The Grammarphobia Blog

Souls of Discretion

Q: I increasingly see the words “discrete” and “discreet” used incorrectly. Please differentiate. Thanks.

A: You’re right – a lot of people confuse these words.

“Discreet” means cautious or tactful or judicious. “Discrete” means separate or distinct. Example: “A discreet person keeps his work and personal life discrete.”

The two words, by the way, are pronounced the same way: di-SKREET

We acquired both “discrete” and “discreet” (by way of Old French) around 1385, according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology.

The two English words come from the same root, the Latin discretus (meaning separated), which is the past participle of the verb discernere (meaning to distinguish or to separate by sifting). The Latin verb, it turns out, is also the source of our word “discern.”

In the 1400s, the spellings “discrete,” and “discreet” (as well as “discret”) were used interchangeably for all senses, according to Barnhart, but in the 1500s “discreet” and “discrete” went their separate ways.

“Discrete” kept the meaning of separate or distinct, while “discreet” kept the meaning of careful, prudent, or discerning.

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Is this “how” a howler?

Q: My wife was asked about some proposed changes to a friend’s kitchen and replied, “I like it how it is.” Her friend thought she should have said, “I like it as it is,” or “I like it the way it is.” But I feel “I like it how it is” is probably a colloquialism and OK. What is your verdict?

A: Not guilty! Your wife used “how” in a perfectly legitimate way.

Ordinarily, “how” is an adverb. But it can also be used as a conjunction meaning something similar to “as” or “however” or “in whatever manner or way.”

Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) include this usage in their entries for “how.”

The word is a conjunction in examples such as “I like it how it is,” “Serve dinner how you wish,” “Do it how you prefer,” “Make the drinks how you like them,” and “He told us how he took up farming.”

This usage isn’t colloquial at all – it’s standard English! And that’s how it is.

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Bury similitude

Q: My husband makes fun of me for pronouncing “bury” as “burr-y” rather than “berry.” Was this word ever pronounced my way? He also kids me about the word “crayons,” which I pronounce “crans” rather that the two-syllable “cray-ons.” Are both acceptable? Thanks for your help!

A: You’ve brought up an interesting subject: why isn’t “bury” usually pronounced the way it looks? But before I answer that, I should mention that your pronunciation of it isn’t necessarily wrong.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists only the “berry” pronunciation, but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes an acceptable, though uncommon, variant similar to your “burr-y” version.

Now, on to why “bury” usually rhymes with “berry” rather than with “hurry” or “curry.” American Heritage has a “word history” note that says the Old English version of the word, byrgan, was pronounced something like “BURR-yun,” not so different from the way you say “bury.”

During the Middle English period (1100 to 1500), the word was spelled all sorts of ways: birien, byryn, berry, biry, burry, bewry, and so on. Likewise, the pronunciation of the first syllable was all over the place.

In the Midlands, according to the American Heritage note, the first vowel sounded like the “u” in “put”; in southern England, it sounded like the “i” in “pit”; and in the Southeast, it sounded like the “e” in “pet.”

Ultimately, the southeastern pronunciation predominated, but the standardized spelling reflected the Midlands dialect of the scribes in London.

American Heritage says “bury” is “the only word in Modern English with a Midlands spelling and a southeastern pronunciation.”

As for the pronunciation of “crayons,” dictionaries differ on this one too. American Heritage insists on two syllables, but Merriam-Webster’s accepts your one-syllable version as a standard, though uncommon, pronunciation.

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Plea agreement

Q: Which is correct: “plead” or “pleaded” guilty? I hear these used interchangeably on the evening news. What’s up wid dat?

A: If newscasters are using “plead” and “pleaded” interchangeably, they’re guilty of poor grammar and won’t be able to cop a plea with me.

I suspect, though, that you’re hearing “pled” and “pleaded” used interchangeably. Each of these usages is legitimate.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists both “pleaded” and “pled” (in that order) as the past tense and past participle of the verb “plead.”

So you could say a scofflaw “pleaded guilty” or “pled guilty” and be correct either way, though the first is the more common form these days.

Garner’s Modern American Usage also says that “pleaded” is the predominant form. This is true in both American and British English.

In legal terminology, though, “pled” is a common variant in the US (not in Britain), according to the Garner’s usage guide. So it’s quite common to say of an American perp that he “pled guilty” or “has pled guilty.”

The author of the usage guide, Bryan A. Garner, should know, since he’s both a lawyer and a writer on usage! He says “pled” dates from the 16th century (even though it’s now all but obsolete in England).

Outside of courtroom pleadings, “pled” is uncommon even in the US. We might say a child “pleaded for a cookie,” but rarely that a child “pled for a cookie.”

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Schneidenfreude

Q: I often hear the term “schneid” used in reference to a losing streak in sports. What, pray tell, is a “schneid”?

A: The word “schneid” comes to baseball, football, basketball, and other sports from the term “schneider” in the world of card games.

The earliest reference to “schneider” in the Oxford English Dictionary, dating back to 1886, refers to skat, a popular card game in Germany. A losing player in skat is said to be “schneider” if he has no more than 30 points.

