The alt.usage.english FAQ file

by Mark Israel
Last updated: 19 February 1996
New entries this month:
  1. Yes, I know that this file is too big for some newsreaders.If you are cursed with such a newsreader, you can ftp this file from "", directory "pub/usenet/alt.usage.english", file "alt.usage.english_FAQ".(It's also on the World Wide Web: No, that's not a Hypertext version—yet. Peter Moylan and Brian Tung have both kindly converted the whole document to Hypertext for me, so we should have something for public release soon.) Or you can send me e-mail and I'll send it to you in pieces. Sorry for the inconvenience, but there are more of us who appreciate the convenience of a single file.

  2. Please send suggestions/flames/praise to me by e-mail ( rather than post them to the newsgroup. The purpose of an FAQ file is to reduce traffic, not increase it.

  3. This is in no sense an "official" FAQ file. Feel free to start your own. I certainly can't stop you.

  4. Please don't expect me to add a topic unless (a) you're willing to contribute the entry for that topic; (b) either the topic has come up at least twice in the newsgroup, or the entry gives information that cannot readily be found elsewhere; and (c) if the topic has been controversial in the newsgroup, your entry attempts to represent conflicting points of view. Thanks to all who have contributed!

Table of Contents

Welcome to alt.usage.english!

Recommended books

Artificial dialects


Usage disputes


Foreigners' FAQs

Word origins

Phrase origins

Words frequently sought



Welcome to alt.usage.english!

Alt.usage.english is a newsgroup where we discuss the English language (and also occasionally other languages). We discuss how particular words, phrases, and syntactic forms are used; how they originated; and where in the English-speaking world they're prevalent. (All this is called "description".) We also discuss how we think they should be used ("prescription").

Alt.usage.english is for everyone, not only for linguists, native speakers, or descriptivists.

Guidelines for posting

Things you may want to consider avoiding when posting here:
  1. Re-opening topics (such as singular "they" and "hopefully") that experience has shown lead to circular debate. (One function of the FAQ file is to point out topics that have already been discussed ad nauseam.)
  2. Questions that can be answered by simple reference to a dictionary.
  3. Generalities. If you make a statement like: "Here in the U.S. we NEVER say 'different to'", "Retroflex 'r' is ONLY used in North America", or "'Eh' ALWAYS rhymes with 'pay'", chances are that someone will pounce on you with a counterexample.
  4. Assertions that one variety of English is "true English".
  5. Sloppy writing (as distinct from simple slips like typing errors, or errors from someone whose native language is not English). Keep in mind that the regulars on alt.usage.english are probably less willing than the general population to suffer sloppy writers gladly; and that each article is written by one person, but read perhaps by thousands, so the convenience of the readers really ought to have priority over the convenience of the writer. Again, this is not to discourage non-native speakers from posting; readers will be able to detect that you're writing in a foreign language, and will make allowances for this.
  6. Expressions of exasperation. In the course of debate, you may encounter positions based on premises radically different from yours and perhaps surprisingly novel to you. Saying things like "Oh, please", "That's absurd", "Give me a break", or "Go teach your grandmother to suck eggs, my man" is unlikely to win your opponent over.

You really are welcome to post here! Don't let the impatient tone of this FAQ frighten you off.

Related newsgroups

There are other newsgroups that also discuss the English language. bit.listserv.words-l (which is a redistribution of a BITNET mailing list—not all machines on Usenet carry these) is also billed as being for "English language discussion", but its participants engage in a lot more socializing and general chitchat than we do.

There is a mailing list for copy-editors. To subscribe, send e-mail with the text "SUBSCRIBE COPYEDITING-L Your Name" to

Sci.lang is where most of the professional linguists hang out. Discussions tend to be about linguistic methodology (rather than about particular words and phrases), and prescription is severely frowned upon there. Newbies post many things there that would better be posted here.

Alt.flame.spelling (which fewer sites carry than carry alt.usage.english) is the place to criticize other people's spelling. We try to avoid doing that here (although some of us do get provoked if you spell language terms wrong. It's "consensus", not "concensus"; "diphthong", not "dipthong"; "grammar", not "grammer"; "guttural", not "gutteral"; and "pronunciation", not "pronounciation").

Alt.usage.english.neologism is described as being for "meaningless words coined by psychotics". Fewer sites carry it, and it gets little traffic; the people who do post to it are generally not negative about neologisms.

Rec.puzzles is a better place than here to ask questions like "What English words end in '-gry' or '-endous'?", "What words contain 'vv'?", "What words have 'e' pronounced as /I/?", "What Pig Latin words are also words?", or "How do you punctuate 'John where Bill had had had had had had had had had had had the approval of the teacher' or 'That that is is that that is not is not that that is not is not that that is is that it it is' to get comprehensible text?" But, before you post such a question there, make sure it's not answered in the rec.puzzles archive, available by anonymous ftp from; the relevant section is in the directory pub/usenet/news.answers/puzzles/archive/language .

Wordplay for its own sake (anagrams, palindromes, etc.) belongs in alt.anagrams. There are also long lists of such things in the rec.puzzles archive. is a newsgroup devoted to the teaching of English (especially as a second language). is devoted to software for assisting language instruction.

Misc.writing is devoted to writing, and especially to the concerns of people trying to establish themselves as professional writers.

Alt.quotations is the place to ask about origins of quotations (although there is no firm dividing line between those and phrase origins, which belong here). You can access the 1901 edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations at:

Language features peculiar to the U.K. get discussed in soc.culture.british as well as here. Before posting to either newsgroup on this subject, you should look at Jeremy Smith's British-American dictionary, available on the WWW at:

If you have a (language-related or other) peeve that you want to mention but don't particularly want to justify, you can try alt.peeves. ("What is your pet peeve?" is not a frequently asked question in alt.usage.english, although we frequently get unsolicited answers to it. If you're new to this group, chances are excellent that your particular pet peeve is something that has already been discussed to death by the regulars.)

If you're interested in the peculiarities of language as used by computer users, get the Jargon File, by anonymous ftp from ( under pub/gnu, or on the WWW: (also available in paperback form as The New Hacker's Dictionary, ed. Eric S. Raymond, 2nd edition, MIT Press, 1993, ISBN 0-262-68079-3). You can discuss hacker language further in the newsgroup alt.folklore.computers, or in the moderated newsgroup comp.society.folklore .

Two newsgroups that don't deal with the English language but that people often need directing to are: sci.classics, for questions about Latin and ancient Greek; and comp.fonts, for questions about typography.

Recommended books


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), 2nd ed. (OED2) (Oxford University Press, 1989, 20 vols.; compact edition, 1991 ISBN 0-19-861258-3; additions series, 2 vols., 1993, ISBN 0-19-861292-3 and 0-19-861299-0), has no rivals as a historical dictionary of the English language. It is too large for the editors to keep all of it up to date, and hence should not be relied on for precise definitions of technical terms, or for consistent usage labels.

Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Merriam-Webster, 1961, ISBN 0-87779-201-1) (W3) is the unabridged dictionary to check for 20th-century U.S. citations of word use, and for precise definitions of technical terms too rare to appear in collegiate dictionaries. People sometimes cite W3 with a later date. These later dates refer to the addenda section at the front, not to the body of the dictionary, which is unchanged since 1961. W3 was widely criticized by schoolteachers and others for its lack of usage labels; e.g., it gives "imply" as one of the meanings of "infer" and "flout" as one of the meanings of "flaunt", without indicating that these are disputed usage. Others have defended the lack of usage labels. An anthology devoted to the controversy is Dictionaries and THAT Dictionary: A Case Book of the Aims of Lexicographers and the Targets of Reviewers, ed. James Sledd and Wilma R. Ebbitt (Scott Foresman, 1962). Merriam-Webster is working on a 4th edition, but it is several years away from completion.

Please don't refer to any dictionary simply as "Webster's". Books in Print has 5 columns of book titles beginning with "Webster's"!

Among collegiate dictionaries, the ones most frequently mentioned here are Collins English Dictionary (3rd edition, HarperCollins, updated 1994, ISBN 0-00-470678-1) and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition (Merriam-Webster, 1993, ISBN 0-87779-707-2) (MWCD10). Merriam-Webster publishes sub-editions of its collegiate dictionaries, so look at the copyright date to see exactly what you have. The Chambers Dictionary (Larousse, 1993, ISBN 0-550-10255-8) is a respected British dictionary now also available on CD-ROM.

If you're interested in etymology, get The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (3rd edition, Houghton Mifflin, 1992, ISBN 0-395-44895-6) (AHD3) or Henry Cecil Wyld's Universal English Dictionary (Wordsworth, reprinted from 1932, ISBN 1-85326-940-9). These are two of the few dictionaries that trace words back to their reconstructed Indo-European (Aryan) roots. Because the list of Indo-European roots was pared in AHD3, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, by Calvert Watkins (Houghton Mifflin, 1985), although out of print, is not obsolete.

Although AHD3 looks larger than a collegiate dictionary, its word count puts it in the collegiate range. If you want an up-to-date dictionary that is larger than a collegiate, get the Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2nd edition, Random House, revised 1993, ISBN 0-679-42917-4) (RHUD2).

Online dictionaries

You cannot access the OED online, unless you or your institution has paid to do so. The second edition is copyright, and allowing public access to it would be illegal. A public-access version of the first edition is conceivable, but I don't know of one.

The OED is available on CD-ROM for PCs, and server-style for UNIX systems. For info on obtaining the UNIX version in North America, phone the Open Text Corporation in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: e-mail Don't ask us where to buy the CD-ROM version: your local bookshop can order it for you. If you want to submit citations for the next edition of the OED, you can contact the OED staff directly at

Info from Alex Lange: The online OED is encoded with the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), which is ISO 8879:1986 and is discussed in obscure detail on the comp.text.sgml newsgroup. The funny-looking escape codes beginning with "&" are known as "text entity references". The ISO has defined a slew of such for use with SGML: publishing symbols, math and scientific symbols, and so on. A good place to start for information about SGML and its uses is an article "SGML Frees Information", Byte, June 1992.

Online versions of Merriam-Webster dictionaries have been spotted at various sites on the Internet. Be warned that Merriam-Webster has not yet authorized any such version, and that dictionaries containing such words as "beat.nik" and "tran.sis.tor" are too recent to be in the public domain. Merriam-Webster plans to release its own online version of MWCD10 on the Internet shortly.

Info from Graham Toal: Roget's Thesaurus (1911 version, out of copyright) is available from as pub/etext/etext91/roget13.txt . has Collins English Dictionary (1st edition) converted to a Prolog fact base; the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary; and the MRC Psycholinguistic Database (150,837 word forms, expanded from the headwords in the Shorter Oxford, with info about 26 different linguistic properties). Read the conditions of use for the Oxford Text Archive materials before using; most texts are available for scholarly use and research only.

Anu Garg ( runs a public-access wordserver that provides dictionary, thesaurus, acronym, and anagram services by e-mail. He also has a mailing list, "A.Word.A.Day", that mails out a vocabulary word and its definition to its subscribers every day. For information on these services, send a blank message with subject "Help" to There is another "word of the day" mailing list, maintained by Douglas Groene (

General reference

The Oxford Companion to the English Language (ed. Tom McArthur, Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-19-214183-X) is an encyclopaedia with a wealth of information on various dialects, on lexicography, and almost everything else except individual words and expressions. Success With Words (Reader's Digest, 1983, ISBN 0-88850-117-X) is especially suitable for beginners.

Books on linguistics

David Crystal The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language Cambridge University Press, 1987, ISBN 0-521-26438-3 David Crystal A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics Blackwell, 1985, ISBN 0-631-14081-6 William Bright, ed. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics 4 vols., Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-19-505196-3 R. E. Asher, ed. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics 10 vols., Pergamon, 1994, ISBN 0-08-035943-4


Randolph Quirk et al. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language Longman, 1985, ISBN 0-582-51734-6 Otto Jespersen A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles 7 volumes, Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1909-1949

Books on usage

The best survey of the history of usage disputes and how they correlate with actual usage is Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Merriam-Webster, 1989 (WDEU—recently reprinted as Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, ISBN 0-87779-131-7).

Among conservative prescriptivists, the most highly respected usage book is the Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by H. W. Fowler—1st edition, 1926 (MEU); 2nd edition, revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, Oxford University Press, 1965, ISBN 0-19-281389-7 (MEU2). Two new, independent revisions are due to be published in 1996: one by the late Sir Kingsley Amis, one by Oxford University Press.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White (Macmillan, 3rd ed. 1979, ISBN 0-02-418190-0) and Wilson Follett's Modern American Usage (Hill and Wang, 1966, ISBN 0-8090-0139-X) have their partisans here, although they aren't as widely respected as Fowler.

Liberals most often refer to the Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, by Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans (Random House, 1957, ISBN 0-8022-0973-4—out of print).

Online usage guides

Jack Lynch ( has a style guide that he originally wrote for business writers and modified for an English Literature course that he teaches at the University of Pennsylvania: Some topics that some people expect to be covered in this FAQ file, such as "affect" vs "effect", "compose" vs "comprise", and "i.e." vs "e.g.", actually belong in a list of things that writers need to be cautioned about: you'll find them in Jack's guide.

Project Bartleby at Columbia has an incomplete copy of the 1918 edition of Strunk's book The Elements of Style (before White got to it), with some simple hypertext markup: It also has the second edition of The King's English by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler (1907):

There is an "anti-grammar" at:

Online language columns

Evan Morris ( posts his syndicated newspaper column, "The Word Detective":

Terry O'Connor ( posts "Word for Word", his column in the Queensland newspaper The Courier-Mail:

Collins Cobuild offers a column called WordWatch:

The OED has a newsletter at

The Editorial Eye posts many of its articles:

Books that discriminate synonyms

Webster's New Dictionary of Synonyms Merriam-Webster, 1984, ISBN 0-87779-241-0

Style manuals

The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press, 1993, ISBN 0-226-10389-7) covers manuscript preparation; copy- editing; proofs; rights and permissions; typography; and format of tables, captions, bibliographies, and indexes.

Books on mathematical exposition

Norman E. Steenrod, Paul R. Halmos, Menahem M. Schiffer, Jean A. Dieudonne How to Write Mathematics American Mathematical Society, 1973, ISBN 0-8218-0055-8 Donald E. Knuth, Tracy Larrabee, & Paul M. Roberts Mathematical Writing Mathematical Association of America, 1989, ISBN 0-88385-063-X

Books on phrasal verbs

A. P. Cowie and Ronald Mackin Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English: Verbs with Prepositions and Particles, Vol. I OUP, 1975, ISBN 0-19-431145-7 Rosemary Courtney Longman Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs Longman, 1983, ISBN 0-582-55530-2 F. T. Wood English Verbal Idioms London: Macmillan, 1966, ISBN 0-333-09673-8 F. T. Wood English Prepositional Idioms London: Macmillan, 1969, ISBN 0-333-10391-2

Books on Britishisms, Canadianisms, etc.

There are many hundreds of differences between British and American English. From time to time, we get threads in which each post mentions one of these differences. Because such a thread can go on for ever, it's helpful to delimit the topic more narrowly.

The books to get are The Hutchinson British/American Dictionary by Norman Moss (Arrow, 1990, ISBN 0-09-978230-8); British English, A to Zed by Norman W. Schur (Facts on File, 1987, ISBN 0-8160-1635-6); and Modern American Usage by H. W. Horwill (OUP, 2nd ed., 1935).

Jeremy Smith ( has compiled his own British-American dictionary, available on the WWW at He plans to publish it as a paperback. There is another British-American dictionary at

For Australian English, see The Macquarie Dictionary of Australian Colloquial Language (Macquarie, 1988, ISBN 0-949757-41-1); The Macquarie Dictionary (Macquarie, 1991, ISBN 0-949757-63-2); The Australian National Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-19-55736-5); or The Dinkum Dictionary (Viking O'Nell, 1988, ISBN 0-670-90419-8).

For New Zealand English, there's the Heinemann New Zealand Dictionary, ed. H. W. Orseman (Heinemann, 1979, ISBN 0-86863-373-9); and A Personal Kiwi-Yankee Slanguage Dictionary, by Louis S. Leland Jr. (McIndoe, 1987, ISBN 0-86868-001-X).

For South African English, see A Dictionary of South African English, ed. Jean Branford (OUP, 3rd ed., 1987, ISBN 0-19-570427-4).

For Canadian English, see A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (Gage, 1967, ISBN 0-7715-1976-1); the Penguin Canadian Dictionary (Copp, 1990, ISBN 0-670-81970-0); or the Gage Canadian Dictionary (Gage, 1982, ISBN 0-7715-9660-X).

For Irish English, see Padiac O'Farrell's How the Irish speak English (Mercier, 1993, ISBN 1-85635-055-X); Patrick W. Joyce's English as We Speak it in Ireland (Wolfhound, 2nd ed., 1987, ISBN 0-86327-122-7); Loreto Todd's Words Apart: A Dictionary of Northern Ireland English_ (C. Smythe, 1990, 0-86140-338-X); or Niklas Miller's Irish-English, English-Irish Dictionary (Abson, 1982, ISBN 0-902920-11-1).

A "Scots Leid Haunbuik an FAQ" is available at Ftp://

For English in India, see Ivor Lewis's Sahibs, Nabobs and Boxwallahs: A Dictionary of the Words of Anglo-Indian (OUP, 1991, ISBN 0-19-562582-X).

Books on phrase origins

Christine Ammer Have a Nice Day—No Problem! : A Dictionary of Cliches Plume Penguin, 1992, ISBN 0-452-27004-9 Robert Hendrickson The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins Facts on File, 1987, ISBN 0-86237-122-7 (The paperback reprint, The Henry Holt Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, is no longer available.) Nigel Rees

Bloomsbury Dictionary of Phrase and Allusion Bloomsbury, 1991, ISBN 0-7475-1217-5 Ivor H. Evans, ed. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable 14th ed., Harper & Row, 1989, ISBN 0-304-31835-3 Charles Earle Funk 2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings, and Expressions from White Elephants to Song & Dance (an omnibus of four earlier books, 1948-58) Galahad, 1993, ISBN 0-88365-845-3

Books on "bias-free"/"politically correct" language

Rosalie Maggio The Bias-Free Word Finder: A Dictionary of Nondiscriminatory Language Beacon, 1992, ISBN 0-8070-6003-8 Nigel Rees The Politically Correct Phrasebook: What They Say You Can and Cannot Say in the 1990s Bloomsbury, 1993, ISBN 0-7475-1426-7 Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook Villard, 1993, ISBN 0-679-74944-6

Books on group names

James Lipton An Exaltation of Larks Viking Penguin, 1991, ISBN 0-670-3044-6 Ivan G. Sparkes Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Terms Gale, 2nd ed, 1985, ISBN 0-8103-2188-2 Rex Collins A Crash of Rhinoceroses: A Dictionary of Collective Nouns Moger Bell, 1993, ISBN 1-55921-096-6

Books on rhyming slang

Julian Franklyn

A Dictionary of Rhyming Slang 3rd ed., Routledge, 1990, ISBN 0-415-04602-5 Paul Wheeler Upper Class Rhyming Slang Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985, ISBN 0-283-99295-6 John Meredith Dinkum Aussie Rhyming Slang Kangaroo, 1991, ISBN 0-86417-333-4

Artificial dialects

Basic English

Basic English (where "Basic" stands for "British American Scientific International Commercial") is a subset of English with a base vocabulary of 850 words, propounded by C. K. Ogden in 1929. Look under "Ogden" in your library's author index if you're interested. (We're not.)


E-prime is a subset of standard idiomatic English that eschews all forms of the verb "to be" (e.g., you can't say "You are an ass" or "You an ass", but you can say "You act like an ass"). The original reference is D. David Bourland, Jr., "A linguistic note: write in E-prime" General Semantics Bulletin, 1965/1966, 32 and 33, 60-61. Albert Ellis wrote a book in E-prime (Sex and the Liberated Man). You can also look at the April 1992 issue of the Atlantic if you're interested. (We're not.) The following book contains articles both pro and con on E-Prime: To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology, ed. D. David Bourland and Paul D. Johnston, International Society for General Semantics, 1991, ISBN 0-918970-38-5.


How to represent pronunciation in ASCII

Beware of using ad hoc methods to indicate pronunciation. The problem with ad hoc methods is that they often wrongly assume your dialect to have certain features in common with the readers' dialect. You may pronounce "bother" to rhyme with "father"; some of the readers here don't. You may pronounce "cot" and "caught" alike; some of the readers here don't. You may pronounce "caught" and "court" alike; some of the readers here don't.

The standard way to represent pronunciation (used in the latest British Dictionaries and by linguists worldwide) is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For a complete guide to the IPA, see Phonetic Symbol Guide by Geoffrey K. Pullum and William A. Ladusaw (University of Chicago Press, 1986, ISBN 0-226-68532-2). IPA uses many special symbols; on the Net, where we're restricted to ASCII symbols, we must find a way to make do.

The following scheme is due to Evan Kirshenbaum ( The complete scheme can be accessed on the WWW at: I show here only examples for the sounds most often referred to in this newsgroup. Where there are two columns, the left column shows British Received Pronunciation (RP), and the right column shows a rhotic pronunciation used by at least some U.S. speakers. (There's a WWW page that shows what the IPA symbols look like:

The consonant symbols [b], [d], [f], [h], [k], [l], [m], [n], [p],
[r], [s], [t], [v], [w], and [z] have their usual English values.

[A] = [script a] as in:
	"ah"	 	/A:/		/A:/
	"cart"   	/kA:t/ 		/kArt/
	"father" 	/'fA:D@/        /'fA:D@r/
	"farther"	/'fA:D@/	/'fArD@r/
	and French _bas_ /bA/.  This sound requires opening your
	mouth wide and feeling resonance at the back of your mouth.
[A.] = [turned script a] as in British:
	"bother"	/'bA.D@/
	"cot"		/kA.t/
	"hot"		/hA.t/
	"sorry"		/'sA.rI/
	This symbol (for the sound traditionally called "short o")
	is not much used to transcribe U.S. pronunciation.  [A] or
	[O] is used instead, according to which vowels the speaker
	merges; but the sound * by * such speakers will
	certainly be * by Britons as [A.].  The sound is
	intermediate between [A] and [O], but typically of shorter
	duration than either.  Imagine Patrick Stewart saying "Tea,
	Earl Grey, hot."	
[a] as in French ami /a'mi/, German Mann /man/, Italian pasta
	/'pasta/, Chicago "pop" /pap/, Boston "park" /pa:k/.  Also
	in diphthongs: "dive" /daIv/ (yes, folks, the sound
	traditionally called "long i" is actually a diphthong!),
	"out" /aUt/.  Typically, [a] is not distinguished
	phonemically from [A]; but if you use in "ask" a vowel
	distinct both from the one in "cat" and the one in "father",
	then [a] is what it is.
[C] = [c cedilla] as in German (Hochdeutsch) ich /IC/
[D] = [edh] as in "this" /DIs/
[E] = [epsilon] as in:
	"end"		/End/		/End/
	"get"		/gEt/		/gEt/
	"Mary"		/'mE@rI/	/'mE@ri/
	"merry"		/'mErI/		/'mEri/
	Some U.S. speakers do not distinguish between "Mary",
	"merry", and "marry".
[e] as in:
	"eight" 	/eIt/		/eIt/
	"chaos"		/'keA.s/	/'keAs/
[g] as in "get" /gEt/
[I] = [iota] as in "it" /It/
[I.] = [small capital y] as in German Glu"ck /glI.k/.
	Round your lips for [U] and try to say [I].
[i] as in "eat" /i:t/
[j] as in "yes" /jEs/
[N] = [eng] as in "hang" /h&N/
[O] = [open o] as in:
	"all" 		/O:l/		/O:l/
	"caught"	/kO:t/		/kO:t/
	"court"		/kO:t/		/kOrt/
	"oil"		/OIl/		/OIl/
	The [O] sound requires rounded lips, but lips making a
	a bigger circle than for [o].  If you do not use the
	same vowel sound in "caught" as in "court", then you are
	one of the North American speakers who use [O] only
	before [r]:  you do not round your lips for "all" and
	"caught", and you should use some other symbol, such as
	[A] or [a], to transcribe the vowel.
[o] as in U.S.:
	"no"				/noU/
	"old"				/oUld/
	"omit"				/oU'mIt/
	The pure sound is heard in French beau /bo/.  British
	Received Pronunciation does not use this sound,
	substituting the diphthong /@U/ (/n@U/, /@Uld/, /@U'mIt/).
	If you are one of the few speakers who distinguish such
	pairs as "aural" and "oral", "for" and "four", "for" and
	"fore", "horse" and "hoarse", "or" and "oar", "or" and
	"ore", then you use [O] for the first and [o] for the
	second word in each pair; otherwise, you use [O] for both.
[R] = [right-hook schwa], equivalent to /@r/, /r-/, or even /V"r/
[S] = [esh] as in "ship" /SIp/
[T] = [theta] as in "thin" /TIn/
[t!] = [turned t] as in "tsk-tsk" or "tut-tut" /t! t!/
[U] = [upsilon] as in "pull" /pUl/
[u] as in "ooze" /u:z/
[V] = [turned v] as in British:
	"hurry"		/'hVrI/
	"shun"		/SVn/
	"up"		/Vp/
	U.S. speakers tend not to use [V] in words (such as "hurry")
	where the following sound is [r]:  they would say /'h@ri/.
	And some U.S. speakers, especially in the eastern U.S.,
	substitute [@] for [V] in all contexts.  If you do not
	distinguish "mention" /'mEn S@n/ from "men shun" /'mEn SVn/,
	then you should use [@] and not [V] to transcribe your
[V"] = [reversed epsilon] as in:
	"fern"		/fV":n/		/fV"rn/
	"hurl"		/hV":l/		/hV"rl/
	Many U.S. speakers substitute [@] for [V"], so they would
	say /f@rn/, /h@rl/.  Many other U.S. speakers pronounce "fern"
	with no vowel at all:  /fr:n/, /hr:l/.  If you are one of the
	few speakers who distinguish such pairs as "pearl" and "purl"
	(using a lower, more retracted vowel in "purl"), then you can
	transcribe "pearl" /p@rl/ and "purl" /pV"rl/.
[W] = [o-e ligature] as in French heure /Wr/, German Ko"pfe
	/'kWpf@/.  Round your lips for [O] and try to say [E].
[x] as in Scots "loch" /lA.x/, German Bach /bax/
[Y] = [slashed o] as in French peu /pY/, German scho"n /SYn/,
	Scots guidwillie /gYd'wIli/.  Round your lips for [o] and
	try to say [e].
[y] as in French lune /lyn/, German mu"de /'myd@/.  Round your
	lips for [u] and try to say [i].
[Z] = [yogh] as in "beige" /beIZ/
[&] = [ash] as in:
	"ash" 		/&S/		/&S/
	"cat"		/k&t/		/k&t/
	"marry"		/'m&rI/		/'m&ri/
[@] = [schwa] as in "lemon" /'lEm@n/
[?] = [glottal] as in "uh-oh" /V?ou/
[*] = [fish-hook r], a short tap of the tongue use by some U.S.
	speakers in "pedal", "petal", and by Scots speakers in
	"pearl":  all /pE*@l/.  If you are a U.S. speaker but
	distinguish "pedal" from "petal", then you do not use this
- previous consonant syllabic as in "bundle" /'bVnd@l/ or /'bVndl-/,
	"button" /bVt@n/ or /bVtn-/
~ previous sound nasalized
: previous sound lengthened
; previous sound palatalized
h previous sound aspirated
' following syllable has primary stress
, following syllable has secondary stress

