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Numbo jumbo

Q: In the old days, one would use a fraction to characterize the proportional relationship of a smaller object to a larger one – e.g., “My boat is one-tenth the size of that cruise ship.” Today, newspaper and TV people say, “My boat is 10 times smaller than that cruise ship.” Is this wrong, or am I just being small minded?

A: You’re right. Something can’t be “10 times smaller” than something else. It can, however, be one-tenth the size of the original.

In my book on writing, Words Fail Me, I have a chapter (“Down for the Count: When the Numbers Don’t Add Up”) about the casual misuse of numbers.

One of the things I complain about is the use of the phrases “x times more (or larger)” and “x times less (or smaller),” since they’re practically always misleading. I recommend using “x times as many” or “x times as much as.”

For example, say that Bob has 9 books and John has 3. The sentence “Bob has 3 times more books than John” is incorrect, but that’s what many people would say.

In fact, Bob has “3 times as many as” John, since he has John’s amount (3) times 3, for a total of 9.

If Bob had “3 times more” than John, he’d have John’s amount (3) plus 3 times that amount (9), for a total of 12. In other words, “3 times more” is actually 4 times as many.

All this stuff drives newspaper copy editors to distraction, and is something that many reporters refuse to understand. Hence all the items in newspaper corrections columns that deal with numbers!

I once read a statistic to the effect that the production of something had “fallen 600 percent.” Impossible! If something falls to zero, it has fallen only 100 percent.

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Truly Scrumptious

Q: A Ukrainian woman who is trying to improve her English asked me if there was any difference between “scrumptious” and “delicious.” Her Canadian brother-in-law had told her that “scrumptious” was used only with certain types of food and was not something one would use every day. I could not offer any concrete elaboration on the word. I’m wondering if you know something about it.

A: I was amused to get your email because “scrumptious” was a word my late mother always used and it reminded me of her. During much of my childhood I thought she had made it up, and was surprised to find in adolescence that it was a real word.

Now on to your question. Is there a difference between “scrumptious” and “delicious”? H-m-m-m. Not much, I’d say, but something that’s scrumptious may have more oomph and be even yummier than something that’s merely delicious.

“Scrumptious,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), is a word dating from 1830 that today means primarily delicious, but also delightful or excellent. It’s thought to be an alteration of “sumptuous,” M-W says.

The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology says that back when “scrumptious” was introduced, the word meant stylish or splendid or first-rate. The sense of delicious was first recorded in 1881.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists these same meanings, but it has another one too: fastidious or hard to please. This meaning has only one citation (from 1845) and apparently has fallen out of use, since I don’t find it anywhere else.

“Scrumptious” these days is used mainly to describe food, and it can be applied to anything delightfully tasty; it’s not restricted to certain kinds of food. However, I can’t imagine anyone using it to describe liver and onions. (That’s just my own prejudice, though. Mom’s idea of scrumptious and mine were not always the same.)

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Exceptions make the rules

Q: When I intend to exclude something, I simply say “except,” as in “I finished everything except the math homework.” But I often hear people say “except for.” Which is correct?

A: In the example you give, either “except” or “except for” is OK: “I finished everything except [or “except for”] the math homework.”

Both “except” and “except for” can mean “with the exception of.” But “except for” can also mean something like “if it weren’t for.” When you can’t make up your mind, here are some suggestions that might help.

If you mean “but,” then you can use either “except” or “except for,” as in this example: “Everyone except [or “except for”] Bob had left.” However, if you cannot substitute “but,” use “except for,” as in this example: “The office would have been empty except for Bob.”

Here are two more general rules:

(1) Use “Except for” at the beginning of a sentence: “Except for Aunt Martha, everyone brought a gift.” But in mid-sentence, either is fine if you mean “but”: “Everyone brought a gift except [or “except for”] Aunt Martha.”

(2) Use “except” before a preposition: “It rained except in the city” or “I had no choice except to go.”

Unfortunately, English can be messy. This is a case where one rule won’t cover all occasions. But these tips will help solve most problems with “except” vs. “except for.”

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Suspect etymology

Q: I’ve been hearing the expression “suss out” a lot lately. What’s it all about? Did I miss a memo somewhere?

A: If there was a memo about “suss out,” then I missed it too. But I did some poking around, and there it was in my usual language references. Live and learn!

To “suss out,” it seems, is a slang verbal phrase meaning to investigate or check into or figure out something.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) suggest “suss” is derived from “suspect.”

The expression “suss out” originated in Britain in the 1960s, according to A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, by Eric Partridge.

