English English language Etymology Punctuation Usage Word origin

On ’til and till and until

[Note: A May 30, 2022, post discusses the history of “ ’til,” “till,” and “until.”]

Q: My pet peeve is the use of the word till to mean until. Isn’t ’til the correct contraction of until? I see it all the time (and I mean all the time) spelled till, which makes me think of working the soil. Am I wrong? I can’t rest ’til I know.

A: I’m sorry, but you are wrong. Both till and until are legitimate words.

Historically, in fact, till came first. Later, un was added and the final l dropped, giving us until.

In modern usage, they’re interchangeable, though until is more common at the beginning of a sentence.

So it’s not correct that till is a shortening of until. Rather, until is a lengthening of till.

Where did ’til come from? It all began in the 18th century when writers muddied the waters by creating ’till and ’til under the mistaken assumption they were contractions of until. Not so.

The word ’til (with or without an apostrophe in front to indicate an omission) is etymologically incorrect, and frowned on by many usage writers.

However, some standard dictionaries now accept ’til  as a variant spelling of till. As The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), explains:

“Although ’till is now nonstandard, ’til is sometimes used in this way and is considered acceptable, though it is etymologically incorrect.”

[This post was updated on Oct. 17, 2015.]

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Why do politicians sound like turkeys?

Q: Why oh why do politicians always seem to use gobbledygook? Can’t they say anything without resorting to clumsy, over-stuffed language?

A: Here’s my answer in a nutshell:

(1) They’re hoping to sound smarter than they are. (Perhaps they’re insecure.)

(2) They don’t really want you to know what they’re saying.

(3) They don’t know the answer, so they’re hiding their emptiness behind a lot of verbiage.

(4) They’re so accustomed to “bureaucratese” that they can’t use English anymore.

(5) They’re lying.

(6) They’re turkeys.

English language Usage

What’s the right dictionary for me?

Q: What is the best dictionary to purchase? I’d like to buy a nice hard-bound dictionary for my family. Could you suggest a quality edition with good etymological references?

A: I like both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the big fourth edition, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the eleventh edition.

[2012 update: American Heritage is now available in an updated fifth edition.]

The dictionary you choose depends to some degree on what you’re using it for. I find myself using American Heritage a lot because the entries are so interesting and the usage notes are very helpful. It’s an entertaining dictionary if you’re into looking things up!

On the other hand, Merriam-Webster’s is the “house” dictionary of many publishing companies, newspapers, magazines, and so on. If you’re writing for them, that would be a good dictionary to have from a style point of view (consistency of capitalizations, abbreviations, and so on). It is also less conservative from a usage point of view.

I realize this isn’t a definitive answer. So here’s one: If you’re buying a dictionary to use for work or writing and you need fast, authoritative answers that don’t go into a lot of detail, get Merriam-Webster’s. If you want to be entertained and edified as well, get American Heritage.

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A singular question

[Note: An updated post on the use of “they” in singular references was published on May 22, 2017.]

Q: What’s a suitable (that is, gender-less) alternative to the use of the pronoun “his” in the sentence “Someone forgot to pay his bills”? Many people use “their” instead of “his” in this case and others like it. What’s your opinion?

A: You’ve asked the grammar question of the century: What’s a suitable, gender-free, singular pronoun for such cases? The answer: There isn’t one. The use of “they,” “them,” and “their” in reference to singulars isn’t considered acceptable in formal English (at least as of today) even though millions of people use them that way.

One solution to the problem is to use the phrase “his or her,” as in “Someone forgot to pay his or her bills.” But many people consider that clunky.

Here’s another solution: If the piece you’re writing is long, and if this seems appropriate, alternate using masculine pronouns in some places and feminine pronouns in others, to indicate a sort of generic individual. You might say “Someone forgot to pay his bills” in one place and “Did anyone lose her umbrella?” in another.

A third solution is to “write around” the problem. Instead of “Someone forgot to pay his bills,” write “Someone forgot to pay the bills.” Instead of “If anyone calls, tell him I’m out,” use “If anyone calls, say I’m out.”