Here is the scheme compared with the transcriptions in 4 U.S.
dictionaries.  (Most British dictionaries now use IPA for their

       Merriam-Webster    American Heritage Random House     Webster's New World

[A]    a umlaut           a umlaut          a umlaut          a umlaut
[A.]   (merged with [A])  o breve           o                 (merged with [A])
[a]    a overdot          (merged with [A]) A                 a overdot
/AI/   i macron           i macron          i macron          i macron
/AU/   a u overdot        ou                ou                ou
[C]    (merged with [x])  (merged with [x]) (merged with [x]) H
[D]    th underlined      th in italics     th slashed        th in italics
/dZ/   j                  j                 j                 j
[E]    e                  e breve           e                 e
/E@/   a schwa            a circumflex      a circumflex      (merged with [e])
/eI/   a macron           a macron          a macron          a macron
[g]    g                  g                 g                 g
[I]    i                  i breve           i                 i
[I.]   ue ligature        (merged with [y]) (merged with [y]) (merged with [y])
[i]    e macron           e macron          e macron          e macron
[j]    y                  y                 y                 y
[N]    eng              ng                ng                eng
[O]    o overdot          o circumflex      o circumflex      o circumflex
/OI/   o overdot i        oi                oi                oi ligature
/oU/   o macron           o macron          o macron          o macron
[S]    sh                 sh                sh                sh ligature
[T]    th                 th                th                th ligature
/tS/   ch                 ch                ch                ch ligature
[U]    u overdot          oo breve          oo breve          oo
[u]    u umlaut           oo macron         oo macron         oo macron
[V]    (merged with [@])  u breve           u                 u
[V"]   (merged with [@])  u circumflex      u circumflex      u circumflex
[W]    oe ligature        oe ligature       OE ligature       o umlaut
[x]    k underlined       KH                KH                kh ligature
[Y]    oe ligature macron (merged with [W]) (merged with [W]) (merged with [W])
[y]    ue ligature macron u umlaut          Y                 u umlaut
[Z]    zh                 zh                zh                zh ligature
[&]    a                  a breve           a                 a
[@]    schwa              schwa             schwa             schwa
-      superscript schwa  syllabicity mark  unmarked          '

Auditory files demonstrating speech sounds can be obtained by anonymous ftp from (or on the World Wide Web at Look in "/user/ai/areas/nlp/corpora/pron" and "/user/ai/areas/speech/database/britpron".

Rhotic vs non-rhotic, intrusive 'r'

A rhotic speaker is one who pronounces as a consonant postvocalic "r", i.e. the "r" after a vowel in words like "world" /wV"rld/. A nonrhotic speaker either does not pronounce the "r" at all /wV"ld/ or pronounces it as a schwa /wV"@ld/. British Received Pronunciation (RP) and many other dialects of English are nonrhotic.

Many nonrhotic speakers (including RP speakers, but excluding most nonrhotic speakers in the southern U.S.) use a "linking r": they don't pronounce "r" in "for" by itself /fO/, but they do pronounce the first "r" in "for ever" /fO 'rEv@/. Linking "r" differs from French liaison in that the former happens in any phonetically appropriate context, whereas the latter also needs the right syntactic context.

A further development of "linking r" is "intrusive r". Intrusive-r speakers, because the vowels in "law" (which they pronounce the same as "lore") and "idea" (which they pronounce to rhyme with "fear") are identical for them to vowels spelled with "r", intrude an r in such phrases as "law [r]and order" and "The idea [r]of it!" They do NOT intrude an [r] after vowels that are never spelled with an "r". Some people blanch at intrusive r, but most RP speakers now use it.

How do Americans pronounce 'dog'?

Those who round their lips when they say it would probably transcribe it /dOg/; those who don't round their lips, /dAg/.

Very few people in North America distinguish all three vowels /A/, /A./, and /O/. Speakers in Eastern and Southern U.S. merge /A./ and /A/, so that "bother" and "father" rhyme. Speakers in Western U.S. and in Canada merge /A./ and /O/, so that "cot" and "caught", "Don" and "Dawn" are pronounced alike. Some speakers merge all three vowels. The Oxford Companion to the English Language says: "The merger of vowels in tot and taught begins in a narrow band in central Pennsylvania and spreads north and south to influence the West, where the merger is universal. [...] In New England, where the merger is beginning to occur, speakers select the first vowel; in the Midland and West, the second vowel is used for both." Although /A./ is seldom used to transcribe American pronunciation, the vowel transcribed /O/ may sound like /A./ to non-American speakers, or it may sound like /O/.

There is a further complication with "dog":

U.S. dictionaries give the pronunciations /dOg/, /dAg/ in that order (and similarly with some other words ending in "-og", although which ones varies from dictionary to dictionary). "Dawg", the name of the family dog in the comic strip "Hi and Lois", may be intended to convey the pronunciation /dOg/ to (or from) people who usually pronounce the word /dAg/; or it may be intended as how a child in a community where /A./ and /O/ are merged might misspell "dog".

Words pronounced differently according to context

There is a general tendency in English whereby when a word with a stressed final syllable is followed by another word without a pause, the stress moves forward: "kangaROO", but "KANGaroo court"; "afterNOON", but "AFTernoon nap"; "above BOARD", but "an aBOVEboard deal". This happens chiefly in noun phrases, but not exclusively so ("acquiESCE" versus "ACquiesce readily"). Consider also "Chinese" and all numbers ending in "-teen".

When "have to" means "must", the [v] in "have" becomes an [f]. Similarly, in "has to", [z] becomes [s]. When "used to" and "supposed to" are used in their senses of "formerly" and "ought", the "-sed" is pronounced /st/; when they're used in other senses, it's /zd/.

In many dialects, "the" is pronounced /D@/ before a consonant, and /DI/ before a vowel sound. Many foreigners learning English are taught this rule explicitly. Native English speakers are also taught this rule when we sing in choirs. (We do it instinctively in rapid speech; but in the slower pace of singing, it has to be brought to our conscious attention.)

Words that have different pronunciations for specialized meanings include the noun "address" (often stressed on the first syllable when denoting a location, but stressed on the second syllable when denoting an oration) "contrary" (often stressed on the second syllable when the meaning is "perverse"); the verb "discount" (stressed on the first syllable when the meaning is "to reduce in price", but on the second syllable when the meaning is "to disbelieve"); the verb "process" (stressed on the second syllable when the meaning is "to go in procession"); the noun "recess" (stressed on the first syllable when it means "a break from working", but on the second syllable when it means "a secluded part"); the verb "relay" (stressed on the first syllable when it means "to pass on radio or TV signals", but on the second syllable when it means "to pass on something that was said"); and the verb "second" (stressed on the first syllable when it means "to endorse a motion", but on the second syllable when it means "to temporarily re-assign an employee". "Offence" and "defence", usually stressed on the second syllable, are often in North America stressed on the first syllable when the context is team sports. (In the U.S., of course, they are spelled with -se .)

Words whose spelling has influenced their pronunciation

"Cocaine" used to be pronounced /'co ca in/ (3 syllables). "Waistcoat" used to be pronounced /'wEskIt/. "Humble" and "human" were borrowed from French with no [h] in their pronunciation. "Forte" in the sense "strong point" comes from French, where the "e" is not pronounced.

"Zoo" is an abbreviation of "zoological garden". The (popular but stigmatized) pronunciation of "zoological" as /zu@'lA.dZik@l/ (as opposed to /zo@'lA.dZik@l/) is due to the influence of "zoo".

"Elephant" was "olifaunt" in Middle English, but its spelling was restored to reflect the Latin "elephantus". Similarly, "crocodile" was "cokedrill".

"Golf" is Scots. The traditional Scots pronunciation is /gof/.

"Ralph" was traditionally pronounced /ref/ in Britain—Gilbert and Sullivan rhymed it with "waif" in H.M.S. Pinafore; that's how the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams pronounced his name; and even today actor Ralph Fiennes (of Schindler's List fame) is said to pronounce his name /ref faInz/.

"Medicine" and "regiment" were two-syllable words in the 19th century: /'mEdsIn/ and /'rEdZm@nt/. /'mEdsIn/ can still be heard in RP.

King Arthur would have pronounced his name /'artur/. The h's in "Arthur" (now universally reflected in the pronunciation) and "Anthony" (reflected in the U.S. pronunciation) were added in the 15th century—ornamentally or, in the case of "Anthony", because of a false connection with Greek anthos="flower".

The new pronunciations in such cases are called "spelling pronunciations". The "speak-as-you-spell movement" is described in the MEU2 article on "pronunciation".

Usage disputes


Strictly, an acronym is a string of initial letters pronounceable as a word, such as "NATO". Abbreviations like "NBC" have been variously designated "alphabetisms" and "initialisms", although some people do call them acronyms. WDEU says, "Dictionaries, however, do not make this distinction [between acronyms and initialisms] because writers in general do not"; but two of the best known books on acronyms are titled Acronyms, Initialisms and Abbreviations Dictionary (19th ed., Gale, 1993) and Concise Dictionary of Acronyms and Initialisms (Facts on File, 1988). The Network Dictionary of Acronyms is available through World Wide Web ( or by e-mail (send the word "help" to

"All ... not"

"All ... not" cannot be condemned on the grounds of novelty, as "All that glitters is not gold" and "All is not lost" show. "All that glitters is not gold" is from Parabolae, a book of poems written circa 1175 by Alanus de Insulis, a French monk: Non teneas aurum totum quod splendet ut aurum = "Do not hold as gold all that shines like gold". It was Englished by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales (1389) as: "But al thyng which that shyneth as the gold / Nis nat gold, as that I have herd it told." "All is not lost" occurs in Milton's Paradise Lost (1667).

The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs gives the proverbs "All truths are not to be told" (1350), "All things fit not all persons" (1532), "All feet tread not in one shoe" (1640), "All are not saints that go to church" (1659), and "All Stuarts are not sib to the king" (1857). It gives no proverbs at all beginning "Not all".

"All ... not" can, however, be condemned on the grounds of potential ambiguity. When I proposed the sentence "All the people who used the bathtub did not clean it afterwards" as ambiguous, many people vigorously disputed that it was ambiguous. But they were about evenly split on what it did mean! (John Lawler writes: "There's a very large literature on quantifier ambiguities. Guy Carden did the definitive early studies in the '60s and '70s, and many others have contributed since then.") "Not all the people who used the bathtub cleaned it afterwards" (or, if the other meaning is intended, "None of the people who used the bathtub cleaned it afterwards") is free of this ambiguity.

("Not all" can also be used rhetorically to mean "not even all", but only in an exalted style incompatible with bathtubs: "Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm from an anointed king"—Shakespeare, Richard II, 1595.)

Fowler quoted a correspondent who urged him to prescribe "not all", and commented: "This gentleman has logic on his side, logic has time on its side, and probably the only thing needed for his gratification is that he should live long enough."


This misspelling of "a lot" is frequently mentioned as a pet peeve. It rarely appears in print, but is often found in the U.S. in informal writing and on Usenet. There does not seem to be a corresponding "alittle".


The spelling "alright" is recorded from 1887. It was defended by Fowler (in one of the Society for Pure English tracts, not in MEU), on the analogy of "almighty" and "altogether", and on the grounds that "The answers are alright" (= "The answers are O.K.") is less ambiguous than "The answers are all right" (which could mean "All the answers are right"). But it is still widely condemned.

"Between you and I"

The prescriptive rule is to use "you and I" in the same contexts as "I" (i.e., as a subject), and "you and me" in the same contexts as "me" (i.e., as an object). In "between you and me", since "you and me" is the object of the preposition "between", "me" is the only correct form. But English speakers have a tendency to regard compounds joined with "and" as units, so that some speakers use "you and me" exclusively, and others use "you and I" exclusively, although such practices "have no place in modern edited prose" (WDEU). "Between you and I" was used by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice. Since this antedates the teaching of English grammar, it is probably not "hypercorrection". (This is mentioned merely to caution against the hypercorrection theory, not to defend the phrase.) Shakespeare also used "between you and me".

"Company is" vs "company are"

Use of a plural verb after a singular noun denoting a group of persons (known as a noun of multitude) is commoner in the U.K. than in the U.S. Fowler wrote: "The Cabinet is divided is better, because in the order of thought a whole must precede division; and The Cabinet are agreed is better, because it takes two or more to agree."

"Could care less"

The idiom "couldn't care less", meaning "doesn't care at all" (the meaning in full is "cares so little that he couldn't possibly care less"), originated in Britain around 1940. "Could care less", which is used with the same meaning, developed in the U.S. around 1960. We get disputes about whether the latter was originally a mis-hearing of the former; whether it was originally ironic; or whether it arose from uses where the negative element was separated from "could" ("None of these writers could care less..."). Henry Churchyard believes that this sentence by Jane Austen may be pertinent: "You know nothing and you care less, as people say." (Mansfield Park (1815), Chapter 29) Meaning-saving elaborations have also been suggested: "As if I could care less!"; "I could care less, but I'd have to try"; "If I cared even one iota—which I don't—, then I could care less."

Recently encountered has been "could give a damn", used in the sense "couldn't give a damn".

An earlier transition in which "not" was dropped was the one that gave us "but" in the sense of "only". "I will not say but one word", where "but" meant "(anything) except", became "I will say but one word."

Other idioms that say the opposite of what they mean include: "head over heels" (which could mean turning cartwheels, i.e. "head over heels over head over heels", but is also used to mean "upside-down", i.e. "heels over head"); "Don't sneeze more than you can help" (meaning "more than you cannot help"; "help" here means "prevent"); "It's hard to open, much less acknowledge, the letters" (where "less" means "harder", i.e. "more"); "I shouldn't wonder if it didn't rain"; "I miss not seeing you"; and "I turned my life around 360 degrees"—not to mention undisputedly ironic phrases such as "fat chance", "Thanks a lot", and "I should worry".

"Could of"

We get frequent complaints about the occurrence of "of" in unedited prose where the meaning is "have". "Have" contracts to "'ve", so "could've", "might've", "must've", "should've", "would've", etc. (and their negatives, "couldn't've", etc.), should be so spelt. People have testified that it's got beyond a spelling mistake: they've heard "would of" spoken with a clear pause between the words.

WDEU says: "The OED Supplement dates the naive (or ignorant) use of of back to 1837. [...Y]ou had better avoid it in your own writing. [...] Bernstein 1977 allows that a schoolchild cannot be blamed for could of—once."

"Different to", "different than"

"Different from" is the construction that no one will object to. "Different to" is fairly common informally in the U.K., but rare in the U.S. "Different than" is sometimes used to avoid the cumbersome "different from that which", etc. (e.g., "a very different Pamela than I used to leave all company and pleasure for"—Samuel Richardson). Some U.S. speakers use "different than" exclusively. Some people have insisted on "different from" on the grounds that "from" is required after "to differ". But Fowler points out that there are many other adjectives that do not conform to the construction of their parent verbs (e.g., "accords with", but "according to"; "derogates from", but "derogatory to").


The OED's first citation for "done" in the sense of "finished" is from 1300, and it has been in continuous use since then. It was used in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer ("When the Clerkes have dooen syngyng"); by Francis Bacon ("Dinner being done, the Tirsan retireth", 1611); by John Donne ("And having done that, Thou haste done, I have no more", 1623); by Dryden ("Now the Chime of Poetry is done", 1697); and by Dickens ("when the reading of this document is done", 1859). According to The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (OUP, 3rd ed., 1970, ISBN 0-19-869118-1), the proverb "Man's work lasts till set of sun; woman's work is never done" is first recorded with the words "is never done" in 1721.

In the early 20th century, for some reason objections to the use of "done" in the sense of "finished" arose in the U.S. It became regarded as colloquial, and in 1969 only 53% of AHD's usage panel approved of it in writing. Although these objections have now subsided, one should still beware that the two senses of "done" may cause ambiguity: does "The work will be done next month" mean "The work will get done next month" or "The work will be done by next month"?

The use of "be done" with a personal subject, meaning "have finished", is described by the OED as "chiefly Irish, Sc., U.S., and dial." The first citation is dated 1766, and is from Thomas Amory, a British writer of Irish descent: "I was done with love for ever." American users have included Thomas Jefferson ("One farther favor and I am done", 1771); Mark Twain ("I am done with official life for the present", 1872); and Robert Frost ("But I am done with apple- picking now", 1914).

Users in the British Isles have included Robert Louis Stevenson ("We were no sooner done eating than Clumsy brought out an old, thumbed greasy pack of cards", 1886) and George Bernard Shaw ("You can't be done: you've eaten nothing", 1898).

"Be finished" is also used in the sense of "have finished". Jespersen's first citation is from Oliver Goldsmith ("When we were finished for the day", 1766). English-speakers should be careful not to render this construction literally into other languages: Partridge recounts the story of an Englishman who in a French restaurant said je suis fini to the waiter, who looked at the "finished" customer with some concern.

Any of "be done", "be finished", "have done", and "have finished" may be followed either with a gerund, or with "with" plus any noun phrase. If "with" is not used and the noun phrase is not a gerund, then only "have finished" may be used ("have done" would not have the sense "have finished" here). Use of "with" changes the meaning: "I have finished construction of the building" means that the building is fully constructed, whereas "I have finished with construction of the building" means merely that my part is over.

These uses of "be done" and "be finished" are examples of what Fowler called the "intransitive past participle", where, instead of the more usual transformation:
"A {transitive verb}s B" - "B is {transitive verb}ed"
we see the transformation:
"A {intransitive verb}s" - "A is {intransitive verb}ed"
Fowler gives the examples: fallen angels, the risen sun, a vanished hand, past times, the newly arrived guest, a grown girl, absconded debtors, escaped prisoners, the deceased lady, the dear departed, coalesced stems, a collapsed lorry, we are agreed, a couched lion, an eloped pair, an expired lease.

Double "is"

Double "is", as in "The reason is, is that..." is a recent U.S. development, much decried. Of course, "What this is is..." is undisputedly correct.

"Due to"

"Due to" meaning "caused by" is undisputedly correct in contexts where "due" can be construed as an adjective (e.g., "failure due to carelessness"). Its use in contexts where "due" is an adverb ("He failed due to carelessness") has been disputed. Fowler says that "due to is often used by the illiterate as though it had passed, like owing to, into a mere compound preposition". But Fowler was writing in 1926; what hadn't happened then may well have happened by now.


"Functionality" is often attacked as a needless long variant of "function".

But they are differentiated in meaning. "The function of a screwdriver is to turn screws. Its functionality includes prying open paint cans, stirring paint, scraping paint, and acting as a chisel. The function is what it is designed to do. The functionality is what you can do with it."—Evan Kirshenbaum. A thing's functionality includes its functions if and only if it does what it was designed to do. This specialized meaning of "functionality" is not yet in most dictionaries. The earliest citation we have was found by Fred Shapiro in the June 1977 issue of Fortune: "The way to grow, an I.B.M. maxim says, is to 'increase the functionality of the system,' or, in plain English, to give the customer the capacity to do more than he wants to do in the knowledge that he inevitably will."

Mark Odegard suggests a similar distinction between "mode" and "modality": "A 'mode' is a way of doing something. A 'modality' is doing something according to a protocol."

Gender-neutral pronouns

Singular "they" (as in "Everyone was blowing their nose"), which has been used in English since the time of Chaucer, has gained popularity recently as a result of the move towards gender-neutral language. Prescriptive grammarians have traditionally (since 1746, although the actual practice goes right back to 1200) prescribed "Everyone was blowing his nose."

Proposals for other gender-neutral pronouns get made from time to time, and some can be found in actual use ("sie" and "hir" are the ones most frequently found on Usenet).

Cecil Adams, in Return of the Straight Dope (Ballantine, 1994, ISBN 0-345-38111-4), says that some eighty such terms have been proposed, the first of them in the 1850s.

Discussions about gender-neutral pronouns tend to go round and round and never reach a conclusion. Please refrain. John Chao ( is constructing a long FAQ on this topic:

(We also get disputes about the use of the word "gender" in the sense of "sex", i.e., of whether a human being is male or female. This also dates from the 14th century. By 1900 it was restricted to jocular use, but it has now been revived because of the "sexual relations" sense of "sex".)

"Hopefully", "thankfully"

The traditional, undisputed senses of these words are active: "in a hopeful manner", "in a thankful manner".

The OED's first citation for "hopefully" in the passive sense (= "It is to be hoped that") is from 1932, but no unmistakable citation has been found between then and 1954. (WDEU has three ambiguous citations dated 1941, 1951, and 1954.) WDEU's first citation for the passive sense of "thankfully" (= "We can be thankful that") is from 1963. These uses became popular in the early '60s, and have been widely criticized on the grounds that they should have been "hopably" and "thankably" (on the analogy of "arguably", "predictably", "regrettably", "inexplicably", etc.), and on the grounds that "I hope" is more direct.

The disputed, passive use of "hopefully" is often referred to as "sentence-modifying"; but it can also modify a single word, as is hopefully clear from this example. :-) Most adverbs that can modify sentences—including "apparently", "clearly", "curiously", "evidently", "fortunately", "ironically", "mercifully", "sadly", and the "-ably" examples above—can be converted into "It is apparent that", etc. But a few adverbs are used in a way that instead must be construed with an ellipsis of "to speak" or "speaking". These include "briefly" (the OED has citations of "briefly" used in this way from 1514 on, including one from Shakespeare), "seriously" (1644; used by Fowler in his article DIDACTICISM in MEU), "strictly" (1680), "roughly" (1841), "frankly" (1847), "honestly" (1898), "hopefully", and "thankfully". Acquisition of such a use is far from automatic; for example, no one uses "fearfully" in a manner analogous to "hopefully".

AHD3 says: "It might have been expected that the flurry of objections to hopefully would have subsided once the usage became well established. Instead, increased currency of the usage appears only to have made the critics more adamant. In the 1969 Usage Panel survey the usage was acceptable to 44 percent of the Panel; in the most recent survey [1992] it was acceptable to only 27 percent. [...] Yet the Panel has not shown any signs of becoming generally more conservative: in the very same survey panelists were disposed to accept once-vilified usages such as the employment of contact and host as verbs." AHD3 quotes William Safire as saying: "The word 'hopefully' has become the litmus test to determine whether one is a language snob or a language slob."

Discussions about "hopefully" and "thankfully" go round and round for ever without reaching a conclusion. We advise you to refrain.

"Impact"="to affect"

"Impact", which comes from Latin impactus, past participle of impingere = "to push against", is first recorded in English in 1601 in the form of the past participle, "impacted". The verb "to impact", meaning "to press closely into or in something", dates from 1791. The noun "impact" dates from 1781. The (undisputed) expression "impacted wisdom tooth" dates from 1876.

There is another English verb derived from Latin impingere: "to impinge", first recorded in 1605. "To impinge on" shares with "to impact" the sense "to come sharply in contact with", and some people consider it stylistically preferable. Unlike "to impact", "to impinge on" has acquired the figurative sense "to encroach on", possibly through confusion with "to infringe". This sense is attested from 1758 on.

