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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

When follows the subject

Q: While I was watching TV with my wife, a commercial came on for the movie When Calls the Heart. It reminded me of another corny title, Comes a Horseman. What makes an author choose this syntax? A: Authors use unusual wording because it’s often more effective and attention-getting than the routine syntax one would... ? Read More: When follows the subject

Unimagined and unimaginable

Q: I edit writing about crime and justice. I recently scrubbed a piece that used the word “unimagined” instead of “unimaginable” to describe the abuse someone suffered in prison. Is the former term acceptable in this case? A: The online...Show More Summary

Scales get in your eyes

Q: When “the scales fall from one’s eyes” to suddenly reveal the truth, are they the scales of justice? A: No, the “scales” here are etymologically related to the ones on fish, reptiles, and insects. The Oxford English Dictionary has three major meanings for the noun “scale,” with many related senses: (1) a device for... ? Read More: Scales get in your eyes

Is “based off” off base?

Q: As I read the papers of college freshmen, I am often stopped by usages that seem wrong to me. The latest example is the use of “based off” for “based on,” as in “based off the research of Albert Einstein.” Your thoughts? A: You’re not the first to notice the use of “based off”... ? Read More: Is “based off” off base?

School days, school days

Q: Could you tell me the origin of the compound word “schoolteacher”? What is the reason for the redundancy? My first thought was that the phrase distinguished schoolteachers from Sunday school teachers. I later theorized that it might’ve come from the Germanic preference for compounds. Show More Summary

Dribs and drabs

Q: In your recent post about dribbling, you talk about the long-dead verb “drib,” the source of “dribble.” Is that also the source of “dribs and drabs”? A: Yes, that old verb “drib” gave us “dribs and drabs” as well as “dribble.” As we noted in our post, the “dribble” we associate... ? Read More: Dribs and drabs

Druggist or chemist?

Q: In a pharmacy in the US, the person filling the prescriptions is often called a druggist. In England, that person is often called a chemist. How did this come about? A: “Druggist” is one of many old words that Americans have preserved and the English have lost. Others include “stove,” “skillet,” “sidewalk,”... ? Read More: Druggist or chemist?

Color us plural

Q: Some friends from work were wondering if it’s correct to use colors in the plural when they’re nouns. We have a team called “Amber,” and we’re usually referred to as the “Ambers,” like my neighbors, the “Greens.” A: There’s nothing wrong with that terminology. Words for colors aren’t just adjectives, as in... ? Read More: Color us plural

Page references

Q: I cannot help feeling that the word “page,” meaning a manservant, has something to do with the word “pageant,” which you discussed recently. Surely it was worth a mention. A: Despite the similarity in appearance, the word “page,” in its servant sense, isn’t etymologically related to “pageant.” In fact, this “page” isn’t... ? Read More: Page references

The well-tempered reply

Q: I once asked you about the epidemic of people on radio and TV who respond to a question by beginning the answer with “so.” You sent me to a post that says this use of “so” goes back to Shakespeare. You guys have everything so nailed, but whatever happened to the well-established, reply-greasing... ? Read More: The well-tempered reply

Don’t sweat it

Q: As someone who ranks high on the perspiration index, I was wondering when the phrase “don’t sweat it” came about. A: “Don’t sweat it” first showed up in print about 50 years ago, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but we’ve found a similar expression that appeared in writing 50 years before... ? Read More: Don’t sweat it

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