Q: “Nor’easter”: A phony? I await your comment. A: Yes, “nor’easter” has been exposed. It’s not the charming regionalism that it pretends to be. We wrote a post to this effect back in 2007, and we’ve also written about it in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions. Here’s an excerpt... ? Read More: Is a “nor’easter” full of hot air?
Q: I’m editing this sentence for the publishing house where I work: “There were nothing but steep cliffs on all sides.” The verb should be “was,” no? “There” is a dummy subject, rendering the true subject “nothing,” which is singular. Can you tell me if my logic is unassailable? A: You’re right that the verb... ? Read More: Nothing but the truth
Q: My daughter wonders why “lieutenant” is pronounced lef-TEN-ant in the UK and loo-TEN-ant in the US. Do you have any clues? A: The word “lieutenant” came into Middle English in the 1300s from French—lieu for “place” and tenant for “holding.” (Originally a “lieutenant” was a placeholder, a civil or military officer acting in place... Show More Summary
Q: A Febreze commercial uses the apparently new word “noseblind” to describe someone who can’t smell. As far as I know, there are only two common adjectives for sensory deficiencies: “blind” and “deaf.” Aside from obscure medical terms, are there common words for the loss of the three other traditional senses? A: Although the Febreze... ? Read More: Noseblind spot
Q: Does Facebook use “via” incorrectly when your friend A forwards a link to you from his friend B? Facebook describes this as “From A via B,” but surely it should be the other way around, “From B via A.” A: You’re right—“via” has meant “by way of” since it came into English in the... ? Read More: English via Facebook
Q: I see that Merriam-Webster has caved to the misuse of “peruse,” which is now apparently an antonym to itself. It means, or so the dictionary says, to examine or read “in a very careful way” (the traditional usage) as well as “in an informal or relaxed way.” Are linguists creating a new type of... ? Read More: When words change their spots
One of our contributors noted a while back the discovery of new Gothic manuscript material (here). The scholars who've done the deciphering and interpretation contacted Team Verb and offered to send us copies of a couple of their articles on the subject, which have arrived: Finazzi, Rosa Bianca & Paola Tornaghi. Show More Summary
Q: I increasingly hear sentences with two nouns competing to be the subject. Examples: “The new company, they wanted to create new jobs” … “And our producer, she is going to New Hampshire” … “My aunt and uncle, they died of diabetes.” I was told years ago by an English professor that this was incorrect.... ? Read More: The times they are a changin’
Q: I would love to hear your perspective on “close proximity.” If “in proximity to” means “close to,” what does “in close proximity to” mean? Including “close” seems redundant to me, but it feels odd to leave it out. A: Well, the phrase “in close proximity” isn’t very graceful (we’d prefer “near” or... ? Read More: Is “close proximity” redundant?
Q: My wife and I were alone in our car and having a general discussion when she lowered her voice and said, “Everyone knows her husband is having an affair.” Has anyone studied this strange behavior in mentioning a sensitive topic? A: Yes, language scholars have indeed looked into this behavior. The study of pitch,... ? Read More: Paralinguistically speaking
Q: To my ear, “one headquarter” sounds better than “one headquarters.” Why is the plural “headquarters” used for both the singular and the plural? A: When the term first showed up in English in the early 1600s, it was “headquarter” (or, rather, “head quarter”), but the “s”-less singular is rarely seen now except in South... ? Read More: Why not “one headquarter”?
Q: I’ve read your recent “Deconstructing it” post and I have one additional question. What does “it” refer to in sentences like “It is raining” and “It is snowing”? I’ve heard various explanations of this usage, but I’d appreciate your take on it. A: English speakers have been using the pronoun “it” to talk about... ? Read More: When the subject is a dummy
Q: How did a “colonel” in the military come to be pronounced like a “kernel” on an ear of corn? A: The word for the military officer once had competing spellings as well as competing pronunciations. When the dust settled, it ended up being spelled in one way and pronounced in the other. The word... ? Read More: How “colonel” became KER-nel
Dear readers, We could use a little help to keep the Grammarphobia Blog going, and we’re not too embarrassed to ask for it (well, Stewart is a bit). If you read the blog regularly, you may have noticed that something is missing—advertising. This is because we find ads just as annoying as you do. Something... ? Read More: A message from Pat and Stewart
Q: I woke up in my Hell’s Kitchen apartment the other day, looked out the window expecting to see a storm-wracked New York, and thought, “Well, that was a shoo-shoo.” Growing up in New Orleans, we learned that an unexploded firecracker was a shoo-shoo. I wondered if this went beyond my hometown and I found... ? Read More: Was the storm a shoo-shoo?
Q: Is the expression “You can’t win for losing” as simple as it sounds? Or is there a deeper meaning and significance? A: We don’t see anything particularly deep about the expression. It’s just another way of saying “You can’t win if you’re losing all the time.” The Dictionary of American Slang (4th ed.) says... ? Read More: Can’t win for losing
Q: I’m struck by the strangeness of the phraselet “at all.” It seems to pop up everywhere, with a clear connotation but not much denotation at all. Is it shorthand for “at all events”? Seems to me it’s used in cases where the full phrase wouldn’t work at all. A: “At all” is one of... ? Read More: No problem at all
Q: The new CEO of a local organization recently emailed this: “It is with humbleness and excitement that I take on this leadership role.” Why back-form a clumsy-sounding noun from an adjective when we already have a perfectly good noun—“humility”? A: One of the blessings of English is its flexibility. We have umpteen different ways... ? Read More: In our humble opinion
Q: How come the ornament pinned over my wife’s clavicle, a “brooch,” is pronounced like “roach” and not like “smooch”? A: Yes, “brooch” is usually pronounced in the US and the UK to rhyme with “roach,” but some American dictionaries recognize a variant pronunciation that rhymes with “smooch.” And some US dictionaries also recognize the... Show More Summary
My dad has had to listen to me talk about linguistics for over 30 years now, but the other night he asked me what linguists say when people ask why it's important to maintain, revitalize, and reclaim languages. It was probably on his mind because of McWhorter's recent column on the topic. Show More Summary