The usage dispute centres on the use of the verb "to impact (on)" in the sense "to affect, to have an effect on, to influence". The OED's earliest citations where this is clearly the sense are: for "impact on", 1951; and for transitive "impact", 1963.

Opposition to these uses is widespread. 84% of AHD3's Usage Panel disapproved of "social pathologies [...] that impact heavily on such a community"; and 95% disapproved of "a potential for impacting our health". Among the objections to such use of "impact" are that it sounds pretentious and bureaucratic, and that it may connote to the reader violence that the author did not intend. The latter objection can apply also to "impact" the noun. Kenneth Hudson, in The Dictionary of Diseased English (Macmillan, 1977), noted: "'Yves St. Laurent's Triangles give even more design impact to your bed' (Washington Star, 17.10.76) is not the happiest of sentences. 'Make a nice bed look even better' would have been more reassuring."

"It needs cleaned"

is not standard English, although "It needs to be cleaned", "It needs cleaning", and "I need it cleaned" all are. "It needs cleaned" is common informally in some parts of the U.S., and in Scotland, where it may have originated.

"It's me" vs "It is I"

(freely adapted from an article by Roger Lustig)

Fowler says: "me is technically wrong in it wasn't me etc.; but the phrase being of its very nature colloquial, such a lapse is of no importance".

The rule for what he and others consider technically right is not (as is commonly misstated) that the nominative should always be used after "to be". Rather, it is that "to be" should link two noun phrases of the same case, whether this be nominative or accusative: I believe that he is I. Who do you believe that he is? I believe him to be me. Whom do you believe him to be? According to the traditional grammar being used here, "to be" is not a transitive verb, but a copulative verb. When you say that A is B, you don't imply that A, by being B, is doing something to B. (After all, B is also doing it to A.) Other verbs considered copulative are "to become", "to remain", "to seem", and "to look".

Sometimes in English, though, "to be" does seem to have the force of a transitive verb; e.g., in Gelett Burgess's: I never saw a Purple Cow, I never hope to see one; But I can tell you, anyhow, I'd rather see than be one. The occurrence of "It's me", etc., is no doubt partly due to this perceived transitive force. In the French c'est moi, often cited as analogous, moi is not in the accusative, but a special form known as the "disjunctive", used for emphasis. If etre were a transitive verb in French, c'est moi would be ce m'est.

In languages such as German and Latin that inflect between the nominative and the accusative, B in "A is B" is nominative just like A. In English, no nouns and only a few personal pronouns ("I", "we", "thou", "he", "she", "they" and "who") inflect between the nominative and the accusative. In other words, we've gotten out of the habit, for the most part.

Also, in English we derive meaning from word position, far more than one would in Latin, somewhat more than in German, even. In those languages, one can rearrange sentences drastically for rhetorical or other purposes without confusion (heh) because inflections (endings, etc.) tell you how the words relate to one another. In English, "The dog ate the cat" and "The cat ate the dog" are utterly different in meaning, and if we wish to have the former meaning with "cat" prior to "dog" in the sentence, we have to say "The cat was eaten by the dog" (change of voice) or "It is the cat that the dog ate." In German, one can reverse the meaning by inflecting the word (or its article): Der Hund frass die Katze and Den Hund frass die Katze reverse the meaning of who ate whom. In Latin, things are even more flexible: almost any word order will do: Feles edit canem Feles canem edit Canem edit feles Canem feles edit Edit canem feles Edit feles canem all mean the same, the choice of word order being made perhaps for rhetorical or poetic purpose.

English is pretty much the opposite of that: hardly any inflection, great emphasis on order. As a result, things have gotten a little irregular with the personal pronouns. And there's uncertainty as to how to use them; the usual rules aren't there, because the usual word needs no rules, being the same for nominative and accusative.

The final factor is the traditional use of Latin grammatical concepts to teach English grammar.

This historical quirk dates to the 17th century, and has never quite left us. From this we get the Latin-derived rule, which Fowler still acknowledges. And we do follow that rule to some extent: "Who are they?" (not "Who are them?" or "Whom are they?") "We are they!" (in response to the preceding) "It is I who am at fault." "That's the man who he is."

But not always. "It is me" is attested since the 16th Century. (Speakers who would substitute "me" for "I" in the "It is I who am at fault" example would also sacrifice the agreement of person, and substitute "is" for "am".)

"Less" vs "fewer"

The rule usually encountered is: use "fewer" for things you count (individually), and "less" for things you measure: "fewer apples", "less water". Since "less" is also used as an adverb ("less successful"), "fewer" helps to distinguish "fewer successful professionals" (fewer professionals who are successful) from "less successful professionals" (professionals who are less successful). (No such distinction is possible with "more", which serves as the antonym of both "less" and "fewer".)

"Less" has been used in the sense of "fewer" since the time of King Alfred the Great (9th century), and is still common in that sense, especially informally in the U.S., but in British English it became so rare that the 1st edition of the OED (in a section prepared in 1902) gave no citation more recent than 1579 and gave the usage label "Now regarded as incorrect." The 2nd edition of the OED added two 19th-century citations, and changed the usage label to "Frequently found but generally regarded as incorrect."

Fowler mentioned it only in passing, and cited no real examples. In a section whose main intent was to disparage "less" in the sense "smaller" or "lower", he wrote: "It is true that less and lesser were once ordinary comparatives of little [...] and that therefore they were roughly equivalent in sense to our smaller [...]. The modern tendency is so to restrict less that it means not lmaller, but a smaller amount of, is the comparative rather of a little than of little, and is consequently applied only to things that are measured by amount and not by size or quality or number, nouns with which much and little, not great and small, nor high and low, nor many and few, are the appropriate contrasted epithets: less butter, courage; but a smaller army, table; a lower price, degree; fewer opportunities, people. Plurals, and singulars with a or an, will naturally not take less; less tonnage, but fewer ships; less manpower, but fewer men [...]; though a few plurals like clothes and troops, really equivalent to singulars of indefinite amount, are exceptions: could do with less troops or clothes."

Webster's New International Dictionary, 2nd ed. (1934), gave the usage label "now incorrect, according to strict usage, except with a collective; as, to wear less clothes." Of the panelists for The Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (1975), 76% said that they observed "less"/"fewer" distinction in speech, and 85% in writing. The editors noted: "even those panelists who have not observed the distinction in the past now regard it as a useful precept to bear in mind in the future."

Partisans of "fewer" use "one car fewer" rather than "one fewer car", and "far fewer" rather than "much fewer".

"Like" vs "as"

For making comparisons (i.e., asserting that one thing is similar to another), the prescribed choices are:
  1. A is like B.
  2. A behaves like B.
  3. A behaves as B does.
  4. A behaves as in an earlier situation.
In 1 and 2, "like" governs a noun (or a pronoun or a noun phrase). In 3, "as" introduces a clause with a noun and a verb. In 4, "as" introduces a prepositional phrase. Look at what the word introduces, and you will know which to use.

In informal English, "like" is often used in place of "as" in sentences of type 3 and 4. "Like" has been been used in the sense of "as if" since the 14th century, and in the sense of "as" since the 15th century, but such use was fairly rare until the 19th century, and "a writer who uses the construction in formal style risks being accused of illiteracy or worse" (AHD3). "Like" in 1 and 2 is a preposition; "as"/"like" in 3 or 4 and "as if" are conjunctions. Fowler put " as conjunction" first in his list of "ILLITERACIES" (he defined "illiteracy" as "offence against the literary idiom").

In some sentences of type of 3, "as" may sound too formal: "Pronounce it as you spell it." To avoid both this formality and the stigma of "like" here, you may use "the way": "Pronounce it the way you spell it." But this solution is available only if you are specifying a single way; it doesn't work, for example, in "Play it as it's never been played before." ("Play it in a way..." might work here, but lacks the connotations of enthusiasm and excellence that "play it as" has.)

The most famous use of "like" as a conjunction was in the 1950s slogan for Winston Cigarettes: "Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should." The New Yorker wrote that "it would pain [Sir Winston Churchill] dreadfully", but in fact conjunctive "like" was used by Churchill himself in informal speech: "We are overrun by them, like the Australians are by rabbits." "Like" in the sense of "as if" was, until recently, more often heard in the Southern U.S. than elsewhere, and was perceived by Britons as an Americanism. When used in this sense, it is never now followed by the inflected past subjunctive: people say "like it is" or "like it was", not "like it were".

Sometimes, "as" introduces a noun phrase with no following verb. When it does, it does not signify a qualitative comparison, but rather may: a) indicate a role being played. "They fell on the supplies as men starving" means that they were actually starving men; in "They fell on the supplies like men starving", one is comparing them to starving men. "You're acting as a fool" might be appropriate if you obtained the job of court jester; "You're acting like a fool" expresses the more usual meaning. b) introduce examples. ("Some animals, as the fox and the squirrel, have bushy tails.") "Such as" and "like" are more common in this use. For the use of "like" here, see the next entry. c) be short for "as ... as": "He's deaf as a post" means "He's as deaf as a post" (a quantitative comparison).

"Like" vs "such as"

The Little, Brown Handbook (6th ed., HarperCollins, 1995) says: "Strictly, such as precedes an example that represents a larger subject, whereas like indicates that two subjects are comparable. Steve has recordings of many great saxophonists such as Ben Webster and Lee Konitz. Steve wants to be a great jazz saxophonist like Ben Webster and Lee Konitz." Nobody would use "such as" in the second sentence; the disputed usage is "like" in the first sentence.

Opposing it are: earlier editions of The Little, Brown Handbook (which did not use the hedge "strictly"); the Random House English Language Desk Reference (1995); The Globe and Mail Style Book (Penguin, 1995); Webster's Dictionary & Thesaurus (Shooting Star Press, 1995); Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art by James Kilpatrick (Andrews and McMeel, 1993); The Wordwatcher's Guide to Good Writing and Grammar by Morton S. Freeman (Writer's Digest, 1990); Word Perfect: A Dictionary of Current English Usage by John O. E. Clark (Harrap, 1987); and Keeping Up the Style by Leslie Sellers (Pitman, 1975).

The OED, first edition, in its entry on "like" (which is in a section prepared in 1903), said that "in modern use", "like" "often = 'such as', introducing a particular example of a class respecting which something is predicated". Merriam-Webster Editorial Department unearthed the following 19th-century citations for me: "Good sense, like hers, will always act when really called upon", Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814; "A straight-forward, open-hearted man, like Weston, and a rational unaffected woman, like Miss Taylor, may be safely left to their own concerns", Jane Austen, Emma, 1816; "[...] to argue that because a well-stocked island, like Great Britain, has not, as far as is known [...]", Charles Darwin, Origin of the Species, 1859.

Fowler apparently saw nothing wrong with "like" in this sense: in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, he gave "resembling, such as" without a usage label as one its meanings, and gave the example "a critic like you", which he explained as "of the class that you exemplify". And he used it himself in the passage quoted under "'less' vs 'fewer'" above. More commonly, though, he wrote "such ... as" when using examples to define the set ("such bower-birds' treasures as au pied de la lettre, a` merveille, [...] and sauter aux yeux"), and "as" or "such as" when the words preceding the examples sufficed to define the set ("familiar words in -o, as halo and dado"; "simple narrative poems in short stanzas, such as Chevy Chase"). This is the same restrictive vs nonrestrictive mentioned under "'that' vs 'which'": "Ballads, such as Chevy Chase, can be danced to" would imply that all ballads can be danced to, whereas "Such ballads as Chevy Chase can be danced to" would not.

Modern American Usage by Wilson Follett (Hill and Wang, 1966) says: "such as is close in meaning to like and may often be interchanged with it. The shade of difference between them is that such as leads the mind to imagine an indefinite group of objects [...]. The other comparing word like suggests a closer resemblance among the things compared [...]. [...P]urists object to phrases of the type a writer like Shakespeare, A leader like Lincoln. No writer, say these critics, is like Shakespeare; and in this they are wrong; writers are alike in many things and the context usually makes clear what the comparison proposes to our attention. Such as Shakespeare may sound less impertinent, but if Shakespeare were totally incomparable such as would be open to the same objection as like." Bernstein, in Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins (Farrar, 1971), agrees, calling those who object to "German composers like Beethoven" "nit-pickers".

"More/most/very unique"

Fowler and other conservatives urge restricting the meaning of "unique" to "having no like or equal". (OED says "in this sense, readopted from French at the end of the 18th Century and regarded as a foreign word down to the middle of the 19th.") Used in this sense, it is an incomparable: either something is "unique" or it isn't, and there can be no degrees of uniqueness. Those who use phrases like "more unique", "most unique", and "very unique" are using "unique" in the weaker sense of "unusual, distinctive".

"None is" vs "none are"

With mass nouns, you have to use the singular. ("None of the wheat is...") With count nouns, you can use either the singular or the plural. ("None of the books is..." or "None of the books are...") Usually, the plural sounds more natural, unless you're trying to emphasize the idea of "not one", or if the words that follow work better in the singular.

The fullest (prescriptive) treatment is in Eric Partridge's book Usage and Abusage (Penguin, 1970, 0-14-051024-9). In the original edition Partridge had prescribed the singular in certain cases, but a rather long-winded letter from a correspondent persuaded him to retract.

Plurals of Latin/Greek words

Not all Latin words ending in "-us" had plurals in "-i". "Apparatus", "cantus", "coitus", "hiatus", "impetus", "Jesus", "nexus", "plexus", "prospectus", and "status" were 4th declension in Latin, and had plurals in "-us" with a long "u". "Corpus", "genus", and "opus" were 3rd declension, with plurals "corpora", "genera", and "opera". "Virus" is not attested in the plural in Latin, and is of a rare form (2nd declension neuter in -us) that makes it debatable what the Latin plural would have been; the only plural in English is "viruses". "Omnibus" and "rebus" were not nominative nouns in Latin. "Ignoramus" was not a noun in Latin.

Not all classical words ending in "-a" had plurals in "-ae". "Anathema", "aroma", "bema", "carcinoma", "charisma", "diploma", "dogma", "drama", "edema", "enema", "enigma", "lemma", "lymphoma", "magma", "melisma", "miasma", "sarcoma", "schema", "soma", "stigma", "stoma", and "trauma" are from Greek, where they had plurals in "-ata". "Quota" was not a noun in Latin. (It comes from the Latin expression quota pars, where quota is the feminine form of an interrogative pronoun meaning "what number". In that use, it did have plural quotae, but in English the only plural is "quotas".)

Not all classical-sounding words ending in "-um" have plurals in "-a". "Factotum", "nostrum", and "quorum" were not nouns in Latin. (totus = "everything" and noster = "our" were conjugated like nouns in Latin; but "factotum" comes from fac totum = "do everything", and "nostrum" comes from nostrum remedium = "our remedy".) "Conundrum", "panjandrum", "tantrum", and "vellum" are not Latin words.

If in doubt, consult a dictionary (or use the English plural in "-s" or "-es"). One plural that you will find in U.S. dictionaries, "octopi", raises the ire of purists (the Greek plural is "octopodes").

The classical-style plurals of "penis" and "clitoris" are "penes" /'piniz/ and "clitorides" /klI'tOrIdiz/.

Foreign plurals = English singulars

Some uses of classical plurals as singulars in English are undisputed: "opera", "stamina", "apidistra". ("Opera", still used as the plural of "opus", became singular in Vulgar Latin, and then in Italian acquired the sense "musical drama", giving rise to the English word.) "Agenda" once excited controversy but is now accepted. Others are the subject of current controversy: "data" (used by Winston Churchill!), "erotica", "insignia", "media", "regalia", "trivia". Yet others are still widely stigmatized: "bacteria", "candelabra", "criteria", "curricula", "phenomena", "strata".

"Bona fides", "kudos", and "minutia" are singulars in Latin or Greek.

"Graffiti" (plural in Italian) is disputed in English. But "zucchini" (also plural in Italian) is the invariable singular form in English (the English plural is "zucchini" or "zucchinis"). The names of types of pasta (cannelloni, cappelletti, ditali, fusilli, gnocchi, macaroni, manicotti, ravioli, rigatoni, spaghetti, spaghettini, tagliarini, tortellini, vermicelli, ziti, which are masculine plural in Italian; and conchiglie, farfalle, fettucine, linguine, rotelle, which are feminine plural; some of the -e words are often spelled with -i in English) are treated as mass nouns in English: they take singular verbs, but plurals are not made from them. (Many of the words listed as disputed above are also treated as mass nouns when they are used as singulars.)

Preposition at end

Yes, yes, we've all heard the following anecdotes:
  1. Winston Churchill was editing a proof of one of his books, when he noticed that an editor had clumsily rearranged one of Churchill's sentences so that it wouldn't end with a preposition. Churchill scribbled in the margin, "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put." (This is often quoted with "arrant nonsense" substituted for "English", or with other variations. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations cites Sir Ernest Gowers' Plain Words (1948), where the anecdote begins, "It is said that Churchill..."; so we don't know exactly what Churchill wrote. According to the Oxford Companion to the English Language, Churchill's words were "bloody nonsense" and the variants are euphemisms.)

  2. The Guinness Book of (World) Records used to have a category for "most prepositions at end". The incumbent record was a sentence put into the mouth of a boy who didn't want to be read excerpts from a book about Australia as a bedtime story: "What did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to from out of about 'Down Under' up for?" Mark Brader ( —all this is to the best of his recollection; he didn't save the letter, and doesn't have access to the British editions) wrote to Guinness, asking: "What did you say that the sentence with the most prepositions at the end was 'What did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to from out of about "Down Under" up for?' for? The preceding sentence has one more." Norris McWhirter replied, promising to include this improvement in the next British edition; but actually it seems that Guinness, no doubt eventually realising that this could be done recursively, dropped the category.

  3. "Excuse me, where is the library at?" "Here at Hahvahd, we never end a sentence with a preposition." "O.K. Excuse me, where is the library at, asshole?"
Fowler and nearly every other respected prescriptivist see NOTHING wrong with ending a clause with a preposition; Fowler calls it a "superstition". ("Never end a sentence with a preposition" is how the superstition is usually stated, although it would "naturally" extend to any placement of a preposition later than the noun or pronoun it governs.) Indeed, Fowler considers "a good land to live in" grammatically superior to "a good land in which to live", since one cannot say "a good land which to inhabit".


The attributive use of "quality", as in "quality workmanship", is sometimes questioned. The alternative that nobody will object to is "high-quality" (for which OED's first citation is from 1910).

OED's first citation of "quality" in the sense "high quality, excellence" is from Shakespeare (1606): "The Grecian youths are full of qualitie, Their loving well composed, with guift of nature." (Troilus and Cressida, IV iv). It seems to have been in steady use since then. The proverb "Quality is better than quantity" is first recorded in 1604 in the form "The gravest wits [...] The qualitie, not quantitie, respect."

The attributive use of "quality" is another matter. OED has a citation of "quality air" from 1701; but there is only scattered evidence between then and the following note in A Manual for Writers, by John Matthews Manly and John Arthur Powell (University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 1915): "~Quality~ is grossly misused as an adjective; fortunately the misuse is confined almost entirely to advertisements, where all sorts of violence are done to the language: 'Quality clothes! Built (!) from the most exclusive (!) designs.'" The next dictionary evidence after the OED's citation is the listing in Webster's New International Dictionary, 2nd ed. (1934), which labels it "colloquial, chiefly U.S.". Chamber's Twentieth Century Dictionary, 1959 edition, calls it "vulgar". Modern dictionaries do not give it a usage label. It is attacked by Morton S. Freeman (A Handbook of Problem Words and Phrases, ISI, 1987) and by James Kilpatrick (Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art, Andrews and McMeel, 1993), and prohibited by The Globe and Mail Style Book (Penguin, 1995). It is defended by Theodore Bernstein (Dos, Don'ts, and Maybes of English Usage, Barnes & Noble, 1977). Bloomsbury Good Word Guide (Bloomsbury, 1988) and Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (Harper & Row, 1975 & 1985) note that some people object to it.

The term "quality time", meaning "time spent in social interaction with another person, especially one's young child", dates from 1980. It is widely derided as faddish. "High-quality time" is not used. In England, up-market, broadsheet newspapers have been called "the quality papers" since 1961.

Other words that have acquired similarly specialized meanings are: "fortune" meaning "good fortune" (dates from 1390, and had precedent in Latin); "luck" meaning "good luck" (1480); "behave" meaning "to behave properly" (1691); "criticize" meaning "to criticize unfavourably" (1704); "temper" meaning "ill-temper, short temper" (1828); "class" meaning "high class, elegance" (1874; informal; originally a sports term; the term "class act" dates from 1976); "temperature" meaning "feverish temperature" (1898; informal; an ironic development, since "temperature" once meant to be in temper, to be free from the distemper that fever indicates); and "attitude" meaning "hostile attitude" (1962; U.S. informal; probably from such phrases as "You'd better change your attitude" and "I don't like your attitude"). Context usually indicates the specialized meaning, e.g., in "He has a temper"; one would have no occasion to want to say, "He has a temper, but I'm not going to tell you whether it's long or short or anything else about it."

Repeated words after abbreviations

Disputes occur about the legitimacy of placing after an acronym/ initialism the last word that is abbreviated in it, e.g., "AC current", "the HIV virus". "AC" and "HIV" by themselves will certainly suffice in most contexts. But such collocations tend to become regarded as irreducible and uninterpretable words. "The SNOBOL language" and "BASIC code" are as good as "the BASIC language" and "SNOBOL code"; and why should "an LED display" (Light Emitting Diode display) be reasonable, but not "an LCD display" (Liquid Crystal Display display)? The extra word may guard against ambiguity; e.g., "I've forgotten my PIN" might be mistaken in speech as being about sewing, whereas "I've forgotten my PIN number" identifies the context as ATMs.


Scots' preferred adjective for Scotland and for themselves is "Scots". "Scottish" is also acceptable. But "Scotch" (although used by Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, and still used by some Americans of Scots descent) is now considered offensive by many Scots. Certain Scots hold that only three things can be "Scotch": "Scotch whisky", "Scotch egg", and "Scotch mist". They are not interested in considering additions to this list, although many other terms containing "Scotch" can be found in dictionaries.

The term "Scotch tape" (a trademark for clear sticky tape made by the 3M company, based in Minnesota) was originally a reference to the stereotype of Scots miserliness. 3M at one time made a tape with no adhesive along the middle. The tape was intended as a masking tape for painting cars (masking off areas that you didn't want to paint), so 3M thought it didn't need a full sticky coating; but customers were not impressed.

"Shall" vs "will", "should" vs "would"

The traditional rules for using these (based on the usage of educated Southern Englishmen in the 18th and 19th centuries) are quite intricate, and require some choices ("Should you like to see London?"; "The doctor thought I should die") that are no longer idiomatically reasonable. But if you're dead set on learning them, you can access the relevant section of The King's English at Usage outside England has always been different: the old joke, where the Irishman cries for help: "I will drown and no one shall save me" and the Englishman mistakes this for a suicide resolution, is contrived, in that an Irishman would far more likely say "no one will save me."

Split infinitive

Sir Ernest Gowers wrote in The Complete Plain Words (HMSO, 1954): "The well-known [...] rule against splitting an infinitive means that nothing must come between 'to' and the infinitive. It is a bad name, as was pointed out by Jespersen [...] 'because we have many infinitives without to, as "I made him go". to therefore is no more an essential part of the infinitive than the definite article is an essential part of a substantive, and no one would think of calling the good man a split substantive.' It is a bad rule too; it increases the difficulty of writing clearly [...]." The split infinitive construction goes back to the 14th century, but was relatively rare until the 19th. No split infinitives are to be found in the works of Shakespeare, Spenser, Pope, or Dryden, or in the King James Version of the Bible.

Fowler wrote (in the article POSITION OF ADVERBS, in MEU) that "to" + infinitive is "a definitely enough recognized verb-form to make the clinging together of its parts the natural and normal thing"; "there is, however, no sacrosanctity about that arrangement". There are many considerations that should govern placement of adverbs: there are other sentence elements, he said, such as the verb and its object, that have a stronger affinity for each other; but only avoidance of the split infinitive "has become a fetish".

Thus, although in "I quickly hid it", the most natural place for "quickly" is before "hid", "I am going to hide it quickly" is slightly more natural than "I am going to quickly hide it". But "I am going to quickly hide it" is itself preferable to "I am going quickly to hide it" (splitting "going to" changes the meaning from indicating futurity to meaning physically moving somewhere), or to "I am going to hide quickly it" (separation of the verb from its object). And even separating the verb from its object may become the preferred place for the adverb if "it" is replaced by a long noun phrase ("I am going to hide quickly any trace of our ever having been here").

Phrases consisting of "to be" or "to have" followed by an adverb and a participle are not split infinitives, and constitute the natural word order. "To generally be accepted" and "to always have thought" are split infinitives; "to be generally accepted" and "to have always thought" are not.

Certain kinds of adverbs are characteristically placed before "to".

These include negative and restrictive adverbs: "not" ("To be, or not to be"), "never", "hardly", "scarcely", "merely", "just"; and conjunctive adverbs: "rather", "preferably", "moreover", "alternatively". But placing adverbs of manner in this position is now considered good style only in legal English ("It is his duty faithfully to execute the provisions...").

Clumsy avoidance of split infinitives often leads to ambiguity: does "You fail completely to recognise" mean "You completely fail to recognise", or "You fail to completely recognise"? Ambiguous split infinitives are much rarer, but do exist: does "to further cement trade relations" mean "to cement trade relations further", or "to promote relations with the cement trade"?

