Q. "My boss insisted on using the word 'strived' in a letter he wrote to an important client. I researched the word at a library, and everyone there said the past tense of 'strive' is 'strove.' Which is correct: 'strived' or 'strove'?" -- George, Memphis, Tennessee
A. You clearly STROVE to find the correct choice, and now you know my ...Read more
We often create words in the same way we prepare delicious foods: We slice them, dice them, season them, shake them and bake them. Voila!
Can you determine the method used to form the words in each set:
1) piano, aps, abs, sophs.
2) maudlin, tawdry, fortnight, bedlam.
3) chortle, brunch, motel, smog.
4) cuss, bust, passel, buddy.
5) ...Read more
"The British are coming! The British are coming!" Ah, how Paul Revere's historic call to arms still echoes in the ears of all patriotic Americans!
There's only one small problem: Paul Revere probably never uttered those words. Because Americans were themselves British, they didn't call the soldiers of their own nation "the British." ...Read more
Cats have nine lives, and this quiz on verb use has nine questions. Choose the correct verbs and you'll avoid a grammatical "cat"astrophe:
1. The cat (use, used) to roam at night.
2. Did the cat (use, used) to roam at night?
3. The cat is carrying what (look, looks) like two mice in its mouth.
4. What (distinguishes, distinguish) the cat (...Read more
Several readers have asked me about the meaning, origin and use of "cisgender," an adjective for a person who identifies with the gender they had at birth.
"Cisgender," pronounced "sis-GEN-duhr," means the opposite of "transgender." While the Latin "trans" means "on the other side of," the Latin "cis" means "on this side of." Thus, ...Read more
I had just been thinking about the odd words "canny" and "uncanny" when an email from a friend arrived asking, "How are the words 'canny' and 'uncanny' related?"
Now, that's uncanny.
If you're a canny connoisseur of language (and if you're reading this column, you undoubtedly are), you know that "canny" means shrewd, prudent, as in "a canny ...Read more
We throw our "suitcases" and other "luggage" into the "trunks" of our cars. But those "suitcases" probably don't contain suits. We've forgotten that "luggage" is a fancy word for something we have to "lug" and that cars once had actual trunks lashed to their rear bumpers.
As technology advances, language often lags. In fact, many commonly ...Read more
The term "cancel culture" has been batted around like a volleyball during the past few weeks. It refers, of course, to the practice of discrediting, boycotting or shunning someone, whether it's a classmate or a public figure, for a perceived offense.
The fierce power of the phrase is deeply rooted in the origins of "cancel," a verb that began...Read more
"God sees everything," says George Wilson, the disconsolate husband in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "The Great Gatsby." God may not see everything, but He sure sees plenty of ways to sneak his name into our words.
In fact, "god" lies at the heart of the word "giddy." Granted, we might not see God as all that giddy a guy. We're not likely to ...Read more
In the wake of George Floyd's death and the reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement, words and phrases associated with racism and slavery have been toppling faster than Confederate statues.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo has ordered the deletion of the phrase "and Providence Plantations" from the official name of her state. New ...Read more
Edith Frankel of Hannawa Falls, New York, sent me this sentence from Science News: "An array of critters, not just the iconic polar bear, make their homes in and on the sea ice." Edith asks, "Is 'critter' now an acceptable substitute for 'creature'?"
(And, yes, I know the collective noun "array" sounds like a singular noun, but the writer is ...Read more
Q: I was taught that a biannual event occurred every other year. Now it seems "biannual" is being used to mean "occurring twice a year." What gives? -- Andrea Mansfield, Trenton, New Jersey.
A: "What gives?" I haven't heard that expression for a while. It's an Americanism that became popular after appearing in the musical "Pal Joey" in 1940. ...Read more
We've all been there. You and your colleagues are brainstorming during a Zoom session, shouting out any idea that comes into your heads, no matter how absurd it might be. And then, after this exhilarating session of free-range thinking, you collectively decide to rename your company "Covid."
That's brainstorming for you. When it works, we ...Read more