English English language Spelling Usage

Resume, resumé, or résumé?

[An updated and expanded post on this subject appeared on Jan. 14, 2015.]

Q: Is the noun “résumé” (someone’s list of accomplishments) so ingrained in English that the accent marks are no longer needed? The only reason I can see for keeping them is so that the noun won’t be mistaken for the verb “resume” (meaning to begin again after an interruption).

A: The document that boasts of one’s accomplishments may be spelled in English either with or without accent marks, depending on which style manual or dictionary is the guide. But the most common spellings seem to use at least one accent. (In French, the word is spelled with acute accents over both e’s.)

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists the spellings in this order: “résumé” or “resume,” also “resumé.” (The wording indicates that the first two are equal in popularity, and the third is somewhat less common.)

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists the same spellings, but in reverse order: “resumé” or “resume” or “résumé.” (The wording indicates that the three are equally popular.)

The New York Times stylebook recommends using both accents. So take your pick! (Or opt for “curriculum vitae.”)

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“Dos” and “don’ts”

Q: I’m writing a sales letter and wish to use the plurals of “do” and “don’t,” but the phrase “you’ll learn the dos and don’ts” looks queer. What’s the correct way to punctuate these plurals?

A: When you treat words like “do” and “don’t” as things, they become nouns and are pluralized the same as any other nouns. So, the correct plurals are “dos” and “don’ts.”

My grammar book Woe Is I included a poem to help illustrate these odd plurals:

Words to the Whys

Ups and downs and ins and outs,
Forevers and nevers and whys.
Befores and afters, dos and don’ts,
Farewells and hellos and good-byes.
Life is a string of perhapses,
A medley of whens and so whats.
We rise on our yeses and maybes,
Then fall on our nos and our buts.

I hope this helps!

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Two-faced words

Q: What do you call self-opposing words like “cleave,” “sanction,” etc.?

A: The term for a word that has two opposing meanings is “contronym.”

In addition to “cleave” and “sanction,” examples include “oversight,” “buckle” (to fasten or to collapse), “dust” (to sprinkle with something dusty or to remove it), and “weather” (to erode or to withstand).

There are several other names for these terms, including “Janus words” (after the god with two faces), “auto-antonyms,” and “self-antonyms.” Take your pick.

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Why a horn?

Q: What does “horny” have to do with horns?

A: The term “horny,” meaning made of horn or like a horn, is an old word that dates back to the 14th century. But I don’t think that’s the meaning of “horny” you’re asking about.

The first published reference in which “horny” means sexually excited dates from the late 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The citation, in an 1889 slang dictionary, defined it as “lecherous, in a state of sexual desire, in a rut.”

But what, you asked, does “horny” have to do with horns? Here’s the story.

The English noun “horn” itself is very old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days, and derived from ancient Germanic. The earliest citations refer to the horns of cattle, sheep, goats, and other animals.

The first OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from an Old English translation of Genesis, written around 1000 by the Benedictine Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham:

“Abraham geseah þær anne ramm betwux þam bremelum be þam hornum gehæft” (“Abraham saw there a ram caught in the brambles by his horns”). Genesis 22:13.

In the 15th century, people began using expressions like “give horns to” and “wear horns” in reference to cuckolds. This usage apparently had something to do with the olden practice of grafting the spurs of castrated cocks onto the roots of their extracted combs to grow horns, according to the OED. Don’t ask why!

By the late 18th century, the word “horn” was also being used to mean an erect penis, according to the OED. Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) defined “horn” as a “temporary priapism.” Need I note the resemblance between an erection and a horn?

[Note: This post was updated on July 1, 2023.]

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Q: I realize that the phrase “spick-and-span” means spotless, but I don’t see what the words “spick” and “span” have to do with cleanliness. Do you know the origin of the expression?

A: “Spick-and-span” (sometimes “spic-and-span”) dates back to the 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The first published reference is in The Diary of Samuel Pepys (1665): “My Lady Batten walking through the dirty lane with new spicke and span white shoes.”

The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology says the expression is a shortening of an older phrase, “spick-and-span new,” from about 1580. In the 16th century, this meant as new as a newly made nail or spike (the “spick”) and a fresh chip of wood (“span”). The latter part of the phrase was borrowed from the Old Icelandic spann-nyr (“new chip”).

