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“Me” first?

Q: Why did Pat say on the air last month that Origins of the Specious, your latest book, was written by “me and my husband”? I was always taught that one put oneself last.

A: There’s no grammatical rule that when you mention yourself along with another person, you mention yourself last. This may be an issue of politeness, but it’s not one of grammar.

Interestingly, this politeness issue may have led to what’s perhaps the most common grammatical mistake of all – using “I” in place of “me.”

Too many people would have ended the sentence you mentioned by saying “my husband and I” instead of the correct “my husband and me” or “me and my husband.” Both of the latter choices are equally correct.

In case you’re interested, we ran a blog item last year on the subject (and object) of “I” versus “me.” And if you’d like to learn more about Origins of the Specious, which is due in May, check out this page on our website.

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Piece work

Q: Help! I can’t sleep. Is it “say your piece” or “say your peace”? I would tend to use the latter, but I can’t find confirmation.

A: It’s “say [or speak] your piece,” not “peace.” When the expression first appeared in the early 19th century, the word “piece” referred to a passage for recitation or a short speech, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first published reference in the OED is from A New-England Tale (1822), a work by Catherine M. Sedgwick: “The young woman was to speak a piece of her own framing.”

The expression now, of course, usually means to have one’s say or express one’s opinion. Here’s a recent example from the April 9, 2003, issue of the Washington Times: “He … gives each caller a chance to say his piece before moving on.”

Interestingly, “piece” was sometimes spelled “peace” in the 16th and 17th centuries. A 1523 act issued by Henry VIII, for example, referred to “every peace of Worstede.”

But our two words, “peace” and “piece,” have different ancestries. “Peace” comes from pax, the Latin word for peace, while the ultimate origin of “piece” is uncertain, according to the OED.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins suggests, though, that “piece” is probably descended from the Old Celtic root pett, which may also have given us the word “peat.”

I hope you can have a good night’s sleep now.

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Shuffling off this mortal coil

Q: My boss asked me to research the use of the verb “pass” for dying. My aged unabridged dictionary states that both “pass” and “pass away” are archaic terms for to die, but my boss notes that “pass” seems to be enjoying a resurgence. Do you have any light to shed on this issue?

A: The verb “pass” passed into English in the early 13th century by way of England’s Norman rulers. The Anglo-Norman verb passer meant, among other things, to pass by, to exceed or surpass, to go beyond, and to depart life, and those were among the earliest meanings of the verb “pass” in English.

The English verb has been used in reference to dying since around the year 1230, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Many of the early published references cited in the OED use it in the verbal phrases “pass to God” or “pass to heaven.” The verbal phrase “pass away,” which is more common today, dates from the 14th century.

The word “pass” has been used alone since around 1340 as a verb meaning to die. The OED cites published references in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Tennyson, and many other writers. Here’s an example from King Lear (1608): “Vex not his ghost, / O let him passe.” The OED says, however, that this use of “pass” alone for “die” is now primarily North American.

I too have noticed a resurgence of this usage in recent years (for example, “Uncle Julius passed a year ago”), and it’s not surprising. We’re very inventive about speaking of death without actually mentioning it. Instead of dying, we croak, buy it, bite the dust, or shuffle off this mortal coil. I wonder why!

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Are they connected?

Q: My wife asked me something that made me wonder: “Does my mom and dad have internet?” Should that be “do” or “does”?

A: The sentence should read “Do my mom and dad have Internet?” The subject of the sentence (“mom and dad”) is plural and needs a plural verb (“do have”), not a singular (“does have”). And FYI, dictionaries generally capitalize “Internet.”

Interestingly, questions that begin with the auxiliary verb “do” can usually be answered with a “yes,” a “no,” or occasionally a “maybe.” But questions that begin with “why,” “what,” “where,” and company usually have more complicated answers.

Your wife’s sentence raises another question: what is the meaning of the word “Internet” here?

The two US dictionaries I use the most – Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) – define “Internet” in only one way: a system of networks connecting computers around the world.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “Internet” more broadly – as both a global computer network and the information available on it.

Like many other people, your wife is using the word even more broadly – as an Internet connection. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next editions of Merriam-Webster’s and American Heritage include this sense.

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A buss is just a buss

Q: My granddaughter is in the sixth grade and her principal says the plural of “bus” (the motor vehicle ) can be spelled “buses” or “busses.” She’s confused, isn’t she? In my day “buss” meant to kiss someone. Thanks for your input.

A: Your granddaughter’s principal is right.

The plural for the large motor vehicle that carries passengers, usually along a fixed route, can be either “buses” or “busses,” according to both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

Merriam-Webster’s indicates, however, that the plural “buses” is more common. And many style and usage guides prefer the plural with one “s” in the middle.

As for that singular noun with a double “s,” the two dictionaries agree that a “buss” is just a kiss – in your granddaughter’s day as well as in yours.

In your great-great-grandfather’s day, though, the singular for a passenger vehicle was sometimes spelled “buss” (with a double “s”). In fact, the first two published references for the word in the Oxford English Dictionary (from 1832 and 1837) spell it that way.

The word for the vehicle, as you probably know, is a shortened form of “omnibus,” which first appeared in English in 1829. We borrowed the word from French, where it was first used in 1825 for the vehicles that carried passengers between Nantes and a nearby beach.

