Friday, January 31, 2014

through a mirror, darkly/in a mirror, darkly: The Weekend Edition—Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Friday–Sunday, January 31–February 2, 2014

through a mirror, darkly/in a mirror, darkly
Here’s an error with a very distinguished heritage.

When in 1 Corinthians 13:12 Paul tries to express the imperfection of mortal understanding, he compares our earthly vision to the dim and wavery view reflected by a typical Roman-era polished bronze mirror. Unfortunately, the classic King James translation rendered his metaphor rather confusingly as “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” By the time of the Renaissance, mirrors were made of glass and so it was natural for the translators to call the mirror a “glass,” though by so doing they obscured Paul’s point. Why they should have used “through” rather than the more logical “in” is unclear, but it has made many people think that the image is of looking through some kind of magical glass mirror like that in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

Although most other translations use more accurate phrasing (“as in a mirror,” “a blurred image in a mirror,” etc.), the King James is so influential that its misleading rendering of the verse is overwhelmingly more popular than the more accurate ones. It’s not really an error to quote the KJV, but if you use the image, don’t make the mistake of suggesting it has to do with a dirty window rather than a dim mirror.

The Week's End Extra from the Archives: "Eggcorns" (April 16, 2012).

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Oriental/Asiatic/Asian: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Thursday, January 30, 2014

“Oriental” is generally considered old-fashioned now, and many find it offensive. “Asian” is preferred, but not “Asiatic.” It’s better to write the nationality involved, for example “Chinese” or “Indian,” if you know it. “Asian” is often taken to mean exclusively “East Asian,” which irritates South Asian and Central Asian people.

In his most recent post, Paul Brians talks literally about metaphors and proverbs.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

practicle/practical : Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Some words end in “-icle” and others in “-ical” without the result being any difference in pronunciation. But when you want somebody really practical, call on good old Al.

Paul Brians' latest blog posts address the baldfaced/barefaced controversy and some interesting background about bazaar/bizarre.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

center of attraction/center of attention: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Tuesday, January 28, 2014

center of attraction/center of attention
“Center of attraction” makes perfect sense, but the standard phrase is “center of attention.”

Monday, January 27, 2014

crochet/crotchet/crotchety: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Monday, January 27, 2014

Although all of these words are derived from a common ancestor meaning “hook” and are related to “crook,” they have taken on different meanings in modern English. Those who do needlework with a crochet hook crochet. Your peculiar notions are your crotchets. And a crabby old person like Bob Cratchit’s boss is crotchety. There are various other technical uses for “crotchet,” but people who use them usually know the correct spelling. Just remember that “crochet” goes only with goods made with a crochet hook.

Friday, January 24, 2014

phrasal verbs vs. nouns: The Weekend Edition—Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Friday–Sunday, January 24–26, 2014

phrasal verbs vs. nouns
Phrasal verbs make up a huge category of expressions in English that careless users often misspell by substituting one-word noun forms for the standard two-word phrasal verb; for instance: it would have been a mistake for me to have written “Phrasal verbs makeup a huge category.” It is fine to write “I didn’t want to put on my makeup” (“makeup” is a noun) or “I had to take the makeup exam.” (In this example “makeup” is a noun acting like an adjective modifying another noun—“exam.” What kind of exam was it? A makeup exam.) Such nouns are often hyphenated, at least early in their history (it used to be common to write “make-up exam,” and that is still fine); but there is a strong tendency for such hyphenated forms to evolve into single words. If both versions are current, the hyphenated form is usually the more formal one.

Most phrasal verbs consist of a verb and adverb combined. Note that some of the adverbs involved can also function as prepositions, but don’t let this confuse you. In the phrase “cool down the broth” “down” is an adverb. Some do actually consist of a verb and a preposition, but these rarely cause problems. You aren’t likely to write “would you lookafter my cat while I’m gone?”

If the word involved is immediately preceded by “a,” “an,” or “the,” you probably need the one-word noun form. If it’s immediately preceded by “to,” you probably need the two-word phrasal verb. If you’re tempted to use a one-word spelling elsewhere, try using a two-word or hyphenated form instead. If it looks better, it probably is.

The Week's End Extra from the Archives: "Screening for 'Screed Door'" (June 22, 2012).

Thursday, January 23, 2014

exception proves the rule: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Thursday, January 23, 2014

exception proves the rule
The Latin original of this saying dates back over two millennia to Cicero. It means if you make an exception to a rule, a rule must exist. If you say “in case of fire students may use the emergency exits” it is clear that the rule is that normally students are not supposed to use those exits. Few people understand this point and they misuse the phrase “the exception proves the rule” to mean that a rule is not really a rule unless there is an exception to it. This makes no sense. It’s better to simply avoid this misleading phrase.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

sojourn/journey: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Although the spelling of this word confuses many people into thinking it means “journey,” a sojourn is actually a temporary stay in one place. If you’re constantly on the move, you’re not engaged in a sojourn.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

augur/auger: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Tuesday, January 21, 2014

An “augur” was an ancient Roman prophet, and as a verb the word means “foretell”—“their love augurs well for a successful marriage.” Don’t mix this word up with “auger,” a tool for boring holes.