The slang dictionary lists several other usages of “suss”: a verb from the 1920s meaning to suspect; a 1970s noun meaning suspicion, as in “he was arrested on suss”; and a 1980s noun meaning knowledge, as in “they’ve got suss.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has similar citations for “suss” (often spelled “sus”), meaning “suspicion,” “suspicious,” “suspect,” or “suspected,” and gives published references dating from the 1930s. The noun meaning know-how or understanding dates from the 1970s in the OED citations.

And that, I suspect, is what it’s all about.

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A word for gents?

Q: Is the phrase “crease in the pant’s leg” correct or should it be “crease in the pants’ leg”? Thanks a bunch.


A: No apostrophe is needed. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the word “pant” can be an adjective meaning “of or relating to pants,” and it uses the example “pant leg.” So I would suggest “crease in the pant leg.”

The noun “pant,” meaning a pair of trousers or a trouser leg, dates from the early 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The first citation is in an 1832 letter to Thackeray from his mother about putting padding inside a pair of trousers.

The OED doesn’t have any citations for “pant” as an adjective, but it does have lots of references for the noun in compound words (“pant-look,” “pantcoat,” “pantdress,” “pantskirt,” and “pantsuit”), all dating from the 1960s or ‘70s. H-m-m, I wonder if the appearance of all those “pant” words had something to do with the rise of feminism at the time.

Interestingly, we can thank Pantaleone, the patron saint of Venice, for the words “pant” and “pants,” according to a word-history note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

The 4th-century saint was so identified with the city that Venetians became known as pantaloni and a stock character in commedia dell’arte was a rich miser known as Pantalone. In the 17th century, the French linked the character with a style of trousers that came to be known as pantaloons in English.

The word “pantaloons” was eventually shorted to “pants” in the US. The new usage first appeared in 1840 in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, according to American Heritage.

But like most changes in our changeable language, the evolution of “pantaloons” to “pants” did not occur without opposition. Oliver Wendell Homes, for one, described the upstart as “a word not made for gentlemen, but for ‘gents.’“

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A theological dispute

Q: My boss, the dean of a theological college, recently wrote a letter in which he referred to a “Master’s graduate” and an award for “excellency in Liturgy.” I thought he should have said “Masters’ graduate” and “excellence in Liturgy,” but the dean disagreed. We bickered over this for a while, and I offered to write you about it.

A: Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) include the phrase “master’s degree” as well as the word “master’s” (as a noun meaning “a master’s degree”). Both dictionaries use the apostrophe and lowercase this usage, though M-W notes that the designations “master of science” and “master of arts” and so on are “often cap.”

The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) also uses the apostrophe and lowercases the generic degrees: “a master’s degree” (section 8.32). But Chicago capitalizes the specific degrees, like “Master of Arts” and so on (section 15.21).

Since all three references (M-W, American Heritage, and Chicago) use “master’s” in an adjectival way, I would say their style calls for a “master’s graduate” (lowercase “m”).

The usual noun form of the adjective “excellent” is “excellence,” which means the quality of being excellent. “Excellency” is most often seen as a title given to dignitaries like ambassadors and such, although it is occasionally used as a synonym for “excellence.” Given a choice, I’d go for “excellence in liturgy.”

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Board games

Q: How did the term “seaboard” come to be a synonym for “seacoast”?

A: In Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon times, the term bord (the source of our modern word “board”) had two meanings: (1) a plank, shield, shelf, or table; and (2) an edge, rim, or side.

The second meaning dates back at least to the year 897, and it’s this sense that gives us the words “border” and “seaboard” (meaning seaside, seacoast, seashore).

This meaning of “board” as an edge or side also gave us the words “shipboard” (the side of a ship) and “overboard” (over the side of a ship), as well as “larboard” and “starboard.”

When the phrase “on board” first appeared in English in the early 16th century, it meant alongside a ship (or a shore), but the meaning widened by the late 17th century to include on a ship itself.

Other old nautical expressions reflecting this etymology included “board on board” and “board by board,” which described two ships coming alongside one another (side by side).

It’s often supposed that the “board” in “on board” refers to the deck of a ship, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but the Middle English version of the expression, within schippe burdez (“within ship boards”), makes clear the word “board” actually refers to a border.

The OED says the two Anglo-Saxon meanings of bord (a plank and an edge) may have been the result of entirely different nouns from different sources, already blended by the time they arrived in Old English.

