images/ aknewforhomepage.gif LEARN ENGLISH
with Adam Klein
Think Before You Speak
by Adam Klein

My first language was English: specifically American English of the northeast USA, more specifically the dialects of Manhattan and Setauket, New York; but my parents grew up in Maryland and France, respectively, so I didn't first learn to talk in Manhattanese or LonGislandese, though the way I pronounce "dog" pegs me as an Easterner.

I made this page to list aspects of English -- some "correct" but most "incorrect" -- that most obsess me when thinking about how people, mostly Americans, use this odd, cool, plastic language. But I am not a pedant: Regional dialects are the lifeblood of languages and are no less correct than what is put into textbooks. Language's function is to make oneself understood by others, and as long as that is accomplished, the language itself, especially English, can be very accommodating and forgiving.

With understanding as the goal, all languages come with sets of rules that govern syntax, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so on. However, the teaching of English in the USA has for a long time been shabby at best. The lack of requirement of a second language in grade schools has made it worse. Also, the mass media, especially TV and radio, have codified or legitimized many idioms current and passé which never made sense in terms of the language's structure, or which may never have been intended to start a trend, but through disseminations to millions at once have become almost universal. Many of these phrases or word-uses bother me to the point of actual pain, and as a public service for those who "share mah pain" or care about making sense in English, and for those who wish their English teachers had paid more attention to spelling or phonics or grammar, rather than rote recognition of letter patterns (which has probably contributed to American illiteracy as much as any other cause), I've written this page as a corrective to the juggernaut of the Lowest Common Denominator, which should never be any society's standard or yardstick. There. I have spoken. (And I will continue.)

Though I am a very good speller, and understand English grammar better than many teachers of English, I don't think all the rules of English make enough sense to always be followed (Do you call that a split infinitive? INCORRECT. See "to boldly go".), and English spelling should have been reformed decades if not centuries ago, but without a new alphabet to better represent all the modern English phonemes, it's pointless to try: better for us all to consistently spell words in a better way until the dictionary writers take notice. For instance, why is "inasmuch" one word but "next to" is not spelled "nextto" or even "nexto?" Simply because we haven't started writing it that way.

NOTE: This is NOT intended as an exhaustive grammar reference. This is my personal take on only certain uses in American English. If you want to LEARN grammar, try Using, which is intended for learners of English as a second language, but which would benefit anyone who took English in American schools during the past two generations.

Now on to the entries. I've alphabetized (you know I'm not British, despite my views on puntctuation, by how I spelled "alphabetized") these examples by the words or phrases themselves, except for grammatical aspects that have no specific common single-word or single-phrase examples. Please notify me of any suspected errors: no one's perfect.

There is a linked Glossary at the end for those who don't know a pronoun from a preposition. Once again, it's not exhaustive.

-able or -ible
I except your apology?
all told?
altogether/all together
...and I
apostrophe rules
as far as
awhile/a while
double negative
but yet and still
chaise longue
convince vs persuade
data and other Greek plurals
definitely or definately?
déjà vu
just desserts?
different from/than
ect. or etc.?

eminent vs imminent
everyday/every day
for he and I
Let he who...
Himalaya or Himalayas?
he was hung
Homo sapiens
I could care less
in regards to?
for all intensive purposes
is is
less vs. fewer
me and him
might could
neither are?
none are?
object pronouns
would of?
...of a...
she and I
subject pronouns
split infinitive
to boldly go
I wish you would have...
I wish I was
where it's at
please hold while...

-able versus -ible

We see everywhere signs outside of antique shops and other relic stores spelled, "Antiques and Collectables". Most of us think nothing of it since we don't really see what we're looking at most of the time and almost none of us can spell anymore. But those who still can spell know that this spelling is wrong, and it should be "collectibles". (Some say "collectable" is a British spelling. So is "jewellery". This is about American English.) The problem with this, for those willing to learn, is that there is no obvious rule which words should end in "-able" and which in "-ible". It usually depends on the language the root came from, but since we don't study Latin or Greek anymore, this is no help for most of us.
Here follows a small list of maddening examples:

collectible / valuable
deplorable / reprehensible / objectionable / indefensible
comprehensible / understandable / intelligible / reasonable
defensible / defendable / justifiable / plausible
dependable / responsible / sensible / honorable
commestible / drinkable / potable / edible / chewable / digestible
flammable/ combustible
indivisible / inseparable
reversible / invertible / flippable / collapsible / inflatable
risible / laughable

There is no hope, except to learn them all separately. But since that's the way we've been learning every aspect of English anyway for the past forty years, it wouldn't seem to be that hard. The real problem is that people just don't pay attention.

--- back to contents ---

I except your apology??

"Accept" and "except" are NOT THE SAME WORD, whether or not your dialect makes them sound the same. They mean in fact almost opposite things. I knew an ENGLISH TEACHER who got these confused. If it helps, the prefix "ex" has to do with being outside and away, and "ac" has to do with movement in a particular direction, often toward oneself. If only we were still taught Latin.

--- back to contents ---

All told or all tolled?

I have long thought that it should be "all tolled", but it's not. Read the history here. Thanks to a music educator friend of mine for this one.

--- back to contents ---

All together or altogether?

I just read an email in which was written the following: "All together, they made themselves (and Dell) a pretty sexy-looking parking lot." I'm saving time bere by quoting my computer's dictionary:

Note that "altogether" and "all together" do not mean the same thing. "Altogether" means "in total, totally" as in: there are six bedrooms altogether, or that is a different matter altogether, whereas "all together" means "all in one place" or "all at once," as in it was good to have a group of friends all together, or they came in all together.

In the context of the quoted sentence, "altogether" should have been used.

(I am here ignoring the "naked" meaning of "altogether", where it functions as a noun in the idiom "in the altogether".)

--- back to contents ---

alot/a lot

People are joining the two words "a" and "lot" into one word "alot" in writing, in order to convey the meaning of "much" or "many". Since I advocate simplified spelling, I suppose I should have no problem with this, but there are many words that combine "a" with something else, such as "afoot", "abed", "ajar", "akimbo", "akin", "asleep", "aslant", "awhile" and so on, which all share a common trait: they change the meaning from that of a noun and its article (one foot as opposed to many feet, e.g.) to that of an adverb describing something else in the sentence ("Strange things are afoot at the Circle K" does not mean that strange things equal someone's foot: It means the odd things are up and about, or ON FOOT, on their own figurative feet, lurking, skulking around the Circle K!).

Then we have words like "aloof", which since we don't (yet!) have a word "loof", seems like it's just a word unto itself, but it comes from an old nautical term "aluff" which meant "away and to windward", similar to other ship-words like "alee" and "aport".

So whereas to string "in as much" into "inasmuch" (or "where as" into "whereas") doesn't change the meaning of the original separate words, doing this with "a" does change the function of the group, and for that reason I am not in favor of making "alot" an official improvement over "a lot", the more so because we have another word, the verb "allot", meaning distribute something in portions, which resembles "alot" too much for my comfort. Obriously the context should make it screamingly obvious which one is meant, so it's not inconceivable that several years hence we might see written "she didn't give him allot of trouble about it" and no one would misunderstand the intent, but I still don't like it. However, at least that spelling wouldn't infringe on the territory of the adverbial "a-" words, and with that I will stand ASIDE and let the steamroller of the masses roll on.