Why “omnibus”? John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says it comes from the phrase voiture omnibus, literarily carriage for all (voiture is “carriage” in French while omnibus means “for all” in Latin).

But a curious account in the OED suggests that the ultimate source for “omnibus” may be a French tradesman whose last name was Omnès. The tradesman apparently coined the motto Omnès omnibus for his nameplate and attached it to his vehicle. Voilà!

The word for the kiss, which was originally spelled “busse” when it showed up in English in the 1500s, may ultimately come from basium, the Latin word for a kiss. (In Spanish, a kiss is a beso; in French, it’s a baiser; and in Italian, a bacio.)

All this word history may be interesting, but in modern English the vehicle is a “bus” and the kiss is a “buss,” while the plural of both can be spelled “busses” (though “buses” is more common for the vehicles).

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Does Yogi have a lot to answer for?

Q: How do you feel about the ubiquitous “It’s déjà vu all over again”? Grrrr! Yogi Berra has a lot to answer for. Even Brian Lehrer has been known to utter that one on WNYC!

A: I agree with you that we could do with a lot less of this déjà vu-ing all over again!

Yogi was originally quoted in the July 15, 1985, issue of Forbes magazine. He later said in The Yogi Book (1998) that he had made the “comment after Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit back-to-back home runs for the umpteenth time.”

Interestingly, according to The Yale Book of Quotations, Clifford Terry used the same expression in a film review in the Chicago Tribune on Feb. 22, 1966 – without mentioning Berra. So maybe you’re blaming the wrong guy for this one.

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Wounded spirits

Q: A radio reporter recently referred to 50,000 people who’d been “wounded” in the China earthquake last May. Shouldn’t that be “injured”? I’ve always used this rule of thumb: “wounds” are inflicted, as in battle; “injuries” are the result of accidents or natural calamities. Do I have it right?

A: I generally agree with you, and I follow a similar rule of thumb. But the distinction between the verbs “injure” and “wound” (as well as the past participles “injured” and “wounded”) is fuzzier in modern English than we believe.

Of the two verbs, “wound” is by far the older, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. When it first showed up in Old English around the year 760, it meant to “inflict a wound on (a person, the body, etc.) by means of a weapon; to injure intentionally in such a way as to cut or tear the flesh.”

When the verb “injure” first showed up in English in the late 16th century, it meant merely to “do injustice or wrong to (a person),” according to the OED. No physical injury here. The verb is what’s known as a back-formation, in this case formed from the older noun “injury.” It’s ultimately derived from the Latin injurius, or unjust.

In modern English, both “injure” and “wound” can mean, among other things, to cause physical harm to someone, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Neither dictionary insists that a wound has to be deliberately inflicted while an injury must be the result of an accident or natural causes. But that’s the way I generally use the two words, and that’s the way I see them used most of the time.

While we’re on the subject of “wound” vs. “injury,” you may be interested in a related blog item last year about the word “casualty.”

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Blazing saddles

Q: I saw the phrase “hell bent for leather” used in a recent New York Times article. The explanations/definitions I could find for this expression seemed less than satisfying. Care to give it a go?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary describes “hell-bent for leather” as a North American colloquial phrase meaning “at breakneck speed; rapidly; recklessly; (also occasionally) fast; reckless; zealous, determined.”

The dictionary also cites two related expressions with similar meanings: “hell-bent for election” and “hell-bent for breakfast.”

The first published reference in the OED for any of these phrases comes from “Twelve O’Clock,” an 1899 short story by Stephen Crane: “One puncher racin’ his cow-pony hell-bent-fer-election down Main Street.”

The first citation for the leathery version is from a 1926 article in the Lincoln (Nebraska) Star: “Bold, reckless dare devils driving hell bent for leather.”

As you can see, the first citation had to do with riding a horse fast or recklessly. A somewhat earlier British expression, “hell-for-leather,” had a similar meaning.

Here’s an example from Kipling’s The Story of the Gadsby (1891): “Here, Gaddy, take the note to Bingle and ride hell-for-leather.”

Although the OED doesn’t explain the use of the word “leather” here, I imagine it originally referred to the leather saddles on horses ridden at breakneck speed.

In the New York Times article you mentioned, a doctor used the phrase “hell bent for leather” to describe the early detection of breast tumors that would have gone away on their own.

The term “hell-bent,” which dates from the early 1700s, means determined “to achieve something at all costs; passionately or recklessly intent,” according to the OED.

The earliest quotations in the dictionary were references to American Indians “Hell bent on Thoughts of Massacree” (1731) and ” ‘hell-bent’ on carnage” (1835).

Here’s a more recent (and more politically correct) example from a May 2002 article in Scotland on Sunday: “Listen to Kissin tearing hell-bent through the impossibly fast leaps of Schumann’s Paganini portrait.”

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Spell blinding

Q: I blame a lack of reading for all the spelling mistakes I see in the written media. Two recent examples: “free reign” and “course bread crumbs.” And then there is the reverse problem – words misspoken because they are read but never heard. I mispronounced “consortium” until I was corrected, and a dear friend pronounced the “g” in “gnome” until she was clued in. In light of this, how can we help each other with our language lapses – without sounding like boors?

A: Unless you’re the parent or perhaps the spouse of the offender, there’s no polite way to correct somebody’s English. Just keep using good English yourself and hope that it will rub off! I wrote a blog item about this earlier in the year.