But the modern sports usage is believed to come from gin rummy, where a “schneider” refers to a game in which the loser doesn’t win a hand – that is, he’s shut out.

In sports, therefore, to be “on the schneid” means to be on a losing streak while to get “off the schneid” refers to breaking the streak.

The card term “schneider” is derived from the German word for tailor, according to the OED. Why a tailor?

Evan Morris, on his Word Detective website, speculates that someone who’s schneidered in gin is cut (as if by a tailor) from contention.

I’ve also seen speculation that “schneider” refers to a poor game in skat because tailors have a reputation for poverty. Not my tailor, however!

The up-to-date online version of the OED doesn’t have any published references for “schneid,” the sports term, but Morris believes the usage is “probably of fairly recent vintage.”

With that, it’s time for me to scat!

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She’s, like, gimme a break

Q: It should go without saying, but we have a generation that rarely says anything. Instead it’s “He goes, ‘What do you mean?’” or “She’s like, ‘I already told you once!’” You get the picture. Does this deserve a comment? Or a caveat? Just another symptom of the illiteration of American kids, I guess.

A: I see you’ve noticed this business about the decline of the verb “say” in favor of “like” and “go.” Like it or not, this has spread throughout the English-speaking world (grown-ups as well as kids) and it’s quite a phenomenon.

Linguists have studied the use of “like” and “go” to introduce quotations, thoughts, attitudes, and gestures. Their verdict? It’s a helpful and an innovative usage.

Grammarians and lexicographers haven’t gone quite so far, at least not yet. As for the parents of those youthful offenders, don’t ask!

As it happens, I did an article last year on the subject for the New York Times Magazine. Click here to read it.

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Should “reaccredited” be edited?

Q: I work for a municipal police department. We are busy writing our annual report and are stuck. Is “reaccredit” or “reaccredited” a word? Dictionary.com does not list it, though it does have “reaccreditation.”

A: Yes, both “reaccredit” and “reaccredited” are standard English words.

The verb “reaccredit” is in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), along with a bunch of other words prefixed by “re.” Since “reaccredit” is a legitimate verb, the past participle and adjective “reaccredited” would be legit too.

I couldn’t find any published references for “reaccredit” in the Oxford English Dictionary, but the “re”-less verb “accredit” has been in English since 1620.

In the early days, “accredit” meant to vouch for or present as credible. The word “accredited” has been around since 1634, and the noun “accreditation” since 1806.

None of these terms were used in the sense of credentialed (as in an accredited diplomat or representative or program) until the late 18th century.

And it wasn’t until a century later that any of these words were used in reference to schools that were certified as meeting certain standards.

Good luck with your annual report.

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Email intuition, Part 2

Q: Is there any etiquette concerning the forwarding of emails? At the school where I work, I see information forwarded that should be kept private. An email looking for a substitute, say, may include a forwarded message that contains the regular teacher’s excuse.

A: I think email should be forwarded very selectively.

If you have to forward something, there should be an explanation at the very beginning, saying what the information is and whom it’s from and why you’re forwarding it.

Example: “Hi, whosis. Here’s something of interest that was sent to me by so-and-so.”

Furthermore, one should forward just what’s relevant, deleting all the rest. And maybe nothing needs to be forwarded at all.

In that case, I’d just send a note paraphrasing what the original sender sent to you: “So-and-so needs a substitute for next Thursday.”

For more on email etiquette (if that’s not an oxymoron these days), test your Email I.Q. and check out You Send Me, the book about online writing that I wrote with my husband, Stewart Kellerman.

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Whadda catastastroke!

Q: I was complaining about a cold recently when my wife said, ”You catastrophize things.” It’s true that I overreact to minor annoyances. Did she come up with a new word to describe this failing?

A: No, your wife can’t take credit for this one. The verb “catastrophize” has been around since at least the early 1960s, according to a March 2004 draft addition to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first published reference comes from a book by the psychologist Albert Ellis, Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy (1962):

“More specifically, he should perceive his own tendency to catastrophize about inevitable unfortunate situations – to tell himself: ‘Oh, my Lord! How terrible this situation is; I positively cannot stand it!’”

The OED gives this definition: “To conjecture or perceive disastrous implications or scenarios; to regard a relatively innocuous situation as considerably worse than it actually is.”

(Although ”catastrophize” hasn’t yet made it into major American dictionaries, several people have proposed it to Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary, which accepts suggestions for words that aren’t already in M-W’s Online Dictionary.)

In addition to “catastrophize,” the OED has citations for “catastrophizing” as a noun and an adjective. Ellis gets credit for coining the noun in his 1962 book. John Bradshaw, who writes and speaks on addiction and recovery, used the adjective first in his book Healing the Shame That Binds You (1988).

The OED has references for another noun, “catastrophizer,” dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. The earliest citation is in John Fiske’s Essays, Historical and Literary (1902):

“The difficulty with the catastrophizers was that while talking glibly about millions of years, they had not stopped to consider what it meant by a million years when it takes the shape of work accomplished.”

Or, as Jimmy Durante might have put it, “Whadda catastastroke!”

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The quick brown fox

Q: What, exactly, is a “quick question”? Is there such a thing as a “slow question”?

