Getting the Better of Bete Noires

Rob Kyff on

We all encounter recurring questions about grammar, usage, punctuation or spelling that bedevil us every time they pop up. Here are some of mine:

-- The Powerses That Be?

How should I render a family name ending in "s"? For instance, are families with the names Lyons, Howells or Powers "the Lyons," "the Howells" and "the Powers" or "the Lyonses," "the Howellses" or "the Powerses"?

Note to self: To form the plurals of names ending in "s," add "-es." So, "Lyonses," "Howellses" and "Powerses" are correct, even if they look and sound odd.

-- Double Trouble.

When adding the suffixes "-ed" or "-ing" to a two-syllable verb, I never know whether to double the consonant. Is it "focused" or "focussed," "occuring" or "occurring," "canceled" or "cancelled," "prefering" or "preferring"?

Note to self: This one is tricky. In American English, the consonant at the end of two-syllable verbs is usually doubled when the accent falls on the verb's second syllable, e.g., "ocCURring," "preFERring," "conFERred." But the consonant is usually not doubled when the accent falls on the first syllable, e.g., "FOcused," "CANceling," "SIGnaled."

By contrast, the Brits (and the Anglophile editors at The New Yorker magazine) generally do double the consonant, regardless of the accent, e.g., "focussed," "cancelled," "signalled."

There are exceptions. Americans ignore the accent rule in "KIDnapping," "FORmatting" and "PROgramming," while the Brits use single consonants in "galloped" and "paralleled." As the Brits would say, "Go figger."


-- Champ, Cramp and Stamp.

I'm never sure whether it's "champing" or "chomping" at the bit, whether something "cramps" or "crimps" your style, and whether we return to our old "stamping grounds" or "stomping" grounds."

Note to self: "To champ" means "to bite or gnaw nervously," like a horse chewing the bits in its mouth. "To chomp" means "to take a bite out of something" (usually with the intention of eating it). So, "champing at the bit" refers to someone who's impatient or eager to start, like a horse before a race.

While it's true that you could "crimp" (pinch off, constrict) someone's style, the set phrase is "cramp your style," meaning "to interfere with one's freedom to act."

Both "stamping grounds" and "stomping grounds" get the stamp of approval. "Stamp" and "stomp" derive from the same root, meaning "to pound your feet on the ground," so either "stamping grounds" or "stomping grounds" is correct.

Lingering question: Have there ever been any NEW stamping grounds? Hmmm ...


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2020 Creators Syndicate Inc.



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