As a veteran of newspapers (the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Des Moines Register, etc.), I suspect that there may be more to this misspelling business than a lack of reading.

Friends who are still slogging away in newsrooms tell me that such goofs are often the result of staff cutbacks. All the downsizing that we see in the industry forces reporters and editors to churn out more and check less.

As for pronunciation, you may be surprised at what’s considered proper these days.

“Consortium,” for example, can be pronounced as con-SOR-tee-um or con-SOR-shee-um or con-SOR-shum, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

“Gnome” has always been pronounced NOME in English as far as I can tell. But the word for the dwarflike creature comes from a Latin word (gnomus) in which the “g” is pronounced, and the “gnome” that means a pithy statement comes from a Greek word (gnome) with a pronounced “g.”

Interestingly, we pronounce the “g” in some other English words derived from the Greek root: “agnostic,” “diagnosis,” etc.

Isn’t English wonderful?

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Backward thinking?

Q: I hear the expression “going forward” used more and more these days. Why do so many people place it at the end of an explanation that is already complete? Two examples: “Here’s what we plan to do going forward” and “This is what I see happening going forward.”

A: I too continue to notice the annoying expression “going forward.” What would be the alternative? “Going backward”?

It allows the speaker or writer to get across a very banal idea (“sometime in the future”) without committing himself to such an empty phrase. Instead, he can substitute one that’s even emptier but sounds trendy and authoritative.

Most likely, speakers of bureaucratese prefer “going forward” until they reach “the end of the day.”

A few of years back an organization campaigning for plain English issued its list of the most clichéd clichés. At the top was “at the end of the day.”

Other clunkers (not necessarily in this order) were “24/7,” “let’s touch base,” “bottom line,” “with all due respect,” “between a rock and a hard place,” “at this moment in time,” “to be honest,” “I hear what you are saying” and (stop! stop!) “going forward.”

I’d like to add “thinking outside the box,” “win-win situation,” and “I can’t speak to that.”

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Divine thoughts

Q: I was surprised to learn that a deist believes one God created the universe but otherwise ignores it, whereas a theist believes one God created the universe and actively intervenes in it. Do you know how this distinction came about?

A: I’ve always considered a deist to be someone who believes in God but not in any particular religion. The Oxford English Dictionary generally agrees with me, but two of the other dictionaries I often consult go along with your definition.

The OED says a deist is someone “who acknowledges the existence of a God upon the testimony of reason, but rejects revealed religion.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says deism is a “belief, based solely on reason, in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life, exerting no influence on natural phenomena, and giving no supernatural revelation.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition) says deism is “a movement or system of thought advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe.”

As for a theist, the three dictionaries generally define it as someone who believes in God and who may or may not follow a particular religion.

The terms “deist” and “theist” meant pretty much the same thing (the opposite of “atheist”) when they first showed up in English (“deist” in the 16th century and “theist” in the 17th century), according to the OED.

The dictionary says the two words were “interchangeable” at the end of the 17th century. But by the late 18th century, according to published references, the term “deist” had come to mean someone who believed in God, but not in the Scriptures.

In 1788, for instance, the Anglican theologian John Wesley defined a “deist” as “one who believes there is a God distinct from matter; but does not believe the Bible.”

In the late 19th century, according the OED, a “negative aspect of deism, as opposed to Christianity, became the accepted one, and deist and theist were differentiated.”

Here’s an 1880 citation from the Saturday Review: “In speaking of a deist they fix their attention on the negative, in speaking of a theist on the positive aspect of his belief.”

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Penny loafing

Q: I’ve heard that the coin called the penny is really British and in America we have a cent. But it just feels natural to say “My son is out collecting pennies for Unicef.” The word “cent” seems off somehow. Do you agree?

A: A penny is a coin in both the UK and the US, though it has a different value in each place.

In the US, it’s worth a hundredth of a dollar or one cent. (In Canada, too, it’s worth a hundredth of a Canadian dollar.)

In Britain, a penny has been worth a hundredth of a pound since 1971. Before that, it was worth a twelfth of a shilling or a two-hundred-and-fortieth of a pound.

The original English penny was silver, but the coin has generally been made of copper or bronze since 1797.

The term “penny” is quite old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days, when it was spelled all different ways, including paening, pending, and peninc. It has usually been spelled “penny” on both sides of the Atlantic since the 17th century.

In Britain, the plural of “penny” is “pence” or “pennies” (I won’t go into details here). In the US, the plural is “pennies.”

Now, back to your question. It’s not only correct to say your son “is out collecting pennies for Unicef,” but that’s also the usual way to say it in the US.

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Is “alright” all wrong?

Q: What is the correct written form of the phrase “all right”? I see it quite often as one word, “alright,” but I believe that is incorrect. Is it?

A: Traditionally, “alright” is not all right. I give this example of the correct usage in my grammar book Woe Is I: “All right, I’ll let you whitewash the fence!” said Tom.

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.”

To be fair, a one-word version of “all right” in various spellings has been seen in print since as far back as the 12th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The word (initially spelled “alrihtes” and “alriht”) made its first appearances as an adverb meaning just or exactly.

Although the OED has only two citations for the one-worder from the 12th and 13th centuries, the dictionary says “alright” has been “a frequent spelling of all right” since the late 19th century.