If you want to use “they,” “them” or “their,” you could, on the other hand, make the subject plural instead of singular: “If people call, tell them I’m out” or “All parents dote on their children.”

There’s always a way around this problem.

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Why is a toll road a “turnpike”?

Q: I’m too shy to call you during the radio show, but I have a question. Why is a toll road called a turnpike?

A: The word “turnpike” dates back to 1420, according to the Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. It originally referred to a spiked barrier designed to restrict access to a road. It comes from the Middle English “turnen” (to turn) plus “pike” (a sharp spike).

The Oxford English Dictionary says the spiked barrier was used “as a defense against sudden attack, especially of men on horseback.” In the late 17th century, according to the OED, “turnpike” began being used to refer to a barrier on a toll road. By the mid-18th century, the word was used to refer to the road itself.

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A “trying” time

Q: I often hear people say “try and” instead of “try to,” as in “I will try and go to the store today,” instead of “I will try to go to the store today.” This sounds to me as if they will do two things: they will try today, AND they will go to the store today. Is this really a grammatical error, or am I being too picky? In other words, should I try and get a life?

A: “Try to” is correct in formal English, but “try and” is gaining acceptance in spoken and informal usage. As Pat noted in her book Woe Is I, the “try and” form seems appropriate if there’s a note of belligerence or defiance involved (as in “Just try and make me!” or “Try and stay in your own lane, #@$%!”).

Are you too picky? Well, we wouldn’t say it’s a grammatical error per se; it’s more an example of slang or colloquial usage. According to one authoritative reference we consulted, “try and” is accepted as a standard idiom in British English.

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The uniqueness of ‘unique’

[An updated post about “unique” appeared on Oct. 20, 2017.]

Q: I have increasingly been hearing phrases like “very unique” and “most unique.” I had thought that such expressions were used mostly by illiterates, but last week I heard them on a news commentary on the BBC. What is the status of the qualified “unique”?

A: There is no legitimate qualification for “unique.” If something is unique, it’s one of a kind. There are no degrees of uniqueness. As I say in my grammar book, Woe Is I, “Nothing can be more, less, sort of, rather, quite, very, slightly, or particularly unique. The word stands alone, like dead, unanimous, and pregnant.” So if you hear someone qualify it, that’s a misuse. The reason this particular misuse is such a shame is that “unique” is unique! Using a modifier with it muddies the meaning, and there’s no synonym that’s as good.

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A “flustrating” question

Q: I keep hearing the word “flustrated,” but I can’t find it in my dictionary. Is it a legitimate word?

A: “Flustrated” is a mixing of “frustrated” and “flustered.” It’s not accepted by most dictionaries, at least not yet, but many similar words (linguists call them “blends” or “blended words”) have become part of the English language.

Lewis Carroll coined another term for these linguistic mixes: “portmanteau words.” (A portmanteau is a kind of suitcase with two hinged compartments.) One of Carroll’s creations was “chortle,” a combination of “chuckle” and “snort.”

Some of the most common blended words that have made their way into the English language are “smog” (“smoke” plus “fog”); “motel” (“motor” plus “hotel”); “Breathalyzer” (“breath” plus “analyzer”); “televangelist” (“television” plus “evangelist”); “sportscaster” (“sports” plus “broadcaster”), and, of course, “weblog” or “blog” (“Web” plus “log”).

So the phenomenon has a long history, and probably a long future ahead of it too.

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A “cockamamie” story

Q: I tuned in during your discussion of the word “cockamamie.” I didn’t hear the whole thing, but the word sounds like a Yiddishism to me.

A: I agree that “cockamamie” (it means “worthless” or “nonsensical”) sounds like a Yiddishism, but it seems that it’s not. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says it comes from “decalcomania” (the practice of using decals as cheap fake tattoos). According to Random House, “cockamamie” was the Brooklynese pronunciation of “decalcomania.” You can see the connection if you think of “cockamamie” as not only worthless or nonsensical but fake as well (the tattoo is a cheap imitation).