A: I suspect that your question is rhetorical and that you agree with this description of “quick question” in Urban Dictionary, an online reference whose definitions are written by users: “A question that usually requires a long answer.”

Seriously, someone who says “I have a quick question” is promising the answer will be quick! And someone who says “I have time for a quick question” is hoping the answer will be quick!

A “quick question” is, of course, an idiomatic expression – that is, one that makes its own rules.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) describes an idiom as an expression “that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements.”

No matter how you describe it, an idiom doesn’t have to make literal sense. And “quick question” doesn’t.

I couldn’t find any citations for it in the Oxford English Dictionary, but I did find a few for “quick-reference,” as in a reference book that may be long but provides quick answers.

Sorry for a long answer to a short question. Next time, I hope to be quicker.

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Idioms delight

Q: I’m confused by the expression “lucked out.” Why does it suggest out of luck when it actually means in luck?

A: “Lucking out” does indeed seem to imply running out of luck, while in fact it means lucking into something. But who says idioms have to make sense?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the idiomatic phrasal verb “to luck out” as meaning “to achieve success or advantage by good luck in a difficult, testing, or dangerous situation.”

The OED traces the usage back to 1954, so it’s a relatively new one. The expression “luck into,” meaning “to acquire by good fortune,” came along in 1959, according to the OED.

We use a lot of prepositions idiomatically in confusing ways. Why does “drugged out” essentially mean “drugged up”? Why do we “stand down” but “mess up”? Why can we show we’re exhausted by saying “I’m all in” or “I’m all out”?

What’s more, we turn ON an alarm so it will go OFF, and then we turn it OFF when it goes ON. We also fill IN a form that we’re told to fill OUT. It’s no wonder that people new to English have so much trouble with prepositions!

I think we can chalk all this up to the flexibility of English prepositions, which give us endless possibilities for idiomatic expression.

H.W. Fowler, in The King’s English, says there are so many idiomatic uses of prepositions that it would be impossible for dictionaries, grammar books, or usage guides to cite more than “the scantiest selection.” The best way to learn how to use them, he says, is “good reading with the idiomatic eye open.”

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Where’d ya get those peeps?

Q: I wonder if you’d comment on the word “peeps.” I’ve seen it several times recently, once in an ad advising young people to be tested for HIV. The young man shown says he is tested “for me and my peeps.” The meaning is clear, but the word is new to me.

A: Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang (2d ed.) defines “peeps” as a slang term originating in the 1980s on college campuses and in the black community. It’s derived from “people” and it means parents, friends, people in general, according to Cassell’s.

But the term was apparently around nearly a century and a half earlier, according to two odd citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED says the quotations “represent the speech of non-native English speakers.”

In the earliest citation, from the Dec. 29, 1847, issue of the Janesville Gazette in Wisconsin, a French chaplain is quoted as offering this prayer in the Michigan Legislature: “O Lor! Bless de peeps and their servant de representatives. May dey make laws for de peeps and not for demselves – amen.”

In the other reference, from an 1868 book called Theatrical Management in the West and South for 30 Years, a French musician is quoted as saying: “I hear dat in dis Cincinnati de peops very mush fond of de musique, and de eat and de drink is sheep.”

It strikes me, though, that these attempts to quote the mangled English of two Frenchmen sound an awful lot like some 19th-century white efforts to imitate or caricature African-American speech.

The first OED citation for “peeps” used in the way you suggest comes from the Dec. 29, 1951, issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune: “Around the country, high schoolers are greeting each other with ‘Hi, peeps’ (short for ‘hello, people,’ of course).”

The dictionary has five other modern references, including this one from a 1988 book, Wad and Peep, co-authored by the British comedian Harry Enfield: “Golf, the sport of badly dressed peeps all around the world.”

From what I can tell by the more recent citations, the term “peeps” has been used by blacks and whites, young and old, over the last half-century. And I do mean used, though not always to refer to people.

I got 13.7 million hits when I googled “peeps,” but nearly all of the first few hundred refer to those tiny marshmallow candies shaped like chickens, rabbits, and other animals. All the best to you and your peeps!

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Two-faced words, part 2

Q: I found your appearance last month on WNYC fascinating. I sat in the parking lot of a grocery store until it finished. I was particularly interested in your discussion of “sanction” and other words that are their own opposites. I have a small collection that may interest you: “cleave” (to cling or to part), “oversight” (a failure to notice or watchful care), and “dust” (to wipe off or to sprinkle on).

A: I’m glad you enjoyed the show, but I misspoke when I referred to these two-faced words as “autonyms.” The usual name for these words is “contronyms.” though they are sometimes called “auto-antonyms” or “autantonyms.”

Here are some others besides “sanction,” “cleave,” “oversight,” and “dust”:

“Screen”: to view or to hide from view.

“Weather”: to stand up against a stress, or to be eroded by a stress.

“Buckle”: to fasten up, or to bend and break (not precisely opposites).

“Bolt”: to flee or to fix in place.

“Fast”: moving quickly or stuck in place.

“Boned”: to have bones, or to have had them removed.

“Enjoin”: to forbid, or to require.