And it’s been a frequent target of scorn from usage experts. H.W. Fowler, for instance, had this to say back in 1926: “The words should always be written separate; there are no such forms as all-right, allright, or alright.”

Is that still true? Or is the one-worder now acceptable? Well, “all right” is more popular (90 million hits on Google), but “alright” isn’t exactly a wallflower (58 million).

We the jury (the people who use the language) will ultimately decide. I vote guilty. For now, “alright” is all wrong.

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Born in the USA

Q: I was taught that it’s presumptuous and arrogant to call our country America because this name covers two continents, North and South America. Our country is the United States of America. But since 9-11, I find that United States has virtually disappeared from radio and TV. EVERYONE now calls the country America. It makes me cringe whenever I hear this. I wish we’d get over it!

A: I usually refer to the country as the United States (or the US) because that’s more precise than calling it America. But I think it’s OK to refer to the country as America when precision doesn’t matter, especially if no one will take offense (say, a sensitive Argentine or Brazilian).

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say “America” can refer to either the United States of America or the Americas (North, Central, and South). And an American, according to the two dictionaries, can be either a citizen of the US or an inhabitant of the Americas.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the noun “American,” which dates from the mid-1500s, originally referred to an inhabitant of the Americas, but it’s “Now chiefly: a native or citizen of the United States.”

“America,” as you may know, comes from the Latinized first name of Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer who navigated the coast of South America in 1501. The term first appeared in writing in 1507 on a map by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, according to the OED.

No, I don’t think it’s presumptuous or arrogant to refer to the United States as America or a US citizen as an American.

In fact, some Latin Americans who feel slighted by these usages often slight Canadians by referring to a US citizen as a norteamaricano instead of the clunkier, though more precise, Spanish term estadounidense.

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Pat on WNYC: Dec. 17, 2008

If you missed hearing Pat on the Leonard Lopate Show today, you can listen to her by clicking here.

English language Uncategorized

Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 P.M. Eastern time to discuss the English language and to take questions from callers.

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My dinner with entrée

Q: I’m doing French-English restaurant translations, and I have a question about the word “entrée.” It means a first course in French, and it’s used this way in British English. But in American English, it means a main course. How did this all come about?

A: In French, as you mention, an “entrée” is a starter dish or first course. But that’s not what the word meant in English when we adopted it in the mid-18th century.

The English borrowing originally meant a “made dish” (or prepared dish) “served between the fish and the joint,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

A big family dinner in 19th-century London, for example, might have consisted of soup, fish, entrée, joint (that is, roast), and sweet.

The OED still defines “entrée” in the original English sense of the word (a dish “served between the fish and the joint”), but the dictionary doesn’t include any published references for this usage since 1901.

Another British reference, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, defines “entrée” as “the main dish of a meal, or a dish served before the main course – used in restaurants or on formal occasions: an entrée of roast duck.”

That sounds much like the way the word is defined in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.): “the main dish of a meal” as well as a “dish served in formal dining immediately before the main course or between two principal courses.”

This suggests to me that the word “entrée” (it’s often seen without the accent) can mean pretty much the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic – at least sometimes. A bit of googling, however, finds that Brits are a lot more inclined than Americans to use “main course” when they mean main course.

I can’t account for the original divergence in the French and English meanings. The French considered an “entrée” to be an introduction to the meal as a whole. I’m only speculating, but it may be that the English considered an “entrée” to be the opening act for the MAIN dish (the roast), not the entire meal.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology suggests that the later use of “entrée” to mean a main course “developed from the sense of a dish served between the main courses.”

Comparing the Chambers and OED entries, it looks as though the modern sense of “entrée” as the main course may be a relatively recent development – perhaps late 19th or early 20th century.

PS: My big Web II dictionary from the 1950s says the “made dish” served before the roast might consist of something like “creamed sweetbreads, a fruit fritter, or a timbale.” Sounds labor-intensive!

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Come on-a my house

Q: How do you feel about the many young people who say things like “Come over my house” or “I slept over his house” – rather than “over to” and “over at” respectively?

A: This clipped kind of expression (“I went over his house,” “She slept over my house”) is a new one on me. (Though I may have heard it a few years back on “The Sopranos.”)

It reminds me of the Rosemary Clooney song “Come On-a My House” (“Come on-a my house my house, I’m gonna give you candy…”).

As for my opinion, I think it’s charming – in its place.

Grammatically, of course, it’s not kosher, but I love regional language differences and idioms and all those things that make English quirky and unpredictable.

What’s more, this idiomatic usage is economical. It uses only one preposition (“over”) instead of two (“over to” … “over at”). So it makes a certain amount of sense.

In other words, I think it’s OK for young people to use it among themselves – in conversation, instant messages, texting, and so on.

But I wouldn’t recommend it in formal writing or even in casual conversation with grownups who care about proper grammar and usage – say English teachers.

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Is DEE-fense an offense?

Q: Why do sportscasters pronounce “defense” with an emphasis on the “de,” whereas political commentators emphasize the “fense”? Which pronunciation is correct?

A: The usual pronunciation of “defense” is duh-FENSE, except in sports terminology, where it’s generally pronounced DEE-fense.

Similarly, the usual pronunciation of “offense” is uh-FENSE, except in sports terminology, where it’s generally pronounced OFF-ense.