Another listener looked up “cockamamie” in Leo Rosten’s The Joy of Yiddish. Rosten says the word “is not Hebrew and not Yiddish, but indigenous argot.” He adds that people on the Lower East Side of Manhattan called the decal tattoos “cockamamies” because they didn’t know how to spell “decalcomania.”

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Do you really need “that”?

Q: Please tell me which of these sentences is correct?

1) I was beginning to think THAT you would never call.
2) I was beginning to think you would never call.

A: Either of them is correct. The use of “that” in such sentences is optional. It’s a matter of taste. Do whatever sounds better to your ear.

However, there are times when using “that” can make a sentence clearer. For instance, a sentence with more than one verb might be ambiguous.

Here’s an example: “I hoped you went to Texas and Stephanie did too.” This could mean either:

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.”

In some cases, adding “that” can make the sentence clearer. But when clarity isn’t involved, let your ear decide.

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Who put the “tom” in “tomboy”?

Q: What is the etymology and history of the word tomboy?

A: According to the Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, the noun “tomboy” (formed by joining the male name Tom and the word “boy”) was coined sometime before 1553, and meant a boy who was rude or boisterous. The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology says it was related to the terms “tom-fool” (a buffoon) and later “tomfoolery.” And according to the Ayto Dictionary of Word Origins, since “Thomas” was the archetypal male name, the word “tom” was often used in the 16th century to indicate maleness (hence “tomcat”) and male aggression.

In 1579 the word “tomboy” was applied to a bold or immodest woman. By 1592 it was applied to a girl who acted like a spirited or boisterous boy, and that’s been its meaning ever since.

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A plural in sheep’s clothing

Q: I wonder if you could tell me the name for the plural of a word that’s the same in both the singular and the plural (a word like “sheep,” for example). I heard the name for it some time ago, but I cannot recall it.

A: Plurals of words like “deer” and “sheep” are often called “unmarked plurals.” More obscurely, the grammarians Otto Jespersen and George Curme called them, respectively, “unchanged plurals” and “collective plurals.” I hope this helps.

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“Liberty” vs. “freedom”

Q: Is there a difference between “liberty” and “freedom”?

A: I think of “liberty” as meaning free of controls or unrestrained. “Freedom,” to me, is the capacity to choose or to exercise free will. That said, many dictionaries often use similar definitions to describe both “liberty” and “freedom.” I’m sure that a great statesman at some time in history has come up with a much more eloquent description of the differences between the two. If I come across one, I’ll mention it on the air.

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Is broccoli “healthy” or “healthful”?

Q: I’ve always believed that foods are healthful and people are healthy, but nobody seems to observe that distinction nowadays. What do you think?

A: Technically, foods (or life styles or whatever) are considered “healthful,” while people are said to be “healthy.” But literal meanings are one thing and common practice is another. It’s become almost universal for people to refer to “healthy food,” even though a literal-minded person might imagine a stalk of broccoli lifting weights!

Interestingly, the distinction between “healthy” and “healthful” is relatively recent, dating back to the late 19th century, according to a usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Before that, the two words were used interchangeably. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary has citations going back to the 16th century in which both “healthy” and “healthful” are used to mean “enjoying good health” as well as “conducive to good health.”

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On “each other” and “one another”

[Note: A post on March 4, 2013, reflects our updated views on “each other” and “one another.”]

Q: I have a question that has bothered me for years. I was taught English in Paris by a French teacher educated at Oxford. If I remember correctly, the phrase “each other” is supposed to be used for two people (i.e., Jane and John love each other) and the phrase “one another” should be used when more than two people are involved (i.e., the teacher and her students love one another). That’s the way I have used those phrases, but no one else does. Am I right or wrong? Thank you for caring for our language. It is massacred by too many!

A: It’s a traditional belief that “each other” should be used to discuss two people or entities and “one another” to discuss more than two. Speaking about two children, you’d say, “They shared with each other.” Speaking of three or more, you’d say, “They shared with one another.”

Certainly there’s nothing wrong with following that tradition in your own speech and writing.

But it’s long been common practice to refer to two with “one another,” as in “Husband and wife should love one another.” And I see nothing wrong with this.