The most frequently cited split infinitive is from the opening voice-over of Star Trek: "to boldly go where no man has gone before". (Star Trek: The Next Generation had "one" in place of "man".) Here, "boldly" modifies the entire verb phrase: the meaning is "to have the boldness that the unprecedentedness of the destinations requires". If "boldly" were placed after "go", it would modify only "go", changing the meaning to "to go where no man has gone before, and by the way, to go there boldly".

Hardly any serious commentator believes that infinitives should never be split. The dispute is between those who believe that split infinitives should be avoided when this can be done with no sacrifice of clarity or naturalness, and those who believe that no effort whatever should be made to avoid them.

"That" vs "which"

In "The family that prays together stays together", the clause "that prays together" is called a RESTRICTIVE CLAUSE because it restricts the main statement to a limited class of family. In "The family, which is the basic unit of human society, is weakening", "which ... society" is called a NONRESTRICTIVE CLAUSE because it makes an additional assertion about the family without restricting the main statement.

It is generally agreed that nonrestrictive clauses should be set off by commas; restrictive clauses, not. Nonrestrictive clauses are now nearly always introduced by "which" or "who" (although "that" was common in earlier centuries). Fowler encourages us to introduce restrictive clauses with "that"; but this is not a binding rule (although some copy-editors do go on "which hunts"), and indeed is not possible if a preposition is to precede the relative pronoun.

Object relative pronouns can be omitted altogether ("the book that I read" or "the book I read"); in standard English, subject relative pronouns cannot be omitted, although in some varieties of informal spoken English, they are ("There's a man came into the office the other day").

"That kind of a thing"

The forms you're likely to encounter, in roughly decreasing order of formality, are "that kind of thing", "those kinds of things", "those kind of things", and "that kind of a thing". Sir Ernest Gowers wrote: "it is as well to humour the purists by writing things of that kind."

The the "hoi polloi" debate

Yes, "hoi" means "the" in Greek, but the first 5 citations in the OED, and the most famous use of this phrase in English (in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Iolanthe), put "the" in front of "hoi". This is not a unique case: words like "alchemy", "alcohol", "algebra", "alligator", and "lacrosse" incorporate articles from other languages, but can still be prefixed in English with "the". "The El Alamein battle" (which occurred in Egypt during World War II), sometimes proffered as a phrase with three articles, actually contains only two: Alamein is Arabic for "two flags" (which is appropriate for a town on the border between Egypt and Libya), and does not contain the Arabic article al.

"True fact"

Many phrases often criticized as "redundant" are redundant in most contexts, but not in all. "Small in size" is redundant in most contexts, but not in "Although small in size, the ship was large in glory." "Consensus of opinion" is redundant in most contexts, but not in "Some of the committee members were coerced into voting in favour of the motion, so although the motion represents a consensus of votes, it does not represent a consensus of opinion."

Context can negate part of the definition of a word. "Artificial light" is light that is artificial (= "man-made"), but "artificial flowers" are not flowers (i.e., genuine spermatophyte reproductive orders) that are artificial. In the latter phrase, "artificial" negates part of the definition of "flower". The bats known as "false vampires" do not feed on blood: "false" negates part of the definition of "vampire".

The ordinary definition of "fact" includes the idea of "true" (e.g., fact vs fiction); the meaning of "fact" does have other aspects (e.g., fact vs opinion). Context can negate the idea of "true". Fowler himself used the phrase "Fowler's facts are wrong; therefore his advice is probably wrong, too" (a conclusion that he was eager to avert, moving him to defend his facts) in one of the S.P.E. tracts.

It follows that "true fact" need not be a redundancy.


In informal English, one can probably get away with using "who" all the time, except perhaps after a preposition.

The prescription for formal English is: use "who" as the subjective form (like "he"/"she"/ "they"), and "whom" as a direct or indirect object (like "him"/ "her"/"them"): He gave it to me. Who gave it to me? That's the man who gave it to me. I gave it to him. Whom did I give it to? That's the man whom I gave it to. I gave him a book. Whom did I give a book? That's the man whom I gave a book. Note the difference between: I believe (that) he is drowned. Who do I believe is drowned? That is the man who I believe is drowned. and: I believe him to be drowned. Whom do I believe to be drowned? That is the man whom I believe to be drowned. Note also, that unless you say "It is he", you cannot rely on these transformations for complements of the verb "to be". You may say "It's him", but the question is "Who is it?", definitely not "Whom is it?"

The case of "whoever" is determined by its function in the dependent clause that it introduces, not by its function in the main clause: "I like whoever likes me." "Whomever I like likes me."

Very few English-speakers make these distinctions instinctively; most of those who observe them learned them explicitly. Instincts would lead them to select case based on word order rather than on syntactic function. Hence Shakespeare wrote "Young Ferdinand, whom they suppose is drowned". But Fowler called this a solecism in modern English; it might be better to abstain from "whom" altogether if one is not willing to master the prescriptive rules.

"You saying" vs "your saying"

In "You saying you're sorry alters the case", the subject of "alters" is not "you", since the verb is singular. Fowler called this construction the "fused participle", and recommended "Your saying..." instead. The fused participle can lead to ambiguity: does "Citizens participating helped the project" mean "Those citizens who participated helped the project", or "The fact that citizens participated helped the project"? (Placing commas around "participating" would yield a third meaning.) Appending an apostrophe to "citizens" would make the second meaning clear.

Other commentators have been less critical of the fused participle than Fowler. Jespersen traced the construction as the last in a series of developments where gerunds, which originally functioned strictly as nouns, have taken on more and more verb-like properties ("the showing of mercy" = "showing of mercy" = "showing mercy"). Partridge defends the construction by citing lexical noun-plus-gerund compounds. In most of these (e.g., "time-sharing"), the noun functions as the object of the gerund, but in some recent compounds (e.g., "machine learning"), it functions as the subject.


"." after abbreviations

Fowler recommends putting a "." only after abbreviations that do not include the last letter of the word they're abbreviating, e.g., "Capt." for captain but "Cpl" for corporal. In some English- speaking countries, many people follow this rule, but not in the U.S., where "Mr." and "Dr." prevail.

", vs ,"

According to William F. Phillips (, in the days when printing used raised bits of metal, "." and "," were the most delicate, and were in danger of damage (the face of the piece of type might break off from the body, or be bent or dented from above) if they had a '"' on one side and a blank space on the other. Hence the convention arose of always using '."' and ',"' rather than '".' and '",', regardless of logic.

Fowler was a strong advocate of logical placement of punctuation marks, i.e. only placing them inside the quotation marks if they were part of the quoted matter. This scheme has gained ground, and is especially popular among computer users, and others who wish to make clear exactly what is and what is not being quoted. Logical placement is accepted by many more publishers outside than inside the U.S.

Some people insist that '."' and ',"' LOOK better, but Fowler calls them "really mere conservatives, masquerading only as aesthetes".

"A, B and C" vs "A, B, and C"

This is known as the "serial comma" dispute. Both styles are common. The second style was recommended by Fowler, and is Oxford University Press house style (hence it is also called "the Oxford comma"); it is more common in the U.S. than elsewhere. Although either style may cause ambiguity (in "We considered Miss Roberts for the roles of Marjorie, David's mother, and Louise", are there two roles or three?), the style that omits the comma is more likely to do so: "Tom, Peter, and I went swimming." (Without the comma, one might think that the sentence was addressed to Tom.) "I ordered sandwiches today. I ordered turkey, salami, peanut butter and jelly, and roast beef." Without that last comma, one would have a MIGHTY weird sandwich!—Gabe Wiener. James Pierce reports that an author whose custom it was to omit the comma dedicated a novel: "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

Foreigners' FAQs

Non-native speakers are often unnecessarily cautious in their use of English. Someone once posted to alt.usage.english from Japan, asking, "What is the correct thing to say if one is being assaulted: 'Help!' or 'Help me!'?" Not only are they both correct; there was a whole slew of responses asking, "Why the heck would you worry about correctness at a time like that?"

It may happen that your post's greatest departure from English idiom is something unrelated to what you are asking about. If you like, say "Please correct any errors in this post"; otherwise, those who answer you may out of politeness refrain from offering a correction.

Although not so stratified as some languages, English does have different stylistic levels. In a popular song, you may hear: "It don't make much difference." When speaking to a friend, you will probably want to say: "It doesn't make much difference." If you are writing a formal report, you may want to render it as: "It makes little difference." So it's helpful if when posting, you specify the stylistic level that you're enquiring about.

If you prefer to make a query by e-mail, rather than posting to the whole Net, you can send it to the Purdue University Online Writing Lab. Send e-mail to They also have an ftp/gopher site, "", and a WWW page,

Another WWW page that may be of interest to learners of English is The Comenius Group's Virtual English Language Center: If you wish to improve your English by exchanging e-mail with an English-speaker, you can post a request to the newsgroup "soc.penpals". This is free (to you), so you should not pay the fee for Comenius' "E-mail Key Pal Connection".

An elementary grammar of English, designed primarily for French- speakers but useful to all, can be found at

The FAQ is maintained by Meg Gam ( At the moment, it lists resources of interest to teachers (not students) of English as a foreign language. If you can't find it in the standard FAQ places, send Meg e-mail ( with the subject "m.e.l.e. FAQ" and no text.

There are some mailing lists that are primarily for people studying English as a foreign language: CHAT-SL (general discussion), DISCUSS-SL (advanced general discussion), BUSINESS-SL (business and economics), ENGL-SL (discussion about learning English), EVENT-SL (current events), MOVIE-SL (movies), MUSIC-SL (music), SCITECH-SL (science, technology, and computers), and SPORT-SL (sports). To subscribe to any of these lists, send a message to with, for example, "subscribe DISCUSS-SL" as the body of the message.

Roger Depledge writes: "since you rightly show some concern for the non-native speaker, you might care to consider adding to your list of dictionaries the Collins Cobuild English Dictionary (HarperCollins, 2nd ed., 1995, ISBN 0-00-379401-8), all of whose plentiful examples come from their 200-million-word corpus. As a freelance translator in Toulouse, I find it invaluable when my native ear for English fails me. And for usage for the non- specialist, I know of none better than Michael Swan, Practical English Usage (OUP, 2nd ed., 1995, ISBN 0-19-431197-X). In its favour I would cite the 26 reprints of the 1980 edition, and the six pages on taboo words, including the priceless example, 'Bugger me! There's Mrs Smith. I thought she was on holiday.'"

Anno Siegel recommends The BBI Combinatory Dictionary of English, by Morton Benson, Evelyn Benson, and Robert Ilson, Benjamins, 1986, ISBN 90-272-2036-0.

"A"/"an" before abbreviations

"A" is used before words beginning with consonants; "an", before words beginning with vowels. This is determined by sound, not spelling ("a history", "an hour", "a unit", "a European", "a one"). Formerly, "an" was usual before unaccented syllables beginning with "h" ("an historian", "an hotel"); these are "now obsolescent" in British English (Collins English Dictionary), although "an historian" is retained in more dialects than "an hotel".

Before abbreviations, the choice of "a"/"an" depends on how the abbreviation is pronounced: "a NATO spokesman" (because "NATO" is pronounced /'neItoU/); "an NBC spokesman" (because "NBC" is pronounced /Enbi'si/) "a NY spokesman" (because "NY" is read as "New York (state)").

A problem: how can a foreigner tell whether a particular abbreviation is pronounced as a word or not? Two non-foolproof guidelines:

  1. It's more likely to be an acronym if it looks as if it could be an English word. "NATO" and "scuba" do; "UCLA" and "NAACP" don't.

  2. It's more likely to be an acronym if it's a long sequence of letters. "US" is short; "EBCDIC" is too bloody long to say as "E-B-C-D-I-C". (But of course, abbreviations that can be broken down into groups, like "TCP/IP" and "AFL-CIO", are spelled out because the groups are short enough.)

Is it "a FAQ" or "an FAQ"? These days, probably the former, although some of us do say "an F-A-Q".

"A number of..."

"A number of ..." usually requires a plural verb. In "A number of employees were present", it's the employees who were present, not the number. "A number of" is just a fuzzy quantifier. ("A number of..." may need a singular in the much rarer contexts where it does not function as a quantifier: "A number of this magnitude requires 5 bytes to store.")

On the other hand, "the number of..." always takes the singular: "The number of employees who were present was small." Here, it's the number that was small, not the employees.

When to use "the"

This is often quite tricky for those learning English. The basic rules can be found in the Purdue University Online Writing Lab's WWW page titled "The Use and Non-Use of Articles": (very brief), and in "An Overview of English Article Usage for Speakers of English as a Second Language" by John R. Kohl of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: (You can obtain textual WWW pages by e-mail. Send e-mail to with, in this case, "send" as the message body). The book Three Little Words; A, An and The: a Foreign Student's Guide to English by Elizabeth Claire (Delta, 1988, ISBN 0-937354-46-5) has been recommended.

The article "the" before a noun generally indicates one specific instance of the object named. For example, "I went to the school" refers to one school. (The context should establish which school is meant.) Such examples have the same meaning in all English- speaking countries.

The construct prepositionnoun, with no intervening article, often refers to a state of being rather than to an instance of the object named by the noun. The set of commonly used preposition-noun combinations varies from one dialect to another. Some examples are:
I went to bed = I retired for the night. Even if I had the habit of sleeping on the floor, I would still say "I went to bed" and not "I went to floor".
She is at university (U.K.) = She is in college (U.S.) = She is a student, enrolled in a particular type of tertiary institution. This sentence does not imply that she is now physically present on the campus.
He was taken to hospital (U.K.) = He was hospitalized. (A U.S. speaker might say "to the hospital" even if there were several hospitals in the area.)


Present Subjunctive

The present subjunctive is the same in form as the infinitive without "to". This is also the same form as the present indicative, except in the third person singular and in forms of the verb "to be". The present subjunctive is used:

  1. In third-person commands: "Help, somebody save me!" Most third- person commands (although not those addressed to "somebody") are now expressed with "let" instead. The following (current but set) formulas would probably use "let" if they were being coined today: "So be it"; "Manners be hanged!"; "... be damned"; "Be it known that..."; "Far be it from me to..."; "Suffice it to say that..."

  2. In third person wishes. Most third-person wishes are now prefixed with "may" instead, as would the following formulas be: "God save the Queen!"; "God bless you"; "God help you"; "Lord love a duck"; "Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done."; "Heaven forbid!"; "The Devil take him!"; "Long live the king!"; "Perish the thought!"

  3. In formulas where it means "No matter how..." or "Even if...": "Come what may, ..."; "Be that as it may, ..."; "Though all care be exercised..."; "Be he ever so..."

  4. After "that" clauses to introduce a situation that the actor wants to bring about. Used to introduce a formal motion ("I move that Mr Smith be appointed chairman"); after verbs like "demand", "insist", "propose", "prefer", "recommend", "resolve", "suggest"; and after phrases like "it is advisable/desirable/ essential/fitting/imperative/important/necessary/urgent/vital that". "Should" can also be used in such clauses. This use of the subjunctive had become archaic in Britain in the first half of the 20th century, but has been revived under U.S. influence. Note the difference between "It is important that America has an adequate supply of hydrogen bombs" (America has an adequate supply of H-bombs, and this is important) and "It is important that America have an adequate supply of hydrogen bombs" (America probably lacks an adequate supply, and must acquire one).

  5. After "lest". "Should" can also be used after "lest". After the synonymous "in case", the plain indicative is usual.

  6. "Come...", meaning "When ... comes"

Past Subjunctive

The past subjunctive is the same in form as the past indicative, except in the past subjunctive singular of "to be", which is "were" instead of "was". The past subjunctive is used:

  1. For counterfactual conditionals: "If I were..." or (literary) "Were I...". In informal English, substitution of the past indicative form ("If I was...") is common. But note that speakers who make this substitution are still distinguishing possible conditions from counterfactual ones, by a change of tense:

    Present Past
    Possible condition: "If I am" "If I was"
    Counterfactual condition: "If I were/was" "If I had been"

    "As if" and "as though" were originally always used to introduce counterfactuals, but are now often used in "looks as if", "sounds as though", etc., to introduce things that the speaker actually believes ("It looks as if" = "It appears that"). In such cases the present indicative is often used.

    Fowler says that there is no "sequence of moods" requirement in English: it's "if I were to say that I was wrong", not "if I were to say that I were wrong".

  2. For counterfactual wishes: "I wish I were..."; "If only I were..."; (archaic) "Would that I were...". Again, substitution of the past indicative is common informally. Achievable wishes are usually expressed with various verbs plus the infinitive: "I wish to...", "I'd like you to..."

  3. In archaic English, sometimes to introduce the apodosis ("then" part) of a conditional: "then I were" = "then I would be".

  4. In "as it were" (a formula indicating that the previous expression was coined for the occasion or was not quite precise—literally, "as if it were so").

Word origins


"A.D." stands for Anno Domini = "in the year of the Lord", not for "after the death".

Most stylebooks prescribe placing "A.D." before the year: "Arminius died A.D. 21." WDEU calls this "the traditional and still most frequently used styling" (the OED has citations from 1579 on); but Collins English Dictionary says "this is no longer general practice." Placing "A.D." after the year is, if anything, better supported by precedents from Classical Latin (whose word order was flexible enough that either placement would be grammatical): the ancient Romans did not use A.D. dating, but Cicero (Pro Flacco I) has quingentesimo anno rei publicae = "in the five-hundredth year of the state".

"Alumin(i)um" (notes by Keith Ivey)

This word is usually "aluminum" /@'lum@n@m/ in the U.S. and in Canada, and "aluminium" /,&lU'mInI@m/ in other English-speaking countries.

People sometimes complain that the American form is inconsistent with other element names, which end in "-ium". But even in British spelling, there are elements that end in "-um" not preceded by "i": lanthanum, molybdenum, platinum, and tantalum (not to mention argentum, aurum, cuprum, ferrum, hydrargyrum, plumbum, and stannum; but then those aren't English names, just the names from which the symbols are derived).

A widespread false belief among those who spell the word "aluminium" is that theirs is the original spelling, from which the American version is a later development, perhaps resulting from a typographical error. The CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics (63rd ed., p. B-5) gives this bit of history:

The ancient Greeks and Romans used alum in medicine as an astringent, and as a mordant in dyeing. In 1761 [Baron Louis- Bernard Guyton] de Morveau proposed the name alumine for the base in alum, and [Antoine] Lavoisier, in 1787, thought this to be the oxide of a still undiscovered metal. [...] In 1807, [Sir Humphrey] Davy proposed the name alumium for the metal, undiscovered at that time, and later agreed to change it to aluminum. Shortly thereafter, the name aluminium was adopted to conform with the "ium" ending of most elements, and this spelling is now in use elsewhere in the world. Aluminium was also the accepted spelling in the U.S. until 1925, at which time the American Chemical Society officially decided to use the name aluminum thereafter in their publications.

I used to work for ACS, but I have no idea why they would have chosen "aluminum" over "aluminium", especially if "aluminium" was already established.

A Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles (University of Chicago Press, 1938, ISBN 0-226-11737-5) gives U.S. citations of "aluminum" from 1836, 1855, 1889 (two), and 1916, and says: "This form is in common use in mining, manufacturing, and the trade in the U.S.; the form aluminium is used with practical uniformity in Great Britain and generally by chemists in the U.S."

"Aluminium" is given as the only form by Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary; and as the preferred form by The Century Dictionary (1889) and by the 9th and 11th editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The Britannica yearbook switched its index entry from "aluminium or aluminum" to "aluminum" in 1942.


The use of "bloody" as an intensifier used to be considered highly offensive in England, as the fuss made over it in Shaw's Pygmalion shows.

Eric Partridge, in Words, Words, Words (Methuen) 1933, lists the following suggested origins:

  1. Irish Bloidhe = "rather". This was proposed by Charles Mackay in the 19th century, but is highly implausible.

  2. "By our Lady" (an invocation of the Virgin Mary). There was an interjection "byrlady", attested since 1570 and frequently used by Shakespeare, which did mean "by our Lady". But this was an interjection, not an adverb, although a citation from Jonathan Swift ("it grows by'r Lady cold") shows a possible intermediate use.

  3. "S'blood", an ancient oath shortened from "God's blood". The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology says this is "probably" the origin, but the OED says "there is no ground for the notion". The etymologies in the OED are largely untouched since the first edition; the ODEE is generally more up to date.

  4. Blood with reference either to menstruation or to "the bloody flux", an old term for dysentery. "Ingenious, but [...] much too restricted", says Partridge.

  5. "Blood", an aristocratic young roisterer. The OED plumped for this one, because its earliest citations of "bloody" as an intensifier were in the phrase "bloody drunk", which it conjectured meant "as drunk as a blood" (cf. "as drunk as a lord"). But the earlier citation found by Weekley (see below) makes this less plausible.

  6. Blood's being something vivid or distressing. Partridge himself plumps for this one.

Ernest Weekley, in Words Ancient and Modern (Murray, 1926), finds analogous uses of French sanglant, German blutig, and Dutch bloedig. He gives one citation that antedates those in the OED ("A man cruelly eloquent and bluddily learned", John Marston, 1606), and two ("It was bloody hot walking to-day", Swift, 1711; "bloody passionate", Samuel Richardson, 1742) that show that "up to about 1750 it was inoffensive". He attributes the dropping of "-ly" from "bloodily" to "an instinct which tends to drop -ly from a word already ending in -y", as seen in "very", "pretty", and "jolly".


The 1947 incident often related by Grace Hopper, in which a technician solved a glitch in the Harvard Mark II computer by pulling a moth out from between the contacts of one of its relays, did happen. However, the log entry ("first actual case of bug being found") indicates that this is not the origin of this sense of "bug". It was used in 1899 in a reference to Thomas Edison. It may come from "bug" in the sense "frightful object", which seems to be related to "bugbear" and "bogey", and goes back to 1588. See the Jargon File.

"Caesarean section"

The OED erroneously states that Julius Caesar was born by Caesarean section. Merriam-Webster Editorial Department (on its AOL message board, in response to a query from me) writes:

"The name 'Caesar' is a cognomen, a nickname given to one member of a Roman clan and borne by his descendants as a kind of surname. No one knows who the original Caesar was, but his descendants within his clan, the Julii, continued to use his cognomen and formed a major branch of the clan.

"According to a legend related by the Roman naturalist Pliny, the first Caesar was so called because he was cut from the womb of his mother (a caeso matris utero), Caesar supposedly being a derivative of the verb caedere 'to cut'. This etymology is dubious, but the name 'Caesar' has continued to be associated with surgery to remove a child that cannot be delivered naturally.

"The OED gives evidence for the belief that Julius Caesar, the most famous bearer of the cognomen, was delivered this way that dates from 1540. There is no authority for this notion in ancient sources. Moreover, Julius Caesar's mother lived long after his birth—unlikely if she had undergone such an operation, which few women would have survived in those days. In any case, the earliest record we have for the term 'cesarean section' used in English dates from 1615. You can easily see from these dates why we say that the term came from the belief, and not, to throw in a little more Latin, vice versa."

The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins suggests that Caesar's name may have become associated with the operation because of an edict of the Caesars of Imperial Rome (Lex Caesarea) that any pregnant woman dying at or near term was to be delivered by C-section; but Merriam-Webster Editorial Department says "We can find no evidence for" such an edict.

Also not named directly after Julius Caesar are "Caesar salad" (allegedly named after a restaurant named Caesar's in Tijuana, Mexico); and "Julian day" (number of days elapsed since 1 January 4713 B.C., used in astronomy; named by Joseph Scaliger after his father, Julius Caesar Scaliger). The computer term "Julian date" (date represented as number of days elapsed from the beginning of a chosen year) was apparently inspired by "Julian day".


"Canola" is defined as "any of several varieties of the rape plant having seeds that contain no more than 5% erucic acid and no more than 3 mg per gram of glucosinolate". If you ever come across rapeseed oil that is not canola, avoid it, because erucic acid causes heart lesions, and glucosinolates cause thyroid enlargement and poor feed conversion!

Rape plants have been an important source of edible oil for almost 4000 years. Canola was developed after World War II by two Canadian scientists, Baldur Stefansson and Richard Downey.

"Canola" is variously explained as standing for "Canada oil, low acid", and as a blend of "Canada" and "colza". I imagine that "Mazola" (a brand name for corn [= "maize"] oil) had an influence.

"Canola" was originally a trademark in Canada, but is now a generic term. It's the only term now in use there; some sources do say that canola was "formerly called rape". (Although "rape" denoting the plant is etymologically unconnected with "rape" meaning forced sexual intercourse, the homonymy doubtless contributed to the former term's falling into disfavour.)

"Designer eggs", low-cholesterol eggs developed at the University of Alberta, are produced by adding canola and flax to the hens' diet.