“Seed”: to plant them, or to remove them.

“Trim”: to remove parts, or to add to (as in decoration).

I’m sure there are many others!

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On war and peace in bed

Q: A professor of mine once told me of Mussolini’s efforts to remove foreign words from Italian. The French “garage” became autorimessa (“car shed”) and the Greek “aphrodisiac” became guerra in letto (“war in bed”). The word autorimessa is still used in Italy, but guerra in letto has vanished. I wonder, though, if the latter was the professor’s joke.

A: Your professor wasn’t joking. It turns out that guerra in letto was indeed designed to replace “aphrodisiac” in Italian.

As the professor said, it was invented in Fascist Italy in the 1930s as part of an attempt to purge Italian of its “pro-foreign” and “anti-Italian” influences.

Other words or phrases that the Fascists tossed out and replaced with Italian ones included “sleeping draft” (it became pace in letto, literally “peace in bed”), “sandwich” (traidue, or “between two”), “bar” (quisibeve, or “here one drinks”), “cocktail” (polibibita, or “multiple drink”), and “maître d’hôtel” (guidopalato, or “palate guide”).

Mussolini’s regime also went after foreign films, French food, German music, American customs, and other suspect influences.

There was even an effort to reform the Italian diet and discourage the use of pasta because of its reliance on imported flour (homegrown rice was encouraged instead).

Fascinating stuff! I got this information, by the way, from the book South Wind Through the Kitchen: The Best of Elizabeth David, compiled by Jill Norman.

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How many boots on the ground?

Q: I’ve had my fill of the new and irritatingly ubiquitous expression “on the ground” in sentences like this: “Let’s speak about the state of charity work on the ground in Africa.” What possible meaning would be lost if “on the ground” were left out? My guess is that this phrase is of military origin, but now every pundit and reporter who wants to sound hip and savvy uses it.

A: I agree that “on the ground” is an empty, unnecessary phrase in a sentence like the one you’ve given. It’s more of a verbal tic than a meaningful usage.

Here are some other irritating and/or meaningless expressions used to death in the media: “in the final analysis,” “hit the ground running,” “when all is said and done,” “at the end of the day,” and “if you will.”

I’m guilty of the last one myself, though I try not to be. An example: “First I take off my left shoe, and then, if you will, my right.” Pretty lame. (No pun intended!)

A survey done some time ago in Britain found that “at the end of the day” was the most annoying cliché, in the opinion of those polled.

As for the origin of using “on the ground” to mean on the spot, the first published references in the Oxford English Dictionary, dating from the early 1960s, don’t have anything to do with the military.

Here’s a citation from the Jan. 10, 1963, issue of The Listener, a now-defunct British magazine: “There is no longer any good reason why the young … American writer should undergo a European apprenticeship unless it be to satisfy his curiosity or to watch the operations of another literature on the ground.”

But “on the ground,” as you’ve apparently noticed, has been frequently used in a military sense in recent years: “boots on the ground,” “troops on the ground,” “forces on the ground,” and so on.

In many, if not most, of these cases, the words “on the ground,” meaning in situ, add nothing to the sentences in which they appear.

Sometimes, in fact, the “on the ground” expressions may be downright confusing. Example: “The Marines had 20,000 boots on the ground.” Is that a reference to 10,000 marines or to 20,000 (perhaps each standing on one foot)?

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Dead in the water

Q: I’m writing in defense of “dead in the water,” an expression you criticized on the air as an example of overused business-speak. If a becalmed sailing ship can be “dead in the water,” a becalmed business project can be likewise described.

A: Yes, “dead in the water” is really evocative in the maritime sense, but it’s overworked in the office, in my opinion. Nevertheless, I appreciate your comments and those of others defending this usage in the workplace.

Interestingly, I searched the Oxford English Dictionary, but couldn’t find a single published reference for “dead in the water.” I think the OED lexicographers have been asleep (or rather becalmed) on this one.

I did, however, find citations going back to around 1000 for “dead” (or “deada” in Old English) used as an adjective to describe motionless air or water.

Here’s a citation about the life of a trout from Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1653): “As he growes stronger, he gets from the dead, still water, into the sharp streames and the gravel.”

The OED also has several references for the phrase “dead water” (water without a current), dating from a 1601 English translation from Pliny: “A standing poole or dead water.”

As for the use of “dead” in a business sense, the OED’s first citation is from a 1601 report of “complaints against dead Trade.” And here’s one from the publishing world: Samuel Johnson, in a 1758 essay in The Idler, writes of publishers that “never had known such a dead time.”

And now, I’ve come to a dead stop!

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Supersize that word?

Q: It has always bothered me when people use the word “orientate.” Is there a difference between “orientate” and “orient,” as in “They oriented the students as to the layout of the school”? Similarly, I am irritated by the overuse of the word “signage.” Would not “signs” be just as effective? “Orientate” and “signage” seem to me to be unnecessary altogether. Am I being ridiculous?

A: You certainly are NOT being ridiculous. “Signage” is merely a pumped-up version of “signs.” I take umbrage at “signage”!