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A show stopper

Q: I recently read that a poll “had showed” Clinton and Obama neck and neck. The use of “showed” felt awkward to me and I wondered if “shown” would have been better. When is it appropriate to use each one?

A: The usual past participle of “show” (that is, the form of the verb used with “had” or “have”) is “shown.” But “showed” is also acceptable and not a mistake. Dictionaries these days consider both of them standard English, but list “shown” first.

The verb “show” was once spelled “shew.” Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage says the original past participle was “shewed” (it first appeared in the 14th century), followed by “showed” (15th century).

Although “shown” is the predominant past participle today, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it only became common in the 19th century.

The OED notes that the older “showed” is still used with “have” or “had,” but it’s obscure in the passive voice. So it would be considered a mistake (or at least archaic) to say something like “the argument was showed to be false.”

If you’re using the passive voice, along with “is” or “was” or “are” or “were,” then “shown” is preferred, as in “he was shown the door” or “the paintings were shown to be forgeries” or “names are shown in italics.”

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Cat got your tongue?

Q: Do you have any information on the origin of the phrase “cat got your tongue”?

A: The expression (it’s generally in the form of a question) is something one says to a shy or silent person in an effort to get the tongue-tied one to speak.

Why a cat? Nobody seems to know for sure where “cat got your tongue” comes from, but, as usual, there are lots of spurious etymologies floating around the Internet.

I’ve seen no evidence to prove any of these theories, which involve the cat-o’-nine-tails of seafaring days, ancient Middle Eastern torture techniques, liars’ tongues being ripped out and fed to cats, and so on.

Evan Morris, on his Word Detective website, notes that we’ve been concocting feline myths and metaphors ever since a homo sapien first opened the cave door to a yowling cat.

“The most surprising thing about ‘cat got your tongue’ may be its relatively recent vintage,” Morris notes. “While it certainly sounds as if it must have been dreamt up back in the Middle Ages, the earliest written example listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1911.”

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“Change” ins and outs

Q: I’ve worked in the auto-repair industry for many years and occasionally hear the expression “change out,” meaning to replace, as in “change out the spark plugs” or “change out the water pump.” I’ve heard this usage from techs who were trained in Britain. Did the expression originate there?

A: I can’t find “change out” in my usual language references, but I see it a lot on the Internet, especially on auto-repair discussion sites, where it’s used the way you suggest: replacing an old set of brake pads, or whatever, with new ones.

I’ve also seen it used on sites dealing with decorating (“change out” the drapes or the color scheme), computers (“change out” a hard drive or a processor), home maintenance (“change out” siding or filters), and many technical subjects.

The expression, by the way, has been used both as a verbal phrase and a noun phrase: “to change out” is to replace; “a change-out” is a replacement.

I can’t find a source that says the expression is of British origin. In fact, I doubt it, since few of the websites that use the phrase are in the United Kingdom or other Commonwealth countries.

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Goodness gracious!

Q: Target’s “Do Good” donation program makes me crazy. Shouldn’t it be “Do Well”? I was taught that an adverb, not an adjective, should modify a verb like “do.” If Target really wants to “do good,” it should use proper English.

A: In the Target ad, the word “good” is a noun, not an adjective, and the company is using it correctly. Of course, it would be an adjective if Target had suggested that people “Do Good Works (or Deeds),” but using it as a noun (“Do Good”) is OK.

In fact, the phrase “do good” (in which “good” is a noun meaning that which is good, or the opposite of the noun “evil”), dates back to the year 825, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And it has appeared in print steadily over the last 1,200 years or so.

“Good” is also a noun in expressions like “he’s no good,” “all to the good,” “this isn’t any good,” “deliver the goods,” “dry goods,” “we’ve got the goods on these crooks,” “happiness is the ultimate good,” and so on.

All of those expressions, and many more, are on target.

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Spade work

Q: Is there another way of saying “call a spade a spade”? Although it’s my understanding that the origin of this idiom is not racist, I’m not sure that the use of such an expression would “fly” in this age of political correctness.

A: I don’t necessarily agree with you about the need to avoid the expression. But if you must, here are a few alternatives: “don’t mince words,” “call them as you see them,” “don’t beat around the bush,” and “tell it as it is.”

You’re right, though, about the origin of “call a spade a spade”: it has nothing to do with race. The expression originated with the ancient Greeks, who dismissed a crude or plain-spoken person by saying he’d “call a fig a fig, a trough a trough.”

So where did the spade come from? We can thank Erasmus for it, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The Renaissance scholar confused the Greek words “trough” (skaphe) and “spade” (skapheion) while translating a slur against Macedonians in Plutarch’s Apoththegmata.

