English language Uncategorized

The species of extinction

Q: You once helped me chose an etymological dictionary. It shows that “extinguish” and “extinct” have the same Latin root, extinguere, or to quench. How interchangeable are their related words “extinction” and “extinguishment”? For example, can one say “the extinction of the spirit” or should one say “the extinguishment of the spirit” to express “the demise of the spirit”?

A: I hope you’re finding the dictionary helpful. You’ll notice in it that many words with different meanings have come down to us from the same etymological roots.

For instance, both “mange” (an eating away of the skin) and “munch” (to eat or chew) may have come to us from the Latin verb manducare (to chew), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But let’s get to “extinguish” vs. “extinct,” the subject of your email. “Extinguish” is a verb meaning to put out or put an end to; “extinct” is an adjective meaning inactive or dead.

It turns out that “extinct” was once a verb meaning to extinguish, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), but that meaning is considered archaic today

Although the verb and adjective have different, though related, meanings, the two nouns you mention (“extinction” and “extinguishment”) do indeed mean pretty much the same thing: the act of extinguishing or the condition of being extinct.

So you could legitimately say either the “extinction” or the “extinguishment” of the spirit, though the word “extinction” sounds better to my ear.

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English language Uncategorized

Why can’t Americans learn to speak?

Q: Why do you refer to “American English” and “British English”? Surely it should be “American English” and “proper English.”

A: We can’t tell whether your question is a serious one or not, but we’ll answer it as simply as we can.

The terms “American English” and “British English” refer to the two major branches of English, and reflect the changes in the language since the Colonies separated themselves linguistically from England.

The differences may be many, but they’re minor. Most have to do with spelling, pronunciation, and usage, but not with grammar. English grammar is English grammar, no matter where you live.

In some respects, American English is “purer” than British English, in the sense that we’ve preserved some usages and spellings and pronunciations that have changed over time in England.

In Britain, for example, the only acceptable past participle of the verb “get” is “got”; in the United States one uses “gotten” in some cases and “got” in others, depending on one’s meaning.

At one time, English routinely had both past participles. But after the two branches of English split and began developing in different directions, American English retained both forms, and British English dropped “gotten.” (The old form survived in the expression “ill-gotten gains.”)

The result is that Americans have a nuance of meaning the British have lost. Here’s a link to an entry on our blog about that subject.

Spelling differences are too numerous to go into fully, but keep in mind that these evolved over time in England, and kept evolving after the American Revolution. Take “grey” (the currently preferred British spelling) as opposed to the American “gray.”

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that when its editor conducted a survey of British preferences in 1893, the inquiry “elicited a large number of replies, from which it appeared that in Great Britain the form grey is the more frequent in use, notwithstanding the authority of Johnson and later English lexicographers, who have all given the preference to gray.”

In the 20th century, the OED notes, “grey has become the established spelling in the U.K., whilst gray is standard in the United States.” So Samuel Johnson would be with the Americans on this one.

Pronunciations and spellings are still evolving in Britain, just as they are in the United States. For example, Americans pronounce “herb” with a silent “h,” which is the way Englishmen used to pronounce it. Pronunciation has changed in England and now the British pronounce the “h” in “herb.”

On the other hand, some British speakers still use “an” before words in which the initial “h” is pronounced (as in “hotel”). In fact, “a hotel” and “a historic site” are right; “an hotel” and “an historic” are not standard English on either side of the Atlantic. Those usages are mere affectations when used by anyone who pronounces “hotel” and “historic” in the standard way with the aitches sounded. Since we’ve discussed this issue blog as well, we’ll provide the link.

Usage too, as you’ve no doubt noticed, can be very different in the US and the UK.

In Britain, many collective nouns are plural, such as the names of companies, sports teams, government bodies (“Mobil invite you to join them”). In the US, the preference is for the singular (“Mobil invites you to join it”).

Similarly, the use of the singular “they” – as in “If anyone objects, they must be batty” – is more acceptable in Britain than in the US, where such a usage is still widely considered a grammatical error. [Note: An updated post on the use of “they” in singular references was published on May 22, 2017.]

Another usage difference: the distinction between “that” and “which” (a relatively recent phenomenon, from the early 20th century) seems to matter more to Americans than to the British.

And in legal terminology, “pled” is a common variant of “pleaded” in the US, though not in Britain. So it’s quite common to say of an American perp that he “pled guilty” or “has pled guilty.” [Note: An updated post on this subject was published on May 7, 2021.]

To cite another example, we treat articles (“a,” “an,” and “the”) differently where some institutions are concerned, notably hospitals and universities. The British say “He’s in hospital” while the Americans would say, “He’s in the hospital.”

Many such usage issues go one way in the US and another in Britain, but correctness is not an issue. These are the idiosyncrasies of idiomatic usage.

This is a very long and windy way of saying that we share a common language, both branches of which are still evolving. They couldn’t possibly have remained identical, since the populations that determine common usage are separated (and have been for quite some time) by a rather wide ocean. Neither variety is more “correct” or “proper” than the other.

