Q: I see the expression “not on my watch” all over the place these days. I assume it began life as a naval usage. Right? A: The noun “watch” has been used for hundreds of years by soldiers, sailors, and officers of the law to mean a period of vigil on land or at sea.... ? Read More: Not on my watch
Q: The company I work for has hired a person who identifies as gender nonbinary, and prefers to be referred to as “they” rather than “he” or “she.” Our new hire adds that a simple, sensitive, and inclusive solution would be to use plural pronouns for everyone. At the risk of sounding like Archie Bunker,... ? Read More: Nonbinary thinking
Q: I give up. How can I tell when to drop the commas in a string of adjectives before a noun? A: The key here is the kinds of adjectives you’re combining and whether their order makes any difference. Here’s what you need to know. If you can put “and” between the adjectives and make... ? Read More: When commas are uncommon
Q: My girlfriend, an English major, tells me that I’m pronouncing “flaccid” wrong. I say FLAS-id and she says FLAK-sid. Should we call the whole thing off? A: No, you’re both right, and (as the Gershwin song goes) you’d better call the calling off off. The word “flaccid” (meaning soft or weak) has two pronunciations... ? Read More: FLAS-id or FLAK-sid?
Q: I recently read a British news report in which the word “trial” was being used as a verb meaning to test. Has this become a common usage? It sounds clunky to me. A: Although the use of “trial” as a verb showed up in the US about a century and a half ago, it’s... ? Read More: Is ‘trialed’ a trial?
Q: I just read your “All the fixings” article about using the verb “fix” to mean “get ready” or “be ready.” It reminded me of a phrase my father used when he didn’t get a treat he was hoping to have: “I had my mouth all fixed for some pie.” A: Your father was using... ? Read More: All fixed for some pie
Q: I’ve told my students that “dis-” is a prefix in “dissenter.” But now I’m being told in grad school that a prefix isn’t a prefix if the rest of the word doesn’t exist. So can I still refer to “dis-” as a prefix in “dissenter”? A: The “dis-” in “dissent” and “dissenter” is indeed... ? Read More: Who put the ‘dis-’ in ‘dissent’?
Q: In addition to the grammar term “preposition,” is there such a thing as a “postposition” or an “anteposition” as a part of speech? Or am I mistaking “pre-” as a prefix in “preposition”? A: Yes, “postposition” and “anteposition” are grammatical terms, though they aren’t among the terms for the traditional parts of speech. And... ? Read More: Pre-, post-, and ante- position
Q: Can you give me a very simplified way to remember how to use “there,” “their,” and “they’re”? I know “there” is a place or shows ownership, and “their” is more figurative, but I still sometimes get them wrong. HELP! A: First of all, “there” does not show ownership, and “their” is not figurative. But... ? Read More: There, their, they’re
Q: Is “sleb” a word you would find useful? A: No, we don’t use “sleb,” and don’t expect to. If we want a short, informal version of “celebrity,” we use “celeb,” an older and far more popular term. The Oxford English Dictionary describes “sleb” as a British colloquial “alteration of celeb n., reflecting a monosyllabic... ? Read More: Is Angelina a celeb or a sleb?
Q: My latest pet peeve is people saying “iteration” when they could easily say “version.” It’s quite a fad in Washington journalism. A: We’ve written a post about the meaning of “iterate” and “reiterate” (they mean the same thing), but we haven’t discussed the use of “iteration” for a version of something. Although this usage... ? Read More: Iteration and its iterations
Q: Some work colleagues and I were speculating where the expression “lily-livered,” meaning cowardly, came from. Do you know? A: The use of the lily, especially the white Lilium candidum, to describe a coward dates from the Elizabethan age, but the usage may have roots in ancient Greece. Shakespeare was apparently the first to use... ? Read More: Thou lily-livered boy
Q: Greetings from the OC, where “I seen” is a fairly common regionalism among people of all ages, socioeconomic levels, and walks of life. As in, “I seen him in concert.” I even heard it in a radio commercial. Has “I seen” gone mainstream? A: The use of “seen” for “saw” isn’t just an Orange... ? Read More: I came, I seen, I conquered
Q: God only knows how many times my parents corrected me for using “can” instead of “may” to ask permission. I probably corrected my own children just as often, but I finally gave up. I assume this is a lost cause. A: Yes, it’s a lost cause, as you learned from struggling with your children,... ? Read More: Mother, can I?
Q: In his 1910 novel Daisy’s Aunt, E. F. Benson writes that Daisy’s parents died “when she was quite young, and not yet halfway through the momentous teens.” I’m shocked that people were using “teens” so long ago. A: Prepare yourself for another shock. People have been using “teens” for the teenage years since the... ? Read More: On teens and teenagers
Q: When I was in knee pants, I was taught that something “unique” is “one of a kind.” But when I wasn’t looking, the uniqueness of “unique” was apparently lost. Do I have to accept that it’s now merely “unusual”? A: We were also taught that “unique” means “one of a kind,” and that’s the... ? Read More: How unique is ‘unique’?
Q: “Noisome” and “noisy” look alike, despite their different meanings. Are they linguistically related? A: No, “noisome” (smelly or disgusting) and “noisy” (making a lot of noise) aren’t etymologically related, though “noisy” very likely had smelly origins. Show More Summary
Q: An example in your piece about “ungrateful” and “uppity” uses “bigity,” as in “too big for one’s britches.” Did it originate among African Americans? I’ve heard it only from black folks in in the South. A: The word “biggity” may indeed have originated in the 19th century among African Americans in the South, though... ? Read More: Biggity: too big for one’s britches
Q: What is the difference between “it’s all relative” and “it’s all academic”? It seem to me that there’s something hypothetical about both of them. A: The two usages, which showed up in the early 1800s, have a sense of uncertainty about them. Show More Summary
Q: I’m often flummoxed when I try to spell words with endings that sound like “seed.” Is there a way to keep these endings straight? A: Words that end with a “seed” sound are notoriously hard to spell, as Pat notes in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I. “It helps to keep in... ? Read More: Seedy endings