When Erasmus’s Latin mistranslation was rendered into English in the 16th century, the Macedonians were described as not having “the witte to calle a spade by any other name than a spade.”

Nikos Saratakos, who contributes to online language discussions about classical and modern Greek, has suggested that the expression was originally a slur because the terms “fig” and “trough” used to be sexual symbols. Thus, someone who called a fig a fig or a trough a trough would be considered crude.

Interestingly, the old expression has survived in modern Greek, according to Saratakos, but it now has a positive meaning, pretty much like our version. And if it weren’t for Erasmus, we also might be calling a trough a trough today.

If you’d like to learn more, check out this excerpt from Mark Israel’s informative FAQ on the newsgroup alt.usage.english.

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“Live in” help

Q: I was taught that, since we say “I live in New York City,” we should also say “This is a great place to live in,” not “This is a great place to live.” What do you recommend?

A: Many (perhaps most) English speakers these days commonly drop the “in” from the verbal phrase “to live in” in certain constructions. For example, people commonly say things like “San Francisco is a wonderful place to live,” but never “I’d like to live San Francisco.”

The late Gordon R. Wood, who was a professor emeritus of English at Southern Illinois University, wrote about this phenomenon back in 1966. In an article in the journal American Speech, Wood said this about dropping “in” (technically, a verbal particle) from the phrase “to live in”:

“What seems to happen is that the speakers pass the point for inserting the verbal particle in the interior of a sentence and then they become aware of it as a ‘preposition’ which supposedly, according to rule, cannot end a sentence. Rather than break the rule, they erase the verbal element and leave the listener (at least this listener) with an uneasy feeling about the sense of what has been said.”

He pointed out that the practice was often heard in the cliché about “making the world a better place to live.”

Since Wood’s day, it’s become commonplace to omit “in” when the phrase “to live in” comes at the end of a sentence. These days it doesn’t raise many eyebrows and it’s become standard practice. Wood’s theory that a reluctance to end sentences with prepositions led to this practice may or may not be correct. But it’s an interesting speculation.

By the way, that old taboo about prepositions is a grammatical myth. I’ve referred to it several times on the blog, including this entry.

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Occupational therapy

Q: I’m in the process of applying to graduate schools to study occupational therapy. Within my essay, I’m confused about whether I should capitalize “occupational therapy” or leave it in lowercase. Please, please help. I really want to be accepted!

A: You’re raising an issue of style here, not grammar, so there’s no right or wrong.

The usual style is to lowercase “occupational therapy” unless it’s part of a title (like “School of Occupational Therapy”). But the usual style will only get you so far.

If you really want to be accepted, check out the graduate schools’ catalogs and other material to see how they capitalize “occupational therapy.” Then do whatever they do.

The catalogs will probably cap the phrase in reference to a school (or program, institute, department, etc.) of occupational therapy. You should also determine whether they capitalize it in an ordinary generic reference (as in “patients who need occupational therapy”). In other words, imitate the graduate schools’ own styles for the different usages.

Academic institutions do a lot of unnecessary capitalizing, so don’t expect them to follow the usual rules for style.

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An ax to grind

Q: When I was in high school in the West Indies, my English teacher explained that “to have an ax to grind” meant to have a favor to ask. But when I came to the US, I found that people here used the expression to mean to have an ulterior motive. An Internet search for the origin of the phrase has left my completely confused. Could you clarify its meaning and origin?

A: The expression, which originated in the United States in the early 19th century, has slightly different meanings in the US and Britain, but neither one matches your high-school memory. Perhaps you misheard or misunderstood your English teacher.

In the US, the expression means to have a selfish or ulterior purpose, according to both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, which reflects British usage, defines it as to have a strong opinion that leads you to do something.

As for the origin of the expression, no wonder you’re confused. There’s a lot of confusing information about it out there, especially on the Internet.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, for example, attributes the expression to Benjamin Franklin and traces it to an incident involving him as a boy. The youngster, according to Brewer’s, was conned by a slick-talking man into sharpening an ax for him.

But Brewer’s doesn’t say where the story comes from, and I haven’t found any source that can locate the expression in Franklin’s writings. Besides, the story seems fishy to me. Brewer’s says the man supposedly “had no time to turn the grindstone,” but he had time to stand around watching young Ben do it for him.

The Oxford English Dictionary also says the phrase originated with Franklin, but the OED‘s first published citation is not from Franklin. It’s from another Pennsylvanian, Charles Miner, a Connecticut-born essayist and newspaper editor.