"Catch-22" means a trap created by mutually frustrating regulations. It was coined by Joseph Heller in his 1961 novel Catch-22, which satirized military illogic. From the novel:
Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. "Is Orr crazy?" "He sure is," Doc Daneeka said. "Can you ground him?" "I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That's part of the rule." [...] "And then you can ground him?" Yossarian asked. "No. Then I can't ground him." "You mean there's a catch?" "Sure there's a catch," Doc Daneeka replied. "Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy." [...] Yossarian [...] let out a respectful whistle. "That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed. "It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.
Later in the novel, Yossarian visits a former brothel from which soldiers have chased away all the prostitutes. Yossarian asks why.
"No reason," wailed the old woman. "No reason." "What right did they have?" "Catch-22. [...] Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing. [...] What does it mean, Catch-22? What is Catch-22?" "Didn't they show it to you?" Yossarian demanded, stamping about in anger and distress. "Didn't you even make them read it?" "They don't have to show us Catch-22," the old woman answered. "The law says they don't have to." "What law says they don't have to?" "Catch-22." [...] Yossarian [...] strode out of the apartment, cursing Catch-22 vehemently as he descended the stairs, even though he knew there was no such thing. Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute [...].
It is not logical for "Catch-22" to be hyphenated; other such expressions in English normally are not. But that's the way Heller did it. Heller originally planned to title the novel Catch-18, but changed it because of Leon Uris's 1961 novel Mila 18.


does not stand for "constable on patrol" or "constabulary of police". The noun "cop" (first attested meaning "policeman" in 1859) is short for "copper" (first attested meaning "policeman" in 1846). "Copper" in this sense is unlikely to derive from copper buttons or shields worn by early policemen. Rather, dictionaries derive it from "to cop" (first attested meaning "to grab" in 1704 and meaning "to arrest" in 1844). "To cop" may come from Dutch kapen = "to steal"; or it may come from Old French dialect caper = "to take", from Latin capere.


This word, meaning "extremely satisfactory", was first recorded in 1919, and was originally heard chiefly among U.S. black jazz musicians. The tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878-1949) popularized the word, and claimed to have coined it when he was a shoeshine boy in Richmond; but a number of Southerners testified that they had heard the word used by parents or grandparents in the late 19th century. Suggested origins include: a supposed Italian word copacetti; a Creole French word coupersetique meaning "that can be coped with"; and the Hebrew phrase kol besedeq "all with justice".

RHUD2 says that all these theories "lack supporting evidence".


"Crap" does not derive from Thomas Crapper. Thomas Crapper (1837-1910) did exist and did make toilets. (At least 3 authors have gone into print asserting he was a hoax, but you can see some of his toilets at the Gladstone Pottery Museum, Uttoxeter Road, Longton, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire ST3 1TQ, U.K.; phone +44 1782 311378.) The word "crap" was imported into English from Dutch in the 15th century, with the meaning "chaff". It is recorded in the sense "to defecate" from 1846; Thomas Crapper did not set up his business until 1861. Also, Thomas Crapper did not "invent" the flush toilet (the ancient Minoans had them); he merely improved the design.


This verb meaning "to eject or debar from premises, to reject or abandon" was previously an expression used by waiters and bartenders indicating that an item was exhausted or that a customer was not to be served. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins says: "[...] 86 may well have come from a number code created by [...] soda fountain clerks [...]. Originally, according to the American Thesaurus of Slang, it was a password used between clerks to indicate: 'We're all out of the item ordered.' The transition from this meaning [...] to the bartender's sense of 'Serve no more because of the shape he's in' is fairly obvious. The number code developed by soda clerks was very extensive [...]. A hissed '98' from one soda-popper to another indicated 'The assistant manager is prowling around. Watch out.' [...]

And most cheerful warning of all, 87 1/2, meaning 'There's a good-looking girl out front!'"

The earliest clear citation is from the February 1936 issue of American Speech, which gives the definition "Eighty-six, item on the menu not on hand." The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang cites a comedy with a date range 1926-35 in which a waiter gives his number as 86.

AHD3 gives the etymology: "Perhaps after Chumley's bar and restaurant at 86 Bedford Street in Greenwich Village, New York City." But most other dictionaries, including MWCD10, suggest that eighty-six was rhyming slang for "nix". On its AOL message Board, Merriam-Webster Editorial Department writes: "The etymology we give at "eighty-six" is the one we'll stand by. It is our contention that the address at Chumley's is purely coincidence, and that the word was developed in rhyming slang, and originally used by restaurant workers so that the average customer didn't know what they were talking about.

"The earlier citations for 'eighty-six' [...] do not influence our decisions about the etymology [...]. In fact, if the first citation is from the early part of the range, it would tell against the Chumley's hypothesis, as Chumley's did not exist before 1927-29. Finally, because slang usually exists in the language for a number of years before it is recorded, the existence of a citation from the 1920s tells strongly against the Chumley's explanation.

"There are a number of other theories about the origin of the word: that it originated in the heyday of the British merchant marine (the standard crew was 85, so that the 86th didn't get to go); that 86 was the number of the California (or Florida) law that forbade bartenders to serve the overly intoxicated; and that it refers to the number of tables (85) at the New York restaurant 21, and the table (86, in other words, no table) that the undesirable got. There are more, but the Chumley's theory is the most popular."

"Eighty-six" is attested as a verb meaning "get rid of" from 1955 on. It was surely in reference to this meaning that Maxwell Smart, the hero of the 1960s sitcom "Get Smart!", was Agent 86.


People often ask why "flammable" and "inflammable" mean the same thing. The English words come from separate Latin words: inflammare and the rarer flammare, which both meant "to set on fire". Latin had two prefixes in-, one of which meant "not"; the other, meaning "in", "into", or "upon", was the one used in inflammare.

"Inflammable" dates in English from 1605.

"Flammable" is first attested in an 1813 translation from Latin It was rare until the 1920s when the U.S. National Fire Protection Association adopted "flammable" because of concern that the "in-" in "inflammable" might be misconstrued as a negative prefix. Underwriters and others interested in fire safety followed suit. Benjamin Whorf (1897-1941), the linguist who shares credit for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that language shapes thought, may have been influential in promoting this change. Merriam-Webster Editorial Department writes: "Though we have been unable to confirm that Benjamin Whorf was responsible for the word's adoption, the theory seems plausible enough: he was, in fact, employed by the Hartford Fire Insurance Company from 1918 to 1940, and was widely recognized for his work in fire prevention."

"Flammable" is still commoner in the U.S. than in the U.K.; in figurative uses, "inflammable" prevails (e.g., "inflammable temper").

Other words where an apparently negative prefix has little effect on the meaning are: "to (dis)annul", "to (de)bone", "to (un)bare", "to (un)loose", and "to (un)ravel". "Irregardless" (which probably arose as a blend of "irrespective" and "regardless"; it was first recorded in western Indiana in 1912), means the same as "regardless", but is not considered acceptable.


"Fuck" does NOT stand for "for unlawful carnal knowledge" or "fornication under consent of the king". It is not an acronym for anything at all.

It is a very old word, recorded in English since the 15th century (few acronyms predate the 20th century), with cognates in other Germanic languages. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (Random House, 1994, ISBN 0-394-54427-7) cites Middle Dutch fokken = "to thrust, copulate with"; Norwegian dialect fukka = "to copulate"; and Swedish dialect focka = "to strike, push, copulate" and fock = "penis". Although German ficken may enter the picture somehow, it is problematic in having e-grade, or umlaut, where all the others have o-grade or zero-grade of the vowel.

AHD1, following Pokorny, derived "feud", "fey", "fickle", "foe", and "fuck" from an Indo-European root *peig2 = "hostile"; but AHD2 and AHD3 have dropped this connection for "fuck" and give no pre-Germanic etymon for it. Eric Partridge, in the 7th edition of Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Macmillan, 1970), said that "fuck" "almost certainly" comes from the Indo-European root *peuk- = "to prick" (which is the source of the English words "compunction", "expunge", "impugn", "poignant", "point", "pounce", "pugilist", "punctuate", "puncture", "pungent", and "pygmy"). Robert Claiborne, in The Roots of English: A Reader's Handbook of Word Origin (Times, 1989) agrees that this is "probably" the etymon. Problems with such theories include a distribution that suggests a North-Sea Germanic areal form rather than an inherited one; the murkiness of the phonetic relations; and the fact that no alleged cognate outside Germanic has sexual connotations.


does not stand for "Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden". It is a Scots word mentioned in 1457 in reference to the game. Possible cognates are Scots gowf="to strike", Dutch kolf="club for striking balls", Swedish kolf="butt-end", and Old Icelandic kolfr="bolt". The postulated Proto-Germanic root is *kulb-. The English word "club" comes from the possibly related Proto-Germanic *klumbon="heavy stick".


Contrary to what you may have read in Xaviera Hollander's book The Happy Hooker, the "prostitute" sense of "hooker" does NOT derive from Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker (1814-1879), a major general on the Union side of the U.S. civil war, whose men were alleged to frequent brothels. "Hooker" in this sense goes back to 1845 (see AHD3); the U.S. Civil War did not begin until 1861. It may come from the earlier sense of "thief" (which goes back to 1567, "to hook" meaning to steal), or it may refer to prostitutes' linking arms with their clients. A geographical Hook (Corlear's Hook in New York City, or the Hook of Holland) is also possible.

"ISO" (by Mark Brader)

ISO is the International Organization for Standardization, not the International Standards Organization. Some people think the organization's initials in French are ISO, but actually they would be OIS. According to someone I met who worked there, the abbreviation ISO was adopted because they didn't want to use the actual English initials, but could permute them into the Greek- derived prefix iso- meaning "same" (which is what standards are for making things the :-) ). In other words, it's wordplay.

Coordinated Universal Time is UTC because the C is of secondary importance and can be written as a subscript. This one, too, is mistaken for coming from French, but does not.


"Jury-rigged", which means "assembled in a makeshift manner", is attested since 1788. It comes from "jury mast", a nautical term attested since 1616 for a temporary mast made from any available spar when the mast has broken or been lost overboard. The OED dubiously recorded a suggestion that this was short for "injury mast", but recent dictionaries say that is probably from Old French ajurie="help or relief", from Latin adiuvare="to aid" (the source of the English word "adjutant").

"Jerry-built", which the OED defines as "built unsubstantially of bad materials; built to sell but not last" is attested since 1869, and is said to have arisen in Liverpool. It has been fancifully derived from the Biblical city of Jericho, whose walls came tumbling down; from the prophet Jeremiah, because he foretold decay; from the name of a building firm on the Mersey; from "jelly", signifying instability; and from the Romany gerry="excrement". More likely, it is linked to earlier pejorative uses of the name Jerry ("jerrymumble", to knocked about, 1721; "Jerry Sneak", a henpecked husband, 1764; "jerry", a cheap beer house, 1861); and it may have been influenced by "jury-rigged".

"Jerry" as British slang for "a German, especially a German soldier" is not attested until 1898 and is unconnected with "jerry-built".


"Kangaroo" does NOT derive from the aboriginal for "I don't understand". Captain James Cook's expedition learned the word from an aboriginal tribe that subsequently couldn't be identified. Since there were a large number of Australian aboriginal languages, and it has taken some time to record and catalogue the surviving ones, for many years the story that it meant "I don't understand" was plausible. The search was further complicated by the fact that many aboriginal languages imported the word from English. But if you consult an up-to-date English dictionary, such as RHUD2, you will see that "kangaroo" is derived from the Guugu-Yimidhirr (a language spoken near Cooktown, North Queensland) word gaeng-urru "a large black or grey species of kangaroo".

Similar stories are told about "llama" (a Quechua word, not from the Spanish Como se llama? = "What's it called?"); "indri" (this one DOES derive from the Malagasy word for "Look!"); and several place names, among them Canada (kanata was the Huron- Iroquois word for "village, settlement"; Jacques Cartier is supposed to have mistaken this for the name of the country); Istanbul (said to come from a Turkish mishearing of Greek eis ten poli "to the city"); Luzon (supposedly Tagalog for "What did you say?"); Nome (supposedly a printer's misreading of a cartographer's query, "Name?"); Senegal (supposedly from Wolof senyu gal "our boats"); and Yucatan (supposedly = "I don't understand you").


The meaning of "limerence" falls somewhere between "infatuation" and "romantic love". It was coined circa 1977 by Dorothy Tennov, then professor of psychology at the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut. It was an arbitrary coinage; there is no specific etymology. I have a long message with the symptomatology of limerence. E-mail me ( if you want it.


This British colloquial word for "toilet" was established usage by the 1920s. Suggested origins include: French Lieu d'aisance = "place of easement" French On est prie de laisser ce lieu aussi propre qu'on le trouve = "Please leave this place as clean as you find it" French Gardez l'eau! = "Mind the water!" (supposedly said in the days before modern plumbing, when emptying chamber pots from upper-storey windows. According to Chris Malcolm (, this phrase is still sometimes used by common folk in Edinburgh when heaving water or slops, and tour guides say that it originated there circa 1600.) "louvre" (from the use of slatted screens for a makeshift lavatory) "bordalou" (an 18th-century ladies' travelling convenience) "looward" or "leeward" (the sheltered side of a boat) "lee", a shepherd's shelter made of hurdles "lieu", as in "time off in lieu", i.e., in place of work done "lavatory", spoken mincingly "Lady Louisa Anson" (a 19th-century English noblewoman whose sons took her name-card from her bedroom door and put it on the guest lavatory) a misreading of room number "100" (supposedly a common European toilet location) a "water closet"/"Waterloo" joke. (James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) contains the following text: "O yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. water closet.")


On its AOL message board, Merriam-Webster Editorial Department writes: "The notion that the sports term 'love' comes from the French l'oeuf seems to be another popular fallacy; so far, our etymologists have been unable to find any evidence that oeuf was ever used in a 'zero' or 'goose-egg' sense in reference to game scores. A more probable, if less imaginative, explanation can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, which links this sense of 'love' to the phrase 'for love' (i.e. 'without stakes, for nothing')."

"Merkin" (notes by Michael B. Quinion and Ruth Bygrave)

The word "merkin" is one of the perpetual bad puns of the Internet. It actually means "pubic wig" (such wigs are used, apparently, in the theatrical and film worlds as modesty devices in nude scenes). It can also be a contrivance used by male cross-dressers designed to imitate the female genitals, or, as Eric Partridge delicately puts it, "an artificial vagina for lonely men". The OED dates it 1617 in the sense "pubic wig"; the origin is unknown.

Then "merkin" was coined afresh to mean "an American", because it sounds a bit like the way some Americans pronounce "American", and the fact that it had a "naughty" meaning didn't hurt. Punning use of the word dates back to at least 1964, when one of Peter Sellers' roles in the film Dr. Strangelove was U.S. President President Merkin Muffley.

On Usenet, it's only a few years old. A few people recall (a newsgroup dedicated to the writings of Terry Pratchett, a British writer of humorous fantasy) as the origin, but Matthew Crosby ( writes: "I believe I was the original person to use 'Merkin' in AFP (certainly it was my use of the word that started the large thread on it), and I'm sure that 'Merkin' was being used before that as an underhand insult. By me, if nothing else."

"Merkin" is now widely used on Usenet to designate Americans (especially by non-Americans).


Genesis 10:8-9, in describing how the Seventy Nations were founded by the descendants of Noah, says that Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham, son of Noah, was "a mighty man on earth" and "a mighty hunter before the LORD". The word "nimrod" is recorded in English since 1545 with the (now obsolete) meaning "tyrant", and since 1712 with the meaning "hunter".

In contemporary U.S. slang, "nimrod" means "fool, numbskull". Rex Knepp ingeniously suggested that the origin of this was Bugs Bunny's taunt of Elmer Fudd: "So long, Nimrod." Unfortunately for this theory, Jesse Sheidlower says that Random House has two citations of "nimrod" = "numbskull" from the 1930s.


This one has generated lots of folklore. The following list of suggested origins and info comes from MEU2, from Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Historical Slang (1972 edition, Penguin, 0-14-081046-X), and from Cecil Adams' More of the Straight Dope (Ballantine, 1988, ISBN 0-345-34145-2). Thanks to Jeremy Smith for his help. The abbreviations on cracker boxes, shipping crates, cargoes of rum, et al., became synonymous with quality.

Queried about the Dalby citations, Merriam-Webster Editorial Department told me: "A word pronounced approximately 'kai' is an expression of surprise or amusement in Jamaican Creole and in Sea Islands Creole (Gullah). If you take into account the pronunciation and meaning, you'll see that it does not fit 'okay' either semantically or phonetically. There is nothing in the history of 'O.K.' or 'okay' that suggests it has an African-American origin."


does not come from English "out" + "rage". It comes from French outre = "beyond" + -age. French outre comes from Latin ultra.


This word, for which our earliest citation so far is from 1913 (found by Fred Shapiro with Lexis) nearly always means "shaped like a slice of pie", not "shaped like a pie". (A use found by Matthew Rabuzzi in W3's entry "Jack Horner pie" may mean the latter.) The word is quite common in North America (a search by Myles Callum on Nexis turned up more than a thousand instances), but little known elsewhere (a search on a British corpus turned up nothing, and British correspondents tell us that they "would not automatically assume that that was what was meant"). The word, for which there is no entry in any dictionary, was discovered by Mark Israel on 11 July 1995, when Matthew Rabuzzi used it in a suggested emendation to the "Origin of the dollar sign" entry in this FAQ, and it was found to be missing from the dictionaries. That's right, folks; in future years, when you open your dictionary and see an entry for "pie-shaped" there, remember: you have me to thank for it!

"Portmanteau word"

This term for "blend word" comes from "portmanteau", "a leather travelling case that opens into two hinged compartments" (from the French for "carry cloak"), by way of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass: "You see it's like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word." Although most modern blends are simply the first part of one word plus the last part of another (e.g., "brunch" = "breakfast" + "lunch"; "smog" = "smoke" + "fog"; "Chunnel" = "Channel" + "tunnel"), Carroll himself formed his portmanteau words in a more subtle manner: "slithy" = "lithe" + "slimy"; "mimsy" = "miserable" + "flimsy"; "frumious" = "fuming" + "furious". Carroll's coinages "chortle" (which is now in most dictionaries) and "gallumph" (which is in the OED) are generally understood as "chuckle" + "snort" and "gallop" + "triumph" respectively, although Carroll himself never explained them.

Blend words predate Carroll: MWCD10 derives "squiggle" from "squirm" + "wriggle", and dates it circa 1816.

There is a dictionary of them: Portmanteau Dictionary: Blend Words in the English Language Including Trademarks and Brand Names by Dick Thurner (McFarland, 1993, ISBN 0-89950-687-9).


"Posh" (probably) does NOT stand for "port out, starboard home". MWCD10, p. 27a, says, "our editors frequently have to explain to correspondents that the dictionary fails to state that the origin of posh is in the initial letters of the phrase 'port out, starboard home'—supposedly a shipping term for the cooler accommodations on steamships plying between Britain and India from the mid-nineteenth century on—not because the story is unknown to us but because no evidence to support it has yet been produced. Some evidence exists that casts strong doubt on it; the word is not known earlier than 1918 (in a source unrelated to shipping), and the acronymic explanation does not appear until 1935."

A tenable theory is that "posh" meant "halfpenny" (from Romany posh "half") and then "money" before acquiring its present meaning. Or it may come from the slang "pot" (= "big", "a person of importance"). Or it may be a contraction of "polished".

I got e-mail from someone whose grandmother claimed to have seen steamship tickets with "P.O.S.H." overprinted. And William Safire's I Stand Corrected (Times, 1984, ISBN 0-8129-01097-4) quotes a letter from an Ellen Thackara of Switzerland: "When I lived in the Orient the P.&O. (Pacific [sic] and Orient) Line out of London did put beside the names of important people 'POSH', so they would have the cooler side of the ship." (The P&O is actually the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company; it's not clear whether the mistake is Thackara's or Safire's.) But to convince us, you'll have to find one of these tickets and send a copy to Merriam-Webster.


This is first recorded in 1749 in the sense "an odd person". It is doubtful that "quiz" came from an alleged incident in which James Daly, a late-18th-century Dublin theatre manager, made a wager that he could introduce a new word into the English language overnight, and hired urchins to chalk the word "quiz" on every wall and billboard in Dublin. "Quiz" may come from the Latin "Qui es?" (= "Who are you?", the first question asked in Latin oral exams in grammar schools), or it may be a shortening of "inquisitive".

"Santa Ana"

This California term for "a strong, hot, dust-bearing wind blowing towards the southern Pacific coast from the desert" comes from (according to MWCD10) the Santa Ana mountain range or (according to AHD3) the Santa Ana Canyon, not from the California city of Santa Ana.


Like "hopscotch", this word for "without incurring any penalty" has no connection with frugal Scotsmen. In 12th-century England, a "scot" or "sceot" was a municipal tax paid to the local bailiff or sheriff (the word came from an Old Norse cognate of "shoot"/"shot", and meant "money thrown down"). The word "scot-free", which is recorded from the 13th century, referred to someone who succeeded in dodging these taxes. Later, the term was given wider currency when "scot" was used to mean the amount owed by a customer in a tavern: anyone who had a drink on the house went "scot-free". This "scot" was reinforced by the fact that the drinks ordered were "scotched", or marked on a slate, so that the landlord could keep track of how much the customer owed.


"Sincere" is sometimes said to derive from Roman quarrymen's temporarily concealing imperfections in marble blocks by rubbing wax on them. On its AOL message board, Merriam-Webster Editorial Department writes: "The theory that 'sincere' ultimately derives from Latin sine cera, meaning 'without wax', is a popular one; unfortunately, there is no evidence to support it. A far more likely origin, in our view, is that the Latin word sincerus derives from sem- ('one') and -cerus (akin to Latin crescere, meaning 'to grow')."

"Sirloin"/"baron of beef"

"Sirloin" comes from Old French surlonge, from sur "above" and loigne "loin". Its current spelling may have been influenced by a story that a King of England (variously said to be Henry VIII, James I, and Charles II) "knighted" this cut of beef because of its superiority.

A "baron of beef" is a joint consisting of two sirloins left uncut at the backbone. This "baron" may have originated as a joke on "sirloin", or it may be an independent word.


SOS does NOT stand for "Save Our Ship/Souls", for "Stop Other Signals", for "Send Our Saviour/Succour", for "Sure of Sinking", or for the Russian Spasiti Ot Smerti (= "save from death"). The signal "...—-...", recommended for international distress calls at the international Radio Telegraph Conference of 1906 and officially adopted in 1908, was not chosen for any alphabetic significance.

Such a signal is now known as a "prosign" (from "procedural signal"). Those prosigns (such as this one) that are transmitted without interletter gaps are notated with an overbar. Since "..." is S and "—-" is O in Morse code, the distress signal is conventionally represented as:

but since there are no interletter gaps, it could also be analysed as various other combinations of Morse code letters.

Mark Brader writes: "The sign used before SOS was CQD, which was composed of the usual 'calling' sign CQ, plus D for Distress. Even in 1912 when the Titanic was sinking, its operator put out a CQD first and only added SOS after being reminded."

Thomas Hamilton White ( writes: "I have read that the international distress call evolved from SOE (sent as three letters), which had been used as a distress signal by German companies. However, because the final E in this sequence consisted of a single dot, the signal was modified to ...—... to be more distinctive and symmetrical. [...] I can think of one very practical reason for continuing to informally treat the distress signal as SOS—ever try to stamp ...—... in a snowbank?"


This term for interchanging parts of two different words in a phrase is named after the Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930), Dean and Warden of New College, Oxford. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 2nd edition (1953), attributed two famous spoonerisms to Dr Spooner: "Kinquering congs their titles take", and "You have deliberately tasted two worms and you can leave Oxford by the town drain." (The "down train" was the train going away from London, in this case through Oxford. Other popular attributions to Dr Spooner are: "a well boiled icicle"; "a blushing crow"; "a half-warmed fish"; "our shoving leopard"; "our queer old Dean"; "You hissed my mystery lectures"; "My boy, it's kisstomary to cuss the bride"; "When the boys come home from France, we'll have hags flung out"; and "Pardon me, madam, you are occupewing my pie. May I sew you to another sheet?")

But after the publication of Spooner: A Biography by Sir William Hayter (W. H. Allen, 1976, ISBN 0-491-01658-1), the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 3rd edition (1979), gives only one spoonerism ("weight of rages"), and says: "Many other Spoonerisms, such as those given in the previous editions of O.D.Q., are now known to be apocryphal." The OED says the word "spoonerism" was "known in colloquial use in Oxford from about 1885." In his diary entry of 9 May 1904, Spooner wrote that someone he met at dinner "seemed to think he owed me some gratitude for the many 'Spoonerisms' which I suppose have appeared in Tit Bits." One of the undergraduates who attested "weight of rages" commented: "Well, I've been up for four years, and never heard the Spoo make a spoonerism before, and now he makes a damned rotten one at the last minute."


The conjunction "till" is not a shortening of "until". MWCD10 dates "till" from the 12th century and "until" from the 13th century. "Until" was a compound, whose first element also survives in "unto", and whose second element was the ancestor of "till".

The spelling "'til" occurs, but is not standard anywhere.


"Tip", in the sense of "gratuity", does NOT stand for "to insure [i.e., ensure] politeness/promptness" or "to improve performance". It may derive from "tip" in the sense "to tap, to strike lightly" or in the sense "extremity", both of which have cognates in other Germanic languages. Or it may be a shortening of "stipend".


"Brassiere" is first recorded in a Canadian advertisement of 1911, and in the U.S. Index of Patents for the year 1910 (published in 1911). Dictionaries derive it from obsolete (17th century) French brassiere = "bodice", from Old French braciere = "arm protector", from bras = "arm". (The French word for bra is soutien-gorge, literally "support-throat".)