The sportscasters are not incorrect. The variant pronunciations of these words in sports terminology are standard, according to both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

I can only speculate as to why sportscasters and athletes pronounce these words as they do.

Perhaps emphasizing the first syllables (OFF and DEE) helps differentiate the two words in a context where both are often being discussed. In close proximity, the normal pronunciations (uh-FENSE, duh-FENSE) might make the difference harder to hear.

Sorry I can’t be more definitive. Maybe a phonologist out there can pitch in.

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How to o-o-h and a-h-h

Q: In writing dialogue for a story, I often run into trouble when a character screams or moans or whatevers. How do you spell a word that’s rarely spelled? Examples: “Ahhhhh,” Jason screamed; “Oooh,” Michelle moaned; “Awww,” Nancy swooned; “Hmmmm,” Henry wondered. There are dozens of similar words that I simply don’t know how to spell. Do you have any suggestions?

A: An author is allowed quite a bit of slack when writing dialogue in a story. So one writer may spell Jason’s scream as “ah,” another as “ahh,” and still another as “a-h-h.” The same may be said about Michelle’s moan and Nancy’s swoon and Henry’s wondering.

Try to be consistent, though. If you use “a-h-h” in one place, stick with that spelling elsewhere in the story.

If in doubt, you can always look it up. You’d be surprised at how many of these words are actually in the dictionary. For instance, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has three of the words you mentioned, with these spellings: “ah,” “oh,” “aw.”

I sometimes use hyphens when I stretch out one of these words: “a-h-h,” “o-o-h,” “a-w-w,” and so on. But another writer may skip the hyphens. It’s a judgment call.

The important thing is to be sure your reader understands what you mean. You don’t want the reader to wonder, “H-m-m?”

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Le mot juste

Q: I always write the date when you’ll be on WNYC on my calendar. If I can’t listen to you live, I’ll listen later on my iPod. Now for my question. I’ve been trying to remember the right word (“le mot juste”) to express that one has successfully persuaded another person that his/her opinion is incorrect. I think it is to dis-something of that opinion. Do I make myself clear?

A: Thanks for being such a fan. I think the word you’re looking for is “disabuse,” as in “I won’t disabuse you of the belief that I am a radio celebrity.” It means to free someone from a falsehood or a misapprehension.

You may be surprised to learn that we’ve been disabusing one other of mistaken beliefs for quite a while – nearly 400 years The word first appeared in print in 1611, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s an excerpt from The Compleat Angler (1653) in which Izaak Walton defends the simplicity of fishermen: “But if by simplicity you meant to express a general defect in those that profess and practice the excellent Art of Angling, I hope in time to disabuse you, and make the contrary appear so evidently.”

Interestingly, the word “disabuse” has been used occasionally as a noun, though not since 1700. Here’s the noun at work in a 1620 English translation of Don Quixote: “I am aggrieved that this Disabuse hath happened so late unto me.”

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Were the Beatles off piste?

Q: An absolutely new one on me: “piste.” It was used by Sir Paul McCartney during a BBC interview cited in The Guardian. Is it a word that’s stayed on that side of the pond, or does it have a track record in the Colonies, too?

A: The Nov. 16, 2008, article in The Guardian quotes Sir Paul on the subject of a 14-minute track called “Carnival of Light,” recorded by the Beatles in 1967 and never released.

McCartney, it turns out, still has a master tape of the improvisatory session, which he plans to share with the world. “I like it because it’s the Beatles free, going off piste,” he says.

I’m glad the interviewer correctly transcribed that sentence!

Sir Paul’s use of the word “piste” is right on track – in the states as well as the mother country.

A “piste,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is (1) a trail, especially one beaten by a horse or mule; (2) a marked-out area for the sport of fencing; and (3) a ski trail of compacted snow.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define it as a ski trial.

There are similar words in French, Italian, and Spanish, all ultimately derived from a post-classical Latin word, pistare, meaning to pound.

In modern English usage, “piste” appears most often in reference to skiing, to fencing, and to tracks (like those in riding rings or well-used trails). Here are some recent examples from the OED:

2002, from Tricolor Over the Sahara: The Desert Battles of the Free French, 1940-1942, by Edward L. Bimberg: “Camel mounted soldiers who also served as escorts for the civilian caravans that regularly transported goods along the desert pistes.”

2002, from By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers and Olympic Champions, by a fencing expert, Richard Cohen: “We had two judges watching us, one on either side of the piste.”

2001, from Ski magazine: “I spent a week skiing Switzerland, on St. Moritz’s extraordinary open pistes of Corviglia and Corvatsch.”

So McCartney meant that the improvisatory session by the Beatles was, to use a similar expression, off the beaten track.

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Funny you asked

Q: What do you think about the expression “funnily enough”? Hideously awkward, but it fills a slot nothing else can.

A: There’s nothing wrong with “funnily enough,” though it sounds awkward to my ear (I prefer “oddly enough”).

The adverb “funnily,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has been in use since at least the early 19th century.

The first use in writing, as far as we know, was in a letter written in 1814 by Harriet Countess Granville, quoting someone else. Lady Granville’s letter reads: “Freddy is extremely galant about Susan, says she is such a nice girl, and talks so funnily and sweetly.”

