Graduates of the college class of 2015:
I'm honored to be your commencement speaker today ... blah, blah, blah. Let's get right to the important stuff. As you interview for jobs, avoid these verbal potholes:
1. "I graduated college last week..." This phrasing will scorch the ears of anyone over 30. Say: "I graduated FROM college."
2. ...Read more
Today, two questions about plural forms of payment...
Q. Yesterday I used the word "monies," and my 14-year-old daughter accused me of making it up. I was able to convince her it is a real word by using the Internet, but I have been unable to accurately explain to her why we use it and when it is appropriate to use it instead of "money." Can ...Read more
I love palindromes! Or, to put that another way, "Sem ord nil ape. Voli!"
What's a palindrome?
Though the word "palindrome" sounds as if it might refer to a sports arena where good friends race bicycles, "palindrome" actually denotes any word, phrase or sentence that reads the same backward or forward.
"Palindrome" derives from the Greek ...Read more
Q. Why is "No." the abbreviation for "number" ("No. 1 player"), when the word "number" doesn't even have an "o" in it? -- Carl Faith via email
A. Many English abbreviations seem odd because they're derived from Latin. In this case, for instance, the abbreviation "No." is a shortening of "numero," the ablative form of the Latin noun "numerus."...Read more
Welcome to The One-Minute Grammager: straightforward answers to 10 usage questions in just 60 seconds.
--Is it "nerve-wracking" or "nerve-racking"? The latter. "Wrack" means "to completely destroy," as in "wrack and ruin." "Rack" means "to torture, torment," as in "rack your brains" or "nerve-racking."
--Do we wait with "baited breath" or "...Read more
Q. Lately I've been annoyed by the misuse of "after" in news headlines, e.g., "Seven hurt after lightning strike" (print) and "House demolished after two-alarm fire" (TV). The accompanying news stories made it clear that the lightning did indeed hurt the people and the fire did indeed destroy the house. When did "after" become a synonym for "...Read more
Hear ye! Hear ye! The Word Court is now in session. Today we will rule on three cases:
All Tolled vs. All Told
This phrase is most often used to indicate a complete accounting of items, e.g., "All told, 23 women and 24 men enrolled in the course." Some writers use "tolled," perhaps because collecting a toll or tolling a bell might involve ...Read more
Q. I've heard that the phrase "pie in the sky" was coined by the radical labor leader Joe Hill. Is that true? -- Carl Faith via email
A. That's not a "pie in the sky" folk tale. It IS true!
Joe Hill, a member of the radical union Industrial Workers of the World, was a legendary labor activist and songwriter. In 1911, he wrote a parody of the...Read more
Hanged for the FewJames T Carpenter
A label Billor has fled for the last ten years. Flandism is the most radical and rigid sect of Monidism, a sect that sometimes alienates its followers like Billor or angered kings like Merkvor.
Billor and four others are recruited by King Merkvor to find Weslin, ...
Q. I recently told a fellow Steinway Society board member that no apostrophe is needed in "winners recital" (a concert featuring several pianists) any more than one is needed in "teachers union." What we have here is a noun modifying another noun. What's that called? -- Fritz Marston, Ewing, N.J.
A. A noun mound? Actually, the term for a noun...Read more
In crafting a college recommendation for a student recently, I unintentionally sailed into the murky mist of ambiguity by writing: "She is very bright, if not brilliant."
Hmm... Does this mean she's very bright but not brilliant, or very bright and maybe even brilliant? I meant the latter, of course, but the "if not" is ambiguous.
So to all ...Read more
Q. Why do we say something "fits to a T"? -- Al Cohen, Newington, Conn.
A. Well, this idiom definitely doesn't come from "fits to a T-shirt," because every T-shirt I've worn lately is either too baggy or too tight. A large T-shirt makes me look like a draped haystack, and a medium makes me feel like a tightly wrapped mummy.
In fact, the "T" ...Read more
See whether you can spot the errors in these excerpts from newspapers and magazines:
1. "Every student ... started out under Weene's tootiledge?" Was he a trumpet teacher? (submitted by Paul Burton, Staten Island, N.Y.)
2. (From a restaurant review) "I look forward to more of the creative and delicious combinations that my pallet so ...Read more