Banner for John Hosh's 'Word' page

button to change white-on-black to black-on-white

Blue hand holds in its palm a green dragonOn this page, I will from time to time comment on the way English is misused. I will discuss solecisms and pleonasms and other errors of language.

Note: A dictionary may be prescriptive or descriptive or both. A prescriptive dictionary prescribes how a word should be used, according to scholars. A descriptive dictionary decribes how a word is used regardless of what any scholar says.

Note: Two dots over a letter form a diaeresis or a dieresis. This diacritical mark is used to tell the reader to pronounce two adjacent letters separately or to pronounce a syllable that the reader might suppose is silent. The diaeresis is used in words such as coöperate, daïs and naïve and in names such as Hermës or Laërtës.

Graphic

Graphic, as an adjective, means in the manner of the graphic arts, which present pictures, text and designs. Television, for example, is a graphic and an auditory medium while radio is an auditory medium. Almost all programs on television are graphic and auditory. The media often use graphic when the more appropriate word is ghastly, bloody, gruesome, gory, grisly, explicit, unedited, repulsive, disgusting, lurid, salacious or horrifying.

Time Period

One definition of period is a length of time; therefore, to say "time period" is to say "time a length of time." Like "tuna fish" and "plan ahead," the expression time period uses two words where one is enough.

Uninterested/Disinterested

A judge who is uninterested in a dispute is likely to pay no attention to what the disputants are saying. A judge who is disinterested in a dispute will not unreasonably favor one side; the judge will apply the law fairly.

Less/Fewer

It is sometimes not easy to know whether one should use less or one should use fewer. The general rule is that one should use fewer when one is talking about things that can be counted — even if to count the things would take forever. Thus we say Earth has fewer trees than the universe has stars; but we say the Earth has less woodland than grassland.

Amount/Number/Quantity

Amount and number should be used like less and fewer. The general rule is that one should use number when one is talking about things that can be counted. Quantity is a substitute for either amount or number. Thus we say: The number of customers is fewer than we expected; The amount of garbage is less than we expected; The quantity of batteries is fewer than we need; The quantity of fish is less than we need.

Noon/Midnight

Use noon or midnight if you need to specify those times when you are using a 12-hour-clock. Do not use 12:00 a.m. or p.m. The expressions 12:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. are nonsensical. If you are using a 24-hour-clock, you may use 1200h in place of noon and 2400h in place of midnight.

Fulsome/full-blown

Fulsome describes something that is disgusting because there is too much of it; thus one might criticize someone's compliments for being insincere and fulsome. Full-blown describes something that has finished growing or expanding; thus one might say that Z was in a full-blown rage when he kicked at the bus, missed and fell underneath it.

Rampant/Rife

Rampant and rife have overlapping meanings. Both words can mean prevailing. To use the words properly, it may help to think of a lion rampant, which is a lion up on its hindlegs. The key characteristic of the rampant lion is its aggressive pose. Think then of rampant as a synonym for aggressive. Crime is rampant when the authorities cannot control it. Rife is a matter of how often something happens. Thus we say crime is rife when a place has many instances of it in a short time.

Nauseous/Nauseated

To feel ill is to feel nauseated. To give off an odor is to be nauseous. Something dead may be nauseous.

Literally/Figuratively

If I say, "Bill lost his head, and I mean that literally" then I am telling you that something cut off Bill's head. If I say, "Bill lost his head," and I do not tell you whether I am speaking literally or figuratively, you should guess I am speaking figuratively, and I mean Bill screamed and danced wildly for a while.

awhile / a while

Awhile is an adverb. It means “for a short time.” Awhile does not follow a preposition. The correct use of awhile is found in the sentence: He thought awhile before he answered.

A while is a noun phrase consisting of the article “a” and the noun “while.” The noun means “space of time.” The noun phrase often follows a preposition. The correct use of the phrase is found in this sentence: He thought for a while before he answered.

While may be used also as a conjunction or a verb.

Anxious/Eager

If riding a horse is something you want to do, then you are eager to ride. If riding a horse is something you do not want to do, then you are anxious about riding; that is, the thought of riding causes you some anxiety.

Vagary/Vagueness

You might hear someone say, "His writing had so many vagaries, I could not understand him." The speaker there is confusing vagaries with vaguenesses. A vagary, which may be pronounced by emphasizing either the second syllable or the first, is a synonym for whim or caprice. A vagueness is a circumstance that begs for clarification or exactness.

Onto

Some commenters say onto is a word to avoid because often either on or to is sufficient. Other commenters treat onto as standard English. If one uses onto, one should separate on from to when using a verb that requires a trailing adverb. The careful writer will write, for example, "Hold on to the railing" or "Carry on to the waterfall before you rest."

Greetings

The plural of "Mr" is "Messrs" (Messieurs). The plural of "Mrs" is "Mmes" (Mesdames). The plural of "Miss" is "Mlles" (Mesdemoiselles). To avoid the French words, one might address a group as "ladies and gentlemen."