Here’s a “funny” descendant that hasn’t fared as well: “funnyism,” meaning a joke. The first reference in the OED comes from another literary lady, Caroline Fox. In 1839 she referred to “stories and funnyisms of all descriptions.”

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Two dots or three?

Q: Am I nuts, or are there two-dot ellipses? Everyone’s so wrapped up in three or more dots these days that the two-dot punctuation seems to be sidelined. As I understand it, two dots are used when someone is expressing a thought (“I seem to remember..”) and someone else finishes it (“two-dot ellipses”). Yes, no?

A: There is no “two-dot ellipsis.” Two dots in sequence are used in the language of computer coding, but not in ordinary text. Ellipsis points are always used three at a time in text (…) to show where words have been omitted.

When the omission comes at the end of a sentence, the period is often used first, followed by three more points, for a total of four dots.

The only place we’ve seen two dots used to indicate an omission in published writing is the Oxford English Dictionary, where two dots are used instead of three to show that words have been deleted within a quotation. We asked Jesse Sheidlower, the OED‘s editor-at-large, about this and here’s his response:

“It’s solely a space-saving device. I forget the exact numbers, but somewhere there’s a statistic on how many miles shorter the OED is because of the use of two-dot instead of usual three-dot ellipses.”

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Missing links?

Q: I am proofing a brochure and came across a wording that keeps bothering me. The brochure refers to outreach programs that link XYZ “and the community,” but I keep wanting to make it “with the community.” Is “and,” as well as “with,” acceptable, or is one preferred?

A: Generally, I think you can use either one, the conjunction “and” or the preposition “with.” But in this case, “with” might better convey the meaning.

It’s the outreach programs that are actively seeking the link, so “with” might be more appropriate. You could also use the preposition “to” here.

It’s a judgment call.

Interestingly, when the subject of a sentence is followed by a noun or noun phrase introduced by “with,” the verb is singular: “The saddle, with the bridle, is in the barn.” But if “and” is used, the verb is plural: “The saddle and the bridle are in the barn.”

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Is she smarter than him?

Q: Which is correct: “She is smarter than him,” or “She is smarter than he,” or “She is smarter than he is”? The first does sound more idiomatic; the second, snootier; and the third, something in between. I do so rely on your help!

A: If you want to please the sticklers, go with “She is smarter than he is” or the admittedly stiff “She is smarter than he.”

Many traditionalists still believe that in formal English, “than” is a conjunction and not a preposition, and that the following pronoun should be in the nominative case – “he,” not “him.”

But English is a living language, and the traditional view of “than” has shifted. Usages like “than him” are no longer regarded as incorrect – merely less formal.

This often happens. Over time, a natural usage tends to win out over an unnatural one, and to many people, “than he” is stuffy and unnatural.

As we wrote once before on the blog: “Some usage gurus, including William Safire, accept ‘than’ as a preposition, and claim the object pronoun (‘me,’ ‘him,’ ‘us,’ and so on) afterward is just fine. Certainly common usage is on their side.”

So our advice for now is to use the natural-sounding “than he is” or “than him,” and save “than he” for the most formal occasions. “Than him” is certainly more usual in conversation and is considered standard by many respected authorities.

Lexicographers are already arriving at this conclusion, though usage experts may disagree.

Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, takes the safe route: “For formal contexts, the traditional usage is generally best; only in the most relaxed, colloquial contexts is the prepositional than acceptable. Often it seems ill-advised.”

Now for the lexicographers.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says “than is quite commonly treated as a preposition when followed by an isolated noun phrase, and as such occurs with a pronoun in the objective case: John is taller than me.”

“Though this usage is still widely regarded as incorrect,” the dictionary continues, “it is predominant in speech and has reputable literary precedent, appearing in the writing of such respected authors as Shakespeare, Johnson, Swift, Scott, and Faulkner.”

But American Heritage warns that “the writer who risks a sentence like Mary is taller than him in formal writing must be prepared to defend the usage against objections of critics who are unlikely to be dissuaded from the conviction that the usage is incorrect.”

However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) accepts the prepositional use of “than” without reservation. It defines “than” in this case as meaning “in comparison with” and gives the example “you are older than me.”

A usage note in  M-W concludes: “In short, you can use than either as a conjunction or as a preposition.”

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Conceding with grace

Q: On the morning after the Presidential election, Nina Totenberg reported on NPR that John McCain had given a graceful concession speech. Shouldn’t that have been “gracious”?

A: Either one could have been used, but they have somewhat different meanings. A speech can be “graceful” (that is, elegant, fluent, nuanced, tastefully delivered, and so on), and still not be “gracious,” a word that suggests kindness, courtesy, and tact.

Interestingly, the two words have had pretty much the same meanings at different times in their lives.

When the adjective “gracious” showed up in English in the early 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant pleasing, popular, kind, or courteous. But by the mid-1300s, it also meant graceful or elegant, though that sense is now considered obsolete.

The adjective “graceful,” on the other hand, meant full of divine grace when it first showed up in English in the early 1400s. Over the next two hundred years, it also came to mean virtuous, honorable, favorable, or friendly. All those meanings are now considered obsolete.

It wasn’t until the late 16th century, according to the OED, that “graceful” took on its modern meaning of elegant in form, movement, expression, and so on.

