Etymology Punctuation Spelling Usage

Lurve affair

Q: One of the participants at the Daily Beast’s recent “Reboot America!” conference was reported as saying the US needed “innovation and luurve.” I’ve never seen “luurve” and can’t find it in my dictionary. Is this a typo?

A: You won’t find this word in standard dictionaries, but it’s not a typo. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a chiefly British colloquial term for “love.”

The OED’s entry for this noun spells it “lurve,” but it gives “lerv,” “lurv,” “lurrve,” and “luurve” as other spellings.

The dictionary defines the word this way: “Romantic infatuation; sex; love. Freq. when regarded as being treated (esp. in films, pop music, fiction, etc.) in a hackneyed or clichéd manner.”

The OED says the term represents “an emphatic, humorous, or arch pronunciation” of the word “love.”

It adds that the pronunciation sometimes parodies “the slow, smooth, crooning” of “love” in popular songs, and may reflect “British perceptions of the U.S. pronunciation” of the word.

The earliest citation for the noun is from a 1936 issue of the Daily Mirror that describes a situation in which “(a) you’re in Lurve, but (b) you’re not sure he’s in Lurve with you.”

However, the OED has an entry for an older verb, with even more spellings, including some with the “u” or “r” occurring four or more times.

The first citation for the verb is from The War in the Air, a 1908 novel by H. G. Wells: “I am pleading the cause of a woman, a woman I lurve.”

Here’s an example of a three-“u” version from a 1989 issue of the British magazine Q: “I luuurve that jacket, Bobby!”

And here’s a three-“r” version from Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary: “I kept saying the words, ‘Self-respect’ and ‘Hug’ over and over till I was dizzy, trying to barrage out, ‘But I lurrrve him.’ ”

Although the word in its various guises is mainly seen in Britain, it’s not unknown in the US as you’ve noticed.

And the usage may survive—in whole or in part—when a British book crosses the Atlantic.

For example, Luuurve Is a Many Trousered Thing, a book for teens by the British writer Louise Rennison, arrived in the US with the title Love Is a Many Trousered Thing.

But Rennison’s labor of “luuurve” wasn’t entirely lost. The word appears throughout the text of the American edition.  

Check out our books about the English language

Punctuation Usage

Hyphen notions

Q: I often see a hyphen used in sentences like this: “Different animals live in fresh- and saltwater.” Is the hyphen really necessary? I think it’s ugly.

A: The short answer is that a hyphen isn’t necessary in that sentence. We’ll explain why later, but let’s first discuss what’s going on here.

To keep things simple, we’ll use another example: “He has a stomachache and a headache.”

The two nouns in that sentence are compound words, the first made up of “stomach” and “ache,” the second of “head” and “ache.” Compounds can also be hyphenated (“mayor-elect” and “governor-elect,” for example).

To get rid of an “ache” in the sentence above, the usual style is to replace it with a hyphen: “He has a stomach- and a headache.”

As The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) explains it, when the second part of a  compound is omitted, a hyphen is used, followed by a space. It gives this example: “both over- and underfed cats.”

Note, however, that the second part of the compound, “fed,” is the same in both words. This hyphen business doesn’t work when the second part is different.

As the Chicago Manual points out, you would write “overfed and overworked mules,” but not “overfed and -worked mules.”

We’ve simplified this a lot. If you’d like to read more about dropping parts of compounds, check out page 374 in the Chicago Manual.

Getting back to your question, why isn’t a hyphen necessary in the sentence you ask about?

Because four of the five dictionaries we checked consider the noun versions to be two words, “fresh water” and “salt water”—noun phrases, in other words.

They appear as two words, for example, in both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and the Oxford English Dictionary.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) is the lone dissenter, but we’ll let the majority rule here.

Since these two noun phrases aren’t compounds, no hyphen is needed when a word is removed: “Different animals live in fresh and salt water.”

However, the adjectives “freshwater” and “saltwater” are solid compound words in four of the five dictionaries we looked at.

So a hyphen is needed if the adjectives are used in a similar sentence and part of the first one is dropped: “The aquarium has both fresh- and saltwater fish.”

