Wednesday, February 29, 2012

suppose to/supposed to: Entry for Wednesday, February 29, 2012

suppose to/supposed to
Because the D and the T are blended into a single consonant when this phrase is pronounced, many writers are unaware that the D is even present and omit it in writing. You’re supposed to get this one right if you want to earn the respect of your readers.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

reference: Entry for Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Nouns are often turned into verbs in English, and “reference” in the sense “to provide references or citations” has become so widespread that it’s generally acceptable, though some teachers and editors still object.

Monday, February 27, 2012

perspective/prospective: Entry for Monday, February 27, 2012

“Perspective” has to do with sight, as in painting, and is usually a noun. “Prospective” generally has to do with the future (compare with “What are your prospects, young man?”) and is usually an adjective. But beware: there is also a rather old-fashioned but fairly common meaning of the word “prospect” that has to do with sight: “As he climbed the mountain, a vast prospect opened up before him.”

Sunday, February 26, 2012

bow: Entry for Sunday, February 26, 2012

When it shoots arrows, plays your violin, or secures your shoelaces, “bow” rhymes with “go.” When it’s a respectful bending of the body or the front end of a ship, it rhymes with “cow” and sounds just like the “bough” on a tree.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

anyone/any one: Entry for Saturday, February 25, 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, February 24, 2012

morays/mores: Entry for Friday, February 24, 2012

The customs of a people are its mores. These may include its morals (ethics), but the word “mores” is not synonymous with “morals.” Some eels are morays, but they aren’t known particularly for their social customs, though both words are pronounced the same.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

finalize/finish, put into final form: Entry for Thursday, February 23, 2012

finalize/finish, put into final form
“Finalize” is very popular among bureaucrats, but many people hate it. Avoid it unless you know that everyone in your environment uses it too.

Fatality error? Paul Brians' latest blog post poses an interesting usage question.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

comprised of/composed of: Entry for Wednesday, February 22, 2012

comprised of/composed of
Although “comprise” is used primarily to mean “to include,” it is also often stretched to mean “is made up of”—a meaning that some critics object to. The most cautious route is to avoid using “of” after any form of “comprise” and substitute “is composed of” in sentences like this: “Jimmy’s paper on Marxism was composed entirely of sentences copied off the Marx Brothers Home Page.”

There’s a lot of disagreement about the proper use of “comprise,” but most authorities agree that the whole comprises the parts: “Our pets comprise one dog, two cats, and a turtle.” The whole comes first, then “comprise” followed by the parts. But there’s so much confusion surrounding the usage of this word that it may be better to avoid it altogether.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Monday, February 20, 2012

intense/intensive: Entry for Monday, February 20, 2012

If you are putting forth an intense effort, your work is “intense”: “My intense study of Plato convinced me that I would make a good leader.” But when the intensity stems not so much from your effort as it does from outside forces, the usual word is “intensive”: “The village endured intensive bombing.”

Sunday, February 19, 2012

his and her's: Entry for Sunday, February 19, 2012

his and her's
Possessive pronouns don’t take apostrophes. It’s not “hi’s” (but you knew that), and it’s not “her’s,” even in the popular phrase “his and hers.”

Saturday, February 18, 2012

ceremonial/ceremonious: Entry for Saturday, February 18, 2012

“Ceremonial” and “ceremonious” are often considered synonyms, and can indeed be used interchangeably in many contexts. But there are some cases in which one is better than the other.

If you are talking about the performance of a ceremony, the word you will usually want is “ceremonial” as in “ceremonial offering,” “ceremonial garb,” or “ceremonial dance.” Sikhs traditionally wear ceremonial daggers.

“Ceremonious” is mostly used to describe formal behavior which often has little or no connection with a literal ceremony: “ceremonious manners,” “ceremonious welcome,” or “ceremonious speech.”

Friday, February 17, 2012

cannot/can not: Entry for Friday, February 17, 2012

cannot/can notThese two spellings are largely interchangeable, but by far the most common is “cannot”; and you should probably use it except when you want to be emphatic: “No, you can not wash the dog in the Maytag.”

Thursday, February 16, 2012

amoral/immoral: Entry for Thursday, February 16, 2012


“Amoral” is a rather technical word meaning “unrelated to morality.” When you mean to denounce someone’s behavior, call it “immoral.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

let alone: Entry for Wednesday, February 15, 2012

let alone

“I can’t remember the title of the book we were supposed to read, let alone the details of the story.” In sentences like these you give a lesser example of something first, followed by “let alone” and then the greater example. But people often get this backwards, and put the greater example first.

The same pattern is followed when the expression is “much less”: “I can’t change the oil in my car, much less tune the engine.” The speaker can much less well tune the engine than he or she can change the oil.

Another common expression which follows the same pattern uses “never mind,” as in “I can’t afford to build a tool shed, never mind a new house.”

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

ravaging/ravishing/ravenous: Entry for Tuesday, February 14, 2012


To ravage is to pillage, sack, or devastate. The only time “ravaging” is properly used is in phrases like “When the pirates had finished ravaging the town, they turned to ravishing the women.” Which brings us to “ravish”: meaning to rape or rob violently. A trailer court can be ravaged by a storm (nothing is stolen, but a lot of damage is done), but not ravished. The crown jewels of Ruritania can be ravished (stolen using violence) without being ravaged (damaged).

To confuse matters, people began back in the 14th century to speak metaphorically of their souls being “ravished” by intense spiritual or aesthetic experiences. Thus we speak of a “ravishing woman” (the term is rarely applied to men) today not because she literally rapes men who look at her but because her devastating beauty penetrates their hearts in an almost violent fashion. Despite contemporary society’s heightened sensitivity about rape, we still remain (perhaps fortunately) unconscious of many of the transformations of the root meaning in words with positive connotations such as “rapturous.”