Using “each other” in reference to three or more, though, would be unacceptable to most usage experts. Frankly, it sounds off-kilter to me.

You should know, however, that many sources, including The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), have relaxed the old distinction between “each other” and “one another.” And that relaxation no doubt reflects the way these expressions are increasingly being used.

I hope this helps. Short answer: you’re right and your teacher’s right.

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The scoop on “bi” and “semi”

Q: I was taught in school that “bimonthly” meant “every other month” and “semimonthly” meant “twice a month.” But nobody seems to remember the difference anymore. In fact, many companies don’t even use those terms now. They say “every other month” or “twice a month” instead. Do you think that’s right?

A: I can understand the problem the companies have. As I wrote in Woe Is I, the prefix “bi” means two and “semi” means half, but in practice “bi” sometimes means “semi” and “semi” sometimes means “bi.” For example, “bimonthly” can mean every two months OR twice a month, depending on the dictionary you consult. “Biweekly” can mean every two weeks OR twice a week. “Biennial” means every two years, but “biannual” can mean every two years OR twice a year.

So it’s probably better to avoid misunderstandings and say “every other month” or “twice a month” if that’s what you mean.

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“In behalf of” vs. “on behalf of”

Q: Which is proper, “on behalf of” or “in behalf of”?

A: Both expressions are correct, but they mean slightly different things. I discuss this in my book Woe Is I.

“In behalf of” means “for the benefit of” or “in the interest of.”

“On behalf of” means “in place of” or “as the agent of.”

So I might give a donation, “on behalf of” my gardening club, to be used “in behalf of” tree restoration in the park.

English language

The ‘lie’ or ‘lay’ of the land?

[Note: A more detailed post on this subject appeared on April 2, 2021.]

Q: I frequently hear the phrase “lay of the land,” typically referring to a situation or condition that might affect some plan of action. I was taught the phrase should be “lie of the land,” as in how the land lies (a metaphorical reference to the landscape itself and its suitability for what one wanted to accomplish). Has wide common (mis)usage made “lay” acceptable or have I been wrong all along?

A: It depends on where you live. In American English, the idiomatic noun phrase used to describe topography or the state of affairs is “lay of the land.” In British English, it’s “lie of the land.”

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“Got” and “gotten”

Q: I have a question about British usage. The Brits say “have got” when we say “have gotten.” Which is more correct?

A: In Britain, the preferred past participle of the verb “get” is “got”; in the United States the preference is for “gotten” in some cases and “got” in others, depending on one’s meaning. (The past participle is the form of a verb that’s used with “have,” “had,” or “has.”)

As far as which is “more correct,” a Brit will tell you that “gotten” is wrong. Not so! The truth is that at one time, English routinely had two past participles for the verb “get.” Over the centuries, the two branches of English developed in different directions. While American English retained both forms, British English dropped “gotten” entirely. The result is that we have a nuance of meaning the poor Britons don’t.

When we say, “Jack and Sue have got a dog,” we mean they own a dog. When we say, “Jack and Sue have gotten a dog,” we mean they have acquired one. There’s a distinct difference between the two statements.

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“I Wish I Were Blind”

Q: Could you tell me if Bruce Springsteen’s song “I Wish I Were Blind” should actually be “I Wish I Was Blind”?

A: No, the Boss is right. “I Wish I Were Blind” is correct.

The reason is that when you express a wish, or when you use an “if” statement (“If I were blind…”) to talk about a condition contrary to fact, you use the subjunctive mood instead of the indicative. So you’d say, “Last year I WAS in Maine” (indicative), but “Now I wish I WERE in Maine” (subjunctive) and “If I WERE in Maine I wouldn’t be here.” That’s why we say things like “If I were king…” or “If only she were here…” or “I wish he were nicer to his parents,” and so on. In the subjunctive mood, “was” becomes “were.”

You should have more faith in Bruce.

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“Off of” is off-putting.