--- back to contents ---

... and I / ... and me

This is one of the most annoying mistakes people make, and almost everyone makes it (so it's only annoying to us few who understand the rule, which includes my friend Patty and ME) We hear things like "Is it all right for he and I to duck out for a moment?" I have even seen this explained away in a book about English, but there is no excuse for it. Reasons, yes, but no excuse.

The "short form": if you would use "me" alone, then you use ""X and me"; if you would use "I" alone, then you use "X and I".

The long and grueling form: Here are the rules which should illuminate why a sentence like the one above is a stupid error.

Personal Pronouns 101.
A) Subject pronouns.

These can only be used as SUBJECTS of phrases, i.e. who is doing the action They are:
I, you, (thou), he, she, it, we, you, you-all, youse, y'all, they.
"I shot the sheriff."
"You shot (thou shottest) the sheriff."
"He/she/it shot the sheriff."
"We shot the sheriff."
"You/Youse/You-all/Y'all shot the sheriff."
"They shot the sheriff.
"Neither you nor I shot the sheriff."
B) Object pronouns.

These can only be used as OBJECTS of verbs or prepositions. In English there is no difference between direct and indirect object in the form of the pronoun. These are:
Me, you, (thee), him, her, it, us, you, youse, you-all, y'all, them.
"The sheriff shot me."
"The sheriff shot you (thee)."
"The sheriff shot him/her/it."
"The sheriff shot us."
"The sheriff shot you/youse/you-all."
"The sheriff shot them."
"He gave me the gun."
"He gave you/thee the gun."
"He gave him/her/it the gun."
"He gave us the gun."
"He gave you/youse/you-all/y'all the gun."
"He gave them the gun."
"They brought a gun for me/you/him/her/us/you-all/them other fellers".

This group includes the reflexive pronouns: "I shot myself", "Give yourself a break", etc.

C) Pronouns in combination.
When linked by a connecting word (and, or, etc.) the types of pronoun must match.
"You and I shot the sheriff."
"He and I shot the sheriff."
"They and I shot the sheriff."
"You and he shot the sheriff."
"You and we shot the sheriff."
"You and they shot the sheriff."
"We and they shot the sheriff."
"The sheriff shot you and me."
"The sheriff shot him and me."
"The sheriff shot him and her."
"The sheriff shot me and her."
"The sheriff shot us and them."
"The sheriff shot us and him."
"The sheriff shot him and them."

And so on.

Now watch closely.
"They brought guns for me and her."
"They brought guns for you and me."
"They brought guns for him and her."
"They brought guns for us and her."
"They brought guns for us and them."
"They didn't bring any guns for me or her."
"They didn't bring any guns for you or me."
"They didn't bring any guns for us or them."
"They didn't bring any guns for him or them."
"They brought guns for neither me nor her."
"They brought guns for neither you nor me."
"They brought guns for neither us nor them."
"They brought no guns: neither for me, nor for her."
"They brought no guns: neither for you, nor for me."
"I bought neither myself nor you a gun."

In short, if it's for you and it's for me, it's for you and me. When I was a boy, we all said things like "Me and Stephen are going fishing, OK, mom?" To which the answer was "It's Stephen and I, not Me and Stephen!" I think people took from such exchanges that "me and him" was always wrong and "he and I" was always right. (as long as the gender matches the friend!) The danger of incomplete explanations. Is that, like incomplete sentences. They get you in trouble. Punctuation is important, too. To be fair and clear, I point out that those two incomplete sentences above were deliberate.

Okay, them thar's the rules, and they's hard and fast. But there's another meaning to the word "for" which confuses this issue: that's when "for" means "because", as in:
"Worry not, for I have looked death in the face and not been afraid."
Or even -- and this is more poignant --
"Worry not, for you and I have looked death in the face and not been afraid."

These are correct when "for" is used this way, as a conjunction; but in the other use of "for" as a preposition, "I", being a subject pronoun, can not be the object of "for". It also doesn't help that we have lost "thee" and "thou" from current usage, and their replacements are both "you" -- which looks the same as subject or object. It saddens me that in English we have lost the distinction between intimate and formal pronouns (except where we've recreated them in words like "y'all").

But I digress. Now, for whatever reason, almost everyone says things like "It's better for you and I if we don't shoot the sheriff." "You and I" has taken on an identity of its own and seems immune to the rules: It's a "subject complex" -- but it need not be also an object complex, because unlike other aspects of English, these rules are SIMPLE. With these paragraphs fresh in your head, count how many times in the next day you hear things like "It didn't make a difference to he or I whether the sheriff got shot" or "Between you and I that sheriff deserved to be shot". It doesn't have to be like this. Americans don't need to sound stupid to the rest of the world. Do me and my friends a favor and learn your pronouns. But watch out: In proper Rasta, it's "He bought I de gun dat shot de sheriff, mon." So if you're in Jamaica, get it right, but it's American English that concerns ME and YOU here.

--- back to contents ---

apostrophe use and abuse

My favorite abuse of the apostrophe --so far-- on a store sign is "Discount Mattresse's".
The rules for when and when not to use an apostrophe are relatively straightforward: in SINGULAR possessive words OTHER THAN possessive pronouns -- such as "Mary's dog" and "the dog's dish" -- and in contractions of a noun plus "is", such as "Mary's feeding the dog", the apostrophe is present and put before the final "s". There are two SINGULAR exceptions: Moses and Jesus get an apostrophe without the final "s" in some style manuals.

In PLURAL possessives, such as the Smiths' house is bigger than the Joneses' house, the apostrophe is present after the final, plural "s" with no extra possessive "s" added. (Note also: it's Joneses' and not ; and it's Mr. Jones's hat, not Mr. Jone's hat.

In NO OTHER INSTANCE is an apostrophe required. The single quote, used in American punctuation for quotes embedded in other quotes (reversed in British and Canadian punctuation) -- such as "She said, 'Mary's feeding the dog'." -- looks just like an apostrophe, which is unfortunate and confusing. I would lobby for the Italian use of single and double carets or some other alternate system to remove this confusion, but I have neither the stamina nor the time, nor would I win.

See also its/it's.

--- back to contents ---

as far as the party ...

This one should not be a problem, yet people like shortcuts, so here we are. Example: "As far as the party, it's not happening." This is not intended to mean "right up to where the party is"; it's a shortcut for "as far as the party is concerned", equivalent to other phrases like "as regards the party" or "in terms of the party's happening or not". We already have a shortcut: "As far as the party goes," but apparently this isn't short enough for some people, or more probably, we so often hear "as far as" without the rest of the phrase, we all think it's acceptable. Well, it doesn't hamper the intended meaning, but for many of us it makes the phrase incomplete and jarring, so as with many of the entries on this page, if you don't want your listener to think you're stupid or uncultured or at the least uneducated, you'll want to complete the phrase. I advise using "goes": in terms of economy, and as regards sentence flow, it's the least amount of syllables added to "as far as", and since "as far as", being the most common, is most likely the first phrase that will occur to you to use, you can still save yourself by tacking on "goes" after the thing in question with no one noticing your potential slip.

Or you could use "speaking of..."

--- back to contents ---

awhile or a while?

