Homophones Demand 'Sound' Choices

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Did you hear about the perfume maker whose business made a lot of "scents" ... or was that "sense" ... or even "cents"?

"Scents," "sense" and "cents" are triple homophones -- three words that sound alike but differ in meaning or derivation or spelling. In this case, either "scents," "sense" or "cents" makes ... well, sense.

But in most ...Read more

The Schoolbook That Once United Our Nation

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Americans today are engaged in heated debates over the content of classroom textbooks, so perhaps it's a good time to honor a schoolbook that once united us.

Although Noah Webster is most famous for his dictionary, his most influential publication was a small, slender book published in 1783, the year the American Revolution ended. Officially ...Read more

It's Time to Knock 'Would'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q: Why do so many people say, "If I would have known" instead of the simpler "If I had known"? -- Katharine Brace, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

A: If I had known that question was coming, I would have baked a cake. I suspect people say "if I would have" instead of "if I had" because they're anticipating the conditional "would have" later in the ...Read more

Rhymes of the Ancient Mariners

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

How do we know that English speakers once pronounced "none" as "known"?

You'll find the answer on the tips of your toes: "This little piggy went to market / This little piggy stayed home / This little piggy had roast beef / This little piggy had none."

As this rhyming of "home" and "none" suggests, English speakers once pronounced "none" as ...Read more

To Boldly Go... to 'Infinitive' and Beyond!

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

"Never split an infinitive!"

Perhaps no dictum struck more terror in our childish hearts. (Well, OK, there was that thing about toads giving you warts.)

But like the toad taboo, the ban on split infinitives is just a superstition. I can assure you that splitting an infinitive won't give you warts.

An infinitive is the basic form of a verb. ...Read more

Learning From My Meaty 'Misteaks'

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Do you think of me as a pillar of linguistic virtue, a Doric columnist of verbal perfection? Alas, poor Doric, you do not know me well.

It's time for true confessions. Here are some grammatical, usage and spelling errors I've made during my checkered career as a student, teacher and writer. As Benjamin Franklin said, "Experience keeps a dear ...Read more

Old English 'Godmother' Spawns Lurid 'Gossip'!

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Word Guy goes tabloid! Today's column is filled with nothing but "libel," "slander," "scandal" and "gossip."

If you carve a derogatory epithet on a tree, you may be accused of libel. That's appropriate, for the word "libel" comes from the Latin word for bark. (If you carve an insult into a tree but don't take any action against your target, ...Read more

Some Words Are Older Than You'd Think

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

What's the lowdown on the commuter with the nifty T-shirt?

You might peg that sentence as a slice of late 20th-century lingo, but in fact it could have been uttered in 1919. "Lowdown" first appeared in American English in 1915, "commuter" in 1865, "nifty" in 1863 and "T-shirt" in 1919.

These spry Americanisms are featured in "America in So ...Read more

The Year 2022 in So Many Words

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

With much trepidation I'm here to review

The noteworthy language of twenty-two-two.

"Inflation," "supply chain" and "war in Ukraine"

Incited our worries and caused us great strain.

We learned about "Kherson" and "Donbas" and "Kyiv";

Ukrainians' courage was hard to believe.

What Putin described as a quick "operation"

Was bravely repelled...Read more

These Names Are All Over the Place

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

During the early 1870s, the residents of a Tennessee hamlet sent a handwritten letter to the federal government requesting a post office. Finding the letter hard to read, a Post Office Department clerk wrote, "This is difficult" across the letter before passing it up the chain of command.

Thanks to this notation, the hamlet soon had a new ...Read more

Give the Gift of Gab This Year

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Tickle the tinsel of your word-loving friends and relatives this holiday season by giving them one of these new books about words and language.

In 2018 Ellen Jovin pluckily set up her small "Grammar Table" on the sidewalks of 47 cities across the United States and fielded linguistic questions from passersby. In "Rebel With a Clause -- Tales ...Read more

Over the River and Through the Words

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

As you prepare to stuff your Thanksgiving bird, see whether you can stuff the blanks in this well-known seasonal song:

"Over the river and through the _____, to ___________'_ house we go."

Easy, right? "Woods" and "Grandmother's."


In fact, the right stuff-ins for this turkey tune are actually "wood" and "Grandfather's."

The lyrics ...Read more



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