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Ugly and/or unnecessary

Q: I dislike the term “and/or” and feel it is usually unnecessary. A sign on a bus in my town says, “Please save these seats for riders who are elderly or disabled.” Nobody is going to stop someone from sitting there if that person is both elderly and disabled. So my vote is to get rid of the excess word and the slash. In the rare case when “and/or” would be helpful, another term can be used.

A: I agree with you about “and/or.” In my book Woe Is I, I refer to it as an “ugly wrinkle.” There’s usually a better way, even if it means an extra word or two. Of the following two sentences, for example, I’d go with No. 2.

(1) “Would you like mustard and/or relish on your hot dog?”

(2) “Would you like mustard, relish, or both on your hot dog?”

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So there!

Q: I was taught that someone is “as good as” or “not so bad as” (rather than “not as bad as”) another. Has that changed (perhaps as a result of ignorance on the part of the speakers)?

A: In my book Woe Is I, I have a chapter on grammatical myths, and you’ve brought up one of them.

The misconception is that one should always use “as … as” for positive comparisons, and “so … as” for negative ones. (Example: “She’s as tall as her sister, but not so tall as you.”)

In fact, for many centuries, it’s been correct to use “as … as” in positive comparisons (“as pretty as ever”), and to use either “as … as” or “so … as” in negative comparisons (“not as big as before,” or “not so big as all that”).

In short, “so … as” is fine in a negative comparison, but “as … as” is correct in all cases.

In Old English, both “as” and “so” (als and swa) once appeared in the same word, alswa, which was used in comparisons pretty much the way we use “as” these days (“alswa good alswa gold”).

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A full-size question

Q: The word “full” takes two l’s while “beautiful” and “plentiful” take only one. Is there a reason for this? Is there a rule? Perplexed!

A: “Full” and “ful” confuse a great many people who are otherwise good spellers. At the beginning of a word, the spelling is generally “full,” as in “fullback,” “fullness,” “full-time,” “full-service,” and so on. But at the end of a word, the spelling is always “ful,” as in “beautiful,” “awful,” “scornful,” “lawful,” “careful,” “thoughtful,” “harmful,” and many others.

The ending “ful” was derived from “full,” and many adjectives used to have a double-l ending, as in these archaic spellings: beautefull (1526), wondurfull (1355), carefull (1394), and skilfulle (1300s). (The dates are from the Oxford English Dictionary.)

Over time, the “full” endings lost their final “l,” making these words shorter—and easier to misspell.

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Avarice and greed

Q: In “Tramp the Dirt Down,” a song about Margaret Thatcher, Elvis Costello refers to “all that avarice and greed.” And in the World Party song “Ship of Fools,” Karl Wallinger says that “avarice and greed are gonna drive you over the endless sea.” Is there a difference between avarice and greed? Your answer will settle an argument.

A: The word “avarice” comes from a Latin root meaning to crave (we get “avid” from the same root), and what’s being craved by an avaricious person is wealth or material gain.

The term “greed” refers to another excessive desire for more than you need, but the desire can be for almost anything (food and sex come to mind, but if your aunt collects salt-and-pepper shakers, she could be greedy for ever more salt-and-pepper shakers).

So the phrase “avarice and greed” isn’t redundant. Besides, lyricists get to say whatever they want!

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“Criminalist” vs. “criminologist”

Q: I was delighted to see my question about the use of “woman” as an adjective appear on your blog, but I must point out that I am a criminalist, not a criminologist. A criminalist is a practitioner of criminalistics, the specific term for forensic analysis of physical evidence, such as trace evidence, DNA, and unknown substance identification. The word is not used very often outside the field, and most people just use the less specific term “forensic scientist.” I am in practice an analytical chemist, and actually know very little about criminology!

A: Oops! As you can see, the blog entry (“Strictly a female female”) has been fixed. Thanks for the correction—and the education!

Interestingly, the word “criminalist” used to mean someone versed in criminal law or a writer on criminal law, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED has citations for this usage going back to 1631, but the last one was in the late 19th century.

The first citation for “criminalistics” is in An Introduction to Criminalistics (1949) by Charles E. O’Hara and James W. Osterburg. The English term comes from similar ones in other European languages, according to the authors.

The OED’s earliest reference for “criminology,” the scientific study of crime, dates from 1890: “We share Dr. Topinard’s dislike of the term ‘criminal anthropology,’ and may adopt the term ‘criminology’ till a better one can be found.” I guess a better one never came along!

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Fixing to go!