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English language Uncategorized

Enuf already!

Q: I’m mad as hell at the degradation of spelling these days. Are people learning to “spell” by reading signs and ads? I’ve had it “thru” and “thru” with “lite,” “nite,” and “alrite.” And “doughnut” is almost extinct. On the Internet, anyone with a computer gets to write publicly. I shudder to think what spellings will be acceptable 10 years from now. I grieve for the L8 English language.

A: I know how you feel. A bit of a rant helps now and then, don’t you think?

In defense of the Internet, I have to say this: at least people are writing again – even if the writing is lousy.

True, the Web has shown us just how bad the general public’s grasp of English really is. It has exposed the problem, but that’s much better than sweeping it under the rug.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what our legislators and educators have been doing since the early 1970s, when most public schools stopped teaching grammar.

I once spoke to a group of English teachers and one of them told me that she had to close the blinds on her classroom door if she wanted to teach grammar. Otherwise, she’d get in trouble with the principal. It makes you wanna cry!

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English language Uncategorized

Altogether now

Q: I’m reading Words Fail Me, your book on writing, and notice you use “altogether” a few times. Strunk & White, if I remember, calls it a no-no. The authors suggest “all together” instead. Have the rules changed? Is S&W still the last word on good English?

A: I don’t see anything in my copy of The Elements of Style that’s critical of “altogether,” which is a perfectly acceptable word and means something entirely different from “all together.”

“Altogether” means entirely, completely, all told, or on the whole. Example: “He lost the match altogether.” Or, “Altogether it was a disaster.”

“All together” is used to refer to something done by members of a group collectively. Example: “The family was all together.” You use the expression “all together” when you could just as easily split the words up and get the same meaning, as in “All the family was together.”

The adverb “altogether” has been perfectly good English since around 1200. Here’s an example from the King James Bible (1611): “Thou wast altogether born in sins.”

You may be thinking of something else from Strunk and White. The book notes that the expression “all right” is properly written as two words. The authors don’t say so, but their point is that “alright” is all wrong.

Unfortunately, we now see the one-word spelling (“alright”) almost every day. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) still calls “alright” nonstandard, though Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says “it has its defenders and its users.” The jury is out on this one, but I vote guilty. For now, it’s a no-no.

Is Strunk & White still the cat’s meow? I think much of its advice about writing clearly and simply holds true today, though some of the usage recommendations may be outdated.

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Special education

Q: I’m reading The Letters of Virginia Woolf and find it fascinating, but this sentence made me raise an eyebrow: “The Years continued to boom, specially in America.” What do you make of this use of “specially”? It was written by an editor, not VW.

A: We’ll start with the adjectives: “special” entered English in the 1200s and “especial” in the late 1300s.

Both are derived from the Latin specialus, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, meaning “belonging to or concerned with a particular species, special as opposed to general.”

That explains how “special” and “species” are related! In our own time, “special” is much more common and “especial” is a distant second.

The corresponding adverbs, “specially” (dating to the late 1200s) and “especially” (around 1400), are not quite interchangeable.

In modern usage, “especially” is the more common word and means something like “particularly.” For example: “He is especially fond of pizza.” Or, “He likes many foods, especially pizza.” Or, “He craves pizza, especially since he went off his diet.”

You wouldn’t use “specially” in any of those sentences, but you might say “He has his pizzas specially made.” (You can see what’s on my mind!)

Back to your question. In the sentence “The Years continued to boom, specially in America,” the word “specially” is not wrong, just an uncommon usage there. Most people would have written “especially.”

Usually you see “specially” before a verb, as in “specially designed,” “specially constructed,” “specially adapted” and so on. After the verb, you’re more likely to see “especially,” as in “This was designed especially for me.”

I hope you find this especially enlightening.

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English language Uncategorized

To err or not to err

Q: I was reading about grammar myths in Woe Is I and got to thinking about the SATs. Should a high-school student taking the writing portion play it safe and adhere to the myths that are still being taught?

A: This is a difficult one!

To get some guidance, I googled a few SAT-help websites to see what they were saying about such myths as the no-nos against “splitting” an infinitive, ending a sentence with a preposition, and beginning one with a conjunction.

The good news is that the “help” sites generally agree with me that these are indeed bogus rules. And the grammar and usage issues that they consider errors do seem to be real errors.

The sites suggest boning up on subject-verb agreement, correct pronoun use (particularly the notorious “I” vs. “me” problem), and correct use of adjectives and adverbs.

They also recommend brushing up on usage (for example, word pairs that are commonly confused, like “affect” and “effect”), verb tenses and how to use them logically, punctuation, avoiding run-on sentences, parallel structure, and so on.

All of these are legitimate and useful things to know about English composition, not outdated or imaginary bugaboos.

Nevertheless, one never knows who’s going to be evaluating the essay, and something like an SAT score is too important to risk out of principle.

I’d suggest that a student writing an essay for any kind of college-entrance test should avoid flouting the mythological rules, even if they are stupid and mistaken conventions. It’s usually easy enough to write around these problems without turning a sentence on its head.