See alot/a lot.

--- back to contents ---

but I didn't shoot no deputy

The infamous double negative construction, so great a part of almost every English dialect except the official one (pick your country), is -- ironically -- the correct construction in many languages: French, Italian and Czech, to name a few. (Not, however, in German or Japanese.) This may be how this construction first came to English, which is more closely related to German -- which has no double negative -- than to the other common European languages (Frisian is closer, but that language is restricted now mostly to milk-cows. Kidding. But it's almost extinct.). But no matter: it's here and it's not leaving, and no one cares. Neither do I: when I speak "standard American" English I say things like "I don't know anything about that"; but in a Southern Mountain dialect that would sound wrong, and in fact be wrong, because everyone knows a Mountain man would say, "I don't know nuthin' about that", as would a guy from Brooklyn, albeit in a different accent. So this one comes down to the effect you want to produce on your listeners. If you want them to think you're high-class, you should avoid double negatives, but if you want to fit in in the Hood or wherever, you should talk the talk. But read my paragraph about " I could care less"!

--- back to contents ---

but yet and still

This group of words seems to have been memorized as if using them together in this order makes you sound like you know what you're talking about. You can simply use "but" or "yet" or "still" each all alone and achieve the same meaning, because in the context this phrase is used, they all MEAN THE SAME THING. So pick one. I suggest "yet" or "still", since they can tolerate a longer pause after them that "but" can. It'll give you time to collect your thoughts so you can continue to sound intelligent.

--- back to contents ---

calvary or cavalry?

Calvary (from Latin calvaria "skull") is the mountain with the three crosses on it; Cavalry (from Italian cavallo "horse") is the horse division of an army. Period. They are not pronounced the same. Look where the "l" is. Learn to read discrimnatorily.

--- back to contents ---

chaise longue

For those of us who studied French, the usual American pronunciation of this noun compound that means "long chair", namely "chaze-lounge", is excruciatingly abominable. The "chaze" part (instead of the French "shez") I can understand, because that sort of scans from French orthography to English, but the "lounge" part is really annoying. However, there are two reasons for it. Reasons, not excuses. There is no excuse for illiteracy.

The French word "long" (pronounced "lõ") means exactly what English "long" means, and "longue" (pronounced "lõg") is simply the feminine version of the adjective. (French nouns are either male or female; English ones are all neuter.) But it has the same letters as English "lounge", and we have been taught to look at whole words instead of individual letters; and what do we do on these long chairs? We lounge about in them. Also, there is a kind of couch actually called a lounge! So a long chair that isn't a couch but is meant for lounging easily becomes a "chaze-lounge". But if you're at a party with lots of French speakers, you might want to pronounce it the French way so as not to offend, as the French -- and many francophiles -- are easily offended by bad pronunciation. Just a thought.

Another way to remember it's not "lounge" is the place these chairs are so often found: the LAWN. A lawn chair is a weatherproof chaise lawn-g.

--- back to contents ---

convince versus persuade

It has become pretty much universal for people to say things like "If you could convince her to come, it would be great." According to the books "persuade" should be used in such cases. One is convinced OF a fact, one is persuaded TO act. However, "persuade" has taken on an implication that the person being persuaded was initially unwilling, whereas using "convince" in this context allows for the possibility that the person had no prior bias one way or the other. So I'm convinced -- and persuaded -- that we should probably just let this one go.

--- back to contents ---

coupon: cue-pon or coo-pon?

This word is from French "coupon" meaning "slice", from "couper" meaning the verb "cut", and this is pronounced "koo-põ". ("õ" is "o" with your nose open but NOT ending in an actual "n".) But like "chaise longue", so many people have pronounced it "cue-pon" for so long it's now an alternate pronunciation in the dictionary. So be it. I still say "coo-pon".

--- back to contents ---

curriculum (just one, please)

This was added at the request of a music educator friend of mine. This word, "curriculum", HAS A PLURAL FORM. Apparently some people think it's the same in singular and plural: It is not. The plural of "curriculum" is "curricula" ("curriculums" is INCORRECT). See "data" for a fuller treatment of Greek plurals.

--- back to contents ---


I pulled this from a radio talk show host webpage: "As Artistic Director of The [city-name] Opera from 1985 to 2005, the company became one of the fastest-growing opera companies in the United States."

This is an example of a dangler, or a dangling modifier. The more familiar term "dangling participle" is part of this group, but refers specifically to present or past participles of verbs for which the noun they're supposed to be qualifying is absent, such as "looking up into the tree, the cat was stuck". The cat wasn't the one looking into the tree at that point. The identity of the person looking into the tree is probably guessable from previous text, but the construction is a boo-boo and a no-no.

The larger group we call danglers refers to any part of speech which points to something that should be elsewhere in the sentence but has been left out. A correct way to phrase the first example would be either: "As Artistic Director of The [city-name] Opera from 1985 to 2005, he presided over one of the fastest-growing opera companies in the United States" or: "While he was Artistic Director of The [city-name] Opera from 1985 to 2005, the company became one of the fastest-growing opera companies in the United States". In the first example, the subject is the same in both clauses (he is implied by As in the first clause); in the second, each clause has its own subject present and accounted for (he and the company) and that's the rule to eliminate danglers: don't assume, just because you have referred to the subject in previous sentences, that you can omit it in any sentence that requires it, or use it in a sentence that deals with another subject entirely.

Looking up into the tree, WE NOTICED the cat was still stuck.

--- back to contents ---

that data is flawed

This should be, "those data are flawed". "Data" and other words like it, for instance "criteria" and "bacteria", are from Greek and Latin, which have different systems for indicating plurals from the English one. I don't speak Greek or Latin, either ancient modern or liturgical, so I'm just going to give examples.

Singular Plural
bacterium bacteria
criterion criteria
curriculum curricula
datum data
flagellum flagella
ganglion ganglia
genus genera
medium media
medusa medusae
Paramecium Paramecia
phenomenon phenomena
pupa pupae
species species
stimulus stimuli
vertebra vertebrae

But watch out: not all words with such endings come in pairs, and some that do have aquired alternate partners:

Singular Plural
amoeba amoebae or amoebas
codon codons
chrysanthemum chrysanthemums
dictum dicta or dictums
hippopotamus hippopotami or hippopotamuses
KLIngon KLIngon-pU'
(no singular) memorabilia
memorandum memorandums
(no singular) minutiae
octopus octopodes or octopuses, NOT octopi
pylon pylons
rhinoceros rhinoceroses, NOT rhinoceri

As with many things English, rote memorization is really the only hope for getting these right. If you care.

--- back to contents ---

definitely or definately?

Definitely this is spelled "definitely". This is in a small family of words which include in them the word "finite", meaning having a limit or end. Finite, infinite, definite, indefinite, infinitesimal. "Adequately", "inviolately", "consummately", "innately": yes; "definately": deFINITEly no.

--- back to contents ---

déjà vu

Curiously, Americans pronounce the first of these words tolerably closely to the French original, but the second is not so fortunate.

The French word "vu" means "seen": it is the past participle of the verb "voir" which means "see". The word sounds somewhere between "vee" and "vrr" (not a rolled British "r" but a good wet American "r" glide). But Americans pronounce it "voo" which sounds just like the French word "vous" which means "you-all" or "you, Sir/Madam". So to a French speaker, when an American says "déjà vu", it means "you already". Try doing it more like the French way: what could it hurt?