An essay by Miner, which the OED dates from 1815, recounts the tale of a boy who gets conned into turning the grindstone for someone who wants his ax sharpened. (A note in Bartleby.com says Miner originally published this essay in 1811, but I’ve read elsewhere that Miner first published it anonymously in 1810.)

So how did the expression “an ax to grind” get attributed to Franklin instead of Miner?

I’m guessing here, but Miner’s story is similar to one Franklin did write, about a child who pays more than he should for a whistle. And Franklin’s autobiography does have an anecdote about an ax (though it doesn’t include the expression).

Also, Miner’s writings were gathered into a book called Essays from the Desk of Poor Robert the Scribe, published in 1815, while some of Franklin’s writings were gathered in his Poor Richard’s Almanac.

Perhaps the similarity of Poor Richard to Poor Robert, along with the likeness between the boy with a whistle and the boy with a grindstone, led to the misattribution of the phrase “an ax to grind” to Ben Franklin.

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A pet topic

Q: I’ve always wondered, but never looked up, which came first: the noun or the verb form of “pet.” Can you help?

A: The noun “pet,” originally meaning a lamb or other domestic animal raised by hand, came first, dating from 1539, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The sense of a favorite or pampered child goes back to 1568, and our modern sense of an animal kept for pleasure or companionship (dog, cat, bird, etc.) dates from 1710.

The verb meaning to treat as a pet, to stroke, or to fondle is the latecomer, dating from 1629. To “pet” in the sexual sense (making out, in other words) came along in 1921.

The sources for this usage, according to the OED, are the Scottish Gaelic peata and the Old Irish petta, which originally meant a tame animal.

Another early meaning of the noun “pet,” dating from 1590, is a fit of peevishness or ill-humor, as in the phrase “in a pet.” The origin of this usage is unknown, according to the OED.

Interestingly, the OED’s earliest recorded meaning of the noun in English is an obscure one that dates from 1515: “an act of breaking wind; a fart.” We can thank the Latin pedere (to break wind) for this usage.

You didn’t ask about the adjective, but I’d better not overlook it, considering all the grammar pet peeves in my mailbox. According to the OED, the adjective dates from 1584 and originally referred to an animal reared by hand, as the sheep in the OED‘s first published reference: “One pette sheipe.”

Coleridge was the first person to use “pet” as an adjective meaning favorite or cherished: “I cherish … a pet system” (1819). And Mark Twain was the first to use it humorously or ironically: “For years my pet aversion has been the cuckoo clock” (1880).

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Spell-checked

Q: At a family gathering, my daughter-in-law said she had trouble pronouncing “cocommitant.” Being a know-it-all, I told her the correct pronunciation. Later, I looked for it in my Microsoft Word spell checker, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, Black’s Law Dictionary, etc. Nada! Not a trace. When I googled it, though, I had 144 hits. What’s going on?

A: I think the word you want is “concomitant.” It’s primarily an adjective, meaning happening at the same time or accompanying. But it’s also a noun for something that exists at the same time as another thing or that accompanies another thing.

Both adjective and noun date back to the early 1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The root is the Latin verb concomitari, which means to accompany.

As for your googling “cocommitant” and getting 144 results, a lot of Google hits are actually misses, including “concommitant,” “concomitent,” and “concomitont.”

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A big deal breaker

(An updated post on this subject appeared on Jan. 21, 2014)

Q: I’m bothered when I hear young people use the expression “not that big of a deal.” My experience is that the word “of” is unnecessary in this expression and similar ones. Am I wrong?

A: No, you’re right to be bothered. The expression is unnecessarily redundant. The unneeded “of” is not an intensifier here and adds no particular emphasis or color.

The accepted phrase is “not that big a deal.” (Similar usages would be “not that bad a storm,” “not too old an athlete,” “not so evil an empire,” and “not so good a movie.”)

In expressions like these, where an adjective is being used to describe a noun, the “of” isn’t needed. Articles in the journal American Speech have referred to this usage as the “big of” syndrome.

Perhaps the confusion arises because of phrases like “a hell of a storm” and “a whale of a good time” and “a monster of a party.”

In expressions like those, where a noun is being used to describe another noun, the “of” is required. (Technically, the two nouns are in apposition, a grammatical construction where one noun is the explanatory equivalent of the other.)

Interestingly, the expression “not that big of a deal” is becoming a big deal. I just googled it and got 307,000 hits.

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Reddy or not!