Is this a cop-out? Of course! But the idea is to get into college. After graduation, the students can exercise the courage of their convictions.

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English language Uncategorized

The ubiquitous eponymous

Q: Lately, I’ve seen “eponymous” used more and more as a substitute for “ubiquitous” (or so I interpret the intention). These two words are not at all synonymous, correct?

A: Here’s a little poem: “Ubiquitous, eponymous, / The two are not synonymous.”

“Eponymous” comes from Greek roots meaning named after. It’s the adjective form of “eponym” – the person something is named after.

For example, Charles C. Boycott was the eponymous source of the word “boycott.” Or, if you were a pretentious critic, you might refer to “the eponymous heroine of the novel Anna Karenina.”

(“Eponym,” by the way, can also mean a proper name used generically, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.)

“Ubiquitous,” on the other hand, comes from a Latin word meaning everywhere. If something’s ubiquitous, it can be found everywhere, or so it seems. For example, “The misuse of ‘eponymous’ is ubiquitous.”

In fact, the legitimate use of “eponymous” is pretty ubiquitous too. Perhaps it’s time to give this overworked word a rest.

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English language Uncategorized

Serious adverse events

Q: During a recent radio appearance, you chided a drug company for referring to 19 deaths from a contaminated blood thinner as “adverse events.” You seem to be unaware that “adverse events” is a legitimate scientific term used in clinical trials. There’s nothing wrong with it. Check out the FDA’s website.

A: The fact that “adverse events” is a legitimate technical term in drug trials doesn’t mean that it’s legit for drug companies to use it to communicate with the public.

Scientific Protein Laboratories of Waunakee, Wis., which bought the suspect raw heparin from China and sold it to Baxter International, said publicly it’s “premature to conclude that the heparin active pharmaceutical ingredient sourced from China and provided by S.P.L. to Baxter is responsible for these adverse events.” (New York Times, March 6, 2008.)

It’s one thing to use scientific jargon in a research paper for a medical journal; it’s another to use it in a statement to the press for public dissemination.

I don’t know whether Scientific Protein’s public relations department deliberately used the expression to play down the 19 deaths or whether it was simply incapable of writing plain English. Either way, it screwed up.

By the way, I did check out the FDA website and found the term defined this way:

“A serious adverse event (experience) or reaction is any untoward medical occurrence that at any dose results in death, is life-threatening, requires inpatient hospitalization or prolongation of existing hospitalization, results in persistent or significant disability/incapacity, or is a congenital anomaly/birth defect.”

Knowing that makes me feel a lot better!

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English language Uncategorized

The armchair maven

Q: A poster on an Internet message board accused me of being an “armchair business analyst” for questioning the viability of Starbucks. I’m familiar with “armchair quarterback,” but not with the use of “armchair” in other expressions. Have you come across “armchair” used in this general way?

A: The figurative use of “armchair” plus noun (as in “armchair quarterback,” the guy who criticizes the game from the comfort of his La-Z-Boy), is not a new usage.

Believe it or not, “armchair” phrases go back to the 19th century, before TV and beer in cans. And the “quarterback” version arrived late in the game.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “armchair” expressions are “often applied to persons who confine themselves or are addicted to home-made views or criticism of matters in which they take no active part, or of which they have no first-hand knowledge.”

The OED gives these published citations, among others:

1886: “Mr. Chamberlain … met the expostulations … of his moderate allies with sneers at … ‘the arm-chair politicians.’ “

1895: “As an arm-chair professor, I frankly admit my great inferiority as a laboratory-teacher and investigator.”

1896: “The arm-chair critic of politics, war, literature, or finance.”

Football terminology didn’t become part of the expression until the mid-20th century. Here are some early citations from newspaper articles, courtesy again of the OED:

1940: “The folks back home know that pilots know more about flying than the armchair quarterbacks in Washington.”

1952: “Friends said he had done a good deal of armchair quarterbacking as he watched telecasts of last night’s hectic convention session.”

Now, back to my armchair.

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English language Uncategorized

The flip side of distaff

Q: If the “distaff side” represents the female, what’s the word for the male side?

A: Today the default sides are “male” and “female.” Although “distaff” can be found in most dictionaries, it reminds me of smelling salts and whalebone stays.

The word “distaff” dates back to the 11th century, when it meant a staff, about a yard or so long, wound with unspun flax or wool fibers.

The “dis” in “distaff” is believed to come from an old Germanic word (diesse) for a bunch of unspun flax. Wisps of material were teased and pulled from the distaff, twisted, then wound onto a spindle.

The word “distaff” has been used since the 14th century as a symbol of women’s work. The Oxford English Dictionary has citations for this usage going back to Chaucer and Shakespeare.

The term has been used since the late 15th century for female in general, as in “distaff side,” meaning the female line of descent or simply things female. A related term, “spindle-side,” has also been used to refer to the female line.

Now, on to your question: is there a male version of “distaff side”? To my great surprise, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) does indeed have a male version of this expression: “spear side.” Yikes!