Monday, January 20, 2014

conversate/converse: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Monday, January 20, 2014

“Conversate” is what is called a “back-formation” based on the noun “conversation.” But the verb for this sort of thing is “converse.”

Friday, January 17, 2014

amount/number: The Weekend Edition—Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Friday–Sunday, January 17–19, 2014

This is a vast subject. I will try to limit the number of words I expend on it so as not to use up too great an amount of space. The confusion between the two categories of words relating to amount and number is so pervasive that those of us who still distinguish between them constitute an endangered species; but if you want to avoid our ire, learn the difference. Amount words relate to quantities of things that are measured in bulk; number to things that can be counted.

In the second sentence above, it would have been improper to write “the amount of words” because words are discrete entities that can be counted, or numbered.

Here is a handy chart to distinguish the two categories of words:


You can eat fewer cookies, but you drink less milk. If you ate too many cookies, people would probably think you’ve had too much dessert. If the thing being measured is being considered in countable units, then use number words. Even a substance that is considered in bulk can also be measured by number of units. For instance, you shouldn’t drink too much wine, but you should also avoid drinking too many glasses of wine. Note that here you are counting glasses. They can be numbered.

The most common mistake of this kind is to refer to an “amount” of people instead of a “number” of people.

Just to confuse things, “more” can be used either way: you can eat more cookies and drink more milk.

Exceptions to the less/fewer pattern are references to units of time and money, which are usually treated as amounts: less than an hour, less than five dollars. Only when you are referring to specific coins or bills would you use fewer: “I have fewer than five state quarters to go to make my collection complete.”
The Week's End Extra from the Archives: "One of the best, bar none" (November 7, 2012).

Thursday, January 16, 2014

not: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Thursday, January 16, 2014

You need to put “not” in the right spot in a sentence to make it say what you intend. “Not all fraternity members are drunks” means some are, but “All fraternity members are not drunks” means none of them is.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

tenant/tenet: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Wednesday, January 15, 2014

These two words come from the same Latin root, tenere, meaning “to hold,” but they have very different meanings. “Tenet” is the rarer of the two, meaning a belief that a person holds: “Avoiding pork is a tenet of the Muslim faith.” In contrast, the person leasing an apartment from you is your tenant. (She holds the lease.)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

reoccurring/recurring: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Tuesday, January 14, 2014

It might seem logical to form this word from “occurring” by simply adding a “re-” prefix—logical, but wrong. The word is “recurring.” The root form is “recur,” not “reoccur.” For some reason “recurrent” is seldom transformed into “reoccurrent.”

Go for baroque! Read Paul Brians' latest blog post.

Monday, January 13, 2014

pith and vinegar/piss and vinegar: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Monday, January 13, 2014

pith and vinegar/piss and vinegar
To say that people are “full of piss and vinegar” is to say that they are brimming with energy. Although many speakers assume the phrase must have a negative connotation, this expression is more often used as a compliment, “vinegar” being an old slang term for enthusiastic energy.

Some try to make this expression more polite by substituting “pith” for “piss,” but this change robs it of the imagery of acrid, energetically boiling fluids and conjures up instead a sodden, vinegar-soaked mass of pith. Many people who use the “polite” version are unaware of the original.

Friday, January 10, 2014

multipart names: The Weekend Edition—Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Friday–Sunday, January 10–12, 2014

multipart names
In many European languages family names are often preceded by a preposition (de, da, di, von, and van all mean “of”), an article (le and la mean “the”) or both (du, des, del, de la, della and van der all mean “of the”). Such prefixes often originated as designators of nobility—or pretensions to it—but today they are just incidental parts of certain names.

In their original languages the two parts of the name are usually separated by a space, and the prefixed preposition or article is not capitalized unless it begins a sentence. If you take a college course involving famous European names you will be expected to follow this pattern. It’s not “De Beauvoir” but “de Beauvoir”; not “Van Gogh” but “van Gogh.” The only exception is when the name begins a sentence: “De Gaulle led the Free French,” but “Charles de Gaulle had a big nose.”

Some European names evolved into one-word spellings early on (Dupont, Lamartine, Dallapiccola), but they are not likely to cause problems because English speakers are usually unaware of the significance of their initial syllables.

When families bearing prefixed names move to the US, they often adapt their spelling to a one-word form. A well-known example is “DiCaprio.” French le Blanc becomes LeBlanc in America, and Italian di Franco becomes DiFranco. The name “de Vries” is spelled in English by various people bearing that name “De Vries,” “DeVries,” and “Devries.” You have to check carefully to determine how a particular person prefers the name to be spelled. Library reference tools like Who’s Who are more reliable than most Web sources.