A word about a common phrase featuring these words: "It feels like déjà vu all over again." This was, when first uttered, probably meant as a joke since the "all over again" is redundant due to the the fact that "déjà vu" means "already seen", and is used to convey the idea that "we've seen this already, it's happening all over again". The whole phrase "déjà vu all over again" is, in fact, one of the main entries in the files of the Department of Redundancy Department. It has a file folder specific and dedicated solely to itself alone. It's one of the main entries in the files of the Department of Redundancy Department. It has a file folder specific and dedicated solely to itself alone. Wow, I just had a feeling of...

I don't expect this mispronunciation ever to go away, but maybe we can make people THINK by pronouncing it other than how they're used to hearing it. As long as we don't seem snotty in so doing, or -- Thor forbid -- French, no no, we cannot be having such a kind of theeng as thees!

--- back to contents ---

he got his just desserts?

NO, it's "just deserts". I know it looks just like the word that means vast expanses of sand, but it's derived from the verb "deserve", not the verb "desert" or the noun "dessert". See perMIT/PERmit. He didn't deserve a good dessert after turning the place into a desert, so in receiving a turd sandwich he got his just deserts.

--- back to contents ---

different than or different from?

This is a tough one, because "different" is used in situations where one would also use comparatives such as "more" or "better" in which "than" would be the proper word to come between the comparative and the thing compared ("my dog is better than your dog"). But "different" is fundamentally DIFFERENT FROM these other words. It comes from the verb "differ" (not "to differ") which is used in sentences like "My data differ from your data". Another way of saying this would be, "my data are different from your data". One would never say, "my data differ than your data", yet people routinely say things like "my data are different than your data" because it seems to make as much sense as "my data are better than your data".

But the word "different" inherently rejects comparison between two things, concepts, opinions or whatever. If two things are not the same, or at least of the same kind, they can't be compared for quality or quantity or aspect or any other feature. "Apples and oranges" is the usual cliché for such things, but apples and oranges are both fruits and thus can be compared for sweetness, tartness, color, juiciness, etc.: "Oranges are juicier than apples." "Juicier" is a comparative adjective; "different" is not.

However, this type of construction is not a major transgression, given the poor state of comprehension of English today. In fact, my beloved onboard dictionary doesn't even list it as wrong, although it does state that "different" is not a comparative. BUT the adverb "differently" often does work with "than" and not with "from", such as in "he collects his data differently than I do". Yes, you can say " ... differently from the way I do" but why bother? The meaning is clear ... as it is anytime someone uses "different than". But I still think that always sounds wrong. So if anyone cares, my advice is to use "different from" as often as possible. You'll find it almost always works just as well as you think the "than" version does -- better than, in fact.

--- back to contents ---


Most people pronounce this to rhyme with "bisect", but notice: "dissect" has TWO esses, not one. The syllables split BETWEEN the esses, thus the word consists of a prefix, "dis", meaning "apart"; and a verb stem, "sect", meaning cut: hence the meaning "cut apart". Other words starting with "dis-" include dismember, disassociate, distinguish, and disfavor, NONE of which are pronounced beginnig with "die-". It's only because of the similarity to "bisect" that this bothersome pronunciation has come into being, and so we have yet another way that Americans can make themselves sound ignorant. In fact, it's been pronounced "die-sect" for so long that the pronunciation is listed in my dictionary as an alternate. But that doesn't make it right.

--- back to contents ---


One might assume that "drownded" is just a kid's mistake like "gived" or "thinked", but it's not that simple. "Drownded" is the past tense of "drownd" which is a valid dialectal variant of the verb "drown". It exists in the Carter Family song lyrics for Little Moses: "The Jews safely crossed while Pharaoh's host was drownded in the water and lost." Possibly this was originally a rhyming error: "grounded", "sounded" and "founded" are correct and standard; but it's been around so long in these dialects that they must be considered correct for them. So if you hear a tobacco farmer use "drownded", don't assume he's ignorant: in fact he's talking correctly for his dialect and you are the one ignorant of its rules. But if you hear a kid from a rich northern neighborhood use it, it's probably because the kid hasn't learned yet that it's different from "grounded" and you might want to teach it to them.

--- back to contents ---

ect. ect.

This is not a typo: too many people write it that way for them to know it's a mistake. It should be "etc.", and it stands for the Latin phrase "et cetera". It doesn't help that many people pronounce this "eck settera", and that probably causes them to spell it wrong. It was a black day in education when the decision makers removed Latin as a part of the core curriculum of grade school. And by the way, in standard use (as a substitute for "and so on"), "etc." is always preceded by a comma. And preferably a space after the comma.

--- back to contents ---

either is or either are?

"Either" and "neither", when used as pronouns, are singular. "Neither of us is at fault" is CORRECT. "Either Jack or Jill is at fault" is CORRECT. People are using the plural verb forms in these instances now: "neither of us are going"; but it makes no sense and sounds stupid -- and is INCORRECT.

--- back to contents ---

eminent vs. imminent (vs. immanent)

These are not interchangeable. "Imminent" means "about to happen" (imminent danger); "eminent" means "famous and respected" (an eminent physicist) or "possessing a positive quality" (she has eminent qualifications for the task); immanent means either "inherent" (the protection of liberties is immanent in constitutional arrangements) or "permanently pervading and sustaining the universe" (as in an omnipresent supreme being). So get them right. If you speak in a dialect that makes them sound the same, at least learn to spell them right.

--- back to contents ---

enquire or inquire?

"Enquire" is British; "inquire" is American. Ditto for enquiry and inquiry; but oddly there is no "enquest": "inquest" is used on both sides of the pond.

--- back to contents ---

To err is human

This is a pronunciation issue. The word "error" has a root in the verb "err". Though everyone starts "error" with the same "e" as in "bed" (i.e. with an open "e"), "err" is often pronounced the same as "air" (i.e. with a closed "e" which is NOT equivalent to "ee" but more akin to the short "i" in "bit"). This is incorrect. There are two accepted pronunciations: the simple "rr" sound (American, not British, unless you ARE British), or an open "e" followed by the "rr" sound. But the open "e" is absent from the prevalent American accent, a.k.a. Newscasterese or the "Midwestern" accent (though that is a dialect family ranging from Ohioese to Minnesotaese), having been replaced (along with certain instances of "a") by the closed "e", so that the three words "Mary, marry, merry" all sound exactly the same. Northeasterners like me pronounce these three differently: I dislike IPA so I won't use it here; but "Mary" has the "a" ("ai") of "chair", "marry" has the "a" of "cat" (still much brigther in Midwesternese but nevertheless distinct from "marry"), and "merry" has the "e" of "bed".

This little word "err" has the same problem. If you don't want to risk being thought of as erring in pronunciation because your accent doesn't distinguish between these three sounds, then just pronounce it "rr".

--- back to contents ---

Every day/everyday

These are two things that shouldn't be confused or used interchangeably, but they are. I'm just going to define them here.

"Every day" is an ADVERBIAL PHRASE describing something that happens not just today or tomorrow but on each day for the defined time period.