My 50-year-old Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2d ed) includes “spear side” and “spear kin,” and describes them as opposites of “distaff side” and “spindle side.”

The OED says the expression “spear side” comes from the Old English spere-healfe (in Anglo-Saxon times healfe could mean side). A citation from around 885 in King Alfred’s will refers to leaving land on the sperehealfe or spinhealfe — that is, the “spear side” or “spindle side.”

The dictionary also has more recent citations, dating from 1861, that refer to leaving one’s estate “on the spear-side” or inheriting qualities “from a grandfather on the spear side.”

Now, it’s time for me to lay down my spear and go for a spin.

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Poetic license

Q: I pronounce “poem” with one syllable (like “pome”), but my significant other does it with two (like “POH-um”). She says I pronounce it like a noo-YAWK-ur. Who says it right?

A: Different dictionaries have different opinions about how to pronounce “poem.” Here are the opinions of the two American dictionaries I consult the most:

(1) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says it has two syllables. The first is accented and rhymes with Edgar Allan’s last name. The second sounds like the final syllable in “item.” This is more or less how I say it (POH-um). Like “poet,” but with an “m” instead of a “t” at the end.

(2) Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has several acceptable pronunciations, one syllable (rhyming with “home”) and two syllables (with the second pronounced like “um” or “im” or “em”). It would be hard to go wrong, according to M-W.

The earliest published reference for “poem” in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from the 15th century. We got it from the Latin poema via the Middle French poeme. For what it’s worth, the modern French poème has two syllables.

In answer to your question, both pronunciations are acceptable, but the two-syllable version seems to be more common.

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English language Etymology

Shop till you drop

Q: I repeatedly hear radio ads for “pre-need funerals.” I can’t imagine what such a ritual would be like, or who would sign up for one. Any thoughts on this?

A: The funeral industry is great at coming up with bizarre usages. How about having your loved one referred to as the “cremains”?

To be fair, though, what the “pre-need” advertisers are talking about is a useful product. My mother actually arranged and paid for her funeral, cremation, and associated services a couple of years before she died.

I thought it was a little creepy at the time, but two years later I was very, very glad that everything had been arranged and I had so few decisions to make.

Nevertheless, the expression “pre-need funeral” is ugly. It sounds like having one’s funeral ahead of time. (Would you be allowed to give your own eulogy?) Perhaps “prearranged funeral” would be more in keeping with the event.

I should mention, however, that this isn’t a very new usage. The Oxford English Dictionary has published references for it going back to 1945.

In fact, the earliest citation comes from an ad in the newspaper that gave me my first job in journalism, the Waterloo Courier in Iowa: “Who will pay the Funeral Bill? Ask us today for details of our pre-need plan. No obligation.”

As Mom might have said, holy moley!

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English language Uncategorized

Accentuating the negative

Q: I recently heard someone on WNYC say “I know of no place that doesn’t have music.” Shouldn’t it be “I do not know of any place that does not have music”?

A: The statement “I know of no place that doesn’t have music” is perfectly correct English, though a bit convoluted. “I know of no place” is grammatically equivalent to “I don’t know of any place.” And by the way, the contractions “don’t” and “doesn’t” are respectable English.

So the longer statement simply means “I don’t know of any place that doesn’t have music.” Or (leaving the speaker out of it), “Every place has music.” Or, “No place lacks music.”

They’re all grammatically correct, and they’re all legitimate ways of expressing the same idea.

The statement as given has two negatives, a kind of construction that bothers some people. But “I know of no place that doesn’t have music” isn’t an example of the kind of “double negative” that’s grammatically incorrect (like “I didn’t do nothing”).

If you’d like to read more about the double negative, I  wrote a blog post last year about when it’s a no-no and when it’s not.

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English language Uncategorized

Rules, schmules!

Q: Despite having slept through most of the grammar instruction tossed at me in grade school, I’ve become a writer – a restaurant critic. Notwithstanding my scholarly disregard for the subject, my respect for grammar has grown over the years, though I often break the rules in favor of a conversational style. What do you think of writers who disregard proper grammar to achieve a certain effect?

A: Writers who know the rules of English often bend them (quite effectively) for literary effect, and this is a long-established tradition. I always say, though, that you have to know the rules before you can bend them!

An educated reader can always tell the difference between a writer who’s clueless and one who’s being creative within (or just outside) the limits of acceptability.

But a lot of so-called rules, as you probably know, are only superstitions. It’s perfectly correct, for example, to begin a sentence with a conjunction (like “and” or “but”).

The belief that it’s incorrect to start a sentence with a conjunction is one of the most persistent myths of English grammar. It’s right up there with the misconceptions that it’s wrong to “split” an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition.

I’ve already discussed these items on my blog. If you’re interested, here are links for the beginning conjunction, the “split” infinitive, and the ending preposition.

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These strings don’t zing!

Q: I find that the use of the verb “resonate” (as in “Senator Obama’s speeches resonate with the public”) is so ubiquitous as to be nauseating. Do you agree?