Q: I am British, live here in NYC, and hear a lot of people hereabouts use the phrase “off of,” e.g., “I took it off of the table,” etc. This seems not only redundant, but, when I was growing up, it was considered really, really bad English. Is this just a British thing? It really grates on my nerves! Be thrilled if you could answer this for me since nobody knows what the hell my problem is!

A: You’re right. “Off of” is no way to talk. It IS really, really bad English. I added a bit about this to the second edition of my book Woe Is I because it seemed so ubiquitous an infraction. So, all you miscreants out there, don’t use “of” if you don’t need it: “I took it off the table.”

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“Bob’s your uncle”

Q: I heard you discussing “Bob’s your uncle” on the air. In England, where I lived for many years, the expression was often used at the end of the description of a process, such as giving directions: “Take the second left, then the first right, go halfway down the block, and Bob’s your uncle!”

A: I love that usage. It’s almost like “and there you have it” or “and you’re all set.” How much more interesting than our saying “and there you are” or some such!

As for the origin of the expression, the best explanation I can find is Michael Quinion’s (the following quotation comes from his website, World Wide Words):

“This is another of those catchphrases which seem to arise out of nowhere and have a period of fashion, in this case quite a long one. We know that it began to be used in the 1880s in Britain. One theory has it that it derives from the slang phrase all is bob, meaning ‘all is safe.’ But there have been several slang expressions containing the word bob, some associated with thievery or gambling, and around this time it was also a common generic name for somebody you didn’t know. The most attractive theory is that it derives from a prolonged act of political nepotism. The prime minister Lord Salisbury (family name Robert Cecil ) appointed his rather less than popular nephew Arthur Balfour (later himself to be PM from 1902-11) to a succession of posts. The first in 1887 was chief secretary of Ireland, a post for which Balfour was considered unsuitable. The consensus among the irreverent in Britain seems to have been that to have Bob as your uncle guaranteed success, hence the expression and the common meaning it preserves of something that is easy to achieve.”

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There’s no “there’s” there.

Q: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to complain about something that has bothered me for ages, yet I have never heard anyone mention it, i.e., the incorrect use of the contraction “there’s.” I am a senior citizen, who took too many Latin courses in high school, but it bugs me no end to hear and read “there’s” when it should be “there’re.” Has common usage made it OK or what? I hope not. If you discuss this error in your book, I will buy it.

A: You’re right that the word “there” is often misused as the subject of a sentence (even if it is something of a phantom subject). It can take either a singular or a plural verb, but many people don’t seem to realize this and resort to “there’s” for all occasions. Why? I can think of a couple of reasons.

One may be that people find the contraction “there’re” hard to pronounce, so they take the easy way out and use “there’s” in all cases.

Another reason might be this. When a sentence starts with “there,” the “real” subject follows the verb and that’s what determines whether the verb is singular or plural. Many people (perhaps most!) speak before they’ve thought through their sentences. It’s easier to start out with “there’s” and hope that the rest of the sentence will take care of itself, though it often doesn’t.

I do deal with “there” in my book Woe Is I. (See pages 14 and 55 of the second edition.) By the way, I don’t like the use of the contraction “there’re” in WRITING. It’s fine in conversation, but in written English it’s clumsy and the full form is better.

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“I mean,” “you know,” and other tics

Q: I have lately become obsessed with eliminating the phrase “I mean” from my daily speech. I find myself using it to begin sentences that would otherwise stand alone just fine. And funny as it seems, I’ve been hearing it all over the place, including on WNYC (from both guests and hosts!). Could you tell me what phrases like this are called as a class and the history of this one in particular?

A: “I mean” seems to have become the new “you know,” joining “like,” “um,” and company.

I’m one of those people who still struggle not to say “you know” with every other sentence. I’ve wrestled with this for more than 10 years, since my first book, Woe Is I, came out in 1996. That’s when I started making radio appearances and hence trying all the harder to stifle all those “you knows.”

I have no explanation for this, or for “I mean,” or any of the other superfluous words, phrases, and grunts that litter our speech. They’re sometimes called “fillers,” and sometimes “verbal tics,” and they can become terrible habits once they get hold of you. I do my best, but once in a while I let loose a “you know” on the air and get angry e-mail in response!