Originally, “raven” as a verb was synonymous with “ravish” in the sense of “to steal by force.” One of its specialized meanings became “devour,” as in “The lion ravened her prey.” By analogy, hungry people became “ravenous” (as hungry as beasts), and that remains the only common use of the word today.

If a woman smashes your apartment up, she ravages it. If she looks stunningly beautiful, she is ravishing. If she eats the whole platter of hors d’oeuvres you’ve set out for the party before the other guests come, she’s ravenous.


How ya doin' this Valentine's Day? Paul Brians' latest blog post explores this ubiquitous greeting.

Monday, February 13, 2012

l/1: Entry for Monday, February 13, 2012

People who learned to type in the pre-computer era sometimes type a lower-case letter “l” when they need a number “1.” Depending on the font being used, these may look interchangeable, but there are usually subtle differences between the two. For instance, the top of a letter “l” is usually flat, whereas the top of a number “1” often slopes down to the left. If your writing is to be reproduced electronically or in print, it’s important to hit that number key at the top left of your keyboard to produce a true number 1.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

who’s/whose: Entry for Sunday, February 12, 2012


This is one of those cases where it is important to remember that possessive pronouns never take apostrophes, even though possessive nouns do. “Who’s” always and forever means only “who is,” as in “Who’s that guy with the droopy mustache?” or “who has,” as in “Who’s been eating my porridge?” “Whose” is the possessive form of “who” and is used as follows: “Whose dirty socks are these on the breakfast table?”

Saturday, February 11, 2012

somewheres/somewhere: Entry for Saturday, February 11, 2012


You may hear someone say things like “the yeast is somewheres in the baking aisle.” The spelling “somewheres” is not standard; use “somewhere” instead.

Friday, February 10, 2012

pit in my stomach/in the pit of my stomach: Entry for Friday, February 10, 2012

pit in my stomach/in the pit of my stomach

Just as you can love someone from the bottom of your heart, you can also experience a sensation of dread in the pit (bottom) of your stomach. I don’t know whether people who mangle this common expression into “pit in my stomach” envision an ulcer, an irritating peach pit they’ve swallowed or are thinking of the pyloric sphincter; but they’ve got it wrong.


Spotted in the wild: Read Paul Brians' post about Thomas Friedman's errant usage earlier this week.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

religion: Entry for Thursday, February 9, 2012


Protestants often refer incorrectly to “the Catholic religion.” Catholicism is a faith or a church. (Only Protestants belong to “denominations.”) Both Catholics and Protestants follow the Christian religion.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

hanged/hung: Entry for Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Originally these words were pretty much interchangeable, but “hanged” eventually came to be used pretty exclusively to mean “executed by hanging.” Does nervousness about the existence of an indelicate adjectival form of the word prompt people to avoid the correct word in such sentences as “Lady Wrothley saw to it that her ancestors’ portraits were properly hung”? Nevertheless, “hung” is correct except when capital punishment is being imposed or someone commits suicide.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

brand names: Entry for Tuesday, February 7, 2012

brand names

Popular usage frequently converts brand names into generic ones, with the generic name falling into disuse. Few people call gelatin dessert mix anything other than “Jell-O,” which helps to explain why it’s hard to find Nabisco’s Royal Gelatin on the grocery shelves. All facial tissues are “Kleenex” to the masses, all photocopies “Xeroxes.” Such commercial fame is, however, a two-edged sword: sales may be lost as well as gained from such over-familiarity. Few people care whether their “Frisbee” is the genuine Wham-O brand original or an imitation. Some of these terms lack staying power: “Hoover” used to be synonymous with “vacuum cleaner,” and the brand name was even transmuted into a verb: “to hoover” (these uses are still common in the UK). Most of the time this sort of thing is fairly harmless, but if you are a motel operator offering a different brand of whirlpool bath in your rooms, better not call it a “Jacuzzi.”

Monday, February 6, 2012

integral: Entry for Monday, February 6, 2012


Often mispronounced “in-tra-gul” as if it were related to “intricate” instead of the more proper “in-tuh-grul,” related to “integrate.”

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

nowheres: Entry for Sunday, February 5, 2012


“Nowheres” is a common dialectical variant. In standard English the word is “nowhere.”

Saturday, February 4, 2012

emergent/emergency: Entry for Saturday, February 4, 2012

The error of considering “emergent” to be the adjectival form of “emergency” is common only in medical writing, but it is becoming widespread. “Emergent” properly means “emerging” and normally refers to events that are just beginning—barely noticeable rather than catastrophic. “Emergency” is an adjective as well as a noun, so rather than writing “emergent care,” use the homely “emergency care.”

Friday, February 3, 2012

retch/wretch: Entry for Friday, February 3, 2012


If you vomit, you retch; if you behave in a wretched manner or fall into wretched circumstances, you are a wretch.

Does Newt Gingrich know the difference? A blog post from a few years ago raises the question..

Thursday, February 2, 2012

reply back/reply: Entry for Thursday, February 2, 2012

reply back/reply
“Reply back” is redundant because “reply” already conveys the idea of getting back to someone. The same is true of “answer back” except in the rather old-fashioned use of the phrase to describe the behavior of a lippy kid rudely refusing to submit to the wishes of parents or teachers.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Febuary/February: Entry for Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Few people pronounce the first R in “February” distinctly, so it is not surprising that it is often omitted in spelling. This poor month is short on days; don’t further impoverish it by robbing it of one of its letters.