"Everyday" is an ADJECTIVE meaning ordinary, normal, or average.

--- back to contents ---

Expiry or expiration?

The word "expiry" has begun popping up more frequently in the USA. I learned it in Canada: it's equivalent to the American "expiration" and is one of those words that non-American actors should learn if they don't want to sound wrong when playing American roles. Honestly, I don't understand why there isn't more policing of American English, both words and pronunciations, in TV shows and movies made abroad for American markets. Some actors, such as Mel Gibson and Hugo Weaving, can do passable American accents, but most cannot without some help. What would it cost to have an American proofread the scripts to weed out things like "diary" instead of "datebook", "you lot" instead of "you all" or "you guys", or "isn't it" instead of "you know"; and coach the actors so they stop pronouncing words like "civilization" and "organization" with the "-iz-" part pronounced to rhyme with "size", since Americans pronounce it to rhyme with "is"? (These words aren't even spelled the same in British: "civilisation", etc.) Apparently it would cost too much, and apparently the American actors made to say these lines don't care enough or are too afraid to speak up about it.

There, I've said it, and I feel better. Don't get me wrong: Farscape was still a great show, despite the very odd English from those Aussies who were trying to sound American, and you know who you are. Good try. And Stargate was also great, and for Canadians it's harder since the differences are more subtle; but really, only Rodney McKay should have actually sounded Canadian.

--- back to contents ---

flammable or inflammable?

A Canadian friend of mine call my attention to this. The history of these two words -- currently both are acceptable but in the USA "flammable" is preferred -- is long and fascinating, and here's the link to a thread on The Word Detective that explains it very well. It's not at the top of the page: scroll down to the title "An Alarming situation." (That period is in quotes because it's part of the title.) Here I'll just say that the prefix "in-" does not always mean "non-"; sometimes it actually means "in" in the original Latin. Currently in the USA we have "flammable" and "inflammable", both of which mean "capable of catching fire", though a subtle distinction that their roots flammare and inflammare have -- "set on fire" and "kindle", respectively -- is lost in the English versions. As an opposite we have "non-flammable", but "non-inflammable" has, as it were, died out.

One can take away from this example the knowledge that English prefixes have a complex history and one can't always assume correctly that the meaning is obvious. In other words, it's not always inherently inducible; yet neither is it inexorably incomprehensible.

--- back to contents ---

for he and I, for she and I

See "... and I".

--- back to contents ---


The singular is GANGLION. The plural is GANGLIA. See data for more about Greek plurals.

--- back to contents ---

Let he who is without sin...

See "... and I" for an exhaustive explanation of object pronouns; here is a short explanation for this common phrase:

Let's build this sentence up from simplest to the full quote.
Let him. ("do it" is understood)
Let him cast the stone.
Let him cast the first stone.
Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

I know this probably goes against every instance of your hearing this line, but this is the correct version. If you would use "him" in the simplest construction of a sentence, nothing added to that sentence, not even a "who" clause, will change the object nature of the pronoun, so it remains "him".

--- back to contents ---

Himalaya or Himalayas?

The word for this famous mountain region is from the Sanskrit "Himaalaya", from hima "snow" + alaya "abode." Therefore it shouldn't need to be pluralized at all, any more than "Sierra Nevada" ("snowy mountain range" in Spanish) is. But just as we English speakers call this region in California the High Sierras when we only mean one mountain range (as opposed to the Sierra Madre of the United States of Mexico), we are calling the home of Mt. Everest the Himalayas even though it's only one region. Do what you want: the dictionary says "Himalayas" is acceptable, but I'm going with the original Sanskrit. There is only one Himalaya.

--- back to contents ---

himself, herself

See myself.

--- back to contents ---

he was hung

This does NOT mean, "he was killed by hanging". It means he had a large trouser snake, or he was suspended somehow that didn't involve his death. To convey "they killed him by stringing him up on a rope by the neck and letting him fall" we say, "he was hanged".

Why? Because the verb "hang" has three meanings: the intransitive one of being suspended somehow, as by a picture hanger or on a trapeze; the transitive one of causing something to be suspended in the sense of the intransitive meaning; and a special transitive version that specifically means killing someone by suspension on a rope, usually including either suffocation or snapping of the person's neck. A similar thing now occurs with the verb "fly": when we use it in baseball, as in "he flied out" we don't mean he left the stadium on some form of aerial transport, we mean he caused the ball to fly up and then down into someone's mitt. With the colloquial meaning that "be hung" has taken on, it would be best to maintain the use of "hanged" for the executional sense.

--- back to contents ---

100% homo sapien

The scientific name of the human species is Homo sapiens. SAPIENS, not sapien, nor sapian. Using "Homo sapiens" as an adjectival phrase does not require the final "s" of "sapiens" to be removed: in fact, the protocol with Linnaean Binomials (better known as Scientific Names) is to LEAVE THEM THE FRELL ALONE. There are many adjectives that end in "ian", like Indian, Armenian, antediluvian, Slovenian, and Peruvian, but "sapiens" is not related to these: even though its function is that of an adjective, it's in LATIN, and Latin "ens" is similar to English "ing": "Homo sapiens" means "thinking man", not "man from Sapia". Inattention and/or ignorance on the part of science fiction movie script writers and actors has foisted this homonculus upon us, but it need not propagate. So says this thinking man.

A quick check of my trusty Mac's dictionary reveals that there is an adjective related to "sapiens" that can be used when talking of the human species or another thinking being: "sapient". It's from the Latin sapere meaning "think". We sometimes hear this in sci-fi movies when someone refers to "sapient life forms" such as Vulcans or Hynerians: critters that think and speak; but more often the word "sentient" is used -- paradoxically, since this word refers to feelings rather than thoughts, and we are not called Homo sentiens, though perhaps that is usually more accurate. In any case, you still can't say "homo sapient" unless you're talking about a specific sexual preference of one of these thinking, speaking critters.

--- back to contents ---


Technically this adverb is only supposed to be used to describe how someone is doing something, such as "she sat hopefully waiting for news of her husband." (Note: "hopefully" describes "waiting".) But the phrase "one hopes", which is what we're supposed to use to begin a description of something we hope will happen, has been replaced by "hopefully", which is understandable since it rhymes with luckily, unfortunately and other adverbs which describe a situation: "Luckily the bullet missed my heart." We all know this does not refer to the bullet's perspective on things, but that of the person who got shot, and similarly, "hopefully the doctor finds the bullet when he cuts you open" is obviously meant to describe the patient's perspective, not the doctor's. I myself use "hopefully" in this sense because I learned it before"one hopes", and "one hopes" sounds snobby-- so I only use it with my snob friends. Hopefully they don't mind, but be prepared to have your essay corrected if you use "hopefully" in this way.

--- back to contents ---

I could care less

I grew up hearing everyone say those words, and just about everyone still uses them in sentences meant to mean an absolute lack of interest in something. But a minority of us still use the correct construction: "I couldn't care less", the meaning of which is both clear and logical, something that can't be said of the other version. Intoned differently, such as "I COULD care less...", the meaning becomes "it would be possible for me to care less, but ..." But I think because people stress the "less" in "I could care LESS about that" it seems to them that the "less" is what matters and not the sometimes conditional modal verb "could" (the other use is the pure past tense "was able to": face it, English past tense construction leaves much to be desired; see "might could"). In fact, the context -- coupled with the fact that everyone hears it expressed in this manner -- implies that the speaker in fact doesn't care about something. But everyone hears "is is" all the time too: it doesn't make it any more logical or sensible to say it that way when a perfectly good version with just two more letters and an apostrophe does just as well. So, whatever, people, do what you want, I couldn't care less. (An obvious lie since that's what this whole treatise is all about, but a good use of the example to close on, except this sentence has now gotten in the way. Language is tricky.)