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Punctuation

Grocery business

Q: When I lived in Ohio in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I noticed that people pronounced “grocery” as GRO-shree instead of GRO-sir-ee. I live in New Jersey now and hear both pronunciations. Is GRO-shree an example of a shift in pronunciation, or is it a mistake?

A: Pat added a  chapter on pronunciation to the third edition of her grammar and usage book Woe Is I. Her advice on “grocery” is clear cut: “There’s no ‘sh’ in grocery. Say GRO-sir-ee.”

This pronunciation—three syllables and no “sh”—is also the only one given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).  

Another source, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), says either the two-syllable GRO-sree or the three-syllable GRO-sir-ee is acceptable.

Garner’s, which lists “grocery” among the most frequently mispronounced words in American English, calls GRO-shree a mispronunciation. 

But people who say GRO-shree do have one authority on their side. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists it among three acceptable variants (along with GRO-sree and GRO-sir-ee).

The “sh” pronunciation doesn’t appear, though, in our 1956 copy of Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition).

This suggests that the Merriam-Webster’s lexicographers have recognized a shift in pronunciation. Will other dictionaries follow suit? We’ll see.

Both “grocer” and “grocery,” by the way, are very old words, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Grocer” first appeared in writing in 1321 and originally meant “one who buys and sells in the gross.”

It acquired a “y” suffix in 1436 and gave us “grocery” (originally “the goods sold by a grocer”), according to the OED.

The word “grocery” didn’t mean a grocer’s shop until the early 1800s.

But back to pronunciation. Our advice is to leave the “sh” out of “grocery,” but not to fret too much about people who leave it in.

Check out our books about the English language


Colon treatment, part 2

Q: Thank you for the explanation on when NOT to use a colon. Can you also share some examples on how to use one?

A: The correct usage of the colon is pretty straightforward.

As Pat writes in Woe Is I, the colon is used to present something: a statement, a series of things, a quotation, or instructions. (Note that we just used one in that sentence.)

Here are a couple of bulleted paragraphs from the book: 

• Use a colon instead of a comma, if you wish, to introduce a quotation. I said to him: “Harry, please pick up a bottle of wine on your way over. But don’t be obsessive about it.” Many people prefer to introduce a longer quotation with a colon instead of a comma.

• Use a colon to introduce a list, if what comes before the colon could be a small sentence in itself (it has both a subject and a verb). Harry brought three wines: a Bordeaux, a Beaujolais, and a Burgundy.

 As for capitalization after a colon, Pat adds this note in Woe Is I:

“If what comes after the colon is a complete sentence, you may start it with a capital or a lowercase letter. I use a capital when I want to be more emphatic: My advice was this: Bring only one next time. (This is a matter of taste, and opinions differ. Whatever your choice, be consistent.)”

A colon is sometimes used to present a piece of information in an emphatic way. If you prefer, a dash can do the same thing.

As Pat explains elsewhere in the book, “A single dash can be used in place of a colon to emphatically present some piece of information. It was what Tina dreaded most—fallen arches.”

Colons are also used in telling the time, as in “Meet me at 3:45.” And as we’ve written in our blog, colons are used in Biblical citations.

In case you’re  wondering about how to use a colon with quotation marks, we’ve written about that on our blog too.

As we note, in the American system, a colon goes outside the closing quotation marks. Here’s an example from Woe Is I:

There are two reasons she hates the nickname “Honey”: It’s sticky and it’s sweet.

Check out our books about the English language

Etymology Grammar Punctuation Uncategorized

Why is the apostrophe possessive?

Q: A question that has been on my mind for a long time deals with the use of the apostrophe in a possessive like “John’s house.” How and when did this usage come into use?

A: When the apostrophe mark was introduced into English in the 1500s, it was originally used to show where a letter or syllable had been omitted. 

We still use it this way in contractions, but in fact it’s also how the apostrophe came to be a mark of possession.   

In Old English, long before the apostrophe came into use, the possessive ending for most nouns was es.

A house belonging to John, for example, would have been called something like “Johnes house.” (Another way to show possession was by using the word “of,” as in “the house of John.”) 

After the apostrophe came along, a possessive word like “Johnes” was written as “John’s” to show that a letter had been dropped—the e in es.