This usage is relatively recent and (like so many other examples of stretched-out words) appears to have originated in legal-speak, or so one would surmise from the first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation is from a court ruling in a 1976 issue of the Federal Register: “All signage, stationery, forms, calling cards and other symbols are identical with no distinction between the main bank and the drive-in facility.”

A few other examples of supersized nouns, puffed up merely to make the speaker sound more authoritative, are “spillage” (spills), “wastage” (waste), and “shirtings” (shirts).

As for the extra-large “orientate,” take a look at the “right orientation” posting on Oct. 26, 2007. You also may be interested in the related “conversation stopper” posting on Nov. 13, 2007.

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Adjectively speaking

Q: Is it “Liberia President Johnson Sirleaf” or “Liberian President Johnson Sirleaf”? Similarly, is it “Algeria Department of Education” or “Algerian Department of Education”?

A: The adjective forms should be used: “Liberian President Johnson Sirleaf” and “Algerian department of education.”

But some stylebooks (the New York Times’s, for example) frown on attaching an adjective to a title, and prefer something like “President Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.”

You could also use possessives: “Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,” and “Algeria’s department of education.” Or constructions like “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia,” and “the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.”

Note the words that are lowercase. The Algerian agency isn’t officially called the “Department of Education,” so that should be lowercase (the official name in English is “Ministry of Education”).

Also, some stylebooks require capitalizing the “p” in “president” whenever it refers to a specific national leader, but others call for using an uppercase “p” only when the title precedes the name of the leader.

As you can see, these issues of style can be more art than science. If you’re writing for a publication or an organization or another enterprise, check out your stylebook for any capital quirks.

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Finishing touch

Q: I’m hoping you might comment on what I see as the widespread abuse of a verb tense in instructions: “When you are finished Step One, etc.” Shouldn’t it be “When you HAVE finished Step One, etc.”? I’d like to see this abuse finished – that is, lights out! But maybe I’m missing something here because I’m seeing it all the time.

A: No, I think you’re right on the money. It would naturally be incorrect to say “When you are finished step one….” (And no, I don’t believe in unnecessarily capitalizing “step one,” as many instructional manuals do.)

Here are a few of the correct ways one might write this thought: (1) When you are finished with step one…. (2) When you have finished step one…. (3) When you have completed step one…. (4) When you have done step one….

The verb “finish,” by the way, dates back to around 1350, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. I couldn’t find a single example of the construction you cited in the OED’s 40 published references for “are finished.”

Here’s a citation for “finish” at work in the 1697 Dryden translation of Virgil’s Georgics: “He call’d, sigh’d, sung: his griefs with day begun, / Nor were they finish’d with the setting sun.”

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Light in the loafers

Q: Growing up in the ‘50s, I recall hearing “light in the loafers” as a term of derision for gay men. An Internet search turned up several possible explanations, all plausible, none definitive. Have you ever wrestled with “light in the loafers”?

A: Like many expressions, “light in the loafers” is a bit slippery to wrestle with, but here goes.

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang (2d ed.) has only a brief entry, describing the expression as ‘50s American slang and adding that “the image is the stereotyped effeminate male, tripping along.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, which defines it as effeminate or homosexual, lists a series of references for the expression dating from 1967 to 1996.

However, the first Random House citation, which comes from the Dictionary of American Slang (1967) by Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner, describes the expression as “fairly common” since around 1955.

The expression, by the way, hasn’t been used only to mock gay men. It’s also been used as a euphemism by gay men themselves, as in this 1989 reference from the ABC-TV move Rock Hudson: “We’d say, ‘Is he musical?’ Never gay…. Sometimes ‘Light in the loafers.’”

Both the Cassell’s and Random House entries include what they describe as a similar expression for a gay or effeminate man: “light on his (or “her”) feet.” But I’ve never heard this phrase used in any other way than to describe someone who’s graceful.

If you’ve googled “light in the loafers,” you know that it’s still being used today. The most recent Random House citation is from the Feb. 7, 1996, issue of New York Press, an alternative weekly: “The garment business is popularized by citizens who are ‘light in the loafers.’”

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The ins and outs of sleep

Q: You were asked during your last appearance on WNYC where the phrase “sleep in” comes from. Do you think it may have something to do with maids and other servants who sleep in rather than leave their places of employment?

A: That seems to make sense, but the verbal phrase “sleep in” was apparently first used to mean oversleep or sleep late. The Oxford English Dictionary says this usage is of Scottish origin.

The earliest published reference in the OED for “sleep in” comes from Christine Isobel Johnston’s novel Elizabeth de Bruce (1827): “For ye ken that like myself ye whiles sleep in on a morning.”

Although the OED‘s primary definition of the phrase is “to sleep in the house, or on the premises, where one is employed,” all nine of the citations given refer to oversleeping or sleeping late.

A typical reference is this one from the Dorothy L. Sayers mystery Five Red Herrings (1939): “Shall I tell Mrs. McLeod to let you sleep in, as they say? And call you with a couple of aspirins on toast?”

As for the verbal phrase “sleep out,” it originally meant to spend the night in the open air, but later came to mean sleeping away from home. The first OED citation, in an 1852 British report on juvenile crime, refers to an apparently homeless child committed for the offense of “sleeping out.”