A: “Resonate” is indeed so overused that it appears to have lost all meaning. It’s particularly noticeable in political writing and in criticism – especially in book reviews!

The literal meaning of the noun “resonance” – sound prolonged or reinforced by synchronous vibration – was once very powerful when applied figuratively to something that strikes a chord, as it were, within the human breast.

But the figurative use of “resonate” and “resonance” has been beaten to death and trivialized. You might say the resonance has died away!

In case you’re interested, the verb “resonate” appeared in print for the first time in an 1873 book about sound and harmony: “The wires of the corresponding note will of course resonate with it.”

Over the next century, it seems to have been used primarily in its technical sense. The first figurative use in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1976 article in Publishers Weekly about prose “resonating with illustrations.”

The noun “resonance,” a much earlier word, dates from the late 15th century. Both words have their roots in the Latin verb resonare, meaning to resound. But neither one is a resounding success these days.

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The importance of being open

Q: When editing other people’s writing, I often encounter a sentence like this: “Most important, we should consider these issues at our meeting.” I prefer “importantly,” but many erudite writers believe otherwise. Any comments?

A: A while back, the New Yorker published an article with a sentence beginning, “And, most important, in 1969 it hired as its managing director….” Some daily newspapers (I won’t say which ones) might have begun it this way: “And, most importantly, in 1969….”

Purists (and there are none so pure as the editors of the New Yorker) prefer the adjective “important” to the adverb “importantly” here, since “importantly” could conceivably be interpreted as modifying the verb “hired.”

In other words, somebody (I can’t imagine who!) might take an “ly” version of that New Yorker clause to mean “it importantly hired,” which makes little sense. The literal meaning is this: “And [what is] most important [is that] in 1969 it hired….”

I once shunned “importantly” myself. But I now believe that it can legitimately be used as a sentence adverb — an adverb that modifies an entire statement rather than a single verb.

Similar sentence adverbs are “fortunately,” “obviously,” “generally,” and even “hopefully,” which I’m sure the New Yorker would avoid at all costs.

Some years ago I changed my position on “hopefully,” and the second edition of my grammar book Woe Is I now endorses its use as a sentence adverb. No one can accuse me of having a closed mind (I hope).

Although I regard “importantly” as a legitimate sentence adverb when used unambiguously, I don’t use it myself. It’s vastly overused, it’s graceless, and it’s clumsy, especially in a sentence where it might have a literal meaning.

Example: “Importantly, she acts the role of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.” How does one interpret “importantly” in that sentence? Is it important that she’s acting the role or is she acting like her self-important character?

This is all a very windy way of saying the usage in the New Yorker is correct, but these days so is “importantly.”

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Just because you’re you

Q: My pet peeve: “The reason is because!” Very few speakers use the proper construction. It drives me up a wall!

A: The construction is widely considered to be poor usage, but it’s a no-no that’s widely committed. Usage experts frown on it (and I see that you do too!).

“Because” is primarily a conjunction, and it’s used in the same sense as “since” or “for the reason that.” So a sentence like “The reason is because he’s an only child” is considered redundant.

Since “for the reason that” is built into the word “because,” you’re just repeating yourself. It’s like saying “the reason is for the reason that he’s an only child.”

Sometimes, however, people assume that it’s wrong to use ANY construction with “is because,” as in: “That is because he’s an only child.” There’s nothing wrong with that.

It also wouldn’t be unusual to use “is for the reason that” in the same way (“That is for the reason that he’s an only child”). A bit wordy, but correct usage.

And it wouldn’t be unusual to use “is because of” (as in “That is because of his age”). The phrase “because of” acts as a preposition, and it’s used in the same sense as “on account of” or “by reason of.”

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Epicenter piece

Q: Would you do a piece on the misuse of “epicenter,” a pet peeve of mine? The epicenter of an earthquake is the point on the earth’s surface that corresponds to the quake’s center, which is actually beneath the surface. The word is now used to mean the very center of something, as in “the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic.”

A: Strictly speaking, “epicenter” is a geological term describing the point at the earth’s surface that’s directly above the underground focus of an earthquake. (The underground focus of a quake is called the “hypocenter.”)

But you’ll be disappointed to learn that a fuzzier figurative use of “epicenter” is now accepted as standard English, according to both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.)

Figuratively, “epicenter” simply means the focal point or center of some event or situation. American-Heritage, however, says this figurative use generally involves “dangerous, destructive, or negative” situations.

Eight-two percent of the A-H Usage Panel approves of the figurative use of “epicenter” in reference to dangerous situations, but only 61 percent accepts its use in positive or neutral contexts.

So these usage mavens would overwhelmingly accept a phrase like “the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic,” but they would not quite so overwhelmingly accept one like “the epicenter of Paris Hilton’s social life.”

Speaking of “epi” words, there’s also confusion about “epidemic” as opposed to “endemic” and the much-abused “pandemic.”