--- back to contents ---

in regards to?

"Regards" is what you send someone via a mutual friend. "Regard" (no s) is (among other definitions) a particular point or aspect being referred to, as in "we have no worries in that regard." It is a simple mistake that has become widespread to use "regards" for "regard in this sense. You would do well to learn the difference and use both words. It won't kill you to learn one new word that is only different by one letter from one you already know. I have nothing else to say in REGARD to this topic. Thank you very much.

--- back to contents ---

for all intensive purposes

This phrase can mean something grammatically acceptable in some contexts, but mostly it's a mistake for the correct phrase, which is "FOR ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES". Learn it.

--- back to contents ---


There are two words that mean pretty much the same thing: irrespective and regardless. Someone combined them into "irregardless" and it caught on like wildfire. It's still WRONG and STUPID. The prefix "ir-" means "not" and the suffix "-less" means "without", so if it were a word, "irregardless" would mean "not without regard", in other words, "WITH regard", which is the opposite of the meaning intended. So regardless of what people tell you, and irrespective of the frequency of its use, "irregardless" is a MONSTER ABOMINATION that must be EXTERMINATED.

--- back to contents ---

is is/was is

I first heard this aberration almost simultaneously among sportscasters in the mid- 1980s-- something like "The problem with his passing was is that he could never throw the bomb."-- and on a TV commercial for a tax preparation company: "The good news is... is that we have some exciting ideas for next year." Ironically, this construction is similar to some past tense forms in some Slavic languages-- but this is ENGLISH. You only need one version of the verb "be" (think the infinitive is "to be"? See my entry "to boldly go".) in any clause. Nowadays we regularly hear people start sentences with "The thing is is that..." or The thing was is that..." NO. The thing IS that, or the thing WAS that. "Was" is not some temporal qualifier like "now" or "then", it's a conjugation of the verb "be". "Is is" is only acceptable in spoken English if the pause between them is long enough to warrant a repetition for clarity, and even then it's optional, not mandatory, like any generic time-stalling interjection such as "um, uh", "er", etc. "Is is" is NEVER acceptable in written English, unless you want them to think you're STUPID, and that's what this is all about, isn't isn't it. Point made?

--- back to contents ---


This is solely an issue in written English, because the two are pronounced the same. But they mean very different things. Also, though there are clear reasons for the correct spellings, they're slightly counterintuitive. "Its" is simply the neuter possessive pronoun, and its meaning is "of it". "It's" is simply, and only, a contraction of the two words "it" and "is", and the meaning is simply, and only, "it is". They are not interchangeable. The confusion arises from the use of the apostrophe in English for both contractions (the dog's in here) and most possessive adjectives (the dog's dish is over there) and the failure to teach the lack of an apostrophe in ANY of the possessive pronouns: my, mine, your, yours, his, his, her, hers, its, its, our, ours, your, yours, their, theirs). Just as "the book is your's" is incorrect, so is "the machine lost it's plug" To be clear, the correct ways are: "the book is yours"; "the machine lost its plug". (Give me no grief please about my putting punctuation outside quotes: this is a disagreement between me and the Rulemakers of American Punctuation.) To flog the dead equine further, here is a sentence with nouns and the equivalent with pronouns. "The plug is the machine's problem." "It's its problem." Clear?

See also apostrophe use and abuse.

--- back to contents ---

Kudos to you

This is another Greek thing. Kudos is singular. The "s" at the end does not sound like a "z". It rhymes with similar words like "thermos", "cosmos" and "melos". If you're going to use it in any way other than this common congratulatory phrase, please don't say "his kudos were well deserved", say "his kudos was well deserved" -- unless you're talking about the snack food of the same name.

See also that data is flawed.

--- back to contents ---

less versus fewer

Now hear this. "Less" is the opposite of "more", more or less: only in the sense of describing quantities of things which aren't generally counted, such as water, someone's weight, or enthusiasm; these are the so-called indivisibles or uncountables. (Of course "waters" has a meaning, as does "airs", "weights" and others in this set. The sense that concerns us here is the one we mean when speaking of buckets of water, tanks of air, someone's hair, or the gross weight of a truck.)

"Fewer" is also the opposite of "more", more or less. "Fewer" is used for the countables: marbles, individual hairs, etc. This also includes the word ITEMS, and here is where we see the most common blunder in regard to this entry: the sign above certain checkout lanes, mostly in supermarkets: "15 items or less". Some stores have heeded the complaints of customers and corrected their signs to read "15 items or fewer", and to those bosses I give kudos; but unless they all do it, people will continue to learn and spread the mistake.

Confusion arises when an indivisible can also be talked about using countables, such as the aforementioned "weight", as in: "We need less weight on this crane." "How much less?" "Oh, about 3 tons less." This is CORRECT, even though "tons" is a countable, because we're still referring to the indivisible, total "weight" of the object. But the all-pervasive "one less thing to worry about" is considered incorrect because there is no implied reference to an indivisible, except maybe the list of things to worry about: "We need less on this list to worry about." "How much less?" "Oh, about 3 things less." Okay, you got me -- and besides, the meaning of "one less thing" is crystal clear, satisfying my supreme maxim of understandability. But "less items in this grocery cart" is still WRONG. "Less STUFF in this grocery cart", however, is correct.

So here's the guideline: if you can make something plural, e.g. stick an "s" on the end of it without changing the meaning (e.g., "item" to "items" vs. "water" to "waters"), use "more/fewer". If you can't, use "more/less." (Fewer chickens, less poultry.) That way you will increase the population's literate portion, which we could use more, not less, of; and you won't anger literate shoppers, with whom we could do more, not fewer, of.

--- back to contents ---


Fewer words annoy people more than this little four-letter one. It's my mother's personal Number One Peeve. The usage that offends is either the one where people use it as a placeholder instead of just saying "uh" ("Hey man, I, like, I really dig your, like, SHADES, man") or in the increasingly frequent replacement for things like "and I said" or "and I felt" ("so she was like, 'Dude,' and I was like, 'Awesome!'").

I won't even try to examine the grammatics of these usages: they're idioms and comprehensibility isn't compromised among their users. But, like, if you, like, are one of those people who are like, "and this is a problem why?", try to remember that there are situations where such use is best avoided, like for instance a job interview where you're, like, expected to wear a suit and leave your skateboard at home? (Question mark means the voice pitch rises at the end, even though this is a sentence.) Bummer, man, seriously, but dude, that's where it's at, so, like, chill and deal.

--- back to contents ---

me and him

See "... and I".

--- back to contents ---

The medium of the road

The word is MEDIAN!!! A medium is something you thin paint with, or someone who tells your fortune or channels a dead relative, or a way to get your product sold to the masses. A MEDIAN is the space between the two halves of a divided highway.