The next reference is from the Kipling poem “Danny Deever” (1890): “‘E’s sleepin’ out an’ far to-night,’ the Colour-Sergeant said.” And a 1908 letter by Rupert Brooke says: “I should love to sleep out with nothing but a few extra socks on.”

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A wazoo-ful of prepositions

Q: During your last appearance on the Leonard Lopate Show, you said English had prepositions “up the wazoo.” Is the proper expression “UP the wazoo” or “OUT the wazoo”?

The latest OED citation for this usage is in a 2003 novel, Small Town, a post-9/11 thriller by the mystery writer Lawrence Block: “There’d be security up the wazoo, cops and Secret Service agents a mile deep.”

A: Well, I’m glad to see the adjective “proper” used with this expression, since I had a misgiving or two after saying it on the air. Somewhere in the back of my mind I recalled that the phrase’s origin wasn’t all that proper.

I did some checking after the show and confirmed that the earliest published references for “wazoo” in the Oxford English Dictionary refer to the buttocks or the anus.

In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) still describes it as “vulgar slang” for the anus. But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) now calls it merely slang and says “wazoo” can refer to an excess of something (the way I used it on WNYC).

The OED speculates that “wazoo” might be derived from the kazoo, a musical instrument whose name has been used in similar expressions: “up the kazoo”; “freeze your kazoo off.”

The OED’s first citation for “wazoo” comes from the back cover of the May 1961 issue of the California Pelican, a now-defunct humor magazine at the University of California, Berkeley: “Run it up yer ol’ wazoo!”

In short time, “wazoo” traveled a long way. The next citation is in the April 1, 1971, issue of the Wall Street Journal: “Golf itself is quite safe, the greatest risk being the possibility of a long drive plunking some poor fellow in the wazoo.”

The OED notes that “wazoo” is often used as a substitute in expressions where the word “ass” would normally be found, as in this citation from the Feb. 14, 1975, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle: “Dating is a real pain in the wazoo.”

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the word “wazoo” was being used to describe a great quantity of something. The first OED reference comes from the Jan. 5, 1981, issue of the Herald-Journal in Syracuse, NY: “There comes a time in performing when you just do it. You can have theory up the wazoo.”

Here’s another citation, from the June issue of the American Bar Association Journal: “I had done well – law review, Coif, American Jurisprudence book awards up the wazoo.” (The Order of the Coif is an honor society for US law graduates.)

As for your question, Merriam-Webster’s lists both “up the wazoo” and “out the wazoo” as slang expressions meaning in excess. But the OED includes the preposition “in” when the expression is used in its anal sense.

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Squish, squash!

(A posting on Sept. 18, 2012, about “squash” and “quash” updates and expands upon this item.)

Q: I’ve always thought the word to use when you squelch something is “squash.” But I’m now hearing the word “quash” used instead: “The report was quashed.” Have I been hearing wrong? Or is this another squishy new usage that should be squashed?

A: I’ve done a bit of poking around in the Oxford English Dictionary and, lo and behold, I find that the verb “quash” (meaning to crush, stifle, or destroy) has been perfectly good English since the 13th century.

The OED’s earliest citation, a reference to quashing a woman’s lust, comes from The Owl and the Nightingale (circa 1275), one of the first long comic poems in English.

The dictionary has many published references for this usage of “quash” right up until the present day, including one in Mary: A Fiction (1788), a novel by the British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

Feuding families in the novel decide that the best way to end a dispute between two potential heirs is to “quash it by a marriage.” (Wollstonecraft, as you may know, was the mother of Mary Shelley, author of the Frankenstein novel.)

As for the verb “squash,” it turns out to be the newbie. It’s been around only since a 1565 English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: “Ye must, I saye, teare them, rent them, and squashe them to peeces.”

Who says clerical writing has to be dull?

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Comment, please?

Q: Would you kindly explain why people who comment on the news are called “commentators” and not “commentors.” This seems inconsistent with the usual constructs: “builders” build, “sailors” sail, “programmers” program, and (one would expect) “commentors” comment.

A: One would expect so, wouldn’t one? But English has its surprises.

In fact, you’ll surprised to learn that “commentor” and “commenter” used to be fairly common words in the 17th century for someone who comments, but they’re considered obsolete today.

Both nouns are quite old. The earliest published reference for “commentor” in the Oxford English Dictionary dates all the way back to 1387. The first “commenter” is in Donne’s Satire 2 (circa 1593): “As slily as any Commenter goes by / Hard words, or sense; or in Divinity.”

Interestingly, the word “commentator” is pretty old too, with OED citations dating back to the 1400s, when it referred to a writer of historical commentaries. By the 17th century, the word was being used more generally to include a writer of literary, religious, or other commentaries.

In the early 20th century, the term was extended to broadcasting and sports, as in this excerpt from a 1928 BBC handbook: “In addition to expert knowledge, the sporting commentator must also obviously have a good voice and great fluency.”

The first citation for “commentator” as one who comments about current events on radio or TV is from the Encyclopedia Britannica’s1938 Book of the Year: “Experienced radio commentators are free to voice every kind of opinion.”