A disease is “epidemic” when it becomes widespread within a specific community or population at a particular time. It’s “endemic” when it exists all the time in (or is native to) a given community or population. It’s “pandemic” when it spreads throughout a country or a continent or the world.

An easy way to remember: the prefix “epi” means upon or close to; “en” means in or within; “pan” means all.

I think newscasters and writers love to use “pandemic” because they think it’s scarier than “epidemic,” which I suppose it is!

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Vacuum battles

Q: Is “vacuum power” or “power vacuum” the right way to refer to the absence of an authority figure in the workplace?

A: It’s “power vacuum” when you’re using the expression in a political, business, or similar sense. It’s “vacuum power” when you mean the sucking ability of a Hoover, a Eureka, or an Electrolux.

The political usage first appeared in print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in a 1941 issue of the Journal of Politics.

Here’s the quotation: “The world of the Eastern European minor powers was, politically speaking, a power-vacuum which depended for its continued existence on a balance of the surrounding great powers.”

The noun “vacuum,” meaning an empty space, first appeared in print in the 16th century in the religious writings of Thomas Cranmer, an Archbishop of Canterbury who was executed for heresy.

“Naturall reason abhorreth vacuum,” he wrote, “that is to say, that there shoulde be any emptye place, wherin no substance shoulde be.”

Speaking of which, I’ve discovered an “emptye place” in the OED that needs filling: There’s no published reference for the expression “vacuum power.”

The noun itself, which comes from the Latin vacuum (meaning empty), has been used in reference to the electrical floor cleaner since the early 20th century.

Here’s an OED citation from a 1907 issue of Yesterday’s Shopping: “The ‘Witch’ Dust Extractor is a vacuum cleaner suitable alike for carpets, upholstery, clothing, &c.”

I know of a few dust balls in need of extraction!

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Deviant behavior

Q: Which is correct: a social “deviate” or a social “deviant”?

A: Either one. They’re both standard English, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), and the Oxford English Dictionary.

The verb “deviate,” meaning to stray or turn aside or depart from accepted norms, dates from 1635, according to the OED. It comes from the Latin deviare, which means, more or less, to go off the road – it includes via, meaning road.

The adjectives “deviate” and “deviant,” which originally meant remote or different, weren’t used in the modern sense to describe abnormal behavior until the 20th century.

The first modern citation for the adjective “deviate” used this way is in a 1945 report on children in South Africa: “If the reaction of the individual is in conflict with the generally accepted manner of reaction or differs from it in a striking way, such behaviour is deviate.”

The earliest citation for “deviant” in this sense, according to the OED, is from a 1935 book about sex and temperament that says “deviant men often choose deviant women” for marriage.

The words “deviate” and “deviant” can also be nouns, meaning a person who strays from normal standards of behavior. As nouns, they’re relatively new, entering English only in the 20th century.

Sorry if I’ve deviated too far from your original question!

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Long and short division

Q: Announcers on NPR pronounce “divisive” to rhyme with “missive,” while Barack Obama pronounces it, as I do, to rhyme with “incisive.” I await your pronouncement!

A: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists only one pronunciation, with a long “i” (as in “vice”) in the middle syllable.

However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists a second choice, with a short “i” (as in “vista”) in the middle syllable.

It’s been my experience that this second variant is primarily heard in Britain, and that the pronunciation with the long “i” is much more common in the US.

But the online version of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English gives only the long “i” pronunciation for both UK and US English.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which agrees with Longman on the pronunciation of “divisive,” traces the word back to an English translation of Plutarch in 1603. The word is ultimately derived from the Latin divisus, or division.

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Like it or not

Q: Do you think “as,” “as if,” and “as though” are completely lost in favor of “like”?

A: No, at least not yet, but the ground is shifting. In casual conversation, “like” is gaining on “as” and its cousins “as if” and “as though.”

In more formal writing and speeches, however, the rule is still that “as” should introduce a clause – a group of words with both a subject and a verb.

Here’s an example from my grammar book Woe Is I: “Homer tripped, as anyone would.” If no verb follows, “like” is correct: “Homer walks like a duck.”

As for “as if” and “as though,” their job is generally to introduce clauses that are hypothetical or contrary to fact: “She eats chocolate as if it’s going out of style.” I’m sometimes asked if there’s any difference between them. The answer is no.

I’m also asked if “as though” has gone the way of the dinosaurs. Not at all, though it may be a bit more literary sounding than “as if.” Centuries ago, “if” was a lesser meaning of “though,” a now-obscure usage that survives in “as though.”

Getting back to “as” vs. “like,” when you want to be grammatically correct, just think of the old cigarette ad (“Winston tastes good like a cigarette should”) and do the opposite. But on more relaxed occasions, it’s OK to join the crowd and do as you like.

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Is he hearing things?

Q: As a teacher of English, speech, and theater, I have a good ear for pronunciation. For years I have heard people, often media announcers, pronounce the word “episode” as if it were “effisode.” My wife says I’m hearing things. Is this an acceptable pronunciation?