Q: I spent 20 years in the Pennsylvania Dutch area of York-Lancaster, PA. Some old-time residents there consistently use the term “ret up” to mean clean up, as in “ret up the table” after dinner. Can tell me where this term originated?

A: The verbal phrase “redd up” (also seen as “red up,” “ret up,” and even “rid up”) has its roots in a Middle English verb redden, which meant to rescue or free from, or to clear. Today, “redd up” means to clear an area or make it tidy.

The terms “redd” and “redd up” came to the American Midlands with the many Scottish immigrants who settled there, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

The word “redd” is still used in Scotland (and Northern Ireland), the dictionary says, and it’s especially common in Pennsylvania in the expression “redd up.”

Anyone who lives in Pittsburgh is familiar with the term. The city’s annual campaign against litter is called “Let’s Redd Up Pittsburgh.”

But you don’t have to be from Pennsylvania to redd up. The residents of the Shetland Islands, off northern Scotland, call their annual cleanup “Da Voar Redd Up” (“The Spring Clean Up”).

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Guilt trips

Q: Many newscasters say a defendant has pleaded “innocent.” As a former prosecutor, this drives me up the wall. The correct expression is to plead “not guilty.” There is a major difference. One can be guilty of an offense but still found not guilty if the prosecutor cannot make the case.

A: In the early 1970s, when I got my first job as a newspaper reporter, I was told to refer to the plea or verdict as “innocent.” The reasoning was that I would be defaming the defendant if the word “not” were inadvertently dropped from “not guilty.” This was a longstanding rule at many newspapers.

By the time I became an editor at the New York Times in the early 1980s, the old rule had been discarded at many newspapers. The Times’s policy was (and still is) that one pleaded not guilty. The Times’s stylebook explains it this way: the defendant doesn’t have to prove his innocence; the state has to prove his guilt.

In the past, when correspondents filed dispatches by cable, telex, teletype, or radiotelegraph, the chance of losing a “not” in transmission may have been greater. Of course a lot of English gets mangled on computers these days.

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Mommy tracking

Q: I’m writing about the word “mom.” Do I have to capitalize it? Do I have to put quotes around it? In other words, how would I capitalize and punctuate this comment by Karen Hughes when she was at the State Department: “My most important job is mom.”

A: Think of the word “mom” as you would “mother.” If it’s used in a generic way, lowercase it. If it’s used as a title, or in direct address, or in place of a name, uppercase it. Quote marks are unnecessary, unless you’re discussing the word itself.

Here are some examples:

“Hi, Mom. Call me when you get this message.”

“She’s a great mom. Of all the moms in the class, she volunteers the most.”

Sometimes this can be a judgment call. When you refer to your own mom in speaking to someone else (as you would “brother,” for example), I think the best policy is to lowercase it. Like so:

“I’ll have to ask my mom whether I can go camping. What did your mom say?”

But if you use it as her title, as you would a name, then uppercase it: “I’ll have to ask Mom whether I can go camping. Hey, Mom, may I go camping?”

In the example you give, I think Karen Hughes was using the word “mom” as a title, so I’d do it like so: “My most important job is Mom.”

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Good grammar or good taste?

Q: Why is “like” wrong in the old TV commercial “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should”? I asked my English professor and he didn’t have an adequate answer.

A: I suspect that your English professor did have the answer, but he may have wrapped it in too much grammar jargon for you to understand. I’ll have to use some technical terms too, but I’ll try to explain them along the way.

The rule here is that you use a conjunction (a combining word like “and,” “but,” “as,” etc.) to join clauses (“Winston tastes good” and “a cigarette should”). A clause, as you may know, is a group of words with both a subject (“Winston” or “cigarette”) and a verb (“tastes” or “should”).

So what’s wrong with using “like” instead of “as” in front of the clause “a cigarette should”? Well, “like” is a lot of things (an adjective, a preposition, a verb, and so on), but sticklers insist that it can’t be a conjunction.

That’s been the rule for the last couple hundred years, but the ground is shifting. In casual usage, “like” is gaining steadily on “as.” In fact, this “new” usage is actually a return to the past.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says writers have used “like” as a conjunction since Chaucer’s time. It wasn’t until the 19th century that this usage became a no-no.

American Heritage suggests, however, that it would be “prudent” to avoid using “like” before a clause in formal writing despite its long history as a conjunction. A writer who ignores the contemporary stigma against “like,” the dictionary says, “risks being accused of illiteracy or worse.”

