Perfectionist and Pragmatist Form a 'More Perfect' Union

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

The perfectionist Sue Perlative and the pragmatist Ev Reethings Relative visited an antique show on their first date:

Ev: Hey, this grandfather clock is very unique.

Sue: Time out! "Unique" means "one of a kind, without equal," so it can't be modified by "very." The clock is either unique or it isn't.

Ev: But isn't it high time we allowed ...Read more

'Fore!' Ways to Improve Your Writing

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

In golf school, you learn about "course management," and no, it isn't about replacing your divots. It's about achieving the lowest score possible by selecting the shots, clubs and strategies best suited to your skills and limitations -- in other words, to play with your head, not your hubris.

Four principles of course management that help the...Read more

Phoenician Oxen Earn 'A' for Effort

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Why is "A" the first letter of our alphabet? Therein lies a "tail."

The ancient Phoenicians, who devised the precursor of our English alphabet some 3,000 years ago, depended heavily on oxen for the necessities of life, e.g., plowing, hauling, clothing, $10 ox milk lattes. The ox was so important that the Phoenicians called the first letter of...Read more

Avoid Snacking on Linguistic Bonbons

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

We all have our nasty little habits: binge-eating potato chips, chomping on gum and reading columns about words. And we fall into bad habits when it comes to language as well.

Instinctively, we pop two-word phrases into our mouths like lollipops: cautious optimism, ongoing relationship, serious contender, rising tensions, spiraling costs.

...Read more

Don't Get Possessive About Attributive Nouns

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q. Should the title of a school club be written "Future Teachers' Club" (with an apostrophe) or "Future Teachers Club" (no apostrophe)? -- Nancy Vallimont, Detroit

A. Future teachers take note: No apostrophe is needed.

In this case, "teachers" is an attributive noun, that is, a noun being used in a descriptive sense, not in a possessive ...Read more

Try Not to H-Bomb This Pop Quiz

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

It's "h" hour! Select the correct "h" words in these sentences:

1) The tortoise beat the hare by a (hairsbreadth, hare's breath).

2) The tortoise's plan to move at a slow and steady pace was derided as a (hairbrained, harebrained) scheme.

3) The film was shot in an old airplane (hanger, hangar).

4) The (hearty, hardy) Arctic explorers ...Read more

'1/6': A Date -- and Term -- That Will Live in Infamy

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

What term will historians use for the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol?

Immediately following the events, a hot debate ignited over what to call the actions of the mob: a revolt? uprising? insurrection? rebellion?

During ensuing weeks, journalists regularly began inserting the date of the event into references to it, e.g., "the Jan. 6 ...Read more

And Now for a Lesson in 'Onto'logy

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

I, the all-powerful, all-knowing Word Guy, have a confession: I'm sometimes not sure whether to use "onto" or "on to."

I know, I know. I should have mastered this skill in second grade, along with how to use "in" and "into," how to choose between "beside" and "besides" and how to keep milk from coming out of my nose while laughing. But I didn...Read more

This Phrase Produces a 'Lump' in Your Throat

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

A friend recently told me he didn't give a hoot whether a speech he was writing might offend some people. "If they don't like it, they can lump it!" he declared.

As soon as he used this phrase (which you don't hear very often these days), we both started speculating about its origin. It means, of course, that if you don't like something, you'...Read more

Amorous Word Lovers Pop the Question

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q. Please settle an argument. My position is that one "sees the sights," not the "sites." Thus, it's "sightseeing," not "siteseeing." -- Steve Civitello, Middletown, Connecticut

A. Steve, I cite you for your sharp insight. It's true that some of the sights you see while touring might also be sites, i.e., places where something occurred, such ...Read more

Coach Gets a Lesson in 'Wet'-ymology

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Early in my teaching career, I was coaching a boys' cross-country team at a local park when my runners suddenly grabbed me by the arms and legs and tossed me into a murky, mucky pond.

For the boys, this was good, clean fun. For me, not so much. Suddenly I was "all wet," "mad as a wet hen" and "wet behind the ears." This dunking had even "wet ...Read more

When Running an A.D., Placement Is Everything

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q: I've always been taught that the abbreviation B.C. should be placed after the number of a year, and A.D. before the year. However, I've noticed that A.D. is now often being placed after the year. Is this now acceptable? -- Robert Warner, via email

A: I blame this unfortunate trend on the popularity of the movie "Monty Python and the Holy ...Read more

What to Call a Call to Arms?

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Several readers have asked me to clarify the meanings of "treason," "sedition" and other terms related to the recent assault on the United States Capitol.

Treason, which derives from the Latin "tradere" (to hand over, betray) denotes more severity than sedition does. To commit treason means to commit hostile acts to overthrow one's government...Read more



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