Q: Do you have any thoughts on the phrase “I’m fixing to go”?

A: The “fixing to” construction, meaning preparing to or getting ready to, dates back at least to mid-19th century America. A similar  phrase, “fixing for” (same meaning), dates back more than a century earlier.

Here’s an 1850s citation for the more familiar version, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary: “Aunt Lizy is just fixing to go to church.”

These days “fixing to” is widely recognized as a countrified regionalism, usually Southern. But I used to hear it quite a lot as a child in Iowa. Rather charming, don’t you think?

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An underhanded expression

Q: One of my pet peeves is hearing people say “pawn off” when they mean “palm off.” Why do they say that? Don’t they understand the deception involved? The underhandedness implied (pun intended)?

A: To “palm off” something, as you know, is to hand it off, or get rid of it, and the Oxford English Dictionary has citations dating back to 1822. This expression is probably the source of the now common phrase “pawn off,” which The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) describes as to get rid of deceptively, as in “to pawn off the fake gemstone as a diamond.”

Both expressions are now accepted as common English idioms, though you’re right—“pawn off” implies that there’s cheating going on and that the “goods” being pawned off are bogus.

Interestingly, in the 19th century the verb “palm” had many underworld connotations. To conceal something in the palm of one’s hand, like a bribe or a tip or a stolen item, was to “palm” it. Hence the terms “palm oil” (an illicit bribe) and “palming”: petty theft involving two people, one to distract the shop owner while the other “palmed” the goods.

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A flounder out of water

Q: My pet peeve is hearing people mix up “flounder” and “founder.” Do you think we’re losing the distinction between them?

A: The verb “flounder,” as you know, means to stumble or thrash about like a fish out of water while “founder” means to collapse, fail completely, or sink like a ship.

My grammar book Woe Is I gives these examples of the two words at work: “Harry flounders from one crisis to another. His business foundered when the market collapsed.”

You’re right that these words are often confused these days, but I don’t think this is a lost cause. Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) still maintain the distinction.

A Usage Note in American Heritage points out that the verb “founder” comes from a Latin word meaning bottom (think “foundation”). The term originally referred to knocking your enemies down.

Anyone still confused by these two words may be helped by remembering that a flounder flops around (that is, “flounders”) when it’s out of water.

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Is the president being dissed?

Q: The New York Times used to capitalize the word “president” when referring to the leader of the United States, but the paper now lowercases it. Is the Times dissing President Bush?

A: When the Times revised its stylebook in 1999, the newspaper decided to keep “president” capitalized before the last name of the current US president (“President Bush”), but to lowercase the word by itself in a second reference (“the president”). Previously, all references to the president of the United States were capitalized: “The President accompanied Mrs. Reagan.”

Similarly, the Times in 1999 changed its capitalization style with reference to other titles: for example, “senator” and “mayor” now are capitalized only before a name (“Senator Clinton”; “Mayor Bloomberg”), but not in subsequent references (“the senator said”; “according to the mayor”).

I don’t know the rationale for the changes, but in general the newspaper’s style seems to get more informal as the years go by. I’d think an informal guy like George W. Bush would appreciate that.

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A bemusing situation

Q: I’m fed up with hearing people misuse the word “bemused.” If you’re “bemused,” you’re puzzled. I feel like shouting every time I hear someone say “bemused” when the intended meaning is obviously amused.

A: Traditionally, “bemused” means puzzled or deep in thought. But I fear that this is a lost cause. Some dictionaries already accept amused as one of the definitions of “bemused.”

The two dictionaries I consult the most are split on this. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines the verb “bemuse” in the traditional way: to confuse or cause to be engrossed in thought. But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes a third meaning: to cause to have feelings of tolerant amusement.

The term “bemused” is misused so much these days that I’d recommend avoiding it. If you use it correctly, you’re almost certain to be misunderstood. I don’t find that amusing.

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OFF and ON

Q: I just thought of something. When an alarm goes OFF, it actually goes ON. English is a funny language, isn’t it?

A: You’re right—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. And people who are IN luck say they’ve lucked OUT. No wonder that people new to English have so much trouble with prepositions!

Yes, English is funny, which reminds me of something my mother-in-law used to say: “Is that funny ha-ha or funny peculiar?” In this case, it’s probably both.

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Why a “via”?

Q: I’ve always thought that “via” should mean by way of, and that it should be used only to describe a geographic route. But many people now use “via” to refer to the means of doing something. Is this usage correct?