Here’s my advice. When you want your English to be above reproach, think of the old cigarette commercial – and do the opposite.

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Can more than one be singular?

Q: Which is better: “More than one person is going” or “More than one person are going”? Put more abstractly, should the verb agree with the meaning of the word “one” or the meaning of the phrase “more than one”?

A: The phrase “more than one” can be either singular or plural, depending on how it’s used, according to The American Heritage Book of English Usage.

When “more than one” modifies a singular noun, it goes with a singular verb: “More than one person is going.”

But when it’s followed by “of” and a plural noun, it takes a plural verb: “More than one of the people are going.”

When “more than one” stands alone, it can be either singular or plural, depending on whether you want to emphasize the oneness or the more-than-oneness.

If someone asks you how many people are going, for example, you could reply “More than one is too many” or “More than one are going.”

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Geek mythology

Q: The techie editors at the computer magazine where I work insist that one should never start a sentence with a conjunction or end one with a preposition. You say on the Grammar Myths page of your website that these constructions are acceptable. Do you feel, however, that they may be too informal for magazine writing?

A: The short answer is no.

There’s nothing grammatically wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition (here’s the blog entry for that one) And there’s nothing wrong with starting a sentence with a conjunction either (here’s that blog item). Conjunctions can properly be used to connect words, sentences, even paragraphs.

Writers have been using conjunctions at the beginning of sentences and prepositions at the end for centuries. In my opinion these usages are not too informal for technical writing (but I wouldn’t overdo the conjunctions).

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Is it “titled” or “entitled”?

Q: What’s the current thinking on using “entitled” to refer to the title of a piece of written work? I’ve seen “entitled” used constantly, but I was taught that books are not entitled to anything. Shouldn’t it be “titled”?

A: Both “entitle” and “title” can refer to the title of a written work, but the two words are used in different ways, according to Garner’s Modern American Usage.

When the word you want is a past-participial adjective, “entitled” is preferred: “Margaret Mitchell wrote a book entitled Gone with the Wind.” Citations in the Oxford English Dictionary show that this usage has been common since Chaucer’s day.

When the word you’re looking for is a transitive verb, “titled” is preferred: “Margaret Mitchell titled her book Gone with the Wind.” This usage is also very old and dates from the 14th century, according to the OED.

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A “fustrating” situation

Q: I know many people (mostly from northern New Jersey) who say “fustrated” for “frustrated.” When I asked one why he pronounced it that way, he said, “That’s how it’s pronounced.” Is this common? It totally drives me nuts.

A: I had a blog item last year about a similar-sounding word, “flustrated,” a mixing of “flustered” and “frustrated.” It’s not accepted by most dictionaries, at least not yet, but many such combinations (linguists call them “blends” or “blended words”) are part of the English language.

As for “fustrated,” I couldn’t find it in my usual language references: the Oxford English Dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and so on.

But when I googled it, I got 153,000 hits, including this one from Urban Dictionary, an online slang dictionary whose definitions are written by users:

“Having such a high level of fustration that you completely forget to pronounce the first ‘R’ in the word ‘frustration’ when you try to describe your feelings to your peers.”

So, “fustrated” is getting around, though it’s not generally accepted. I hadn’t seen (or heard) this usage until you mentioned it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I see “fustrated” everywhere from now on. Frustrating, isn’t it?

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Civil unioned? Civilly united? Civil whatever?

Q: I work for the Division on Civil Rights in New Jersey, where we have civil unions, and I would appreciate any advice on this question: Do same sex couples who enter into civil unions become civil unioned, civil unionized, civilly united, or something else?

A: I couldn’t find anything helpful in my usual language references, but I mentioned your question on the air during an appearance on WNYC and a few listeners wrote to me afterward. Let me share their responses.

One listener: “As to constructing a past-tense verb form of ‘civil union,’ I propose ‘civilly united.’ This is based solely on the maxim, ‘say what sounds right,’ which my mother always used as an answer to my more inane grammatical queries.”

Second listener: “People who enter into civil unions should be referred to as joined or civilly joined.”

And a final response, from a listener in France: “Regarding civil union, the equivalent here is ‘pacte civil de solidarité,’ normally referred to by the acronym ‘PaCS.’ ‘Un PaCs’ is the contract, and from this come several derived words such as ‘se pacser’ (to be united in a civil union) or ‘des pacsés’ (people united in civil union). While the PaCS was aimed at same-sex couples, currently 88% of pacsés are of opposite sexes.”

Interesting, no? I hope you may find something helpful here.