Oh, yeah?

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That’s that

Q: Are both of these sentences correct? “It’s good to hear you’re doing well” and “It’s good to hear THAT you’re doing well.” If so, wouldn’t it be preferable to drop “that” and make your writing more economical? Thanks for your insight.

A: I’ve discussed this issue before on the blog, but it may be time to deal with it again. The word “that” can often be optional. For example, all of these sentences are correct:

• “It’s good to hear THAT you’re doing well” and “It’s good to hear you’re doing well.”

• “I thought THAT you would never call” and “I thought you would never call.”

• “We believe THAT we’ll go” and “We believe we’ll go.”

• “I chose the car THAT I test drove last night” and “I chose the car I test drove last night.”

The use of “that” in such sentences is a matter of taste – do whatever sounds best to your ear. But there are times when using “that” can sharpen an ambiguous sentence. Here’s an example: “I hoped you went to Texas and Stephanie did too.” This could mean:

(1) “I hoped THAT you went to Texas and THAT Stephanie did too.”

(2) “I hoped THAT you went to Texas and Stephanie hoped so too.”

So, sometimes a “that” is optional, and sometimes it’s not. If in doubt, put yourself in the mind of the reader. If a “that” would make the sentence clearer, go for it. If not, do whatever sounds best.

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Did I decimate the language?

Q: I regret having to correct something you said on the air. You were wrong to criticize a reporter’s statement that 4/5 of a population was decimated. That statement has an actual mathematical meaning, even if it was used improperly by the reporter. The algebraic word problem this represents would mean that 4/5 of a population was reduced by 1/10. Or 4/5 x 1/10 = 4/50 = 2/25 = 0.08.

A: I suppose you’re right by a technicality. But be serious. Nobody in his right mind would deliberately render the figure you’re talking about by saying “four-fifths of a population was decimated.”

As for the word “decimate,” it literally means to kill every tenth one, but most people don’t intend it literally. It can be used loosely to refer to the destruction of a lot of people or things. I give this example in my grammar book Woe Is I: “Gomez says the mushroom crop in the cellar has been decimated by rats.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) is with me on using this looser definition of “decimate” for both people and things, but The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) doesn’t go quite so far.

American Heritage‘s usage panel says it’s OK to use “decimate” for killing a large percentage of people, but not for a large-scale destruction of things.

The word “decimate” comes from the Latin decimus, meaning a tenth. In Roman times, the verb decimare meant to take a tax of a tenth, and a decimatio was the execution of one in ten men in a mutinous military unit.

I still think the point that I made on the air was valid. It’s jarring to hear the word “decimate” used with a figure, as in this example from Woe Is I: “The earthquake decimated seventy-five percent of Morticia’s antiques.” Ouch!

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The NOO-kya-lur family

Q: After more than seven years of hearing our President mangle the word “nuclear,” have Americans finally accepted “NOO-kya-lur” as standard English?

A: President Bush is often blamed for the ubiquity of “NOO-kya-lur,” but this questionable pronunciation of “nuclear” was around long before he came on the scene.

And he’s far from the only US President to take liberties with this word. At least three others – Eisenhower, Carter, and Clinton – were creative in pronouncing “nuclear.”

Although the variant pronunciation is very widespread, it’s still frowned upon by many. The usual pronunciation is still “NOO-klee-ur.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says the variant version is “generally considered incorrect” and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) sees it as a variant that occurs in educated speech but that is “disapproved of by many.”

A usage note in American Heritage suggests that the popularity of “NOO-kya-lur” may be an example of how a familiar pronunciation pattern can influence a less familiar one.

The last two syllables of the usual pronunciation (“NOO-klee-ur”) are relatively rare in English, American Heritage says, while the last two syllables of the deviant version resemble the endings of such common words as “particular,” “circular,” “spectacular,” and “molecular.”

But some linguists have raised doubts about this theory, pointing out that English speakers don’t seem to have trouble pronouncing “likelier,” “sicklier,” and other words with “klee-ur” endings.

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What’s up, Jack?

Q: Which is correct? “Thanks, Jack!” Or: “Thanks Jack!” Help appreciated.

A: The correct sentence is “Thanks, Jack!” Similarly, it would be correct to say, “Jack, thanks!” or “Hey, Jack, what ‘s happening?”

The reason: you need a comma before (or after or around) a name used in direct address – that is, somebody one is talking to.

If the name is at the beginning of a sentence, you put a comma after it. If it’s at the end, you put the comma in front. And if the name is in the middle of a sentence, commas go in front and back.

If you find this confusing, you’re in good company. For example, the comma is missing in front of the name “Jack” in the Percy Mayfield song (recorded by Ray Charles) “Hit the Road Jack.”

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On commas and nuns

Q: In “Shattered Glass,” a movie about a New Republic journalist who fabricated stories, the magazine’s editor says commas should always appear in pairs. Is this true?

A: Nope. It’s no more true than the myth that nuns always appear in pairs.

I didn’t see the film and I don’t know what Martin Peretz, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, actually thinks about punctuation. But the truth is that commas can appear in ones, twos, threes, etc. It all depends on how they’re being used.