In the southern U.S., a bra is sometimes called a "tit-sling". This has an obvious derivation.

Wallace Reyburn, to whom Thomas Crapper owes his current fame, wrote a later book describing a lawsuit over rights to the bra, fought from 1934 to 1938 in New York, between a German-born designer, Otto Titzling (1884-1942), and a French-born designer, Philippe de Brassiere. Martin Gardner, in Time Travel and Other Mathematical Bewilderments (Freeman, 1988, ISBN 0-7107-1925-8), p. 137, says: "The book by Wallace Reyburn Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper does exist. For many years I assumed that Reyburn's book was the funniest plumbing hoax since H. L. Mencken wrote his fake history of the bathtub. [...] Reyburn wrote a later book titled Bust-up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling and the Development of the Bra. It turns out, though, that both Thomas Crapper and Otto Titzling were real people, and neither of Reyburn's books is entirely a hoax."

On its AOL message board, Merriam-Webster Editorial Department writes: "dull though it may be, all the available etymological evidence indicates that the word derives from the French 'brassiere' [...]; there are many examples of the use of 'brassiere' in the women's apparel sense throughout the 19th century—in French. [...] Given the word's history and that country's language heritage, it is not surprising that the first occurrence of the "brassiere" in English comes from Canada. [...] We can find no verifiable evidence that anyone named either 'Titzling' or 'Brassiere' had anything to do with the origin of the term."


"Typo" is related to, but does not come from, the verb "to type". It is short for "typographical error", which, of course, could refer to any error made by a typographer. (The humorous but useful hackish coinage "thinko", used for when the person typing was thinking of the wrong thing, pretends that "typo" does come from "to type".)

Arguments of the form "It couldn't have been a typo, because those two keys are nowhere near each other on the keyboard" are a bit tiresome, especially when one keeps the true etymology of "typo" in mind.


Wicca is "a pagan nature religion having is roots in pre- Christian Europe and undergoing a 20th-century revival" (AHD3). Only the most recently published dictionaries contain an entry for it; RHUD2 dates it 1975. "Wicca" is a revival of an Old English word that you can find in older dictionaries by looking up the etymology of either "witch" or "wicked". In Old English, wicca was the masculine form of a word meaning "wizard" or "sorcerer". (The feminine form was wicce. "Witch" comes from wicce.) wicca and wicce came from from a proto-Germanic (not Celtic) wikkjak, "one who wakes the dead", the first element of which comes from the same Indo-European root as "wake".

Yes, we've heard the joke about the Beatles song "Wiccan, Work It Out".

"Widget" (notes by William C. Waterhouse)

"Widget" is a deliberately invented word meant (probably) to suggest "gadget". Most dictionaries fail to trace it to its origin. It comes from the 1924 play "Beggar on Horseback", by George Kaufman and Marc Connelly. In the play, a young composer gets engaged to the daughter of a rich businessman, and the next part of the play acts out his nightmare of what his life will be like, doing pointless work in a bureaucratic big business. At one point he encounters his father-in-law at work, and we get the following dialogue:
(Father-in-law): Yes, sir! Big business!
—Yes. Big business. What business are we in?
—Widgets. We're in the widget business.
—The widget business?
—Yes, sir! I suppose I'm the biggest manufacturer in the world of overhead and underground A-erial widgets.
Part of the point, of course, is that no one ever tells him what "widgets" are.


"Wog", a chiefly British, derogatory word for someone from the Middle or Far East, does NOT stand for "wealthy/Western/wily/ wonderful/worthy Oriental gentleman", or for "worker on Government service". It may be a shortening of "golliwog".

"Wonk" (notes by Fred Shapiro)

The OED defines "wonk" as "a studious or hardworking person". An article in Sports Illustrated, 17 Dec. 1962, explains that in Harvard slang, there was a tripartite classification of students into wonks, preppies, and jocks. I believe that this classification is in fact the origin of each of the three terms. The earliest citations in the OED for the three terms are dated, respectively, 1962, 1970, and 1963. I have found an occurrence of "wonk" in Time in 1954; an occurrence of "preppie" in the Cambridge Review in 1956; and an occurrence of "jock" in the Harvard Crimson in 1958. In all three instances the context is a Harvard one. (But Esther Vail recalls: "'jocks'; we called them that at Syracuse Univ. as early as 1948".)

"Wonk" is said to derive from the word "know" spelled backwards, but this is not certain. Other suggested origins are the adjective "wonky" = "weak, shaky", and "wanker" = "masturbator". "Preppy" comes from "preparatory school". "Jock" (attested from 1922 in the sense "athletic supporter") comes from "jockstrap", from "jock" = "penis", from the male name Jack.


This derogatory word for "an Italian" does not stand for "without papers/passport", for "working on pavement", or for "western Oriental person". It comes from Italian dialectal guappo = "thug", ultimately from Latin vappa = "flat wine".


The "y" here is a representation of the obsolete letter thorn, which looked like "b" and "p" superimposed, and was pronounced [T] or [D] (the same as modern "th"). The pronunciation of "ye" in "Ye Olde Curiositie Shoppe" as /ji/, which you sometimes hear, is a spelling pronunciation.

Phrase origins

"The bee's knees"

A bee's "corbiculae", or pollen-baskets, are located on its tibiae (midsegments of its legs). The phrase "the bee's knees", meaning "the height of excellence", became popular in the U.S. in the 1920s, along with "the cat's whiskers" (possibly from the use of these in radio crystal sets), "the cat's pajamas" (pyjamas were still new enough to be daring), and similar phrases which made less sense and didn't endure: "the eel's ankle", "the elephant's instep", "the snake's hip".

"Beg the question"

Fowler defines "begging the question" as the "fallacy of founding a conclusion on a basis that as much needs to be proved as the conclusion itself."

"Question" here does not mean "a sentence in interrogative form". Rather, it means "the point at issue, the thing that the person is trying to prove". The phrase is elucidated by William Fulke in "Heskins parleamant repealed" (1579): "O shameless beggar, that craveth no less than the whole controversy to be given him!" The OED's first citation for "to beg the question" is from 1581.

Common varieties of begging the question are paraphrase of the statement to be proved ("Telepathy cannot exist because direct transfer of thought between individuals is impossible"), and arguing in a circle ("The Bible must be true, because God wouldn't lie to us; we know God is trustworthy, because it says so in the Bible"). Fowler gives two example of non-circular question-begging: "that fox-hunting is not cruel, since the fox enjoys the fun, and that one must keep servants, since all respectable people do so". Gowers notes that single words, such as "reactionary" and "victimization", can be used in a question-begging way.

The Latin term for the fallacy is petitio principii. The phrase can be traced back to Aristotle (4th century B.C.): "Begging or assuming the point at issue consists (to take the expression in its widest sense) in failing to demonstrate the required proposition. But there are several other ways in which this may happen; for example, if the argument has not taken syllogistic form at all [...]. If, however, the relation of B to C is such that they are identical, or that they are clearly convertible, or that one applies to the other, then he is begging the point at issue." (Prior Analytics II xvi) The word that Aristotle uses, aiteisthai, does literally mean "to beg".

Many people unaware of the technical meaning of "to beg the question" in logic use it to mean "to evade the question" or "to invite the obvious question". The meaning of the adjective "question-begging" does not seem to have suffered a similar broadening.

"Blue moon" (notes by Philip Hiscock)

The phrase "blue moon" has been around a long time, well over 400 years, but during that time its meaning has shifted around a lot. I have counted six different meanings which have been carried by the term, and at least four of them are still current today.

The earliest uses of the term are in a phrase remarkably like early references to "green cheese". Both were used as examples of obvious absurdities about which there could be no argument. Four hundred years ago, if someone said "He would argue the moon was blue", the average 16th-centuryman would take it the way we take "He'd argue that black is white." The earliest citation is a 1528 poem "Rede Me and Be Not Wroth": "Yf they say the mone is blewe/We must believe that it is true."

This understanding of a blue moon's being absurd (the first meaning) led eventually to a second meaning, that of "never". To say that something would happen when the moon turned blue was like saying that it would happen on Tib's Eve (at least before Tib got a day near Christmas assigned to her).

But of course, there are examples of the moon's actually turning blue; that's the third meaning: the moon's visually appearing blue. When the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa exploded in 1883, its dust turned sunsets green and the moon blue all around the world for the best part of two years. In 1927, a late monsoon in India set up conditions for a blue moon. And the moon here in Newfoundland was turned blue in 1951 when huge forest fires in Alberta threw smoke particles up into the sky. Even by the 19th century, it was clear that although visually blue moons were rare, they did happen from time to time. So the phrase "once in a blue moon" came about. It meant then exactly what it means today: that an event was fairly infrequent, but not quite regular enough to pinpoint. That's meaning number four, and today it is still the main one.

I know of six songs which use "blue moon" as a symbol of sadness and loneliness. In half of them, the poor crooner's moon turns to gold when he gets his love at the end of the song. That's meaning number five: check your old Elvis Presley or Bill Monroe records for more information.

Finally, in the 1980s, a sixth meaning was popularized (chiefly by the game Trivial Pursuit): the second full moon in a month. The earliest reference cited for this is The Maine Farmers' Almanac for 1937. Rumour has it that when there were two full moons in a calendar month, calendars would put the first in red, the second in blue.

"Bob's your uncle"

This British phrase means "all will be well" or "simple as that": "You go and ask for the job—and he remembers your name—and Bob's your uncle." It dates from circa 1890.

P. Brendon, in Eminent Edwardians, 1979, suggests an origin: "When, in 1887, Balfour was unexpectedly promoted to the vital front line post of Chief Secretary for Ireland by his uncle Robert, Lord Salisbury (a stroke of nepotism that inspired the catch-phrase 'Bob's your uncle'), ..."

Or it may have been prompted by the cant phrase "All is bob" = "all is safe."

(Info from Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Catch Phrases, 2nd edition, revised by Paul Beale, Routledge, 1985, ISBN 0-415-05916-X.)

"To call a spade a spade"

is NOT an ethnic slur.

The ancient Greeks said "to call a kneading-trough a kneading- trough". This is first recorded in Aristophanes' play The Clouds (423 B.C.), and also shows up in Plutarch's Apophthegms.

In the Renaissance, Erasmus confused Plutarch's "kneading-trough" (skape:) with the Greek word for "digging tool" (skapeion), and rendered it in Latin as ligo. Thence it was translated into English in 1542 by Nicholas Udall in his translation of Erasmus's version as "to call a spade [...] a spade".

"To call a spade a bloody shovel" is not recorded until 1919. "Spade" in the sense of "Negro" is not recorded until 1928.

This, of course, does not necessarily render the modern use of "to call a spade a spade" "politically correct". Rosalie Maggio, in The Bias-Free Word-Finder, writes: "The expression is associated with a racial slur and is to be avoided", and recommends using "to speak plainly" or other alternatives instead. In another entry, she writes: "Although by definition and derivation 'niggardly' and 'nigger' are completely unrelated, 'niggardly' is too close for comfort to a word with profoundly negative associations. Use instead one of the many available alternatives: stingy, miserly, parsimonious..." Beard and Cerf, in The Official Politically Correct Handbook, p. 123, report that an administrator at the University of California at Santa Cruz campaigned for the banning of such phrases as "a chink in his armor" and "a nip in the air", because "chink" and "nip" are also derogatory terms for "Chinese person" and "Japanese person" respectively. In the late 1970s in the U.S., a boycott of the (now defunct) Sambo's restaurant chain was organized, even though the name "Sambo's" was a combination of the names of its two founders and did not come from the offensive word for dark-skinned person.

"Cut to the chase"

On its AOL message board, Merriam-Wesbter Editorial Department writes: "The phrase 'cut to the chase' developed from cinema terminology, where it referred to the act of switching from a less action-packed scene to a more exciting sequence—typically a chase scene—in order to draw the audience's attention back to the screen. Within the past fifteen years or so, 'cut to the chase' has come to be used outside of the film industry with the figurative meaning of 'get to the point.'"

"The die is cast."

does NOT mean "The metal template has been molded."

It's what Julius Caesar said on crossing the river Rubicon to invade Italy in 49 B.C. The "die" is a gambling die, and "cast" means thrown. The phrase means "An irrevocable decision has been made." (The Latin words, "Jacta alea est", are given in Suetonius' Divus Julius, XXXII. Alea denotes the game of dice, rather than the physical die: the dice game is in its thrown state. "The die is cast" and "the dice are cast" would be equally good translations. Compare "Les jeux sont faits", heard at Monte Carlo.)

Plutarch wrote two accounts in Greek of Caesar's crossing the Rubicon. Both times, he gives the words as anerriphtho: kubos = "Let the die be cast." In one of the accounts (Life of Pompey), he says that Caesar actually uttered the words in Greek; in the other (Life of Caesar), he suggests that the words were already a proverb before Caesar uttered them.

"Dressed to the nines"

This expression, meaning "very fashionably and elaborately dressed", is recorded from the 18th century. "The nine" or "the nines" were used to signify "superlative" in numerous other contexts. Theories include: 9, being the highest single-digit number, symbolized the best; a metanalysis of Old English to then eyne "to the eyes"; and a reference to the 9 muses.

"Elementary, my dear Watson!"

does not occur as such in any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, although Holmes does exclaim "Elementary" in "The Crooked Man", and writes "My dear Watson" in "The Final Problem". The first recorded juxtaposition is in the 1929 film The Return of Sherlock Holmes (the first Holmes film with sound).

The original stories never mention an Inverness cape, a deerstalker hat, or a meerschaum pipe, either. Those props are due to illustrators and to actors.

"Enquiring minds want to know." (notes by James Kiso)

This originated as a slogan used in TV ads in the 1980s by the National Enquirer. The Enquirer (based in Lantana, Florida; not to be confused with the fine paper based in Philadelphia) is the largest-selling "news" weekly in the U.S.; it belongs to the sensationalistic genre known as "supermarket tabloids" or "checkout line rags" because the most familiar points of distribution are racks near supermarket checkout lines.

The ads featured a series of "ear-catching" headlines from recent issues followed by actors (I hope) miming surprise at the revelation. The stories ranged from amazing weight-loss diets based on the intake of broccoli and ice cream to the tragic story of Michael Jackson's unrequited love for Liz Taylor. A following voice-over would say, "Enquiring minds want to know."

"The exception proves the rule."

The common misconception (which you will find in several books, including the Dictionary of Misinformation) is that "proves" in this phrase means "tests". That is not the case, although "proof" does mean "test" in such locutions as "proving ground", "proofreader", "proof spirit", and "The proof of the pudding is in the eating."

As MEU says, "the original legal sense" of the "the exception proves the rule" is as follows: "'Special leave is given for men to be out of barracks tonight till 11.0 p.m.'; 'The exception proves the rule' means that this special leave implies a rule requiring men, except when an exception is made, to be in earlier. The value of this in interpreting statutes is plain."

MEU2 adds: "'A rule is not proved by exceptions unless the exceptions themselves lead one to infer a rule' (Lord Atkin). The formula in full is exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis." [That's Latin for "The exception proves the rule in cases not excepted."]

The phrase seems to date from the 17th century. (Anthony Cree, in Cree's Dictionary of Latin Quotations (Newbury, 1978) says that the phrase comes from classical Latin, which it defines as Latin spoken before A.D. 400; but no classical citations have come to our attention.) Below are the five seventeenth-century citations that we could find. 1, 3, and 4 are in the OED; 2 is in Latin for Lawyers by E. Hilton Jackson and Herbert Broom; 5 is in A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, by Morris Palmer Tilley.

  1. 1617 Samuel Collins, Epphata to F.T.; or, the Defence of the Bishop of Elie concerning his answer to Cardinall Ballarmine's Apologie 100: "Indefinites are equivalent to universalls especially where one exception being made, it is plaine that all others are thereby cut off, according to the rule Exceptio figit regulam in non exceptis." [Note that figit rather than probat is here used. probo can mean any of "give official approval to", "put to the test", or "demonstrate the verity of"; but figo can only mean "fix", "fasten", or "establish".]

  2. The reports of Sir Edvvard Coke, Kt., late Lord Chief-Justice of England (1658 edition; Sir Edward Coke died in 1634): "[...] upon which Award of the Exigent, his Administrators brought a Writ of Error; and it was adjudged, That the Writ of Error did lie, and the reason was, Because that by the Awarding of the Exigent, his Goods and Chattels were forfeited, and of such Awards which tend ad tale grave damnum of the party, a Writ of Error lieth, although the Principal Judgment was never given; in this case, exceptio probat regulum, & sic de similibus." ["A writ of error lieth" = "an appeal is admissible"; "exigent" = writ of suspension of civil rights; ad tale grave damnum = "to such great loss"; sic de similibus = "thus about similar things".]

  3. 1640 Gilbert Watts, Bacon's Advancement and proficience of learning VIII. iii. Aph. 17: "As exception strengthens the force of a Law in Cases not excepted, so enumeration weakens it in Cases not enumerated." [So when Lewis Carroll wrote "I am fond of children (except boys)", he affirmed his fondness for girls more strongly than he would have had he written merely "I am fond of children."]

  4. 1664 John Wilson, The Cheats, To Reader: "For if I have shown the odd practices of two vain persons pretending to be what they are not, I think I have sufficiently justified the brave man even by this reason, that the exception proves the rule." [The OED (but not the other books I checked) gives the date as 1662. As far as I can tell from this scant context, Wilson seems to be saying, "My description of two cowardly cheats should serve to show you the bad consequences of not being brave, and hence convince you of the need for a rule: 'Be brave!'."]

  5. 1666 Giovanni Torriano, Piazza universale di proverbi italiani, or A Common Place of Italian Proverbs I, p. 80 "The exception gives Authority to the Rule." note 28, p. 242 "And the Latin says again, Exceptio probat Regulam."
To convince us that in this particular phrase "proves" originally meant "tests", you will have to produce citations as old as or older than these to support your view.

"Face the music"

This expression, meaning "accept the unpleasant consequences", is first recorded in the U.S. around 1850. It may derive from musical theatre: a nervous actor would have to summon all his courage to face the audience across the orchestra pit. Or it may be one of three military references: an infantryman taking his place in the line of assembly; a cavalier keeping his restive horse still while the band starts to play; or a soldier being drummed out of his regiment.

"Get the lead out"

is short for "Get the lead out of your ass/britches/butt/feet/ pants", which is long for "Move!" These expressions originated in the U.S. circa 1930.

"Go figure"

This expands to "Go and figure it out", and means: "The reasons for the fact just stated are unknown and possibly unknowable. You can waste your time thinking about what they might be, if you choose, but you're not likely to accomplish anything." (Kivi Shapiro)

"Go figure" comes from Yiddish Gey vays "Go know". Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yinglish (Penguin, 1989, ISBN 0-452-26534-6), says: "In English, one says, 'Go and see [look, ask, tell]...' Using an imperative without any link to a conjunction is pure Yiddish, no doubt derived from the biblical phrase, translated literally: 'Go tell...' 'Go praise the Lord...' (In English this becomes 'Come, let us praise the Lord.')"

Edwin P. Menes writes: "Italian has a similar expression, figuriamo(ci) = 'Let's figure (at it)', used in exactly the same contexts as `Go figure'—usually bafflement at the successful outcome of some incomprehensible behavior."

Other English expressions said to derive from Yiddish include: "Big deal!" (A Groyser kunst!); "Bite your tongue" (Bays dir di tsung); "bottom line" (Untershte shure); "Eat your heart out" (Es dir oys s'harts); "Enough already!" (Genug shoyn); "for real" (Far emmes); "If the shoe fits, wear it" (Oyb der shukh past, kenstu im trogn); "Look who's talking!" (Kuk nor ver s'ret!); "make like a" (Makh vi); "shm-" as in "Fair, shmair"; "Sez you" (Azoy zugst du); "Thanks a lot" (ironic) (A shenem dank aykh); "That's for sure" (Dos iz oyf zikher); and "Who needs it?" (Ver darf es?).

"Go placidly amid the noise and the haste" (Desiderata)

"Desiderata" was written in 1927 by Max Ehrmann (1872-1945). In 1956, the rector of St. Paul's Church in Baltimore, Maryland, used the poem in a collection of mimeographed inspirational material for his congregation. Someone who subsequently printed it asserted that it was found in Old St. Paul's Church, dated 1692. The year 1692 was the founding date of the church and has nothing to do with the poem. See Fred D. Cavinder, "Desiderata", TWA Ambassador, Aug. 1973, pp. 14-15.

"Go to hell in a handbasket"

This phrase, meaning "to deteriorate rapidly", originated in the U.S. in the early 20th century. A handbasket is just a basket with a handle. Something carried in a handbasket goes wherever it's going without much resistance.

"Hell for leather"

Robert L. Chapman's New Dictionary of American Slang (Harper & Row, 1987, ISBN 0-06-181157-2) says: "hell-for-leather or hell- bent-for-leather adv from late 1800s British Rapidly and energetically; =all out, flat out. You're heading hell-for-leather to a crack-up [origin unknown; perhaps related to British dialect phrases go hell for ladder, hell falladerly, hell faleero, and remaining mysterious even if so, although the leather would then be a very probable case of folk etymology with a vague sense of the leather involved in horse trappings.]"

"Hoist with his own petard"

"For 'tis the sport to have the enginer / Hoist with his owne petar"—Shakespeare, Hamlet III iv. "Hoist" was in Shakespeare's time the past participles of a verb "to hoise", which meant what "to hoist" does now: to lift. A petard (see under "peter out" for the etymology) was an explosive charge detonated by a slowly burning fuse. If the petard went off prematurely, then the sapper (military engineer; Shakespeare's "enginer") who planted it would be hurled into the air by the explosion. A modern rendition might be: "It's fun to see the engineer blown up with his own bomb."

"By hook or by crook"

This phrase formerly meant "by fair means or foul", although now it often (especially in the U.K.) means simply "by whatever necessary means". The first recorded use is by John Wycliffe in Controversial Tracts (circa 1380). Theories include: a law or custom in mediaeval England that allowed peasants to take as firewood from the King's forests any deadwood that they could reach with a shepherd's crook and cut off with a reaper's billhook; rhyming words for "direct" (reachable with a long hook) and "indirect" (roundabout); beginners' writing exercises, where letters have hooks and brackets are "crooks"; and from "Hook" and "Crook", the names of headlands on either side of a bay north of Waterford, Ireland, referring to a captain's determination to make the haven of the bay in bad weather using one headland or the other as a guide.

"Illegitimis non carborundum"

Yes, this means "Don't let the bastards grind you down", but it is not real Latin; it is a pseudo-Latin joke.

"Carborundum" is a trademark for a very hard substance composed of silicon carbide, used in grinding. (The name "Carborundum" is a blend of "carbon" and "corundum". "Corundum" denotes aluminium oxide, and comes to English from Tamil kuruntam; it is related to Sanskrit kuruvinda = "ruby".) "The "-ndum" ending suggests the Latin gerundive, which is used to express desirability of the activity denoted by the verb, as in Nil desperandum = "nothing to be despaired of"; addendum = "(thing) fit to be added"; Corrigendum = "(thing) fit to be corrected"; and the name Amanda, from amanda = "fit to be loved").

Illegitimis is the dative plural of illegitimus = "illegitimate"; the gerundive in Latin correctly takes the dative to denote the agent. illegitimus could conceivably mean "bastard" in Latin, but was not the usual word for it: Follett World-Wide Latin Dictionary (Follett, 1967) gives nothus homo for bastard of known father, and spurius for bastard of unknown father.

The phrase seems to have originated with British army intelligence early in World War II. It was popularized when U.S. general Joseph W. "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell (1883-1946) adopted it as his motto. Various variant forms are in circulation.

"Let them eat cake!"

The French is Qu'ils mangent de la brioche (not gateau as one might expect). And Queen Marie-Antoinette did not say this. Jean-Jacques Rousseau attributed it to "a great princess" in book 6 of his Confessions. Confessions was published posthumously, but book 6 was written 2 or 3 years before Marie-Antoinette arrived in France in 1770.

"Mind your p's and q's"

This expression, meaning "be very careful to behave correctly", has been in use from the 17th century on. Theories include: an admonishment to children learning to write; an admonishment to typesetters (who had to look at the letters reversed); an admonishment to seamen not to soil their navy pea-jackets with their tarred "queues" (pigtails); "mind your pints and quarts"; "mind your prices and quality"; "mind your pieds and queues" (either feet and pigtails, or two dancing figures that had to be accurately performed); the substitution of /p/ for "qu" /kw/ in the speech of uneducated ancient Romans; or the confusion by students learning both Latin and Ancient Greek of such cognates as pente and quintus. And yes, we've heard the joke about the instruction to new sextons: "Mind your keys and pews."

The most plausible explanation is the one given in the latest edition of Collins English Dictionary: an alteration of "Mind your 'please's and 'thank you's".

"More honoured in the breach than in the observance"

From Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 4. Shakespeare meant "BETTER broken than observed", not "more often broken than observed".

