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A risky preposition

Q: I see both “risk of” and “risk for” regularly, particularly in the health context. “Risk for cancer,” “risk of dying prematurely,” etc. How do you know when to use “of” or “for”? Are both acceptable? A: There’s no clear answer here. Both “risk of” and “risk for” are used by educated writers, and many... ? Read More: A risky preposition

Strove Monday

Q: A recent editorial in the Washington Post says many of Donald Trump’s “rivals have strove to mimic him.” Shouldn’t that be “have striven”? A: “Strove” or “strived” is the past tense of the verb “strive.” The past participle (used with forms of “have”) is “striven” or “strived.” So the Post’s editorial writers should have... ? Read More: Strove Monday

When “less” is “minus”

Q: Is it OK to use the phrase “less than” when teaching numeracy in elementary school? Example: “What is one less than five?” I suspect that many children confuse “less than” (meaning “smaller than”) with “less” (meaning “minus”). A: We’ve written several times on the blog about “less” vs. Show More Summary

Apostrophic illnesses

Q: I’m a physician who’s irritated by the increasing tendency for writers to omit the apostrophe in a disease named for a person, as in “Parkinson disease.” I resist this, and write “Parkinson’s disease,” which I think is correct. A: You’re in an unfortunate position here. As a doctor, you’re caught between the recommended usage... ? Read More: Apostrophic illnesses

Quite frankly

Q: What is the origin of the phrase “quite Frankly,” and why do I brace myself when somebody begins a sentence with it? A: Why do you brace yourself? Because “quite frankly,” which means “in an honest, open, or candid manner,” is often used to introduce an opinion that might not be welcome. The phrase... ? Read More: Quite frankly

Is “wussy” milder than “pussy”?

Q: You might have mentioned in your recent “pussy” post that “wuss” and “wussy” are common substitutions to make the sense of a weak person more acceptable. A: We didn’t mention “wussy” in our post about “pussy,” but etymologists think the the two words may be related. The noun “wuss” is perhaps a blend of... ? Read More: Is “wussy” milder than “pussy”?

PEE-a-nist or pee-A-nist?

Q: When I was growing up, almost everyone pronounced “pianist” as PEE-a-nist. But these days, even on classical music stations, it’s pee-A-nist. Is this a misguided attempt to avoid saying something that sounds slightly rude? A: The word “pianist” has been pronounced both pee-A-nist and PEE-a-nist since it showed up in English writing in the... Show More Summary

Is there evil in Eve?

Q: Could there POSSIBLY be a linguistic connection between “Eve” and “evil”? Or is it just too slick an idea? A: Nope, there’s no connection between “evil,” which comes from old Germanic sources, and the name “Eve,” which is derived from Hebrew. The similarity in sound is purely coincidental. “Evil,” written as yfel in Old... ? Read More: Is there evil in Eve?

Hats off to the boggins

Q: I’m from upstate NY, but I’ve lived in NC for almost 20 years. When native North Carolinians use of the word “toboggan,” they’re talking about a hat. When I use it, I’m talking about a sled. Who’s right? A: You’re right, but so are your North Carolina neighbors. In American usage, a “toboggan” can... ? Read More: Hats off to the boggins

¿Why isn’t English like Spanish?

Q: Why does the question mark and exclamation point appear at the end of a sentence in English? To my mind, it would make more sense if they were at the beginning. Or at the beginning and end, as in Spanish, though I’ve read that this convention is falling out of favour, no doubt under... ? Read More: ¿Why isn’t English like Spanish?

The light and dark of language

(Note: We’re repeating this post for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It originally appeared on the blog on Dec. 16, 2009.) Q: I teach cultural anthropology at the City University of New York. Some of my students have asked when the negative association with the color black first arose, as in “black sheep” or “black... ? Read More: The light and dark of language

Here’s how!

Q: Why is the expression “Here’s how!” used as a toast? Nobody I know has an answer, including my martini-loving 94-year-old mom. A: The expression is described in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a formula used in drinking healths,” but there’s no clue about what it means. The OED’s earliest citation is from the late... ? Read More: Here’s how!

Does that bikini still fit?

Q: Is there a term for the overly familiar and presumptuous use of “that” and “those” in advertising? For example, “Organize that messy closet” or “Get rid of those unsightly stains in your sink.” It’s as if the ad writers have peered into our homes. A: You’ve raised an interesting question, one that highlights something... ? Read More: Does that bikini still fit?

Extrovert or extravert?

Q: I make a point of using “extravert,” not “extrovert,” because that’s how Myers-Briggs spells it. I did the personality test and learned I’m neither an “introvert” nor an “extravert.” I’m right on the line—I call myself an “ambivert.” Your thoughts? A: We’ve checked six standard dictionaries and all of them list “extrovert” as the... Show More Summary

Can “once” mean “when”?

Q: Many people use “when” and “once” interchangeably, as in “We can focus on polishing the text once the content is closer to being final.” I know they sort of sound alike, but is it correct to use “once” when you mean “when”? A: The short answer is that the two words overlap somewhat and... ? Read More: Can “once” mean “when”?

Apostrophes because they’re worth it…

Looking online for some supplements today. I don’t know if their product is any good. But their spelling skills certainly don’t inspire confidence. (Thanks, Susan!)

Toilet’s Toilets

Sign on entrance to toilets at a branch of Burger King, Dublin, Ireland. (Thanks, Helen Spencer!)

A shop in the South of France!

Spotted on a shop in the South of France (Thanks, Isobel McCall!)

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