A: Traditionally, “via” has meant by way of, as in “We drove to Pittsfield via Red Rock.” This usage dates from the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and comes from the Latin word for road or way.

A newer usage, dating from 1930, is by means of, as in “We traveled from Chatham to Red Rock via bus.”

Many language experts discourage this second usage. Henry Fowler’s Modern English Usage considers it a vulgarism. But both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) now accept the second usage.

I find the newer usage a bit stiff. I’d prefer a simple preposition like “by” instead of “via”: “We traveled from Chatham to Red Rock by bus.” But it’s a matter of taste. Either word is viable.

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Salad days or cake days?

Q: While searching through piles of paper, I came upon a picture of me as a child and remarked, “Those were the salad days.” Why do we refer to youth as “salad days”? Why not “cake days”?

A: The expression “salad days,” like so many others, comes to us from Shakespeare. In act 1, scene 5 of Antony and Cleopatra (1606), Cleopatra regrets her carefree, youthful affair with Caesar:

My salad days,
When I was green in judgment, cold in blood,
To say as I said then!

The word “green,” by the way, had been used for centuries before Shakespeare to refer to youth and inexperience (think of the green shoots of a plant in the spring).

The expression “salad days” appears to have fallen out of favor after Shakespeare, but it was revived in the 19th century. Although Shakespeare used the phrase to refer to a time of carefree innocence, it’s often used now to refer to a time when someone was at a peak of success.

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One word too many

Q: I don’t understand why we use the word “reiterate” so often when “iterate” means to repeat something. Any thoughts? (Don’t get me started on the phrase “reiterate again”!)

A: The term “iterate,” as you point out, means to say or perform again. It comes from the Latin iterare, meaning to repeat. The word “reiterate” also means to say or do again.

Although both words are standard English and both mean to repeat, “reiterate” is far more common and more likely to be understood. That’s a good enough reason for it to get my vote.

How did we end up with one word too many? Barbara Wallraff, in her “Word Court” column in The Atlantic magazine, blames the French. They got confused first, in the 14th century, and confused English-speakers with their verb reiterer.

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Strictly a female female

Q: I’m a female criminalist who’s curious about your position on the use of “woman” as an adjective. I’m not a language stickler, but a phrase like “woman doctor” drives me nuts! I just think it sounds awkward and uneducated. Is it too late to stop this trend?

A: “Woman” is now so widely used as an adjective (or, to use Henry Fowler’s term, a noun-adjective) that I think the trend is unstoppable. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) doesn’t include the usage yet, but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) does.

I prefer “female,” but I believe many people avoid the term because it sounds more sexually charged or more clinical than “woman.” Despite my preference for “female,” the use of “woman” to modify a noun isn’t a recent phenomenon.

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references going back to about 1300 of the noun “woman” functioning as an adjective. The earliest citation mentions a “woman frend.” Other examples are “woman sexe,” “woman modestie,” “woman-nature,” “woman-wit,” “woman-doctor,” “woman-friend,” and “woman teacher.”

My favorite is this 17th-century quote from Dryden: “A Woman-Grammarian, who corrects her Husband for speaking false Latin.”

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Massaging the message

Q: My voice-mail greeting states: “Please speak slowly and loudly so your message can be clearly understood.” It seems correct to me, but it sounds awkward when I fetch my messages. Is there something wrong with it?

A: There’s nothing wrong grammatically with that sentence, but all the “ly” endings do make it sound a bit monotonous.

Here’s a suggestion. Why not drop the last adverb? “Please speak slowly and loudly so your message can be understood.” A message that’s understood is, one would hope, clearly understood. Just an idea.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Is “trepidatious” a word?

Q: I hear people use “trepidatious” to mean fearful or anxious, but I can’t find it in my dictionary and my spell-checker tells me it’s wrong. Is “trepidatious” a word?

A: Yes, it’s a word, though it’s more common in the US than in the UK. Six of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult recognize the adjective.

All five American dictionaries include it as standard English. However, it’s found in only one of the five British dictionaries, Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), which describes the usage as informal. All 10 dictionaries include the noun “trepidation.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the adjective as “apprehensive, nervous; filled with trepidation.” The dictionary says it originated with the addition of the suffix “-ious” to either trepidāt-, the past participial stem of the classical Latin verb trepidāre (to be alarmed), or to the root of the English word “trepidation.”