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Q: In your Nov. 4, piece, you discussed the etymology of “doggone it.” Do your comments also apply to “gol dang it,” “gosh darn it,” and “dag nab it?” One additional question: Does “gol” need an apostrophe? If so, what has been truncated?

A: Yes, those too are euphemistic variations on “God damn it.”

As for the “gol” variations, no apostrophe is needed. In these slang compounds, “gol” seems to take the place of “God.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang renders two of its dictionary entries as “goldang” and “goldarn,” written as such with no hyphens or apostrophes. But in the published citations it lists, spellings include “gol danged,” “gol-dang,” “Gaul darn,” “Gawl darn,” “Gaul-darn,” “gaul-durned,” “gol-durned,” “goldarn,” “goldarned,” and “goldurned.”

The dictionary also lists “gosh” as a euphemistic oath meaning “God,” and lists “goshawful” as a watered down version of “Godawful.” I might add that “gosh a’mighty” (or “goshamighty”) is a prim way of saying “God almighty.”

As for “dag nab,” it’s a variation of “dad-gum,” a member of another branch of the same family. The slang dictionary says that “dad,” when used as an interjection in combination forms, is “a euphemistic alteration of God … used in various mild oaths.” The first such usage, “by Dad,” was recorded in 1678.

Variations on this theme include (and I won’t attempt to give all the spellings) “dad-bing,” “dad-blame,” “dad-blast,” “dad-bloom,” “dad-burn,” “dad-gum,” daggone,” and “dagnab.”

As a child growing up in Iowa, I often heard irritated grownups say “gol-dang-it” or “what the ding-dong!”

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Mood altering

Q: I have a question about the subjunctive. In the sentence “I would like to live in a house that has/had five rooms,” which is the correct form of the verb “have”?

A: The subjunctive isn’t being used here. I think you’re confusing the conditional tense with the subjunctive mood.

The correct sentence is “I would like to live in a house that has five rooms.” The first verb (“like”) is in the simple conditional tense (“would like”). When this is the case, the other verb is in the simple present tense (“has”).

The sentence would also be correct if written this way: “I would have liked to live in a house that had five rooms.” Here the first verb is in the perfect conditional (“would have liked”), and when this is the case, the other verb is in the simple past tense (“had”).

Here’s how to use “like,” in the (1) present, (2) past, (3) future, and (4) conditional:

Simple: I like … I liked … I will like … I would like.

Progressive: I am liking … I was liking … I will be liking … I would be liking.

Perfect: I have liked … I had liked … I will have liked … I would have liked.

English speakers use the subjunctive mood (instead of the normal indicative mood) on three occasions:

(1) When expressing a wish: “I wish I were taller.” [Not: “I wish I was taller.”]

(2) When expressing an “if” statement about a condition that’s contrary to fact: “If I were king …” [Not: “If I was king …”]

(3) When something is asked, demanded, ordered, suggested, and so on: “I suggest he get a job.” [Not: “I suggest he gets a job.”]

If you’d like to read more, I once wrote a brief item about the subjunctive for the blog.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Word origin


Q: Could you tell me where “quid,” the British slang term for pound sterling, comes from? I’ve read online that a paper mill in the town of Quidhampton or the Latin expression quid pro quo may be the source of the term.

A: Lexicographers aren’t certain how we got the word “quid,” a British monetary term that originally referred to a gold sovereign or guinea, and later meant one pound sterling.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that perhaps it comes from the Latin word quid (in this case meaning “what”), “reinterpreted to refer to (monetary) means or wherewithal.” If so, then your comment about quid pro quo isn’t far wrong.

The OEDs first recorded reference to the word comes from a pornographic tract by the pseudonymous Peter Aretine, Strange Newes from Bartholomew-Fair (1661): “The fool lost his purse, but how he knew not; for the reckoning being suddainly brought in, his Quids were vanisht.”

As for pounds, guineas, and sovereigns, here’s how they accumulated.

The “pound” (punda in Old English) was originally so called because it was worth a pound weight of silver, and was valued at 20 shillings.

The “guinea” was an English gold coin, made between 1663 and 1813, originally worth 20 shillings. It was so called because it was made of gold from Guinea.

The first version of the gold “sovereign” was coined in the 1500s and 1600s; a later gold sovereign worth one pound or 20 shillings was minted beginning in 1817.

Why a sovereign? Because it was imprinted with the image of the reigning monarch.

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A singular undergarment

Q: I have a silly question: Why does my wife put on a “pair” of panties, but not  “pair” of bras? People say panties are plural because you’re putting two legs into them. Forgive me, but aren’t you putting two breasts into a bra? My wife accuses me of using this question as a ploy to get you to discuss ladies’ underwear. I hope you don’t feel that way!

A: Great question! And we have no hesitation in discussing ladies’ underwear in the cause of a greater good—proper English usage.

Before the invention of the modern bra, women wore what was called a “bodice,” which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “an inner garment for the upper part of the body, quilted and strengthened with whalebone.”

And this word “bodice” was originally plural, because it started life in the 17th century as “bodies,” the plural of “body,” a word for the upper part of a woman’s dress.

As the OED says: “even with the spelling bodice the word was formerly (like pence, mice, dice, truce) treated as a plural.” It frequently appeared in the phrase “a pair of bodies” or “a pair of bodice.”