--- back to contents ---

I might could go

This regional idiom results from the inefficiency of the English past and conditional system surrounding words that deal with ability, specifically "can". This verb has no infinitive; it is only used as an auxiliary with other verbs: "I can go." If you say "I can can", you either mean you do a French cabaret dance or you know how to preserve things in cans.

But it gets worse. The past tense of "can" is "could" and the CONDITIONAL of "can" is ALSO "could". So in "correct" English, the only way to express the possibility of going is "I might be able to go", or by pitch stress: "I COULD go"; but since this latter sentence can also mean "I was able to go in the past", someone combined the auxiliary "might" with the auxiliary "could" to get this double auxiliary "might could" and thus improved greatly on the cumbersome "might be able to". I hope this one becomes standard.

--- back to contents ---


This is either a REFLEXIVE or an EMPHATIC PRONOUN. That should mean it can be used either when a subject is doing something to ITSELF ("I gave myself a raise: I'm a Congressman.") or when a subject needs intensification ("And he, he himself, the Grinch, carved the Roast Beast."); or in the idiom "I'm not myself" where it's a predicate complement. But since at least Shakespeare's time, if not earlier, people have been using it AS A SUBJECT or OBJECT PRONOUN in sentences like "Please give the gentleman and myself a drink." This a very puzzling error to make, since we have this little word "me" which we also use, and would be correct in the example above.

The same goes for "yourself", "himself", the regional "hisself", and all the other "-self" words.

Bottom line: you won't sound smarter or more educated by using "myself" anytime "I" or "me" is called for; quite the opposite, in fact.

--- back to contents ---

neither is or neither are?

See either and ... and I.

--- back to contents ---

none is/none are

People argue ad infinitum about whether "none" can be used in a plural sense. It has the same function as the German word "kein", which is always singular, and many people hold that "none" must be singular. But the definition of "none" is "not one", so how can it be singular, any more than "zero" is singular? On top of that, the plural use of "none" can be traced back a thousand years, and the meaning intended isn't impaired in the least by such usage. Here's my rule: if what you're describing a zero quantity of is singular, then "none" is singular; if plural, it's plural. Just don't buy in to the "zero percent" fad: it's extremely annoying.

--- back to contents ---


The word is NUCLEAR. It is pronounced "new clear." Say it slowly and then speed it up. New. Clear. New clear. New-clear. Now pronounce it that way while reading the correct spelling: Nuclear. The same goes for the root noun "nucleus" which is NOT pronounced "new-Q-lus" but "new-klee-us".

But people who can say "new" and "clear" separately nevertheless pronounce "nuclear" as if it rhymed with "circular". This baffling and infuriating error in pronunciation, widespread but not universal, is perhaps a rhyming error: people keep words in their heads in categories, one of which is words that rhyme. It's easier to keep track of them that way. Also, or perhaps on the other hand, people learn to use their mouth muscles in a certain way, and just as in the case of foreign language acquisition (where the sounds associated with another language become impossible for a person to imitate after a certain age, if a person has been brought up only hearing one language, and consequently only the set of sounds associated with that language -- in fact, with that specific dialect), certain muscle patterns, if not used in early childhood, may become impossible for certain adults to do, similarly to the way some people can't roll their "r"s or use the epiglottal or "Brokaw" "l". Or maybe these people simply learned the wrong pronunciation, or they think every adjective ending in "-ar" must end in "-lar". These same people also say things like "perculate" instead of "percolate", so maybe they just like the sound "yool". But whatever the reason, there is a group of words ending in "-ular" and there are other words that some people pronounce as if they belonged to this group, but should in fact be pronounced otherwise.

So for those who learn best from lists, here is a list of words that SHOULD rhyme with "circular" and those that SHOULDN'T.
auricular, avuncular, circular, crepuscular, jocular, modular, muscular, spectacular, titular, ventricular, vernacular
cochlear, nuclear, similar.
A related error: "percolate" pronounced to rhyme with "matriculate".

I would like to share a window into the workings of the human brain, a story of the son of a friend of mine who at an early age pronounced "harmonica" "harmokita". His dad tried to get him to pronounce it right by taking the word apart:
"Say, 'harmonica'."
"No, 'harmonica'."
"Say, 'har'."
"Say, 'mon'."
"Say, 'ica'."

But after several presidents of the United States have said "nucular", who am I to argue? I'll tell you who I am: I'm someone who no doubt got better grades in English class than those presidents did.

--- back to contents ---

octopi or octopuses?

Originally the plural of "octopus" was"octopodes". "Octopi" has never been correct. See "data".

--- back to contents ---

... of/ ... have

Because English spelling has not tracked with pronunciation, there are many common phrases which due to people's predilection for shortcuts have become pronounced in such a way as to have some of the words sound like other unrelated words, when in the unstressed position in the phrase. Such a one is "could of" which is an incorrect spelling of "could have". The spelled versions of the contractions (even shorter cuts) make it obvious which is correct: could've, should've, would've. In our corporate-dominated pop culture, however, this is usually seen as "coulda shoulda woulda", so unless one is acutely interested in proper spelling, one's chances of learning the proper spelling for these phrases are small. And since "of" is at the end of phrases like "on the point of" which precede verbs, it's easy for those inadequately educated in the parts of speech -- to think that this same "of" is what belongs between "could" and the past participle in question, especially since the pronunciation of "of" in "on the point of going" and "have" in "I could have had a drink made with eight vegetables and a lot of sodium" is almost if not exactly the same, and this has led to people actually, perceptibly saying "of" instead of "'ve" or "have". My way of combatting this is to dwell on "have" when I hear someone saying "could of", and hoping they hear the use of "have": at least they might consider it a viable alternate to what they're doing.

--- back to contents ---

... of a ...

1) Correct: "It's not that big a problem."
2) Correct: "It's not that much of a problem."
3) Incorrect: "It's not that big of a problem."

Why? To save time and headaches, let's analyze the only part of these examples that changes: "big/much of/big of". The function of this part of the sentence is as a qualifier of magnitude, either of the pronoun "it" or the noun "problem" (or both!). But though "that much of a problem" is similar in meaning to "that big a problem", "big of" in this context simply makes no sense. To explain why, I have to get technical.

In Example 1, "big" is an adjective qualifying "problem". The sentence could be reworded, "It's not a big problem", losing in meaning only a prior implication that it is a very big problem, e.g. "This is a big problem", to which the answer is, "It's not that big a problem." In all three sentences in this paragraph (to distinguish them from Examples 1 to 3), the adjective "big" qualifies the noun "problem".

In Example 2, "much" does NOT directly qualify "problem" because in this case it's a pronoun; it complements the subject "it", and pronouns can't qualify nouns or other pronouns. "Much" is a versatile little word: it can be a pronoun, an adjective ("he didn't drink much water") or an adverb ("he drinks too much"), so it's really easy to be confused as to what its function is in many phrases: several explanations might work. But here we know it's not an adjective because one can't say, "it's not a much problem". Why? Because as an adjective, "much" can only qualify nouns being used in the uncountable or indivisible sense, such as water, time or sleep. For instance, you may be thinking that there's not much point to this entire document (uncountable), or that I'm not making much of a point here (countable). As soon as we're dealing with countables like "problem", "much" must be followed by a preposition like "of" in order to make sense. In fact, "of a problem" is qualifying the pronoun "much", and so it can be thought of as an adjectival complex, having the same function in sentences like, "This is a devil of a problem." Like I said, more than one analysis can work here: start with "This -- is -- a problem." What sort of problem? (notice the "of") "A devil -- of a problem." "Problem" is still a noun, but now it's part of an adjectival complex describing what kind of a devil we're talking about, just as we could say "devil" is describing what kind of problem we're talking about! But we still need "of" to relate the two, and it's the same with this pronoun-meaning of "much".