Although the usage is more popular in the US than the UK, the first OED citation is from an early 20th-century British novel about colonial India:

“Hilda looked up from the papers she had been busy with as he entered—in fact, made a guilty and trepidatious attempt at sweeping them out of sight” (The Sirdar’s Oath: A Tale of the Northwest Frontier, 1904, by Bertram Mitford, a member of the aristocratic and literary Mitford family).

The earliest American citation in the OED is from the May 18, 1940, issue of the Circleville Herald, an Ohio newspaper: “A trepidatious Europe today remained tense, worried, fearful, for the outcome of what military men predict will be the greatest battle in the history of the world.”

The much older noun “trepidation” ultimately comes from the Latin trepidāre. When it first appeared in the early 17th century, the OED says, “trepidation” referred to agitation in the scientific sense:

“Massiue bodies … haue certaine trepidations and wauerings before they fixe and settle” (from Of the Proficience and Aduancement of Learning, Diuine and Humane, 1605, by Francis Bacon).

Two decades later, the noun took on its modern sense of “tremulous agitation; confused hurry or alarm; confusion; flurry; perturbation,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest citation is from another work by Bacon: “There vseth to be more trepidation in Court, vpon the first Breaking out of Troubles, then were fit” (The Essayes or Counsels, Ciuill and Morall, 1625).

Some sticklers have objected to the use of the relatively new adjective “trepidatious,” but we see nothing wrong with it. The linguist Arnold Zwicky, who uses the term himself, wrote a strong defense of the adjective in a Nov. 17, 2004, post on the Language Log.

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 19, 2020, to reflect newer dictionary information. Posts on “trepidatious,” “trepidant,” and “trepidated” also appeared in 2015 and 2017. ]

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Parameter insecurity

Q: I’m confused. I hear the word “parameter” all the time and it seems to have a different meaning each time. What does it really mean?

A: You asked the million-dollar question. When a word means too many things, it means nothing at all.

Weak writers love to use scientific words to give their empty writing an appearance of authority. They love “parameter” so much that they’ve loved it to death.

It’s used these days to mean a boundary, a characteristic, a component, an element, a feature, an ingredient, a part, a perimeter, a quality, a requirement, and so on. It’s used for just about anything but its scientific meaning: a type of arbitrary constant or independent variable in mathematics.

Unless you’re on speaking terms with an independent variable and you can look an arbitrary constant in the eyes without blinking, forget about this word.

For another example of an abused technical term, see the “paradigm” entry on The Grammarphobia Blog.

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It’s absolutely annoying!

Q: My pet peeve is about the now common use of the word “absolutely” to mean a simple “yes.” Does this annoy you too?

A: The other day I telephoned a business (let’s call it Acme Widget) and the women who picked up the phone said something unintelligible.

“Is this Acme?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” she responded.

Does this annoy me? Absolutely! But it’s not a recent phenomenon.

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references dating back to the 19th century for “absolutely” used to mean yes or quite so. The OED describes the usage as a colloquialism of American origin.

The OED’s earliest citation comes from The American Claimant (1892) by Mark Twain. Other citations are in works by James Joyce, Alec Waugh, and Rex Stout.

Despite all the history, I’ll go with The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) on this one. American Heritage defines “absolutely” as definitely, completely, unquestionably, or in an absolute relationship.

Not yes!

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Is ‘irregardless’ your #1 ‘uggie’?

Q: I’m sick of hearing people use “irregardless” instead of “regardless.” It’s not just ugly; it’s No. 1 on my list of “uggies.” Where did the superfluous “ir” come from? And how can we get rid of it?

A: “Irregardless” has been around for about a century and has been condemned for just as long. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, from Harold Wentworth’s American Dialect Dictionary (1912), questions its legitimacy: “Is there such a word as irregardless in the English language?”

The OED defines it as a nonstandard or humorous usage for “regardless.” Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary agree that it’s nonstandard.

Where did that extra “ir” come from? Lexicographers (the folks who compile dictionaries) believe that “irregardless” is probably the result of the mushing together “irrespective” and “regardless.”

I agree with you that “irregardless” is ugly. It’s right up there on my list of “uggies” too. The best way to exorcise it from the English language is to avoid using it. Let’s all do our part. But “irregardless” has been around for a long time, and it doesn’t seem willing to go quietly.

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Don’t cry for this Argentine!