The practice of retaining the capital letter inside the fused form is one peculiar to American English. Early books by famed science-fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin rendered her name “LeGuin” though later reprints go with the separated form, which we may assume is her preference. The fused form has the advantage of being easier for computers to sort into alphabetized lists. You will find many Web pages in which the names of Europeans are adapted to the one-word form, but this is a sign of a lack of sophistication.

Once you learn to properly separate the parts of a last name, you need to know how to alphabetize it. Put van Gogh under V, but Van Morrison under M (“Van” is his given name, not part of his family name). Ludwig van Beethoven, however, is under B, not V.

College students also need to know that most Medieval and many Renaissance names consist of a single given name linked to a place name to indicate where the person came from. Marie de France means simply “Marie of France,” and she should never be referred to as simply “de France.” After introducing her full name, refer to her as “Marie.” Forget The Da Vinci Code; scholars refer to him as “Leonardo,” never as “da Vinci.”

The Week's End Extra from the Archives: "Fastest-Growing Nonsense" (May 11, 2011).

Thursday, January 9, 2014

sceptic/skeptic: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Thursday, January 9, 2014

Believe it or not, the British spellings are “sceptic” and “scepticism”; the American spellings are “skeptic” and “skepticism.”

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Philippines/Filipinos: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The people of the Philippines are called “Filipinos.” Don’t switch the initial letters of these two words.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

far be it for me/far be it from me: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Tuesday, January 7, 2014

far be it for me/far be it from me
The mangled expression “far be it for me” is probably influenced by a similar saying: “it’s not for me to say.” The standard expression is “far be it from me” (may this possibility be far away from me).

Go bananas! Read Paul Brians' latest blog entry about how a popular song influenced an entry in Common Errors in English Usage.

Monday, January 6, 2014

bounce/bounds: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Monday, January 6, 2014

A leaky ball may be out of bounce, but when it crosses the boundary line off the basketball court or football field it goes out of bounds. Similarly, any action or speech that goes beyond proper limits can be called “out of bounds”: “Mark thought that it was out of bounds for his wife to go spelunking with Tristan, her old boyfriend.”

Friday, January 3, 2014

Arab/Arabic/Arabian: The Weekend Edition—Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Friday–Sunday, January 3–5, 2014


Arabs are a people whose place of ethnic origin is the Arabian Peninsula.

The language which they speak, and which has spread widely to other areas, is Arabic. “Arabic” is not generally used as an adjective except when referring to the language or in a few traditional phrases such as “gum arabic” and “arabic numerals.” Note that in these few phrases the word is not capitalized. Otherwise it is “Arab customs,” “Arab groups,” “Arab countries,” etc.

A group of Arab individuals is made of Arabs, not “Arabics” or “Arabians.” The noun “Arabian” by itself normally refers to Arabian horses. The other main use of the word is in referring to the collection of stories known as The Arabian Nights.

However, the phrase “Saudi Arabian” may be used in referring to citizens of the country of Saudi Arabia, and to aspects of the culture of that country. But it is important to remember that there are many Arabs in other lands, and that this phrase does not refer properly to them. Citizens of Saudi Arabia are often referred to instead as “Saudis,” although strictly speaking this term refers to members of the Saudi royal family and is usually journalistic shorthand for “Saudi Arabian government.”

It is also important not to treat the term “Arab” as interchangeable with “Muslim.” There are many Arabs who are not Muslims, and the majority of Muslims are not Arab. “Arab” refers to an ethnic identity, “Muslim” to a religious identity.

The standard pronunciation of “Arab” in American English is “AIR-rub.” Unless you are referring to the character in West Side Story called “A-rab” (with the second syllable rhyming with “cab”), you’ll sound better educated if you stick with the standard version.

The Week's End Extra from the Archives: "I know little and could care less about this error" (June 13, 2011).

Thursday, January 2, 2014

exited/excited: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Thursday, January 2, 2014

A lot of people get so excited when they’re typing that they mistakenly write they are “exited,” and their spelling checkers don’t tell them they’ve made an error because “exited” is actually a word, meaning “went out of an exit.” Excitement makes you excited.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

began/begun: Common Errors in English Usage Entry for Wednesday, January 1, 2014

In modern English “began” is the simple past tense of “begin”: “he began to study for the test at midnight.”

But the past participle form—preceded by a helping verb—is “begun”: “By morning, he had begun to forget everything he’d studied that night.”

It's the beginning of a new year, and we are making a small change to the delivery of these entries. This year there will be no separate entries for the weekend; instead, the entry for Friday will cover the entire weekend, and if you need a little more to carry you over, the weekend entry will also include a link to one of our  favorite write-ups from the archives of the Common Errors in English Usage blog.