But the story is not as simple as that.

In Middle English (around 1100-1500) and later, the possessive ending es was often misheard as the possessive pronoun “his.”

This accounts for such erroneous old constructions as “John his house” (meaning “Johnes house”).

Historians have suggested that printers used the apostrophe (“John’s”) as a shortened form of either possessive, the legitimate “Johnes” or the illegitimate “John his.”

In “Axing the Apostrophe,” a 1989 article in English Today, the language writer Adrian Room has called the word for this punctuation mark “a cumbersome name for an awkward object.”

Where does this clunky name come from?

The short answer, John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins tells us, is that we got it via Latin and French from the classical Greek phrase prosoidia apostrophos, literally “accent of turning away.”

But there’s usually a long answer when tracking down the origin of an English word.

In this case, “apostrophe” entered English in the 1500s with two meanings, one in punctuation and the other in rhetoric.

In rhetoric, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an “apostrophe” is a “figure of speech, by which a speaker or writer suddenly stops in his discourse, and turns to address pointedly some person or thing, either present or absent.”

The earliest published use of this sense in the OED comes from Sir Thomas More’s Apology (1533): “With a fygure of apostrophe and turning his tale to God criyng out: O good Lorde.”

The first citation for the word used to mean the punctuation mark is from the Shakespeare comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost (1588): “You finde not the apostraphas, and so misse the accent.”

(The word is spelled “apostraphas” or “apostrophus” in various editions of the play. The latter spelling persisted into the 18th century,  echoing the late Latin apostrophus.)

And that’s the story of how John’s house got its apostrophe.

Check out our books about the English language


Colon treatment

Q: My boss wants to use the following sentence in an article for a trade journal: “A successful company must focus on its ability to: plan, improvise, and create.” The use of the colon here is awkward, and I suspect incorrect. This would be an easy edit, but what is the specific grammatical crime I can cite?

A: You’re right. That colon is inappropriate here.

Many people routinely stick a colon in front of every series or list. But that’s not always kosher, especially if the list is introduced by a verb or a preposition.

The trouble is that it’s generally incorrect to use a colon to separate a preposition or a verb from its object. So a series that’s introduced by a preposition or a verb shouldn’t ­­have a colon in between.

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) has several warnings about misused colons, including “Don’t put one between a verb and its complement or object” and  “Don’t put a colon between a preposition and its object.”

In the sentence you cite, the boss uses a colon to divide “to” from the series that follows. In the phrase “to plan, improvise, and create,” the word “to” is a preposition with three objects: the infinitives “plan,” “improvise,” and “create.”

No, the word “to” in a phrase like “to plan” isn’t part of the infinitive. It’s a prepositional marker that tells you an infinitive is coming. We’ve written about this before in explaining the “split infinitive” myth.

Some language types disagree with the terminology above, but the Oxford English Dictionary defines “to” as a preposition when it’s used in front of an infinitive. And standard dictionaries do, too.

Getting back to your question, the boss’s sentence would also have been incorrect if written like these:

­(1) “A successful company must focus on: planning, improvising, and creating.” (This is another example of a preposition separated from its objects.)

(2) “A successful company must: plan, improvise, and create.” (This illustrates a verb separated from its complements.)

Neither of those sentences needs a colon.

The new 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style also warns about such misuses of colons:

“Many writers assume—wrongly—that a colon is always needed before a series or a list. In fact, if a colon intervenes in what would otherwise constitute a grammatical sentence—even if the introduction appears on a separate line, as in a list—it is probably being used inappropriately.

“A colon, for example, should not be used before a series that serves as the object of a verb. When in doubt, apply this test: to merit a colon, the words that introduce a series or list must themselves constitute a grammatically complete sentence.”

The Chicago Manual uses these examples.

Correct: “The menagerie included cats, pigeons, newts, and deer ticks.”

Incorrect: “The menagerie included: cats, pigeons, newts, and deer ticks.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (page 1744) also notes that a colon is generally not used to separate a verb from its complement or object.

Finally, Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I offers this advice on the use (or rather the nonuse) of the colon:

“Don’t use a colon to separate a verb from the rest of the sentence, as this example does. In Harry’s shopping bag were: a Bordeaux, a Beaujolais, and a Burgundy. If you don’t need a colon, why use one? In Harry’s shopping bag were a Bordeaux, a Beaujolais, and a Burgundy.”