Q: I hear English-speaking people say somebody from Argentina, like me, is an Argentine (pronounced ar-gen-TINE) or an Argentine (pronounced ar-gen-TEEN) or an Argentinean (pronounced ar-gen-TIN-ian). Which is correct?

A: All three are OK, but the second one appears to be the more common in the United States.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists the following English nouns (in order) for somebody from Argentina: (1) “Argentine” (pronounced ar-gen-TEEN, (2) “Argentine” (pronounced ar-gen-TINE), and (3) “Argentinean” (pronounced ar-gen-TIN-ian).

The adjectives referring to someone or something from Argentina are the same as the nouns, and they’re pronounced the same way.

My husband, who worked as a U.S. journalist in Buenos Aires, prefers “Argentine” (pronounced ar-gen-TEEN).

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Email intuition

Q: A friend insists the word “email” is an adjective, not a noun. He argues that one should say, “I sent an email message,” not “I sent an email.” What do you think?

A: I disagree. While “email” is still a young word and still an unfinished product, its use as a singular noun is pretty well established. Here are the usages that seem to have emerged:

(1) Singular: “I sent an email.”

(2) Plural: “I sent seven emails.”

(3) Collective (in the sense of correspondence): “I have lots of email to answer.”

For more, see the “email” vs. “mail” entry on The Grammarphobia Blog.

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That’ll be the day

Q: My children in elementary school have brought home spelling assignments that include the contraction “that’ll” for “that will.” Is this valid? I am appalled when I see it in their spelling books.

A: There’s nothing wrong with a contraction like “don’t” or “that’s” or “weren’t,” but not every contraction is legitimate. “That’ll” has been widely used for centuries (I’m reminded of the Buddy Holly song “That’ll Be the Day”). But is it legit?

Well, it’ll get by in speech, where words are often clipped, but not in writing. I definitely wouldn’t include “that’ll” in a spelling assignment for schoolchildren.

In fact, I don’t include it among the “reputable” contractions in my grammar book Woe Is I. I arrived at the list by consulting style and usage guides as well as my own instincts about what seemed reasonable.

This is largely a matter of taste and style. Among the contractions I listed as “out of bounds” (in writing, if not in speech) are “that’ll,” “that’re,” “that’ve,” “there’ll,” “there’re,” “there’ve,” and “this’ll.”

To repeat, what’s acceptable in speech isn’t necessarily proper English, which is what a writing assignment should teach children.

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English language Uncategorized

What a dump!

Q: I recently looked up the word “tenement” after hearing an NPR correspondent use it. To my surprise, I learned that it can refer to any rental building, not just a rundown one. Why do I associate tenements with slums?

A: When I think of tenements, I too think of slum buildings, especially those that housed the waves of immigrants that transformed New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But the origin of “tenement” has little to do with slums and poverty. The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology says the word dates back to 1303, when it referred to the leasing of land or buildings. It came to mean a leased dwelling place fairly soon, probably sometime before 1400.

The use of the term “tenement house” for an apartment building in a poor section of a city was first recorded in 1858, according to Barnhart. How did the new meaning come about?

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum traces the slum connection to the construction of large, shoddy rental buildings for the working class in New York City in the 19th century. The museum’s website says the early tenements “represented some of the worst housing ever built in this country.”

The museum uses the term “tenement” to refer to a rental building that housed working-class families in New York from the mid-19th century to the adoption of the Multiple Dwelling Law in the city in 1929.

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A tortured usage?

Q: Paul Krugman, in a recent column in the New York Times, said a proposed immigration bill would create “a path to citizenship so torturous that most immigrants probably won’t even try to legalize themselves.” Shouldn’t he have said “tortuous” instead of “torturous”?

A: As you suggest, the two words are different: “tortuous” means winding and full of turns while “torturous” means excruciatingly painful. My grammar book Woe Is I has this example of the two words in action: “On the tortuous drive through the mountains, Jake developed a torturous headache.”

Now, did Paul Krugman use “torturous” incorrectly? It depends.

If he was trying to say the bill would confuse or intimidate immigrants because of its twists and turns, he should have said “tortuous.” But if he meant the bill’s agonizing legalization process would drive off immigrants, he was right to say “torturous.”

Being correct is one thing, though, and being sensible is something else. I think he should have avoided either word because of the possibility that he’d be misunderstood. Why not use a clearer, less tortuous word, say “confusing” or “agonizing,” depending on the meaning?

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