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Ye olde bookshoppe

Q: I assume that shopkeepers who refer to their shops as “shoppes” are trying to add a patina of Old English tradition to their establishments. But was “shop” really spelled “shoppe” in Anglo-Saxon times? A: No, the Old English word was “sceoppa,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it was rarely used. In fact,... ? Read More: Ye olde bookshoppe

What with one thing and another

Q: What’s up with “what” in the following sentence? “What with two jobs, enormous debt and an unhappy marriage, he just could not cope.” And what part of speech does it play here? A: What with one thing and another, we haven’t written about this age-old use of “what.” So what better time? This construction... ? Read More: What with one thing and another

Did you vigil for Orlando?

Q: I got an email the other day from Corey Johnson that said: “I hope to see you tonight at the Stonewall Inn as we vigil for the victims of the shooting in Orlando.” Could this be the first instance of “vigil” used as a verb? Sounds terrible to me, but who am I? A:... ? Read More: Did you vigil for Orlando?

Why is it “went,” not “goed”?

Q: Why is “went” the past tense of “go”? I don’t see the connection. Am I missing something? A: The connection is another verb that means to move along—the old “wend,” which we don’t often hear today. English speakers adopted “went,” the past tense of “wend,” because they apparently felt that “go” didn’t have a... ? Read More: Why is it “went,” not “goed”?

Bombshells, blonde & otherwise

Q: I was on a political website when up popped a hyperlink to “25-year-old blonde bombshell.” I resisted infecting my computer, but began thinking about “bombshell.” For the first time, a search on your blog did not yield a single hit! A: Thanks for pointing out this deficiency and giving us a chance to remedy... ? Read More: Bombshells, blonde & otherwise

A lexical epidemic

Q: Why has “epidemic” become so widespread? I understand its metaphorical use (“an epidemic of Elvis impersonators in Vegas”), but now all sorts of medical “conditions” are being termed epidemics—obesity, drug abuse, even chronic pain. A: The word “epidemic” is used so often to describe so many things that it’s lost much of its force.... ? Read More: A lexical epidemic

A hole that swallows things

Q: Soon after we had a sinkhole fixed on our street in Grand Rapids, an author friend asked for help on Facebook about the origins of the term. Some people thought it was a US version of the UK term “swallow hole.” Bring in the scholars. A: This is a timely question for us, since... ? Read More: A hole that swallows things

Mixed feelings

Q: People seem to use “ambivalent” to mean not feel strongly about something, as in “I’m ambivalent about spinach.” But I was taught that it meant having strong feelings both for and against something, as in “I’m ambivalent about riding horses—I like riding but I hate saddle sores. Can you shed some light? A: The... ? Read More: Mixed feelings

When “it” isn’t fit

Q: If I start a plant indoors and then move it outside, I can say either “I will harden off the plant” or “I will harden the plant off.” But if I use a pronoun, I can only say “I will harden it off,” not “I will harden off it.” What’s going on here? A:... ? Read More: When “it” isn’t fit

Why “lucky me,” not “lucky I”?

Q: Why does the expression “lucky me” have an object pronoun? A: Yes, it’s always “lucky me,” not “lucky I.” But why is the pronoun in the objective (or accusative) case rather than the nominative? The short answer is that a personal pronoun without a clear grammatical role—one that isn’t a subject or an object—is... ? Read More: Why “lucky me,” not “lucky I”?

From “housewife” to “hussy”

Q: As you may know, the word “housewife” refers (in addition to a June Cleaver wannabe) to a sewing kit, also called a “hussif” or a “hussy.” But how did “hussy” come to mean a woman of some flamboyance (my definition)? A: Yes, “housewife” is (or rather was) another word for a sewing kit. (Our... ? Read More: From “housewife” to “hussy”

Participle physics

Q: What parts of speech are the present participles in these sentences? (1) “He saw his sister walking along the road.” (2) “I go running once a week.” A: First, a little background. A present participle, the “-ing” form of a verb, can play many different roles in a sentence—verb, adjective, adverb, and noun. As... ? Read More: Participle physics

Sex, gender, and rock ’n’ roll

Q: When I was a law student at Columbia, Prof. Ruth Bader Ginsberg said she used “gender” in Supreme Court briefs because the (all male) justices might be uncomfortable hearing a woman lawyer use “sex.” Is she responsible for this usage shift? A: No, she’s not responsible for the shift from “sex” to “gender” in... ? Read More: Sex, gender, and rock ’n’ roll

“Word” is a word is a word

Q: “Word” is a word, so it’s an instance of itself. And “noun” is a noun. Since “noun phrase” is itself a noun phrase, it’s a third example. Can you think of any other terms like these? And is there a name for the phenomenon? A: You’re talking about terms that describe themselves. Like the... ? Read More: “Word” is a word is a word

A slave named Smith

Q: Why is “Smith” more common than “Cooper,” “Potter,” “Weaver,” and other names derived from occupations? A: “Smith” is the most common family name in the US, according to the 2010 census. Why is it more common than some other surnames derived from occupations, such as “Cooper,” “Potter,” “Weaver,” and so on? Well, the word... ? Read More: A slave named Smith

A midwife’s tale

Q: As my wife was telling me about a study of midwives in the early Dutch Reform Church, it dawned on me that the term “midwife” has always seemed an odd descriptor for what a midwife does. A: The word “midwife” is deceptive because its parts are survivals from the Middle Ages, when the word... ? Read More: A midwife’s tale

Are two hoods better than one?

Q: Does the “hood” in “neighborhood,” “falsehood,” “childhood,” “hoody,” and Little Red Riding Hood come from the same source? A: No, these words are derived from two distinctly different sources. One gave us the word for a head covering while the other gave us the suffix for a quality of being. Two “hoods” may not... ? Read More: Are two hoods better than one?

Passive resistance

Q: I’m puzzled by these two sentences: “The robbers broke into the bank” and “The bank was broken into.” In the active sentence, “bank” isn’t a direct object. Why then is it possible to make it a subject in the passive sentence? A. Normally, a sentence in the active voice can be made passive by... ? Read More: Passive resistance

He should’ve stood in bed

Q: The principal at the school where I teach disagrees with me about this sentence: “I was too sick to go to the party, so I just stood home.” I think it’s flat-out wrong. “Stood” is the past tense of “stand,” not “stay.” But she defends it as a regional usage. Does she stand corrected?... ? Read More: He should’ve stood in bed

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