Eric Partridge has traced “you know” to the 18th century. He notes that there are parallel constructions in German (wissen Sie) and French (vous savez) that have the same function: virtually meaningless filler.

Partridge also has an entry for “I mean to say,” and the shorter version, “I mean,” which he says dates from the 1890s. In explaining what it means (which is essentially nothing), he notes that it “connotes apologetic modification or mental woolliness.”

I managed to get rid of most fillers by just concentrating really hard on NOT saying them. I’m not a speech specialist, but there are probably better ways to approach the problem, mental tricks to use that would make the process easier. You might look around on the Web for some tips. (Or else pretend that millions of people are listening to you on the radio and scare yourself out of the habit!) Good luck.

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Do you feel “bad” or badly”?

Q: Please settle something for me (and others) once and for all. Which is grammatically accurate? “I feel (‘bad’ or ‘badly’) about revealing your imprecise use of the English language.”

My tendency is to say “badly” is the answer. However, this question appeared in an “grammar quiz,” and the “correct” answer provided was “bad.” Could you please explain?

A: When you’re describing an activity, like running or swimming or playing, use “badly,” as in “Roger runs badly.” When you’re describing a condition or a passive state, like how someone feels or seems or looks or smells, use “bad,” as in “Roger smelled bad after the race.” If Roger smelled badly, he’d have something wrong with his nose.

So, in answer to your question, the correct sentence is “I feel bad about revealing your imprecise use of the English language.”

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“Don’t give me that jive.”

Q: I have a pet peeve about “jive” and “jibe.” People use them interchangeably all the time, but don’t they mean different things?

A: You’re right. “Jibe” and “jive” have different meanings and aren’t interchangeable.

“Jibe” is a verb meaning something like “agree” or “be consistent with,” as in, “Those figures don’t jibe.”

“Jive” can be either a noun or a verb, as in “Don’t give me that jive” or “Don’t jive me.” It can refer to jazz or jazz jargon, but it usually refers to deceptive or nonsensical talk.

There’s another word, “gibe,” that is both noun and verb and is used to refer to teasing, taunting, or caustic remarks, as in “I ignored his rude gibes” or “He tends to gibe when he’s annoyed.”

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The “which” (or “that”) trials

[Note: A later and more complete post on this subject ran on April 28, 2010.]

Q: I was wondering if you could clear up something that’s bothering me. What’s the difference between “which” and “that”?

A: We think there’s a pretty good explanation in Pat’s book Woe Is I. When you’ve got a clause that you could start with “that” or “which” and you can’t decide between them, here’s a hint: If you can drop the information and not lose the point of the sentence, use “which.” If you can’t drop it, use “that.”

The examples in the book are: “Buster’s bulldog, which had one white ear, won best in show. The dog that won best in show was Buster’s bulldog.”

In the first example, the information in the “which” clause is not essential. In the second example, the clause starting with “that” is essential; it’s the whole point of the sentence.

You’ll also notice that “which” clauses are set off with commas, and “that” clauses aren’t. So if you find yourself wanting to insert little pauses before and after the information, it’s probably a “which” clause.

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Does “presently” mean “now” or “soon”?

Q: When I was in school, I was taught that “presently” meant “soon,” but the word is being used all the time these days to mean “now.” Was I taught wrong or has the meaning of the word changed?

A: One of the original meanings of “presently” was “now” or “at present,” but by sometime in the 17th century that meaning had fallen by the wayside and become obsolete. For the last few hundred years, the preferred meaning of “presently” has been “soon” or “before long,” as in “I’ll be along presently.”

However, the old meaning (“now”) never completely disappeared and has become more common lately, particularly in American English. “Presently” is often used interchangeably with “currently.” Still, most style guides recommend against that usage, particulary if there’s a danger of ambiguity.

In my opinion, using “presently” to mean “now” is unnecessary (“now” is a perfectly good word). And using “presently” in the accepted sense of “soon” sounds stiff and pretentious. (“Soon” is another perfectly good word.) Since there’s an ambiguity to the word anyway, I tend not to use it at all.