"More than you can shake a stick at"

This is a 19th-century Americanism whose original meaning is unclear. Suggestions have included "more than one can count" (OED, AHD3), "more than one can threaten" (Charles Earle Funk), and "more than one can believe" (Dictionary of American English). No one of these seems easy to reconcile with all the following citations: "We have in Lancaster as many taverns as you can shake a stick at." (1818) "This was a temperance house, and there was nothing to treat a friend to that was worth shaking a stick at." (David Crockett, Tour to the North and Down East, 1835) "Our queen snake was [...] retiring, attended by more of her subjects than we even dared to shake a stick at." (1843) "I have never sot eyes on anything that could shake a stick at that." (= "set eyes on anything that could compare with that", 1843) "[...] Uncle Sam [...] has more acres than you can throw a stick at." (1851) "She got onto the whappiest, biggest, rustiest yaller moccasin that ever you shuck er stick at." (1851)

A connection with the British expression "hold (the) sticks with", meaning "compete on equal terms with" and attested since 1817, is not impossible.

OED staff told me: "The US usages in DAE do appear to have a different sense to that given in OED. [...] All the modern examples I've found on our databases conform to OED's definition so I think this is still the most common usage."

"Peter out"

This expression meaning "to dwindle to nothing" is recorded from 1846, which precludes derivation "peter" in the sense "penis", an Americanism not attested until 1902. "To peter out" was apparently first used by American miners referring to exhausted veins of ore. The origin is uncertain. It may come from "saltpetre" (used in the miners' explosives, so called because it forms a salt-like crust on rocks, ultimately from Greek petra = "rock", whence we also get "petrify" and "petroleum"); or it may come from French peter, which literally means "to fart" but is used figuratively to mean "to fizzle" and in the phrase peter dans la main = "to come to nothing" (this comes from the Indo-European root *perd-/*pezd-/, whence we get "fart", "feisty", "fizzle", "partridge", "pedicular", and "petard").

"Politically correct"

MWCD10 (1993) dates this expression 1983. But Merriam-Webster has since discovered a much earlier use, in H. V. Morton's In the Steps of St. Paul (1936). The passage reads: "To use such words would have been equivalent to calling his audience 'slaves and robbers'. But 'Galatians', a term that was politically correct, embraced everyone under Roman rule, from the aristocrat in Antioch to the little slave girl in Iconium."

"Put in one's two cents' worth"

This expression meaning "to contribute one's opinion" dates from the late nineteenth century. Bo Bradham suggested that it came from "the days of $.02 postage. To 'put one's two cents' worth in' referred to the cost of a letter to the editor, the president, or whomever was deserving". This OED citation confirms that two-cent stamps were once common: "1902 ELIZ. L. BANKS Newspaper Girl xiv, Dinah got a letter through the American mail. She had fivepence to pay on it, because only a common two-cent stamp had been stuck on it." On the other hand, "two-cent" was an American expression for "of little value" (similar to British "twopenny-halfpenny"), so the phrase may simply have indicated the writer's modesty about the value of his contribution.

"Rule of thumb"

This term for "a simple principle having wide application but not intended to be strictly accurate" dates from 1692. A frequently repeated story is that "rule of thumb" comes from an old law regulating wife-beating: "if a stick were used, it should not be thicker than a man's thumb." Christina Hoff Sommers (Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women, Simon & Schuster, 1994, ISBN 0-671-79424-8, pp. 203-207) investigated this and found no evidence of such a law; the earliest reference to it was in two U.S. court rulings (Bradley v. State, Walker 156 Mississippi 1824; State v. Oliver, 70 North Carolina 61, 1874) which called it an "ancient law". Thumbs were used to measure lots of things (the distance from the upper fold of the knuckle to the top of the nail bed is roughly one inch). The phrase may also come from ancient brewmasters' dipping their thumb in the brew to test the temperature of a batch; or from a guideline for tailors: "Twice around the thumb is once around the wrist..."

"Shouting fire in a crowded theater"

This is from the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Schenck v. U.S. (1919), setting limits on the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Junior, wrote: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic."

"Son of a gun"

dates from 1708; therefore, NOT son of a "shotgun marriage", which is only recorded from 1922. Possibly, it means "cradled in the gun-carriage of a ship"; allegedly, the place traditionally given to women on board who went into labour—the only space affording her any privacy and without blocking a gangway—was between two guns. Or it may mean more simply "son of a soldier".

"Spit and image"/"spitting image"

These phrases mean "exact likeness". "Spitting image" is first recorded in 1901; "spit and image" is a bit older (from the late 19th century), which seems to refute the explanation "splitting image" (two split halves of the same tree). An older British expression is "He's the very spit of his father", which Eric Partridge, in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Routledge, 1950) traces back to 1400: "He's ... as like these as th'hads't spit him." Other languages have similar expressions; e.g., the French say C'est son pere tout crache = "He is his father completely spat." Alternative explanations are "so alike that even the spit out of their mouths is the same"; "speaking likeness"; and a corruption of "spirit".

"To all intents and purposes"

This cliche (meaning "practically") is a shortening of the legal phrase "to all intents, constructions, and purposes". The corruption "for all intensive purposes" is frequently reported.

"Wait for the other shoe to drop"

This phrase means "to await an event causally linked to one that one has already observed". In the form "drop the other shoe", meaning "say the next obvious thing" or "end the suspense", it dates from the early 20th century. It derives from the following joke:

A guest who checked into an inn one night was warned to be quiet because the guest in the room next to his was a light sleeper. As he undressed for bed, he dropped one shoe, which, sure enough, awakened the other guest. He managed to get the other shoe off in silence, and got into bed. An hour later, he heard a pounding on the wall and a shout: "When are you going to drop the other shoe?"

Markus Laker reports that The Goon Show (a 1950s BBC Radio comedy) made reference to this. The character Eccles was an idiot and a bit of a freak.

"What's that noise?"
"Oh, that's just Eccles taking his boots off."

"Wherefore art thou Romeo?"

"Wherefore" means "why", not "where".

"Whole cloth" (notes by Ellen Rosen)

The phrase "made out of whole cloth" (and variants) currently means "utterly without foundation in fact, completely fictitious." MWCD10 gives only this sense for "whole cloth" and dates it 1840. The phrase did not always have this connotation, however.

The OED has citations for "whole cloth" from 1433 on. Its first definition is "a piece of cloth of the full size as manufactured, as distinguished from a piece that may be cut off or out of it for a garment, etc." This sense is still used by people who sew or quilt, who use "whole cloth" to mean "uncut fabric".

The OED also gives several citations for the phrase "cut (or made) out of whole cloth". The earliest citation is from 1579. These citations indicate that for roughly 300 years, the phrase was used to connote entirety, but not falsehood (an example from 1634: "The valiant Souldier ... measureth out of the whole cloath his Honour with his sword". This positive sense of "whole cloth" persisted in England until at least the beginning of this century (a citation from 1905: "That Eton captain is cut out of whole cloth; no shoddy there".)

Before the Industrial Revolution, few people had ready access to whole cloth. Cotton had to be picked (or sheep sheared); the cotton or wool had to be washed and picked over; the material had to be spun into thread, and the thread woven into cloth. Cloth was therefore precious and frequently reused. A worn-out man's shirt would be cut down to make a child's shirt; the unworn parts of a woman's skirt would be reused to make quilts; etc. Also, homespun fabric was not very comfortable to wear. Even after the Industrial Revolution, ready-made whole cloth was sufficiently expensive that many people could not afford to use new cloth for everything.

Therefore, to have a piece of clothing made out of whole cloth must have been very special, indeed: something new, not something hand-me-down; something that hadn't been patched together from disparate, often unmatched pieces; maybe even something comfortable. So describing something as being made from whole cloth would mean that it had never existed as a garment before, and that it was something special, something wondrous—one's Sunday best, or better.

The meaning of the phrase "made out of whole cloth" appears to have begun to change in the United States in the first half of the 19th century. The OED labels the falsehood sense "U.S. colloquial or slang", and provides a citation from 1843: "Isn't this entire story ... made out of whole cloth?" The change of meaning may have arisen from deceptive trade practices. Charles Earle Funk suggests that 19th-century tailors advertising whole cloth may really have been using patched cloth or cloth that was falsely stretched to appear to be full-width.

Alternatively, the modern figurative meaning of "whole cloth" may depend on a lie's having sprung whole ex nihilo, having no connection with existing facts. All-newness distinguishes garments and lies made out of whole cloth. This is a positive characteristic for clothes, but not for the average tissue of lies and deception.

"The whole nine yards"

This phrase, meaning "all of it, everything", dates from at least the 1950s. The origin is a matter for speculation. 9 yards is not a particularly significant distance either in football or in the garment business (a man's three-piece suit requires about 7 square yards of cloth, and cloth is sold in bolts of 20 to 25 yards). The phrase may refer to the capacity of ready-mix concrete trucks, alleged to average about 9 cubic yards. Some people (e.g., James Kilpatrick in Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art) have satisfied themselves that the concrete-trucks explanation is the correct one; but I haven't seen the evidence. And Matthew Jetmore has unearthed some evidence to the contrary, a passage from the August 1964 issue of Ready Mixed Concrete Magazine: "The trend toward larger truck mixer units is probably one of the strongest and most persistent trends in the industry. Whereas, just a few years ago, the 4 1/2 cubic yard mixer was definitely the standard of the industry, the average nationwide mixer size by 1962 had increased to 6.24 cubic yards, with still no end in sight to the demand for increased payload." The phrase is covered by Cecil Adams in More of the Straight Dope, pp. 252-257. A "canonical collection" of explanations has been compiled by "Snopes" (

"You have another think coming"

"If you think that, you have another think coming" means "You are mistaken and will soon have to alter your opinion". This is now sometimes heard with "thing" in place of "think", but "think" is the older version. Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, gives the phrase as "you have another guess coming", "US: since the 1920s, if not a decade or two earlier". Clearly "think" is closer to "guess" than "thing" is.

Words frequently sought

What is the language term for...?

It may be one of: "ablaut", "accidence", "acrolect", "adianoeta", "adnominal", "adnominatio", "adynaton", "agnosia", "agrammatism", "alexia", "alliteration", "alphabetism", "amblysia", "amphibol(og)y", "anacolouthon", "anacrusis", "anadiplosis", "anaphora", "anaptyxis", "anastrophe", "antiphrasis", "antisthecon", "anthimeria", "antonomasia", "aphaeresis", "aphasia", "aphesis", "apocope", "apocrisis", "aporia", "apophasis", "aposiopesis", "apostrophe", "aptronym", "asyndeton", "Aufhebung", "banausic", "bisociation", "brachylogy", "cacoetheses scribendi", "cacophemism", "calque", "catachresis", "cataphora", "catenative", "cheville", "chiasmus", "chronogram", "cledonism", "commoratio", "consonance", "constative", "coprolalia", "copulative", "crasis", "cruciverbalist", "cryptophasia", "deictic", "dilogy", "disjunctive", "dissimilation", "dittograph", "dontopedalogy", "dysgraphia", "dyslalia", "dyslexia", "dysphemism", "dysprosody", "dysrhythmia", "echolalia", "embo(lo)lalia", "enallage", "enclitic", "endophoric", "epanalepsis", "epanorthosis", "epexegetic", "epenthesis", "epitrope", "epizeuxis", "eponym", "equivoque", "etymon", "eusystolism", "exergasia", "exonym", "exophoric", "extraposition", "eye-word", "factitive", "festination", "fis phenomenon", "Fog Index", "frequentative", "glossogenetics", "glossolalia", "glottochronology", "glyph", "graphospasm", "hapax legomenon", "haplograph", "haplology", "hendiadys", "heteric", "heterogenium", "heterography", "heteronym", "heterophemy", "heterotopy", "hobson-jobson", "holophrasis", "honorific", "hypallage", "hyperbaton", "hyperbole", "hypocoristic", "hypophora", "hyponymy", "hypostatize", "hypotaxis", "idioglossa", "idiolect", "illeism", "ingressive", "isocolon", "isogloss", "klang association", "koine", "langue", "Lautgesetz", "ligature", "lipogram", "litotes", "logogram", "logogriph", "logomisia", "lucus a non lucendo", "macaronic", "macrology", "meiosis", "(a)melioration", "mendaciloquence", "merism", "metalepsis", "metallage", "metanalysis", "metaplasm", "metathesis", "metonymy", "Mischsprache", "mogigraphia", "mondegreen", "monepic", "monologophobia", "Mummerset", "mumpsimus", "mussitation", "mytheme", "noa word", "nomic", "nosism", "nothosonomia", "objective correlative", "obviative", "omphalopsychites", "onomasiology", "onomastic", "onomatopoeia", "oratio obliqua", "oxytone", "palindrome", "palinode", "pangram", "paradiastole", "paragoge", "paragram", "paralinguistic", "paraph", "paraphasia", "paraplasm", "parasynesis", "parataxis", "parechesis", "parelcon", "parimion", "parole", "paronomasia", "paronym", "paroxytone", "parrhesia", "pasigraphy", "patavinity", "patronymic", "pejoration", "periphrasis", "perpilocutionist", "phatic", "philophronesis", "phonaesthesia", "phonocentrism", "pleonasm", "ploce", "polyptoton", "polysemy", "polysyndeton", "privative", "proclitic", "prolepsis", "proparalepsis", "prosonomasia", "prosopopoeia", "prosthesis", "provection", "psittacism", "purr-word", "quadriliteralism", "quaesitio", "quote fact", "rebus", "reification", "rheme", "rhopalic", "sandhi", "scesis onomaton", "Schlimmbesserung", "semiotics", "sigmatism", "simile", "Sprachgef"uhl", "Stammbaumtheorie", "stichomythia", "subreption", "sumpsimus", "superordinate", "suprasegmental", "syllepsis", "symploce", "synaeresis", "synaesthesia", "synaloepha", "synchisis", "syncope", "synecdoche", "synesis", "systole", "tachygraphy", "tautology", "theophoric", "tmesis", "traduttori traditori", "trope", "univocalic", "Ursprache", "Wanderwort", "Wellentheorie", "Witzelsucht", "wordfact", "xenoepist", or "zeugma". Look 'em up. :-)

(A good book to look them up in is The Random House Dictionary for Writers and Readers, by David Grambs (Random House, 1990, ISBN 0-679-72860-0.)

"I won't mention..."

Mentioning something by saying you aren't going to mention it (e.g., "I won't mention his laziness") is called "apophasis". Joseph Shipley's Dictionary of World Literary Terms (The Writer, 3rd ed., 1970) says: "~apophasis~ Seeming to deny what is really affirmed. Feigning to pass by it while really stressing it" (e.g., "not to mention his laziness"): "paralepsis. Touching on it casually: metastasis. Pretending to shield or conceal while really displaying (as Antony with Caesar's will in Shakespeare's play): parasiopesis. [...] ~autoclesis~ (P. the self-inviter). Introduction of an idea by refusing before being requested, intending thus to awaken (and respond to) a demand, as Antony with the will in Julius Caesar." "Paralepsis" is more often spelled "paraleipsis" (which is the Greek form) or "paralipsis". A few sources (The Century Dictionary, Wyld's dictionary) do not support a distinction between apophasis and paraleipsis.

Names of "&", "@", and "#'

(The lists of names given in this entry are DELIBERATELY incomplete. For a comprehensive list of formal and informal terms for these and many other keyboard symbols, see the entry ASCII in the Jargon File.)

"&" is called "ampersand".

The longest name for "@" is "commercial at sign"; the first and last words may each be omitted. The official ANSI/CCITT name is "commercial at".

There are actually two typeset symbols, with distinct histories, for which we use "#' in ASCII text.

One (with horizontal strokes slanted and thicker than the vertical strokes) is the musical "sharp (sign)", as in "the key of C# major".

The other (with vertical strokes slanted) is called "number (sign)", as in "the team finished in the #5 position", or "pound (sign)", referring to weight, as in "a 5# bag of potatoes". Although use of this sign to denote weight has declined, "pound" is the most widely used name for it in the U.S. But it confuses people who expect that term to mean the symbol for sterling currency (located on many British keyboards in the same place as "#' is found on U.S. keyboards). "Number sign", adopted by ANSI/CCITT, is unambiguous, but little known in both the U.K. and the U.S.

Computer-users in the U.K. usually call the symbol a "hash", from its appearance (reminiscent of marks one might make when chopping).

Finally, in a failed attempt to avoid the naming problem by creating a new name, the term "octothorp(e)" (which MWCD10 dates 1971) was invented for "#', allegedly by Bell Labs engineers when touch-tone telephones were introduced in the mid-1960s. "Octo-" means eight, and "thorp" was an Old English word for village: apparently the sign was playfully construed as eight fields surrounding a village. Another story has it that a Bell Labs supervisor named Don MacPherson coined the word from the number of endpoints and from the surname of U.S. athlete James Francis Thorpe.

"The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."

Sentences containing every letter of the alphabet are called "pangrams", or "holalphabetic sentences". They are covered in part 2 of the language section of the rec.puzzles archive.

"Take the prisoner downstairs", said Tom condescendingly.

A sentence where a description of the manner of saying refers punningly to quoted matter is called a "Tom Swifty". (Some people restrict "Tom Swifty" to sentences where the pun is in an adverb, and use "croaker" for sentences where the pun is in the verb: "'I'm dying', he croaked.") The name "Tom Swifty" derives from the Tom Swift adventure series for boys (whose enthusiastic use of adverbs modifying "said" they parody); but the form goes back to the 19th century, and was used by James Joyce in Ulysses (1922).

I maintain the Canonical Collection of Tom Swifties, with over 900 entries. It's available on the WWW as: or by e-mail from me (

A sentence where words following a quotation humorously reinterpret what is quoted ("'Eureka!' said Archimedes to the skunk") is called a "wellerism", after the character Sam Weller in Dickens' novel The Pickwick Papers. The form predates Dickens.

What is the opposite of "to exceed"?

"To fall short of". "To trail" can also come in handy when both things are moving.

What is the opposite of "distaff side"?

"Spear side", but I prefer Truly Donovan's suggestion, "datstaff side". :-)


What is a suggested format for citing online sources?

Michael Quinion has an essay on this. It is available at his WWW site or by e-mail from him (

What is the phone number of the Grammar Hotline?

There are many such.

Of the two most prominent, one ("The National Grammar Hotline") is run by Michael Strumpf, Professor of English at Moorpark Community College, Moorpark, California, and author of Painless, Perfect Grammar: Tips from the Grammar Hotline (Monarch, 1985, ISBN 0-671-52782-7). The phone number is (805) 378-1494; the hours are irregular, but he will return calls.

The other ("The Write Line") is run by Richard Francis Tracz, Chairman of the English Department at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois, and author of Dr. Grammar's Writes from Wrongs: A supremely authoritative guide to the common and not-so- common rules of the English language (Vintage, 1991, ISBN 0-679-72715-9). The phone number is (708) 635-1948, and the hours are 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Central Time while classes are in session.

In general, Prof. Strumpf gives more conservative advice than Prof. Tracz.

For a "grammar hotline directory" that lists services state by state across the U.S. and is updated every January, send an addressed, stamped, business-letter-size envelope to: Grammar Hotline Directory, Tidewater Community College Writing Center, 1700 College Crescent, Virginia Beach, Virginia 23456.

Do publishers put false info in dictionaries to catch plagiarists?

From: David Justice (
For what it's worth, I worked a few years at Merriam-Webster (late
1980s) and can attest that we never deliberately inserted false
stuff for purposes of catching plagiarists. For one thing, every
dictionary I've ever examined has been all too full of
unintentional errors, and they could serve the same purpose.

On the other hand, books such as Who's Who do have fictitious entries.

How did "Truly" become a personal name?

by Truly Donovan (

My name is my mother's nickname. Her name was Etrulia, which she acquired from an aunt-by-marriage, Etrulia (a.k.a. Truly) Shattuck. Beyond that, the origins of the name are lost. Truly Shattuck, however, was a woman of some notoriety, having first come to public attention, according to family legend, when her mother, Jane, was tried and acquitted for having murdered her young daughter's seducer. This would have been in Northern California, perhaps the Bay Area, around the turn of the century, I would guess. At some point thereafter Truly went on the stage, and was supposedly a Floradora girl. Somehow (family legend is very murky about this), she got herself married to a staid Scottish lawyer from Michigan (during which time my mother was born and named for her), but that was not a very enduring union. During my mother's childhood, she was known to be running a chicken farm in California. Her last brush with notoriety, which we learned about from her obituary published in the Chicago Tribune, was when she was arrested for shoplifting a very expensive dress at Marshall Field. Her defense was that she needed to look for a job and hadn't anything to wear.

Anyway, it sure beats being named for a fatuous character in a bad Ian Fleming children's book.


(None of the information here has been verified from legal sources. I collated it from Richard Lederer's Crazy English and from various dictionaries. Thanks to Anno Siegel, to Steve Cramer, and to Jesse Sheidlower of Random House, for doing electronic searches for me. Question marks indicate that my sources conflict. The info, even if not totally mistaken, often applies only to some countries.)
  1. Words that were once trademarks, but as a result of legal decisions or otherwise lost that status:

    1. Familiar words: aspirin, brassiere?, cellophane, celluloid, corn flakes?, corselet (undergarment, from Corselette), Cuisenaire rod, dry ice?, escalator, gramophone, granola, gunk, heroin, immunogen, jungle gym (from Junglegym), kerosene, lanolin?, launderette, linoleum, lite (beer)?, magnum (gun, cartridge), mah-jongg, milk of magnesia, mimeograph, pogo (stick), raisin bran?, saran, shredded wheat, tabloid, tarmac?, thermos, touch-tone?, trampoline?, vibraharp, vulcanized fibre, windbreaker (jacket)?, yo-yo, zipper

    2. Chemical and medical terms: agene, amidol, antipyrine, duralumin, formalin, hirudin, Janus green (from Janus), malathion, mecamylamine, ninhydrin, parathormone, pulmotor, ronnel, secobarbital, toxaphene, vasopressin

    3. Miscellaneous more obscure words: Allen screw, Allen wrench, autogiro, barathea, beaverboard, chainomatic, cube steak?, corona (cigar), cyclostyle, ditto (to copy printed matter etc. on a duplicator), excelsior (wood shavings), georgette, graphophone, gunite, iconoscope, kinescope, kinetoscope, klaxon?, klystron, leatherette, moviola, moxie, simonize (from Simoniz), speedwriting, stenotype?, thyratron

  2. Words derived from trademarks: aqualunger (from Aqualung), Bundt cake, cola (from Coca-Cola), dexamethasone (perhaps from Dexamyl), isoproterenol (from Arterenol), kart (probably from GoKart), organza (probably from Lorganza), payola (influenced by Victrola), Phillips head (from Phillips Screws), pyronine (from Pyronin), secobarbutal (from Seconal), STP (hallucinogenic drug, probably from STP motor-oil additive)

  3. words that are still trademarks, although many people use them generically: Adrenalin (the generic words are "adrenaline" and "epinephrine"), AstroTurf, Autoharp, BVDs, Baggies, Bakelite, Band-Aid, Beer Nuts, Benzedrine, Biro, Boogie Board, Breathalyzer, Brillo Pads, Caplet, Carborundum, Chap Stick, Chemical Mace, Chiclets, Cinerama, Coca-Cola/Coke, Colorization? (process of adding colour to black-and-white footage), Cuisinart, Dacron, Day-Glo, Deepfreeze, Demerol, Dianetics, Dictaphone, Dictograph, Ditto machine, Dixie cups, Dolby, Dow Jones Average, Dry Ice?, Dumpster, Dvorak Keyboard, Erector Set, Eskimo Pie, Ethernet, Exercycle, Fiberglas, Fig Newtons, Formica, Freon, Frigidaire, Frisbee, Grand Marnier, Green Stamp, Hacky Sack, Hammond organ, Hide-a-Bed, Hi-Liter, Hoover, Hula-Hoop, Identi-Kit, Invar, Jacuzzi, Jarlsberg, Jeep, Jell-O, Jockey Shorts, Kewpie (doll), Kitty Litter, Kleenex, Ko-Rec-Type, Kodak, Laundromat, Levi's, Liederkranz (cheese), Life Savers (candy), Linotype?, Liquid Paper, Lucite, Mace (spray), Mack (truck), Magic Marker, Mailgram, Malathion, Mary Janes (sprinkles, shoes), Masonite, Mellotron, Metroliner, Miltown (tranquilizer), Minicam, Monel, Monotype (typesetting machine), Muzak, Novocain, NutraSweet, Orlon, Pan-Cake (cosmetic), Parcheesi (the generic word is "pachisi"), Peg-Board (perfboard), Phonevision, Photostat, Pianola (player piano), Picturephone, Ping-Pong (table tennis), Playbill (theatre programme), Play-Doh, Plexiglas, Polaroid, Pop Tarts, Popsicle, Post-it Note, Pyrex, Q-Tip, Realtor, Rollerblade, Roller Derby, Roquefort (salad dressing), SAT, Sanforized, Sanka, Scientology, Scotch Tape, Scrabble, Seeing Eye (dog), Sellotape, Sheetrock, Skivvies, Slim Jim, Styrofoam, Super glue, Tarmac?, Technicolor, Teflon, TelePrompTer, Teletype, Thermos, Touch-Tone?, TV Dinners, UNIX, Valium, Vaseline, Velcro, Victrola, Vitallium, Walkman, Wedgwood (ceramic ware), Welcome Wagon, Wiffle Ball, Windbreaker (jacket)?, X-Acto, Xerox, Yellow Pages?, Zamboni

  4. Words erroneously believed to be trademarks: nylon

Trademark information can be obtained from the International Trademark Association (INTA; formerly the U.S. Trademark Association), 1133 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036-6712.