A: I’ve never come across this weird pronunciation (“effisode”). At any rate, it’s not an acceptable pronunciation of the word “episode.”

I did some etymological detective work to see whether it has ever been standard English to pronounce the “p” of “episode” with an “f” sound. The answer: nope!

We borrowed the word in the 17th century from the French épisode, which was borrowed in turn from the Greek epeisodion, meaning an addition, according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology.

In ancient times, an episod was a commentary (i.e., an addition) between two songs by the chorus in a Greek tragedy.

The first published reference for the word in the Oxford English Dictionary, dating from 1678, refers to the “episods” in a Greek tragedy, but the term was soon being used for all kinds of digressions.

For example, Oliver Goldsmith, in his comic play She Stoops to Conquer (1773), refers to “the terrors of a formal courtship, together with the episode of aunts, grandmothers and cousins.”

The use of “episode” in the modern sense of a film, radio, or TV installment dates from 1915, when the magazine Motion Picture World referred to “the second episode” of A Voice From the Wilderness.

As far as I can tell, the “p” sound was a “p” sound from ancient to modern times. Maybe your wife is right and you are hearing things! In case you’re not, though, I’ll keep my ears open and let you know if I hear anything.

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Half truths

Q: I know “fewer” refers to something you can count and “less” to something uncountable. However, what do you say in a sentence like this: “Fewer [or “Less”] than half of the graduates are present today.” In this case, are you talking about the graduates or are you referring to the fraction?

A: Strictly speaking, as you know, “fewer” should refer to plural nouns (“fewer kittens”) and “less” to singular nouns (“less milk”). But a weakness of “fewer” can be seen with percentages and fractions.

Should we say “less than five percent of the people” or “fewer than five percent of the people”? “Less than half of the graduates” or “fewer than half of the graduates”?

The answer isn’t black and white. I think (and Garner’s Modern American Usage agrees) that in these cases “less” is better.

The phrase “half of the graduates” is closer to a collective mass noun than to a collection of individuals counted up. So I’d suggest “less than half of the graduates.”

There are intelligent arguments for “fewer,” but “less” would be my choice, since percentages and fractions suggest quantity rather than counted individuals.

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Schismatic beliefs

[An updated and expanded post about “schism” appeared on June 29, 2011.]

Q: I was a radio announcer for many years and raised by a very Victorian mother who insisted on proper speech. With that in mind: “Schism” is pronounced “SIZ-em,” not “SKIZ-em,” or “SHIZ-em” (as I thought I heard you say on WNYC).

A: Thanks for writing, but I’m afraid that my reply will disappoint you. The pronunciation of “schism” has evolved in the opinion of lexicographers.

The standard pronunciations for “schism,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), currently are (1) SIZ-em, (2) SKIZ-em, and (3) SHIZ-em, with the “i” in the first syllable pronounced as in “sit.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) differs, listing only two acceptable pronunciations, in this order: (1) SKIZ-em, and (2) SIZ-em.

As for me, I usually say SKIZ-em.

The word was originally spelled “scisme” and was traditionally pronounced your way: SIZ-em. But in the 16th century, it was re-spelled with the initial letters “sch” to conform with its Latin and Greek roots.

From this new spelling, according to an informative American Heritage pronunciation note, arose the SKIZ-em pronunciation.

“Long regarded as incorrect, it became so common in both British and American English that it gained acceptability as a standard variant,” the dictionary says. “Evidence indicates, however, that it is now the preferred pronunciation, at least in American English.”

Sorry about that, and I hope you’ll keep listening!

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Primal screens

Q: During your recent discussion on WNYC about two-faced words, you mentioned that “to screen” can mean either to show something to be viewed or to hide it from view. Here’s an additional meaning: to print something. Since Andy Warhol, this term has gained usage. Yes, I am a screen printer!

A: Thanks for your comments. I was discussing contronyms, words that are their own opposites, so I mentioned only two contradictory meanings of “to screen.”

There are, of course, quite a few other meanings for the verb, including to protect or shelter, to cover a military movement, to sift, to search for a disease, and to examine for admission.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary for the verb “screen” used in printing comes from R. Randolph Karch’s Graphic Arts Procedures (1948): “Both type matter and illustrations are screened.”

The first citation that refers to screening a motion picture is in a 1913 issue of Writer’s Magazine: “Because you fail to see your story, in spite of the fact that you see others of the same type screened, will not be proof that editors are prejudiced against you.”

And the earliest reference for “screen” used to mean hide from view dates from 1686. In a book about celestial bodies, John Goad wrote that clouds “shall skreen the Sun from us.” In other words, an early sunscreen!

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Prime time

[An updated and expanded post about the pronunciation of “primer” appeared on Aug. 10, 2015.]

Q: An announcer on PBS recently offered a primer (the book, not the paint) as a gift for a contribution. He pronounced “primer” with a short “i” (as in “dimmer”). It sounded funny to me. I always use a long “i” (as in “climber”). Are both acceptable?