Some of these examples don’t apply to the specific sentence you’ve asked about, but they’re worth noting. Every bit of support helps when you have to correct your boss.

Check out our books about the English language


Martha, Oprah, and the serial comma

Q: In a phrase like “Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey and others,” is a comma required before the “and”? In classic literature I rarely see the comma but in modern literature a comma is often included.

A: When listing items in a series, a final comma before “and” is not required. But many people (we’re among them) like to use it anyway.

Pat discusses this in the new third edition of her grammar book Woe Is I. Here’s a two-paragraph excerpt:

“Use commas to separate a series of things or actions. She packed a toothbrush, a hair dryer, her swimsuit, and her teddy bear. She finished packing, paid some bills, ate a few Oreos, and watered the plants.

“NOTE: The final comma in those last two sentences, the one just before and, can be left out. It’s a matter of taste. But since its absence can sometimes change your meaning, and since there’s no harm in leaving it in, my advice is to stick with using the final comma in a series (sometimes called the ‘serial comma’).”

Of course the absence of a final comma doesn’t always make a difference. But let’s invent a sentence (using you know who) in which the lack of a final comma can leave the meaning fuzzy:

“The biggest influences on my career have been my sisters, Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey.”

Sounds like the writer’s sisters are Martha and Oprah! Now see how a serial comma ends the ambiguity:

“The biggest influences on my career have been my sisters, Martha Stewart, and Oprah Winfrey.”

Our apologies to Martha and Oprah. We hope using them in those two examples isn’t a serial crime!

Check out our books about the English language


Questionable punctuation?

Q: I recently read this in an online sports column: “The biggest question is just how valuable can he be.” I’m guessing that the author ended it with a period because the sentence as a whole is a statement, even though it contains a question. However, it seems awkward to me.

A: The writer probably intends the sentence to be an indirect question, not a direct one, and an indirect question doesn’t need a question mark.

But in that case we would have expected him to write “he can be” instead of “can he be.” The usual syntax for this kind of construction is “The biggest question is just how valuable he can be.” 

The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) says an indirect question “never takes a question mark” and “takes no comma” (pages 259 and 255).

The Chicago Manual gives some examples of indirect questions, including these: “How the two could be reconciled was the question on everyone’s mind.” And, “What to do next is the question.”

As for the sentence you’ve asked about, it can be written (as we noted above) in a way that would require a question mark: “The biggest question is, just how valuable can he be?”

Note the use of the comma. The Chicago Manual explains that “a direct question included within another sentence is usually preceded by a comma; it need not begin with a capital letter.”

The style manual gives this example: “Suddenly he asked himself, where am I headed?”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written before on the blog about punctuating questions within questions.

Check out our books about the English language

Grammar Punctuation Usage

Sui genitive!

Q: I have a grammar question that’s been bothering me. If we say “the Six-Day War” and “the seven-year itch,” why do we also say “the Hundred Years’ War” and “five years’ experience”? Is there a difference I’m unaware of?

A: Normally, nouns used with numbers to form adjectival phrases are singular, as in “two-inch rain,” “three-year-old boy,” “two-dollar word,” “eight-volume biography,” and “four-star restaurant.”

However, where a plural noun is used by tradition to form such a phrase, it’s generally followed by an apostrophe, as in “the Thirty Years’ War” and “the Hundred Years’ War.”

The plural followed by an apostrophe is also used in phrases like “ten dollars’ worth” or “five years’ experience” or “two days’ time.”  

Apostrophe constructions like these aren’t “possessive” in the sense of ownership; strictly speaking, they’re genitive. 

As we’ve written before on the blog, genitives involve relationships much wider than simple possession or ownership. One such relationship is measurement, as in “two weeks’ pay” or “six hours’ time” or “five years’ experience.”

Other common examples of genitives include “a summer’s day,” “for old times’ sake,” “in harm’s way,” and “at wits’ end.” (We’ve discussed “at wits’ end” on our blog as well, in case you’re interested.) None of these apostrophes indicate possession, strictly speaking. 