You might use one, for example, to separate two clauses: “Tina hadn’t left the city for months, and by Friday she was climbing the walls.”

You’d need more than one (in this case three) to separate a series of things or actions: ”She packed a toothbrush, a hair dryer, her swimsuit, and her teddy bear.”

You might indeed use a pair of commas around the name of somebody being addressed: “Hey, Mom, how are you doing?” But you’d need only one comma if the person was at the beginning or end of the sentence: “Goodbye, Mom.”

You might also use a pair of commas with a nonrestrictive (or “which”) clause in the middle of a sentence: “His hat, which blew off in the wind, landed in the gutter.” But if the clause isn’t in the middle of the sentence, then only one comma is needed: “In the gutter he found his hat, which had blown off in the wind.”

Commas are also used before or after a quotation, after an introductory phrase, and around an aside. For more, check out the “Comma Sutra” chapter in my grammar book Woe Is I.

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Something’s gotta give

Q: I’m yet another Brit who enjoys your blog. In my schooldays, we were taught that it was clumsy and redundant to use the phrase “have got.” So instead of saying “Jack and Sue have got a dog,” we were encouraged to say “Jack and Sue have a dog.” Is there a similar idea in American English teaching?

A: Poor little “get” is a very misunderstood verb. We use it to mean acquire or have, which of course raises confusion in the present-perfect tense (“have got”), where “have” is used purely as an auxiliary and there’s no redundancy. (More on this later.)

We also use the present-perfect tense of “get” to mean “must,” as in “I simply have got to go on a diet,” which is a more emphatic way of saying “I simply must go on a diet.” And we use “got” by itself (simple past tense) to mean “was allowed to,” as in “I got to choose the movie.” So “get” and its various forms don’t always refer to having or acquiring.

What’s NOT right is using the past (“got”) alone for something in the present, as in “I simply got to go on a diet” or “I got a million bucks in the bank.” These should be “have got” (present perfect of “get”) or “have” (present of “have”). Americans make this mistake a lot, though they usually say “gotta” for “got to”!

But back to your original question. “Have got” isn’t wrong and isn’t (as some Brits believe) an Americanism. It’s perfect English, both in Britain and in the United States, and has been for ages. It’s the present-perfect form of the verb “get.”

Don’t be misled by the presence of “have,” which in this case is not the simple verb meaning to possess, but an auxiliary verb with no meaning of its own. As a linguist would say, it has no content, only function.

Take, for example, the verb “run.” Its primary forms are “run” (present); “ran” (past); “have run” (present perfect”); and “had run” (past perfect). Notice that in these cases, “have” and “had” bear no relationship whatever to the verb meaning possess: they serve a purely grammatical function (to indicate a perfect tense).

In fact, the simple verb “have” also forms its tenses with the auxiliary verb “have.” The primary tenses are “have” (present); “had” (past); “have had” (present perfect); and “had had” (past perfect). Nobody sees any redundancy here.

Similarly, if we take a synonym for the verb “get” – say, “acquire” – its tenses are formed the same way: “acquire” (present); “acquired” (past); “have acquired” (present perfect); and “had acquired” (past perfect). Nobody has a problem with these, either.

The verb “get,” like every other verb in English, has tenses formed with the auxiliary verb “have.” The primary ones are “get” (present”); “got” (past); “have got” [also “have gotten” in the US] (present perfect); and “had got” [also “had gotten” in the US] (past perfect).

The fact that the simple verb “have” (meaning possess) bears some resemblance to “get” is purely coincidental when the auxiliary verb “have” is used to form perfect tenses.

In short, there’s no redundancy in the present-perfect verb form “have got.” But I suspect there’s some redundancy in this answer. Please forgive it! (And if “gotten” gets your goat, see the Sept. 12, 2006, blog item.)

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“I” anxiety

Q: I often hear people say “than me” when I believe they should be saying “than I.” I hear this on a fairly regular basis, and occasionally see it in published work. The problem is that I am at a loss to explain why “than me” is wrong and “than I” is right. I thank you in advance for taking the trouble to clarify this point.

A: Both “than I” and “than me” can be correct, depending on what you mean.

For example, if you said, “He likes her better than me,” you would mean “better than he likes me.” If you said (correctly but a bit stiffly), “He likes her better than I,” you would mean “better than I do.” In that second case, you might be better off adding the final verb and saying, “better than I do.”

But a sentence like “He’s bigger than me” would never be correct in standard English. Both “He’s bigger than I” and “He’s bigger than I am” are correct.

Some people might find that “He’s bigger than I” sounds a little formal without the implied verb at the end. So my preference would be for “He’s bigger than I am.”

People attach the wrong pronoun to “than” more often in the first person: “than I” vs. “than me.” But the principle is the same with other pronouns (“than him,” “than us,” and so on).

By the way, some usage gurus, including William Safire, accept “than” as a preposition, and claim the object pronoun (“me,” “him,” “us,” and so on) afterward is just fine. Certainly common usage is on their side. But you seem to be asking for a “correctness” call. And in formal English, “than” is regarded as a conjunction, not a preposition.

I hope I haven’t muddied the waters even further!

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