A: The “primer” that means an elementary reading book or an instructional guide rhymes with “trimmer” (short “i”). It comes from the Latin primarium, meaning a prayer book or devotional manual, and it entered English in the 14th century.

The “primer” that’s an undercoat of paint rhymes with “timer” (long “i”). It entered English in the 17th century, through the verb “prime” (16th century) and the earlier noun “priming” (15th century). We got it from the Latin primus, meaning first.

The pronunciations I’ve given are standard American usage. You’ll find them in both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

Although the Latin roots of each word are ultimately related, in English these are two separate and distinct words: different meanings, different pronunciations, and different dictionary entries.

Vive la différence!

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The epicene pronoun

[Note: An updated post on this subject was published on May 22, 2017.]

Q: David Paterson, the new governor of New York, says he had a relationship with “someone” on the public payroll, but he didn’t supervise “them.” I hear this usage from time to time. I also hear “them” used instead of “him or her.” Since when has “them” become a substitute for a singular pronoun or phrase?

A: Not in the near future! The singular “they” or “them” or “their” has been considered wrong for a couple of centuries, and it’s still a no-no in formal English. But the governor, whose grammatical relationships have come into question before on the blog, is one of millions who adulterate the language this way.

That’s the way things stand now, despite all the interesting history, leaving the careful writer with the task of finding an acceptable alternative to the singular “they.”

It’s become so common that only a few of us diehards notice anymore! That doesn’t make it right, though. “They,” “them,” and “their” are not legitimate singular pronouns, according to nearly all usage and style guides. And I don’t like using “he or she” and “him or her,” either.

To be fair, I should mention that it was once OK to use “they” to refer to indefinite pronouns like “anyone,” “anybody,” “nobody,” and “someone.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references for this usage going back to the 16th century. Here’s one from Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel Tom Jones: “Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it.”

But in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, grammarians began condemning as illogical the use of “they” as a singular pronoun, leaving us with a great big hole in English where a gender-neutral, number-neutral pronoun ought to be.

Here’s one solution: In a long piece of writing, use “him” in some places and “her” in others when referring to a generic individual. I used to work at the Des Moines Register in the mid-1970s, and that was the thinking on the Op-Ed pages. The shifts back and forth didn’t seem to bother anyone.

Another solution is to write around the problem. In other words, don’t use the pronoun at all. Example: “Someone forgot to pay the bills” (instead of “their bills”). Or: “If anyone calls, say I’m out” (instead of “tell them I’m out”).

If you must use “they,” them,” or “their,” then make the subject (or referent noun) plural instead of singular. A sentence like “Every parent dotes on their child” could instead be “All parents dote on their children.” Instead of “A person should mind their own business,” make it “People should mind their own business.”

There’s always a way! I admit that all the foregoing is really an elaborate run-around. But disregarding the plurality of “they” isn’t the answer, at least today.

Probably the grammar question of the century is “What can I use as a suitable gender-free pronoun?” The answer: There isn’t one. And new pronouns are almost impossible to introduce into a language.

In 1884, a serious attempt was made to introduce “thon,” a genderless third-person pronoun, into English, and it actually made it into dictionaries. You can still find it in 50-year-old editions. It went the way of “ne” (1850s), “heer” (1913), “ha” (pre-1936), and several other proposed epicene (i.e., genderless) pronouns.

The linguist Dennis Baron wrote a wonderful essay in the journal American Speech in 1981 called “The Epicene Pronoun: The Word That Failed,” reviewing much of this history. He notes, “Among the many reforms proposed for the English language … the creation of an epicene or bisexual pronoun stands out as the one most often advocated and attempted, and the one that has most often failed.”

The problem isn’t just finding a sex-neutral term, but also a number-neutral term, one that can serve as both singular and plural. Better minds than mine have devoted themselves to this problem to no avail. I think I know a losing battle when I see one.

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So what’s permitted?

Q: I grew up saying “PER-mit” for the noun and “per-MIT” for the verb. But I sometimes hear the noun pronounced with the accent on the second syllable. Is this a regional variation? Curiously yours.

A: The verb “permit” is pronounced, as you note, with the accent on the second syllable: “Please per-MIT me to introduce myself.”

But the noun “permit” can be pronounced with the accent on either the first or the second syllable: “Do I need a construction PER-mit to remodel my house?” … “The state requires a gun per-MIT.”

These are the pronunciations given in both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

So, both are permitted.

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Oh, me! Oh, my!

Q: A couple of weeks ago, David Patterson said Eliot Spitzer’s parents once had “my wife, Michelle, and I up for lunch.” Is “I” correct or should it be “me”?

A: Oops!

The incoming (at the time) New York governor should have said the outgoing governor’s parents had “my wife, Michelle, and me up for lunch.”

Now he would have been correct if he’d said “My wife, Michelle, and I” had lunch with Eliot Spitzer’s parents. That’s because “I” is a subject while “me” is an object. And no fair using “myself”!

I’ve discussed this subject before on the blog. If you’d like to read more, check it out. The miscreant that time was Donald Trump. No, I didn’t fire him!

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