Take a Verbal Voyage This Summer
Become a "word" traveler this summer with one of these new books about language.
If you're reading this column, you're probably annoyed by sentences peppered with "like," the use of "literally" when a figurative meaning is intended, or the scratchy "vocal fry" in the voices of many young women these days. But Valerie Fridland, a socio-...Read more
The Season of Pomp and Circumlocution
Ah, graduation. Time for all the academic regalia: pomp, circumstance, mortarboards, diplomas and yet another "Wear Sunscreen" speech.
You know, it's a funny thing about "pomp and circumstance." We all understand the "pomp" part; "pomp" means "a lavish ceremonial display." But "circumstance"? Is the graduation platform about to collapse? Is ...Read more
Yes, Ira, There Is an Adjectival Clause
Q: I am writing on behalf of my seventh-grade class. We consulted four dictionaries, and all of them said the word "district" was not an adjective.
My class and I believe that it is. Some examples would be "district court," "district library" and "district attorney." We were hoping you could help us solve our question. -- Ira Movshovich, San ...Read more
Readers Have Their Say on What We Say
Some of my readers are fully capable of writing this column. So today I'm turning it over to them.
"Please explain to the thousands of reporters, writers and talk-show people," writes Thela Ostling of Roscommon, Michigan, "that 'more importantly' and 'most importantly' are incorrect. What they mean is 'more important' and 'most important' ...Read more
Reviewing Some Principal Principles
Bob Calnen of Manchester, Connecticut, is a man of "principles" -- and "principals." He loves to send me misuses of the devilish troublemakers "principle" and "principal."
"Principal," you'll recall, is an adjective meaning "most important," as in "principal component," or a noun meaning the foremost person, as in "school principal." "...Read more
Readers Weigh In, But Word Guy Still Sins
What are my readers' top pet peeves about poor English usage? (Of course, I would never commit any these errors myself.)
Irregardless of their geographic location, people tell me they detest the use of "irregardless" for "regardless," while others find it nerve-wracking when people write "nerve-wracking" instead of "nerve-racking." Other ...Read more
Swimming Through the Cold Porridge of Academese
Consider these memorable opening lines: "Call me Ishmael"; "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"; "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth."
Now ponder this grabber, the first sentence of an academic tome about filmmaking: "The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, ...Read more
You'll Find This Column Puzzling
Some of my readers are posers. No, they're not pretentious phonies. They simply enjoy posing word puzzlers like these (answers below).
-- Four Play -- There are many three-way homophones (three words that sound alike) such as "rays, raise and raze," but Ron Peterson of New Britain, Connecticut, challenges us to come up with eight FOUR-way ...Read more
Language Snoopers Nab the Bloopers
Eagle-eyed readers have sent me these mistakes from newspapers and magazines. Can you spot the blots?
No. 1: "The mayor seems unphased by the closed-door policy." No. 2: "They line them up on fireplace mantles." No. 3: "The decrepit buildings at the end of the parking lot would have to be raised." Now that's some heavy lifting!
No. 4: "The ...Read more
Hold 'Regard' in High Regard
Q: I use the phrase "in regard to your question," but I frequently read and hear others using "in regards to your question." Which of these is correct? -- Lisa Piechowski, Glastonbury, Connecticut
A: "Regard" is always the right choice when you mean "in reference to" or "regarding." Usage expert Bryan Garner describes "in regards to" as "...Read more
Some Issues Deserve a Good Hearing
Remember Emily Litella, the befuddled TV editorialist played by Gilda Radner on "Saturday Night Live" during the late 1970s?
Each week Emily would launch into a passionate diatribe based on her misunderstanding of a single word. "What was all the fuss," she would wonder, "about violins on TV? ... I thought the Leonard Bernstein concerts were ...Read more
'Aks' Pronunciation Has Long History in English
Several readers have asked me about the pronunciation of "ask" as "aks." While this nonstandard, dialectical pronunciation might seem like newfangled usage, it's actually rooted in one of the oldest and most common elements of English: metathesis.
Metathesis is the process by which sounds, letters or syllables hop around and ...Read more