Image of a hooyena

Spelling Mistakes

Remember:

  1. one is yoked with a partner NOT yolked
  2. a movie-trailer might pique your interest NOT peak your interest
  3. for all intents and purposes NOT for all intensive purposes
  4. pore over a book NOT pour over a book
  5. a victim of foul play NOT of fowl play
  6. a waste of time NOT a waist of time
  7. dance with flair NOT flare
  8. stock the shelves NOT stalk the shelves
  9. carry a pail of water NOT a pale of water
  10. caulk the windows NOT cock the windows
  11. chalk the outline NOT chock the outline
  12. cede a fact or a point NOT seed a fact or a point
  13. stay out of sight NOT out of site or out of cite
  14. ice floe NOT ice flow
  15. toe the line NOT tow the line
  16. give someone free rein NOT free reign
  17. hindsight NOT hind site
  18. in the throes of sadness NOT throws of sadness
  19. religion has tenets NOT tenants
  20. a group of sports fans is a horde or a herd NOT a hoard
  21. things we used to do NOT use to do
  22. like his or its singing NOT him singing nor it singing
Bust of a Greek man

Some words spelt without rhyme or reason:

  1. solder: The “o” is short and the “l” is silent.
  2. soldier: The “o” is long. The “d” and the “i” are pronounced as a “j” (from the French “sou-le-jour” = “penny-a-day”)
  3. lieutenant: (Often pronounced lef-TEN-ant outside the U.S.A.)
  4. colonel: = KUR nĭl
  5. depot: = DEE pō
  6. debut: = day BYOO or děb YOO
  7. debris: = day BREE or děb REE
  8. quay: = kee
  9. indictable: The second “i” is long. The “c” is silent. = ĭn DīT ăbŭl
  10. subpoena: The “b” and the “o” are silent. The “e” is long. = sŭ PEE nŭ
  11. almond: The “l” is silent.
  12. salmon: The “l” is silent.
  13. debt: (money owed) The “b” is silent.
  14. renege: The first “e” and the second “e” are soft. The third “e” is silent. The “g” is hard.
  15. vehicle: The “h” is silent. Veeïkul would be a better spelling.
  16. template: = TĕM plĭt
  17. phlegm: The "ph" sounds like f while the “g” is silent.
  18. phlegmatic: The "ph" sounds like f. The “g” is hard.
  19. Thames: a river in England = tĕmz
  20. Featherstonehaugh: a British name = FAN shaw
  21. Cholmondley: a British name = CHUM lee
  22. Marjoribanks: a British name = MARSH banks
  23. For more strange spellings and pronunciations, see Wikipedia.
  24. victuals : The “i” is short. The “c” is silent. The “u” is silent.

In formal writing, scholars rarely end sentences with a preposition. They prefer:

  1. “She was victimized” to “She was discriminated against.”
  2. “They were not found” to “They were not accounted for.”
  3. “It was not considered” to “It was not thought of.”
  4. “It was not referenced” to “It was not referred to.”
  5. “It was not tolerated” to “It was not put up with.”
  6. “It is something I’m eagerly awaiting” to “It is something I’m looking forward to.”
  7. “Nobody could understand him” to “Nobody could make out what he was going on about.”
  8. “We could not discover who received the money” to “We couldn’t figure out who the money went to.”
  9. “He was somebody she should have abandoned” to “He was somebody she should have given up on.”
  10. “It was a cause to advocate or to defend” to “It was a cause to stick up for.”
  11. “It was something he expected to be without bad consequences” to “It was something he thought he could get away with.”
  12. “It was something that vexed him” to “It was something he got pissed off at.”
Image of a hooyena

French

English uses more than a few French words: exposé, cliché, résumé, passé, fiancé (man), fiancée (woman), risqué, ballet, cachet, ricochet, trebuchet, faux pas, niche, clique, déjà vu

Common mistakes

If you are not interested in something, you might say: I couldn't care less. Do not say: I could care less.

Remember: Coats and jackets are hung. People are hanged.

If someone says first come, first serve, he or she has omitted a "d" from serve.

A gaff is a hook for holding or lifting fish. A gaffe is a mistake or a blunder.

Should I say: kĭl ŏM ĕ tĭr or KĭL ō mē tĭr? THĭR mō mē tĭr or thĭr MŏM ĕ tĭr? For distance and other measurements, use the pronunciation that ends in ē tĭr. For devices and machines (hydrometer, altimeter, odometer), use the pronunciation that ends in M ĕ tĭr.

Image of a griffin

Solecisms

Things do not “revert back”; they just “revert.”

It is improper to talk about a “free gift.” By definition, a gift is free. Something that is not free is not a gift.

It is bad form to talk about doing something “whenever possible” or “if possible”; it goes without saying that something impossible is not going to happen.

Prepositions

Remember:

  1. One stands in line not on line.
  2. One swings at somebody not on somebody.
  3. One believes in some magic creature not on some magic creature.
  4. One does something by accident or by happenstance not on accident or on happenstance.
  5. One is angry at someone or angry with someone not angry on someone.

Fillet

Fillet is usually pronounced *FIL it* when one is talking about a ribbon or a band of cloth. When one is talking about food — perhaps a fillet of fish — then one says *fi LAY*.

Other countries vs USA

Some countries spell some words differently from what is common in the United States. Here are variant spellings for some common words:

aluminium\aluminum | centre\center | cheque(money)\check | colour\color | defence\defense | gaol\jail | litre\liter | metre (measurement)\meter | practise\practice | realise\realize | storey (level)\story | traveller\traveler | tyre (of car)\tire

In most English-speaking countries, "z" is pronounced zed.


Cover of Book 1 Cover of Book 2 Cover of Book 3 Cover of Book 4

Return to home page Questions and Answers How to contact me

This page was last updated by John Hosh on 01 January 2017.