Commonest words

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the commonest word in written English is "the," followed by: of, and, to, a, in, that, is, I, it, for, as. The commonest word in spoken English is "I." The commonest word in the King James Version of the Bible is "and".

Frequency Analysis of English Vocabulary and Grammar: Based on the LOB Corpus by Stig Johansson and Knut Hofland (OUP, 1989, ISBN 0-19-8242212-2) gives the top eighteen words and their frequencies as:

  1. The   68315
  2. Of   35716
  3. And   27856
  4. To   26760
  5. A   22744
  6. In   21108
  7. That   11188
  8. Is   10978
  9. Was   10499
  10. It   10010
  11. For   9299
  12. He   8776
  13. As   7337
  14. With   7197
  15. Be   7186
  16. On   7027
  17. I    6696
  18. His   6266

The American Heritage Word Frequency Book by John B. Carroll, Peter Davies, and Barry Richman (Houghton Mifflin, 1971, ISBN 0-395-13570-2) gives the top 300 words in order of frequency and in groups of 100 as:

the of and a to in is you that it he for was on are as with his they at be this from I have or by one had not but what all were when we there can an your which their said if do will each about how up out them then she many some so these would other into has more her two like him see time could no make than first been its who now people my made over did down only way find use may water long little very after words called just where most know

get through back much before go good new write our used me man too any day same right look think also around another came come work three word must because does part even place well such here take why things help put years different away again off went old number great tell men say small every found still between name should Mr home big give air line set own under read last never us left end along while might next sound below saw something thought both few those always looked show large often together asked house don't world going want

school important until 1 form food keep children feet land side without boy once animals life enough took sometimes four head above kind began almost live page got earth need far hand high year mother light parts country father let night following 2 picture being study second eyes soon times story boys since white days ever paper hard near sentence better best across during today others however sure means knew it's try told young miles sun ways thing whole hear example heard several change answer room sea against top turned 3 learn point city play toward five using himself usually

What words are their own antonym?

Richard Lederer, in Crazy English (Pocket Books, 1989, ISBN 0-671-68907-X), calls these "contronyms". They can be divided into homographs (same spelling) and homophones (same pronunciation).

The homographs include:

Seeming, clear ("heir apparent")
To try to prove by argument, [disputed] to argue against
The unaccented or shorter part of a foot of verse; the accented or longer part of a foot of verse aught
All, nothing
Of poor quality, [U.S. slang] good
Invoice, money
To secure, to run away
[U.S. slang] a failure, [U.K. slang] a success
To fasten, to fall apart ("buildings buckle at an earthquake")
Spoken representation of multiplication sign ("3-by-3 matrix"), spoken representation of division sign ("d y by d x")
Cannot praise too highly
No praise is too high, cannot praise very highly
Definite, unspecified
Pleased, annoyed
Single out for praise ("cited for bravery"), single out for blame ("citation from the Buildings Dept.")
To separate, to adhere
To fasten, to detach
Beginning, conclusion ("high school commencement")
To contain, [disputed] to compose
To keep on doing, [Scots and U.S. law] to adjourn
Antagonist, partner
Opposed to ("critical of"), essential to ("critical to")
Usual, special
Deceptively shallow
Shallower than it looks, deeper than it looks
Wall, ditch
Moving from topic to topic without order, proceeding coherently from topic to topic
Divide by a half
To double, [disputed] to halve
To put items on, to remove items from ("dress the chicken")
To remove fine particles, to add fine particles
To deplete the energy of, [disputed] to invigorate
Speculation reported as fact, [disputed] unimportant fact
Rapid, unmoving
Firefighter, fire-stoker (on train or ship)
Most severe ("first-degree murder"), least severe ("first-degree burns")
To restore, to castrate
A very strong wind, [archaic] a gentle breeze
To mix up, [archaic] to sort out
Give out
To produce, to stop being produced
Go off
To become active, to become inactive
An incline, level ("grade crossing")
Advantage (in golf), disadvantage
To assist, to prevent ("I cannot help it if...")
Hoi polloi
The common people, [disputed] the elite
Hold up
To support, to delay
Invulnerable, [disputed] impregnatable
To take a hint, [disputed] to hint
Inside lane
[U.K.] traffic line next to edge of road, [sometimes in U.S.] traffic lane next to centre of road
As a divisor of, [in India] multiplied by
Keep up
To continue to fall (rain), to remain up
Departed from, remaining
To permit, [archaic] to hinder
Actually, [disputed] (used before a metaphor)
Lowly ("rose from mean beginnings"), excellent ("plays a mean trombone")
Archetype, copy
Debatable, [disputed] not worthy of debate
Nauseating, [disputed] nauseated
Promise to pay, money
Visible (stars), invisible (lights)
Care, error
To look quietly, to beep
Noble, person of equal rank
Put out
To generate ("candle puts out light"), to extinguish
To pose a problem, to solve a problem
Competent, limited
Very small ("quantum level vs macroscopic level"), [disputed] very large ("quantum leap in productivity")
Rather, completely
To disentangle, [archaic] to tangle
Something referred to by something, [disputed] something referring to something
To buy temporary use of, to sell temporary use of
To quit, [hyphen recommended] to sign up again
To repeat in different words, [archaic] to repeat in the same words
To approve of, [disputed] to punish [The use of "sanction" as a noun meaning "punishment" is undisputed.]
Hopeful, [obsolete for "sanguinary"] murderous
To examine carefully, [disputed] to glance at quickly
To show, to hide from view
With seeds, without seeds
To cover with, to remove outer covering
Not using drugs, [obsolete] under the influence of drugs
Shore, [Scots] sea
To put (something) in something else's place, [disputed] to replace (something) with something else
To miss (baseball), to hit
A silk fabric, a rough kind of concrete table
[U.K.] to propose, [U.S.] to set aside
Calmness, passion
Think better of
To admire more, to be suspicious of
To a degree
[archaic] exceedingly, [disputed] to a certain extent
To my knowledge
To my certain knowledge, as far as I know
Popular ("the toast of the town"), [U.S. slang] doomed
To put things on ("trim a Christmas tree"), to take things off
To stumble, to move gracefully ("trip the light fantastic")
Rigid, relaxing
Having a lower-than-normal sex drive, [disputed] sexually deprived
The divide between regions drained by different rivers, [disputed] the region drained by one river
To endure through use, to decay through use
To withstand, to wear away
Counterclockwise, [in the southern hemisphere] clockwise
Wind up
To start ("wind up a watch"), to end
Alongside, against
A couple of homophones:
Aural, oral
Heard, spoken
Erupt, irrupt
Burst out, burst in
Raise, raze
Erect, tear down

Why do we say "30 years old", but "a 30-year-old man"?

by Rich Alderson

This pattern goes all the way back to Old English (alias Anglo-Saxon). It's the same reason many of us say that someone is "5 foot 2" rather than "5 feet 2".

The source of the idiom is the old genitive plural, which did not end in -s, and did not contain a high front vowel to trigger umlaut ("foot" vs "feet"). When the ending was lost because of regular phonetic developments, the pattern remained the same, and it now seemed that the singular rather than the plural was in use.

Sentences grammatical in both Old English and Modern English

Mitchell and Robinson's A Guide to Old English (OUP, 5th edition, 1992, ISBN 0-631-16657-2) starts its "Practice Sentences" section with a few of these. A sampling: Harold is swift. His hand is strong and his word grim. Late in life he went to his wife in Rome. Grind his corn for him and sing me his song. He swam west in storm and wind and frost. There is an English-to-Old-English Dictionary: Wordcraft, by Stephen Pollington (Anglo-Saxon Books, 1993, ISBN 1-898281-02-5).

Radio alphabets

Brian Kelk ( has a collection of radio alphabets (A alpha, B bravo, C charlie, etc.), available on the WWW at For comic alphabets (A for 'orses, B for mutton, C for yourself, etc.), see Eric Partridge, Comic Alphabets, Routledge & Paul, 1961.

Distribution of English-speakers

From the Encyclopaedia Britannica 1995 yearbook, Bob Cunningham estimated the number of mother-tongue English-speakers in the world at 326,652,000, of whom 69% live in the United States.

Information on the distribution of English-speakers throughout the world can be found at:

"Billion": a U.K. view

by Ken Moore, assisted by Olivier Bettens

The U.S. and traditional British names for large numbers are as follows:

10^6 Million Million
10^9 Billion Thousand million or milliard
10^12 Trillion Billion
10^15 Quadrillion Thousand billion
10^18 Quintillion Trillion
10^21 Sextillion Thousand trillion
10^24 Septillion Quadrillion
10^27 Octillion Thousand quadrillion
10^30 Nonillion Quintillion
10^33 Decillion Thousand quintillion
10^36 Undecillion Sextillion
10^39 Duodecillion Thousand sextillion
10^42 Tredecillion Septillion
10^45 Quattuordecillion Thousand septillion
10^48 Quindecillion Octillion
10^51 Sexdecillion Thousand octillion
10^54 Septendecillion Nonillion
10^57 Octodecillion Thousand nonillion
10^60 Novemdecillion Decillion
10^63 Vigintillion Thousand decillion
10^303 centillion

The word "billion" has existed in France since the 15th century. Opinions differ as to its initial meaning: one possibility is that it meant 10^12 to mathematicians and 10^9 to others. The first use in England recorded in the OED is by Locke in 1690: the quotation clearly shows that for Locke it meant 10^12. This remained the standard British meaning until the middle of the 20th century. Early in the 18th century, French arithmeticians revised its meaning to 10^9, and the U.S., acquiring the word directly from the French, took this meaning also.

French has the word "milliard", also meaning 10^9, which had largely displaced "billion" by the beginning of the 20th century. ("Milliard" is given in English dictionaries, though most of the few people who know it would think of it as a French word.) By 1948, the use of large numbers in the sciences and the declining value of the franc led the French Weights and Measures conference to recommend the return of "billion" to its original meaning of 10^12. This became official policy in 1961.

By this time, the British had been introduced to the U.S. meaning. MEU warns us that the usages differ; MEU2 (1965) suggests: "Since billion in our sense is useless except to astronomers, it is a pity that we do not conform [to the U.S. meaning]". The British Government took this advice in 1974, when Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced to the House of Commons that the meaning of "billion" in papers concerning Government statistics would thenceforth be 10^9, in conformity with U.S. usage.

Despite this, the U.S. meaning is still rare outside journalism and finance, its introduction having served merely to create confusion. Throughout the U.K., a common response to the question "What do you understand by 'a billion'?" would be: "Well, I mean a million million, but I often don't know what other people mean." Few schoolchildren are confident of the meaning, though, again, 10^12 seems to be preferred. Many well-educated adults, aware of both meanings, either avoid the term altogether or use it only in the unambiguous phrases "English billion" and "American billion". English-speaking South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders are similarly reluctant to use a term that has become ambiguous.

Scientists have long preferred to express numbers in figures rather than in words, so it is easy to avoid "billion" in contexts where precision is required. The plural is still used freely with the colloquial meaning of "a very large number". Publications consulted: OED, Editions 1 and 2. Robert, Dictionnaire historique de la langue francaise. P Pamart, "A propos d'une reforme des mesures legales", in "Vie et Langage", (125)1962, pp 435-437.

Biblical sense of "to know"

Some people say things like: "It is not correct that it is the biblical meaning. The biblical meaning of a man's knowing a woman is such total love as to know all about her, which includes intercourse. It is not an evasive term for one-night stands." Not so. The Biblical sense of "to know" is simply "to fuck", as you can see from Genesis 19:4-8 : "[...] the men of Sodom compassed the house round [...] and they called unto Lot, and said unto him, 'Where are the men which came in to thee this night? Bring them out unto us, that we may KNOW them.' And Lot [...] said [...] 'Behold now, I have two daughters which have not KNOWN man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you [...]'"

The Hebrew word here is yada (yod daleth ayin). The Greek word gino:sko: is used similarly in the New Testament.

Postfix "not"

Is assertion followed by "not" a recent American neologism? NOT! "I love thee not" was the regular word order in Shakespeare's day. Examples including the pause are harder to find; the earliest that we've found is in Irish dialect, in Ellis Parker Butler's Pigs is Pigs (1905):
"Proceed to collect," he said softly. "How them cloiks do loike to be talkin'! Me proceed to collect two dollars and twinty-foive cints off Misther Morehouse! I wonder do thim clerks know Misther Morehouse? I'll git it! Oh, yes! 'Misther Morehouse, two an' a quarter, plaze.' 'Cert'nly, me dear frind Flannery. Delighted!' Not!"
e. e. cummings wrote a poem beginning:
Pity this busy monster manunkind

Credit to David Murray for bringing the cummings example to our attention. And Wanda Keown found the following in Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife (1943): "Norman thought: Country parsonage? Healthy mental atmosphere, not!"

The construction owes its present popularity to the "Wayne's World" skits in the U.S. TV show Saturday Night Live. The first use in SNL was in the 1970s in a skit with Jane Curtin and Steve Martin. (It is said that the writers of these skits encountered the practice when it was a fad in their high school in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough.) Another phrase that comes from SNL is "Isn't that special?" (the Church Lady, played by Dana Carvey).

Origin of the dollar sign (notes by Mark Brader)

It is sometimes said that the dollar sign's origin is a narrow "U" superimposed over a wide "S", "U.S." being short for "United States." This is wrong, and the correct explanation also tells why the $ sign is used both for dollars and for pesos in various countries. The explanation is not widely known, maybe because not many people would think to look for it in a book called A History of Mathematical Notations, Volume II: Notations Mainly in Higher Mathematics by Florian Cajori (published in 1929 and reprinted in 1952, by Open Court Press). Cajori acknowledges the "U.S." theory and a number of others, but, after examining many 18th-century manuscripts, finds that there is simply no evidence to support those theories.

Spanish pesos were also called piastres, Spanish dollars, and pieces of eight. (The piece of eight was so called because its value was eight reales. Some countries made one-real coins by slicing pieces of eight into eight sectors; the still-current U.S. slang "two bits" for a quarter of a dollar may refer to this, although "bit" denoting any small coin—as in "threepenny bit"— was already in use.) The coins were circulated in many parts of the world, much as U.S. dollars are today. The coins were so well known that, when the U.S. got around to issuing its own silver coinage (U.S. dollar coins first appeared in 1794), it simply replicated the Spanish unit's weight and hence value, and even one of its names; so it was natural to use the same symbol.

Since three of the four names given above for the Spanish dollar start with p (and pluralize with s), it was natural for abbreviations like p and ps to be used. Sometimes ps was written as Ps—P with a superscript s. The superscript was a common way of rendering abbreviated endings of words—we see vestiges of it today in the way some people write "10th". Now, what happens if you write P with a superscript s fast, because it's part of a long document that you have to hand-write because you can't wait for the typewriter to be invented, let alone the word-processor? Naturally, you join the letters. Well, now look at the top part of the resulting symbol. There's the $ sign! Reduce the P to a single stroke and you have the form of the $ with a double vertical; omit it altogether and you get the single vertical.

And yes, both these forms are original. Cajori reproduces 14 $ signs from a diary written in 1776; 11 of them have the single stroke, which was the more common form to the end of the century, and 3 have the double stroke.

Although the $ sign originally referred to a Spanish coin, it was the revolting British - American colonists who made the transition from ps to the new sign. (This is apparently also why we write $1 instead of 1$; it mimics the British use of the pound sign.) So, while it did not originally refer to the U.S. dollar, the symbol does legitimately claim its origins in that country.


How do you spell "e-mail"?

In September 1995, Jeff Adams ( did a search on "a corpus of about 40 million words of Usenet news articles", and counted the following forms:
Email 19371
E-mail 15359
E-mail 7572
Email 5906
E-MAIL 3659
E-Mail 2986
EMAIL 1269
EMail 521
EMail 303
E-Mail 42
and several other forms each rare enough to be probably "just dumb typos".
Total without hyphen: 27378
Total with hyphen: 29622

Bob Cunningham searched articles posted to alt.usage.english between mid-May and mid-September 1995, found 604 instances of "e-mail" and 235 of "email".

A 1995 poll of subscribers to the Copyediting-L mailing list produced 60 votes for "e-mail" and 24 votes for "email".

In favour of "e-mail", it has been argued that there are analogous nonce compounds in "e-" (e.g, "e-vote", "e-boyfriend"); that the hyphen is a clue that the word is stressed on the first syllable; and that email is French for "enamel". In favour of "email", it has been argued that this is the spelling used in the Jargon File, and that there has been a general trend away from hyphenating words once they become established. Many dictionaries favour "E-mail", which can be justified by analogy with such forms as "A-bomb", "C-section", and "G-string".

Why is "I" capitalized?

The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology (Wilson, 1988, ISBN 0-8242-0745-9) says: "~I~ pron. 1137 i; later I (about 1250, in The Story of Genesis and Exodus); developed from the unstressed form of Old English (about 725) ic singular pronoun of the first person (nominative case). Modern and Middle English I developed from earlier i in the stressed position. I came to be written with a capital letter thereby making it a distinct word and avoiding misreading handwritten manuscripts. In the northern and midland dialects of England the capitalized form I appeared about 1250. In the south of England, where Old English ic early shifted in pronunciation to ich (by palatalization), the form I did not become established until the 1700's (although it appears sporadically before that time)."


You can use diaereses in words like "naive" and "cooperate" if you want. The use of diacritics has been declining because of Linotypes and computers that didn't allow them.

"-er" vs "-re"

The following words are spelled with "-re" in the U.K. but with "-er" in the U.S.: accoutre(ment), calibre, centre, fibre, goitre, litre, louvre, lustre (brilliance, but "luster" one who lusts) , manoeuvre ("maneuver" in the U.S.), metre (for the distance and for poetic and musical metre, but "meter" for the measuring device), meagre, mitre, nitre, ochre, philtre, reconnoitre, sabre, sceptre, sepulchre, sombre, spectre, (amphi)theatre, titre. (The British "metre"/"meter" distinction is retained when the various prefixes are prepended: "kilometre", "speedometer", etc. "Micrometer", a device for measuring minute things, is distinguished from "micrometre", a micron. "Theatre" has some currency in the U.S., especially in names of specific theatres.)

The following words are spelled "-re" in both the U.K. and the U.S.: acre, cadre, euchre, lucre, massacre, mediocre, ogre, wiseacre. (The "-cre" and "-gre" words may have been kept that way in order to keep the "c" and "g" hard, although there are counterexamples such as "eager" and "meager".)

In none of these words is "-er" the agent suffix (as in "revolver") or the comparative suffix (as in "longer"). Most of these words come from Latin through French, and they took the "-re" form in French because the "e" was not part of the word root. (The adjectives tend to be in "-ral", "-ric", and "-rical", rather than "-eral", "-eric", or "-erical".) But many similar words (cloister, diameter, neuter, number, sinister) were changed from "-re" to "-er" in English. The process has merely happened faster in the U.S. than in Britain.

"-ize" vs "-ise"

The following verbs are always spelled with "-ise": advertise, advise, arise, chastise, circumcise, comprise, compromise, demise, despise, devise, disguise, enterprise, excise, exercise, (dis/en)franchise, improvise, incise, merchandise, premise, reprise, revise, rise, supervise, surmise, surprise, televise. (At least, they're almost always spelled that way: "advertize", "merchandize", and "surprize" ARE listed in some U.S. collegiate dictionaries, but are not the usual forms anywhere.)

A useful mnemonic is that, except "improvise", none of these make nouns in "-isation", "-ization", or "-ism". (Exceptions in the other direction are "aggrandize", "capsize", "recognize", and verbs from which no verb "-ization" has been formed because the parent or cognate noun already had the desired meaning.)

"Apprise" means "to inform"; "apprize" means "to appreciate". U.K. "prise open" = U.S. "pry open".

"Exorcize" is most commonly spelled "exorcise" in the U.S., though "exorcize" (which Fowler would have recommended) also occurs.

For other verbs, "-ize" is usual in the U.S. and recommended by Fowler, although "-ise" is also used in the U.K. Fowler recommends "-yse" in "analyse", "catalyse", and "paralyse", although "-yze" is usual in the U.S.

Where to put apostrophes in possessive forms

by Peter Moylan


The only personal possessive pronoun with an apostrophe is "one's".
The words "his", "its", "whose", "their" do NOT contain apostrophes.
Nor do words like "hers", "ours", "yours", "theirs".
(Would you say "mi'ne"?)

The forms "it's", "they're", and "who's" are contractions for "it is" (or "it has"), "they are", and "who is" (or "who has") respectively. They have nothing to do with possessive pronouns. The apostrophe does occur in the possessive case of indefinite pronouns ("anybody's", "someone's", and so on).


  1. The standard rule: Use 's for the singular possessive, and a bare apostrophe after the plural suffix -s or -es for the plural possessive. For example:

    Singular Plural
    Nominative Dog Dogs
    Possessive Dog's Dogs'

  2. Nouns ending with an [s] or [z] sound (this includes words ending in "x", "ce", and similar examples): The plural suffix is -es rather than -s (unless there's already an "e" at the end, as in the "-ce" words), but otherwise the rule is the same as above:

    Singular Plural
    Nominative Class Classes
    Possessive Class's Classes'
    (The possessive plural is what is wanted in "the Joneses'". This is short for "the Joneses' house", which is not "the Jones's house".)

    There are, however, examples where the singular possessive suffix is a bare apostrophe:

    Singular Plural
    Nominative Patience Patiences
    Possessive Patience' Patiences'

    (In most such examples, the plural is rarely used.) For nouns in this category, many people would consider the 's suffix and the bare apostrophe to be acceptable alternatives. The rules listed below may be taken as "most common practice", but they are not absolute.

    1. The 's suffix is preferred for one-syllable words (grass's) or where the final syllable has a primary or secondary stress (collapse's);
    2. The bare apostrophe is preferred:
      • For words ending in -nce (stance');
      • For many classical names (Aristophanes', Jesus', Moses');
      • Where the juxtaposition of two or more [s] sounds would cause an awkwardness in pronunciation (thesis').
    3. Usage is divided in the situation where the final [s] or [z] sound falls in an unstressed syllable (octopus'/octopus's, phoenix's/phoenix', and so on).

    The question of which suffix is correct arises less often than one might imagine. Instead of saying "the crisis' start" or "the crisis's start", most native speakers of English would say "the start of the crisis", thus avoiding the problem.

  3. Plurals not ending in s: Use 's for the possessive plural (men's, people's, sheep's).


For those who want to know where the apostrophe came from, here is how it probably happened. Some of this is well documented, some is guesswork on my part.

Back in the days when English had many more inflections than it now has, the most common suffix for the genitive singular was -es. (There were several noun declensions, so that not all nouns fitted this pattern; but this could be considered to be the "most regular" case.) For example: mann (=man), mannes (=of the man). Over time there developed a tendency to stop pronouncing the unstressed "e", so that "mannes" became "mann's". The apostrophe stands for the omitted letter.

(Modern German still has -es as the genitive suffix for many nouns. The Germans did not stop pronouncing their unstressed "e"s, so the case suffix is still written as -es.)

Pronouns were also inflected, but not in the same way. (They were all fairly irregular, as they still are today.) The genitive form of "hit" (=it) was "his" (=its). As "his" evolved into "its", there was no "e" to drop, therefore no logical reason to insert an apostrophe.

The "its" and "it's" forms did coexist in the 17th and early 18th century, but today the "its" form is considered to be the only correct spelling.

Plural nouns are harder to explain. The most common genitive plural inflection was -a, which is quite unrelated to our modern -s'. My best guess is that most of the old plural suffixes were replaced by -s under the influence of French; and that subsequently the rules for forming singular possessives were extended to the plurals. If this is what happened, then a hypothetical -s's plural possessive suffix would immediately collapse to -s', in the same way as for many singular nouns ending in "s". There was in any case a long period where spelling was a lot less standardized than it is today, so one should not think in terms of any sort of "standard rule" existing during the transitional period.

Note for non-english speakers

The apostrophe in these cases normally has no effect on pronunciation. Thus dogs, dog's, and dogs' all sound the same. The exception is where the apostrophe separates two "s"s, and then it is pronounced as an unstressed schwa. Thus class's, classes, and classes' are all pronounced as /klas@z/.

For nouns where there is some difference of opinion over whether the possessive suffix should be -'s or a bare apostrophe (that is, those nouns where a final unstressed syllable ends with an [s] or [z] sound) some native speakers use a lengthened final consonant intermediate between /z/ and /z@z/. This is, however, a fine and almost inaudible distinction.

Other comments

One occasionally hears that "John's dog" is an abbreviation for "John his dog". It is more likely that the derivation went in the opposite direction, i.e.:

Johnes hund = John's hound = Johnny's dog = John 'is dog with the "John his dog" form coming into use only briefly before disappearing from modern English.

Using an apostrophe in a plural which is not a possessive form is almost never recommended by prescriptivists. The only situation where it is recommended is where visual confusion would otherwise result, as for example in the sentence "Mind your p's and q's". In forms like "the 1980s" or "two CPUs", apostrophes are not recommended.

It is correct to use an apostrophe to indicate missing letters, in contractions like "aren't", "isn't", "it's" (= it is or it has). Be careful in these cases to put the apostrophe in the correct place. The apostrophe replaces the missing letter(s); it does not replace the space between words.

— Mark Israel

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