Here are some early usages: “the bones want setting in her old bodies” (1618); “having a pair of bodice on” (1679); “a pair of new blewish Bodice” (1706).

Why the plural “bodies” (and later “bodice”) for the undergarment? Not because of the dual nature of the breasts themselves, but because the garment came in two parts and was laced together.

That’s probably why the modern woman doesn’t put on “a pair of bras” in the morning. Now that the garment is in one piece, the pluralness isn’t there anymore.

But “pants,” “panties,” “jeans,” and “trousers” still retain their two-legged character. In the same way, things like “scissors,” “tweezers,” “pliers,” “glasses,” and “spectacles” will always have a two-ness about them.

In case you’d like to read more, we’ve written about this two-ish business before.

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Comma sense

Q: If I write “a large, beautiful house,” a comma goes between “large” and “beautiful.” But if I write “a large brick house,” there is no comma between “large” and “brick.” I don’t understand why one phrase has a comma and the other doesn’t. I would be extremely grateful if you could clarify this for me.

A: My rule of thumb is to use a comma between adjectives only (1) if I could use “and” instead, and (2) if the adjectives are reversible.

Let’s look at your first example: “a large, beautiful house.” You know the comma is appropriate because (1) you could use “and” instead of the comma: “a large and beautiful house,” and (2) you could reverse the adjectives: “a beautiful, large house.”

You can’t do that with your second example: “a large brick house.”

The grammatical rule is that you use a comma to separate adjectives if each one has the same relation to the noun. For example, “large” and “beautiful” qualify “house” in the same way, and you could just as easily reverse them or use “and” in between. So the comma is appropriate.

But in the other phrase, “brick” is a different kind of adjective from “large.” It’s part of a cohesive noun phrase: “brick house.” And “large” is an adjective that qualifies the entire noun phrase, so no comma is needed.

Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, puts it this way:

“When adjectives qualify the noun in different ways, or when one adjective qualifies a noun phrase containing another adjective, no comma is used. In these situations, it would sound wrong to use and – e.g.: ‘a distinguished [no comma] foreign journalist’; ‘a bright [no comma] red tie.'”

I hope this helps.

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Missing articles

Q: Would you explain the presence or absence of the articles “a,” “an,” and “the” to a non-native? None of my ESL teachers have been able to. Every time I think I’ve got it, I read something that leaves me confused. For instance, this line from one of my son’s books: “Piggies love to roll in mud, penguins love the snow.” Why is it “mud,” not “the mud,” and “the snow,” not just “snow”?

A: In a sentence like the one you quote – “Piggies love to roll in mud, penguins love the snow” – the writer can’t go wrong. It’s correct to use articles with both of the nouns (“in the mud … love the snow”), or with neither noun (“in mud” … “love snow”), or with one but not the other, as in the sentence itself.

Both mud and snow are referred to here in a general sense, and when this is the case, the choice of whether to use an article is up to the writer or speaker.

Sometimes the choice is simply a matter of how the sentence sounds. The sentence you mentioned seems like part of a poem, so the writer may have written it that way to preserve the meter of the line.

As for your broader question, about the presence or absence of articles, that’s a complicated subject. Both “Snow was falling heavily” and “The snow was falling heavily” are correct.

But a writer might want the article if the fact that it was snowing had been mentioned earlier. Using “the” somehow suggests that the reader is already familiar with the fact that it was (or might have been) snowing.

“The article is used more sparingly in English than in many other languages,” the grammarian Otto Jespersen writes, adding, “There is a strong tendency to do without it.”

Many words have meanings that are sometimes general and sometimes specific. As a rule, the more general your meaning, the more likely the article can be omitted.

Here are some examples, with the same word used both in a general sense (no article) and in a specific sense (with article):

“Money is not an object” … but … “He left the money in his wallet.”

“Gold is a valuable commodity” … but … “The gold needs polishing.”

“Anger is destructive” … but … “The anger in the room melted away.”

“He went into business in 1900” … but … “The business prospered.”

By the same token, we generally use articles for buildings, but not for the broader institutions housed in them. So we say, “I get to school by walking” but “I go to the school on the corner.”

There are also differences in article usage with the words “town,” “sea,” “bed,” “home,” names of seasons and others. We omit the article if we refer to them in a general way. For example:

“He lives in town” … but … “The town is 20 miles away.”

“He went to sea” … but … “The sea is turbulent today.”

“I go to bed at 10” … but … “At 7, I make the bed.”

“We headed for home” … but … “The home next door is for sale.”

“Winter was approaching” … but … “The winter promised to be a long and cold one.” The article is often optional with seasons: “In [the] winter she goes skiing.”

We don’t need articles with people’s names, except when they’re in the plural (“We invited the Smiths”).

Sometimes we use an article with the day of the week, and sometimes we don’t. “They arrived on Saturday” implies that there’s only one Saturday the speaker could mean. But “They arrived on a Saturday” refers to some Saturday in the past, one out of many such Saturdays.

We say “all day,” “all night,” “all evening” … but … “during the day,” “during the night,” “in the evening.”

Jespersen says that common phrases with two or more nouns often omit the articles: “husband and wife,” “right or left,” “house and home,” “end to end,” “north to south,” “body and soul,” “father and son,” etc.

So, for example, you’d say, “The road runs from the north” (one noun), but “The road runs north and south” (two nouns).

I hope this helps.

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