Where measurements are concerned, we often have a choice of modifying phrases. Let’s say we’re waiting on the tarmac for our plane to take off.

We can use either a plural noun in the genitive case (“a three hours’ wait”), or a singular noun as part of an ordinary compound adjective (“a three-hour wait”).

Either way, it’s a long wait!

Check out our books about the English language


Hyphen anxiety

Q: I’m puzzled about when words are hyphenated and when they aren’t. What’s the rule? Help!

A: The use of hyphens is a long and complicated subject, and Pat devotes a considerable section to it in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I.

There’s no single rule that covers all situations. But there is one rule (involving compound modifiers before a noun) that’s pretty straightforward.

In general, two-word descriptions are hyphenated before a noun (“powder-blue dress,” “red-haired cousin,” “well-done hamburger”). But if the description comes after the noun, no hyphen is used (“a dress of powder blue,” “a cousin who’s red haired,” “a hamburger well done”).

However, there are many exceptions!

Compound modifiers in which one of the words is “very,” “most,” “least,” or “less” (as in “most pleasing tune”) don’t have hyphens. And if one of the words ends in “ly,” there’s generally no hyphen (as in “incredibly difficult task”).

Some prefixes always take hyphens (as in “self-effacing,” “ex-husband,” “quasi-official”).

Others sometimes do and sometimes don’t (“pre,” “re,” “ultra,” “anti”). Hyphens appear in fractions (“two-thirds”) but generally not in whole numbers (“two hundred”) unless they’re compounds like “twenty-three,” “forty-six,” and so on.

Some compounds simply have to be memorized – or, better yet, looked up in the dictionary. For instance, hyphens appear in some family terms (like “brother-in-law”) but not in others (“half sister”).

In fact, “half” is all over the map as part of a compound: sometimes hyphenated (“half-moon,” “half-life”), sometimes separate (“half note,” “half shell”), and sometimes solid (“halfhearted,” “halftime”).

When you look words up, make sure you have a recent dictionary. Hyphenation may change from edition to edition.

Often nouns begin life as two separate words (like “home school” and “try out”), then become hyphenated words (“home-school,” “try-out”), and finally lose their hyphens as they become more common (“homeschool,” “tryout”).

We’ve written before on the blog about “homeschool,” “tryout,” and “cross” (a term that can be bewildering in compounds).

Both “half” and “cross” are great arguments for buying a dictionary, in case you don’t already have one.

Check out our books about the English language

English language Etymology Punctuation Usage

Compounding interest

Q: I am curious as to why the Rules of Court in New Jersey would hyphenate the word “cross-claim,” but consider “counterclaim” one word. Is it proper to hyphenate either or both words?

A: Hyphenation conventions are rich and varied, and the results for individual compounds can differ from stylebook to stylebook, dictionary to dictionary. It may be that the editors of the Rules of Court favor one dictionary or style manual over another.

In general, most compounds formed with “counter” are written as one word (as in “counterpoint”), while those formed with “cross” are sometimes one word (“crosswalk”), sometimes hyphenated (“cross-country”), and sometimes two words (“cross section”).

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has “counterclaim” and “cross-claim.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists only “counterclaim,” which leads me to believe it would prefer that the second term be two words, “cross claim.”

In short, it’s perfectly reasonable that the Rules of Court would show one term as hyphenated and the other not. This may reflect the different ways in which we treat “counter” and “cross” in combination with other words.

The “counter” in “counterclaim,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a prefix from the Latin contra (“against” or “in return”).

It’s defined as meaning “done, directed, or acting against, in opposition to, as a rejoinder or reply to another thing of the same kind already made or in existence.”

But the “cross” in “cross-claim” is a combination word rather than a prefix, according to the OED, and “here cross becomes practically the equivalent of an adjective.”

In some of the compounds with “cross,” the dictionary adds, “the combination is very loose” with “the use of the hyphen being almost optional.”

Buy our books at a local store,, or Barnes&

English English language Etymology Punctuation Usage Word origin

On ’til and till and until

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

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

Historically, in fact, till came first. Later, the prefix un (meaning “up to”) was added and the final l dropped, giving us until.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.