ordinary usage “hero” has two meanings: “leading character in a story” and “brave, admirable person.” In simple tales the two meanings may work together, but in modern literature and film the leading character or “protagonist” (a technical term common in literary criticism) may behave in a very unheroic fashion. Students who express shock that the “hero” of a play or novel behaves despicably reveal their inexperience. In literature classes avoid the word unless you mean to stress a character’s heroic qualities. However, if you are discussing the main character in a traditional opera, where values are often simple, you may get by with referring to the male lead as the “hero”—but is Don Giovanni really a hero?


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Saturday, May 16, 2015

carrot on a stick/the carrot or the stick: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Saturday, May 16, 2015

carrot on a stick/the carrot or the stick
Authoritative dictionaries agree—the expression refers to offering to reward a stubborn mule or donkey with a carrot or threatening to beat it with a stick and not to a carrot being dangled from a stick. For me, the clincher is that no one actually cites the form of the “original expression.” In what imaginable context would it possibly be witty or memorable to say that someone or something had been motivated by a carrot on a stick? Why not an apple on a stick, or a bag of oats? Boring, right? Not something likely to pass into popular usage. This saying belongs to the same general family as “You can draw more flies with honey than with vinegar.” It is never used except when such contrast is implied.


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Friday, May 15, 2015

patience/patients: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Friday, May 15, 2015

patience/patients
Doctors have patients, but while you’re waiting to see them you have to have patience.

 
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Thursday, May 14, 2015

sowcow/salchow: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Thursday, May 14, 2015

sowcow/salchow
There’s a fancy turning jump in ice skating named after Swedish figure skater Ulrich Salchow, but every Winter Olympics millions of people think they hear the commentators saying “sowcow” and that’s how they proceed to misspell it.

 
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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Wensday/Wednesday: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Wensday/Wednesday 
Wednesday was named after the Germanic god “Woden” (or “Wotan”). Almost no one pronounces this word’s middle syllable distinctly, but it’s important to remember the correct spelling in writing.

 
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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

miner/minor: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Tuesday, May 12, 2015

miner/minor
Children are minors, but unless they are violating child-labor laws, those who work in mines are miners.

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Monday, May 11, 2015

Champaign/Champagne: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Monday, May 11, 2015

Champaign/Champagne
Champaign is the name of a city and county in Illinois.

Champagne is a region of France that produces the sparkling wine of this name.
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Sunday, May 10, 2015

hand and hand/hand in hand: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Sunday, May 10, 2015

hand and hand/hand in hand
“Poverty goes hand in hand with malnutrition.” The image here is of the two subjects holding hands, one hand in the other. The phrase is very frequently misspelled “hand and hand,” which does not convey the same sort of intimate connection.

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Saturday, May 9, 2015

refrain/restrain: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Saturday, May 9, 2015

refrain/restrain
“Restrain” is a transitive verb: it needs an object. Although “refrain” was once a synonym for “restrain” it is now an intransitive verb: it should not have an object. Here are examples of correct modern usage: “When I pass the doughnut shop I have to restrain myself” (“myself” is the object). “When I feel like throwing something at my boss, I usually refrain from doing so.” You can’t refrain yourself or anyone else.

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Friday, May 8, 2015

gander/dander: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Friday, May 8, 2015

gander/dander
When you get really angry you “get your dander up.” The derivation of “dander” in this expression is uncertain, but you can’t replace it with “dandruff” or “gander.” The only way to get a gander up is to awaken a male goose.


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Thursday, May 7, 2015

female/woman: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Thursday, May 7, 2015

female/woman
When referring to an adult female of the human species it sounds weird and may even be considered insulting to use the noun “female” instead of “woman.” “The female pointed the gun at the cop” should be “the woman pointed the gun at the cop.”

In the case of the related adjectives some people argue that since we say—for instance—“male doctor” we should always say “female doctor” rather than “woman doctor.” It may be inconsistent, but the pattern of referring to females as women performers, professionals, etc. is very traditional, dating back at least to the 14th century. People who do this cannot be accused of committing an error.

Technical adjectival uses defining gender like “female genes” are fine (but don’t confuse them with “women’s jeans”).

 
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Paul Brians’ latest blog post offers some words for the Y’s.

This is the ten-year anniversary of the Common Errors in English Usage calendar. To celebrate, we are bringing back some of our favorite interesting, funny, but sometimes merely silly entries through the years before going on hiatus in 2016.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

mucus/mucous: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Wednesday, May 6, 2015

mucus/mucous 
 Mucous membranes secrete mucus. “Mucus” is the noun and “mucous” is the adjective. It’s not only snotty biologists who insist on distinguishing between these two words.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

obsolescent/obsolete: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Tuesday, May 5, 2015

obsolescent/obsolete
Many people assume the word “obsolescent” must be a fancy form of “obsolete,” but something obsolescent is technically something in the process of becoming obsolete. Therefore it’s an error to describe something as “becoming obsolescent.”

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Monday, May 4, 2015

if I was/if I were: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Monday, May 4, 2015

if I was/if I were
The subjunctive mood, always weak in English, has been dwindling away for centuries until it has almost vanished. According to traditional thought, statements about the conditional future such as “If I were a carpenter . . .” require the subjunctive “were”; but “was” is certainly much more common. Still, if you want to impress those in the know with your usage, use “were.” The same goes for other pronouns: “you,” “she,” “he,” and “it.” In the case of the plural pronouns “we” and “they” the form “was” is definitely nonstandard, of course, because it is a singular form.


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Sunday, May 3, 2015

upto/up to: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Sunday, May 3, 2015

upto/up to
Not upto alot lately? You might use some of your spare time memorizing the fact that “up to” is a two-word phrase, as is “a lot.”


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Saturday, May 2, 2015

heroin/heroine: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Saturday, May 2, 2015

heroin/heroine
Heroin is a highly addictive opium derivative; the female main character in a narrative is a heroine.


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Friday, May 1, 2015

deceptively: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Friday, May 1, 2015

deceptively
If you say of a soldier that he is “deceptively brave” you might be understood to mean that although he appears cowardly he is actually brave, or that although he appears brave he is actually cowardly. This ambiguity should cause you to be very careful about using “deceptive” and “deceptively” to make clear which meaning you intend.


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