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Tense and tense ability

Q: I’m from Russia. When I studied English in school, I didn’t encounter a sentence structure that I keep hearing from my American friends. They say “When I was little, I would often fight with other kids” while I say “When I was little, I often fought with other kids.” Which is correct? Also, please tell me if this sentence is correct: “If I showed him, he would have believed me.”

A: People use “would” a lot to describe actions performed habitually in the past, much in the way they use the expression “used to.”

For instance, one might say, “When I was little, I would play with matches and my mother would scold me.” Another way of saying this is, “When I was little, I used to play with matches and my mother used to scold me.”

Both of these are legitimate. They’re useful because the simple past (“When I was little, I played with matches and my mother scolded me”) might imply that the event happened only once.

A common error with “would” is illustrated in these sentences: “If I would have shown him, he would have believed me.” And, “If I showed him, he would have believed me.”

These illegitimate uses are errors in what’s called sequence of tenses. The problem is that people are neglecting to use the past perfect tense (“had known,” “had shown,” etc.). The challenge is to juggle two tenses in one “if” sentence. Here’s a fairly simple explanation:

(1) If the first verb is in the simple present, the second should be in the simple future: “If I show him, he will believe me.” (Negative version: “If I don’t show him, he won’t believe me.”)

(2) If the first verb is in the simple past, the second should be in the simple conditional: “If I showed him, he would believe me.” (Negative version: “If I didn’t show him, he wouldn’t believe me.”)

(3) If the first verb is in the past perfect, the second should be in the conditional perfect: “If I had shown him, he would have believed me.” (Negative version: “If I hadn’t shown him, he wouldn’t have believed me.”)

I hope this helps.

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Open to interpretation

Q: Have you ever addressed the distinction between “interpret” and “translate”? I have always used the former to mean going from one spoken language to another and the latter for written to written. But given that one often hears “simultaneous translation,” I am beginning to think I am too pedantic. Your thoughts?

A: Dictionaries define “interpret” variously as (1) to explain the meaning of something; (2) to conceive the significance of or construe something; (3) to present or conceptualize the meaning of something, by means of art or criticism; (4) to translate orally, as from one language to another. For instance, one might “interpret” a foreigner’s speech, a piece of new legislation, a painting, or the results of a patient’s EKG.

“Translate” is defined variously as (1) to put into another language; (2) to put into simpler terms or different words; (3) to change something from one form into another, or transform; (4) to express something in another medium. For instance, one might “translate” a Spanish novel into English, or a musical into a ballet, or a complicated theory into simple English, or an idea into a blueprint.

It seems to me that the notion behind “interpret” is to explain, while the idea behind “translate” is to transform or change.

“Interpret” is related to the Latin interpretari (to explain or expound). It was first used in English in the 1300s to mean to explain the meaning of something; to make clear; to construe (motives or actions, for instance).

“Translate” is related to the Latin verb transferre (to transfer). As first used in English in the 1300s, “translate” meant to transport or convey something from one place to another; to change into another language; to transform a thing into something else.

I feel, as you do, that with language-to-language conversions, “translate” is better for written ones and “interpret” for oral ones. But obviously there’s some room for overlapping, since the term “simultaneous translation” has been with us for quite some time.

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Possessive mothers-in-law

Q: I reviewed your blog item on forming the plurals of compound words like “mother-in-law.” Is there a way to form a plural possessive of such words?

A: Some things are better avoided. I can’t imagine what a plural possessive of “mother-in-law” would look like in an actual sentence. Maybe like the ones in these examples:

YIKES: We’re doing a compilation of mothers-in-law’s recipes.

YIKES: We’re doing a compilation of mothers’-in-law recipes.

YIKES: We’re doing a compilation of mothers’-in-law’s recipes.

I’d avoid the problem by rewriting the sentence. For example:

BETTER: We’re doing a compilation of recipes by mothers-in-law.

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A star-spangled abbreviation

Q: I’m trying to figure out the proper way to abbreviate United States, given that I’ve seen it in different ways. Which is correct/proper: US, U.S., USA, or U.S.A.?

A: Some dictionaries and style guides prefer the dotted versions while others recommend the dotless ones, but both are acceptable. In general, dotted abbreviations are falling out of favor, so I’d go for the dotless ones.

Oops! I’ve just noticed that I’ve been using dots with “US” on The Grammarphobia Blog. From now on, no more dots.

As for “US” vs. “USA,” they’re equally acceptable as nouns, though US is preferred as an adjective (“US products,” “US policy,” “the US economy”).

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