Clearly, the once-obsolete meaning (“now”) has been revived. Since real, honest-to-goodness usage is what determines “correctness,” there’s no point in arguing against the trend. But in many cases, the word “presently” can simply be deleted (example: “I am presently living in Altoona” vs. “I am living in Altoona”). If an ambiguous or a disputed word can be deleted without bloodshed, why not drop it?

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Phrase origin Slang Usage Word origin Writing

Can you cut the mustard?

[Note: This post was updated on May 26, 2021.]

Q: Where did the phrase “can’t cut the mustard” come from? It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me.

A: The phrase “cut the mustard” originated in late 19th-century America. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “slang (originally U.S.),” and says the noun “mustard” here means “something which adds piquancy or zest; that which sets the standard or is the best of anything.”

The OED says the the phrase and its variants mean “to come up to expectations, to meet requirements, to succeed.” The variant phrases “to be the mustard” or “to be to the mustard” are also defined as “to be exactly what is required; to be very good or special.”

The dictionary’s earliest recorded use of “cut the mustard” is from a Texas newspaper, in an article about legislative debate:

“They applied several coats of carmine hue and cut the mustard over all their predecessors” (Galveston Daily News, April 9, 1891).

The same newspaper used the phrase again the following year: “Time will reveal that he cannot ‘cut the mustard’ ” (Sept. 12, 1892).

The OED cites these early uses of other “mustard” phrases, also from North America.

“For fear they were not the proper mustard, he had that dog man sue him in court for the balance, so as to make him prove the pedigree” (The Log of a Cowboy, 1903, by Andy Adams).

“Petroskinski is a discovery of mine, and he’s all to the mustard” (You Can Search Me, 1905, written by George Vere Hobart under the pseudonym Hugh McHugh).

The OED suggests that “to be mustard,” when used to describe a person, might be compared to the expression “hot stuff.” An example: “That fellow is mustard” (from Edgar Wallace’s 1925 novel A King by Night).

However, somewhat similar “mustard” expressions were used much earlier in British English. According to the OED, “strong as mustard” (1659) and “hot as mustard” (1679) meant “very powerful or passionate,” while “keen as mustard” (1672) meant “very enthusiastic.”

Why the “cut” in “cut the mustard”? Nobody seems to know for sure. But we can offer a suggestion.

In the late 19th century, just before “cut the mustard” was first recorded, the verb “cut” was used to mean “excel” or “outdo,” according to OED citations.

The earliest OED example is from the April 13, 1884, issue of The Referee, a British sporting newspaper: “George’s performance … is hardly likely to be disturbed for a long time to come, unless he cuts it himself.”

So perhaps to “cut the mustard” is to surpass mustard—that is,  to be even more mustardy than mustard itself.

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English English language Expression Usage

“I literally exploded”

[An updated and expanded post about “literally” appeared on June 28, 2017.]

Q: This is an observation, not a question. I am going mad from the proliferation of misuses of “literal” and “literally.” Quite often the offenders are otherwise well-spoken, articulate journalists, writers, intellectuals, even some of WNYC’s own. Here are the types of misuse I have noticed:

1. The exact opposite of the correct meaning: “I was so angry I literally exploded.”
2. Unnecessary. “Robert Murdoch is literally the man responsible for this transformation of modern media into a corporate enterprise.” (He is the man. “Literally” adds nothing.)
3. Weird: “The novel is literally fiery. It’s title is On Fire.”
4. Questionable: “This journalist/comic book artist literally illustrates the human condition.”
5. Used for emphasis, as some people use very, really, etc. “The movie was literally the best I ever saw.”

A: Great analysis! You’ve done a terrific job of categorizing and deconstructing the various misuses of “literally.” I’ve often harped on this but complaining doesn’t seem to do much good. “Literally” is increasingly being used to mean its opposite: “figuratively.” Go figure!

When I was an editor, I encountered things like “He literally had kittens,” and “She was literally climbing the walls,” and even one about spectators at an Old Settlers celebration who “were literally turned inside out and shot backwards in time.” I wrote about that one in my book Woe Is I.

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