"Big", on the other hand, is always and only an adjective, and as such it can only qualify or complement names, nouns, pronouns or noun phrases (in this case, "problem" or "it" or both), and can only be qualified by an adverb ("unbelieveably" big) or adverbial complex (big "in every way"). So "big" can NOT be qualified by the adjectival "of a problem" like it could by an adverbial complex in a sentence like "It's big in terms of problems". Hence, Example 3 is INCORRECT. But because people like rhyming and other similarity-causing structures, someone sometime equated "much" with "big" due probably to a lack of knowledge of grammar, and "big of a" was born.

But wait, you say. "That's big of you" is correct! Yes it is, just like "nice of you", "silly of you" "pedantic of you" or any other "adjective of you" is correct. This is an accepted idiom, and it may not be charitable of me -- i.e., I might not be too charitable a person -- to accept this construction while berating the other one. But this version of "big of" is different because since the preposition begins a phrase and doesn't end one, it's "big -- of you", not "big of -- you", and this "of you", like "in terms of problems", is an ADVERBIAL phrase, not an adjectival one, and thus CAN qualify an adjective like "big". But we're not done yet, young'un: The "of you" in "part of you wishes you never found this webpage" IS an adjectival, qualifying the noun "part", not an adverbial, and round and round we go. It's probably not surprising that people gave up teaching crap like this; so to conclude, I'll just reiterate that "big of a" is not the same as "much of a", "helluva" or "doozy of a": it makes no sense and is WRONG.

--- back to contents ---


This is a Canadian word that is so much better than the clunky American "parking garage" that I wish more Americans would start using it. That's all. Canadian English isn't just about learning how properly to use the word "eh", which is also much better that the American equivalents, such as "know what I'm sayin'?" or even "you know?"

--- back to contents ---

PERmit vs perMIT

In the "standard" American dialect, there is a distinction in stress between certain verbs and nouns which are spelled identically. Here's a partial list:

verb Noun
conCERT as in concerted effort CONcert of music
conSTRUCT a building CONstruct in one's mind
enTRANCE a victim ENtrance to the garden
imPOUND a car IMpound lot for cars
inVITE someone to a party INvite (this is replacing "invitation")
proGRESS toward a conclusion PROgress being made
reLAY the information RElay switch

These pairs all have one thing in common: the noun has the stress on the first syllable, the verb on the second. However, there are many pairs where the stress is the same:

verb Noun
asSENT (he assented cheerfully) asSENT (he nodded his assent)
conSENT (he consented) conSENT (his consent was obtained)
DEtour (take a roundabout route) DEtour (the roundabout route itself)
INput data into a database INput (the place where the signal enters)
reFRAIN from violence reFRAIN of a song

And there are words where changing the stress of the same grammatical version of the word changes its meaning:

verb Noun
proCESS in a line
PROcess data
PROcess of elimination

And then there's this fun little group, where the words are spelled the same but stressed differently, and are derived from different Latin roots, and one sounds just like yet another word, spelled differently, from yet another root:

deSERT a crime scene (from desertare "leave waste")

deSERVE praise (from deservire "serve well")

DEsert island (from deserere "forsake")

just deSERTS (from deservire)"serve well"

ice cream for deSSERT (from French desservir "clear the table")

Finally, there are word pairs, one half of which are now, in some dialects, being stressed oppositely from how they used to be stressed for the same meaning, and these stresses are replacing the older ones merely through frequency of use:

verb Noun
perMIT an action PERmit for house renovation
(standard stress)
perMIT for house renovation
(new stress)

And here we come to my gripe. Obviously there is no rule about how to stress the words in these pairs; it's totally capricious. I put this here because I think distinguishing nouns from verbs of the same spelling by stress is simply cool, and I wish we would start doing the stress-distinction thing to pairs that don't have it, like "reVEAL" and "REveal", in the theatrical sense of the word; and STOP undoing it to words like perMIT/PERmit.

Also, I hope obviously, I'm not talking here about words in the same grammatical category, without counterparts in the other category, that are stressed differently for different meanings, e.g. "offense". "ofFENSE" means nonphysical violence toward someone, umbrage, or in battle lingo the noun meaning the attacking side; "OFfense" is a football term stressed that way to distinguish it from "DEfense" which is different from "deFENSE" which refers to any defense outside of football. But now, thanks to this invention of the Football People, we can use "OFfense" and "DEfense" outside football either in other games for the same meaning, or to make a reference to the game in situations outside the context of the game, for humorous or other purposes outside the meaning of the words themselves, and this is one of the things that make English great.

--- back to contents ---

persuade vs. convince

See convince vs persuade.

--- back to contents ---

this is a real phenomena

"Phenomena" is the PLURAL form of "phenomenON". It's Greek. See "data" for more.

--- back to contents ---


This is NOT CORRECT. The word "proTUberance" does not come from "protrude", but from late Latin protuberant meaning "swelling out", and so the word is "protuberance". Just think of potatoes. Tubers. Pro-tuber-ance.

--- back to contents ---

he's an internationally renown operatic tenor?

No, he's an illiterate, internationally renownED operatic tenor. "Renown" is not the past tense of "renow", it is a NOUN meaning "fame"; it doesn't come from "know" but from French renomer meaning "make famous" from French nom "name". But because of the four letters in a row that it shares with "known", I can see the reason for the error, or more likely the assumption made in ignorance of the facts, and the fact that people don't pay attention to how things are spelled. Or for you Brits, spelt, which is also a cousin of wheat. PAY ATTENTION, or the renown you garner might not be what you want to be known for.

--- back to contents ---

she and I

See "... and I".

--- back to contents ---

taut or taught?

This is strictly a spelling issue as these two words are homophones. "Taut" means "stretched tight"; "taught" is the past participle of the verb "teach" which I trust needs no definition. THESE ARE NOT INTERCHANGEABLE, EVER, AT ALL, IN ANY WAY.

--- back to contents ---

to boldly go

This is just the most famous American example of a supposed grammatical error, which is not in fact an error but seems like one, due to an odd feature of the English verbal system. That feature is that when talking about a verb we use the word "to" to introduce the verb in question, probably originally to avoid confusion between using the verb as a subject for discussion and using it as the grammatical verb in a clause. For instance, from "Hamlet": "To be or not to be, that is the question. It seems that you can't use "be" as a subject without putting "to" in front of it, but there are several other places one uses the infinitive form, and for clarity I'll stick with "be" because it still retains several forms whereas most English verbs have almost no formal variation anymore. One example is modal verbs, such as "can" or "must" or "should", which take the infinitive of some verb after them to complete the meaning, even if the other verb is only implied. (Confusion also enters here with the English construction "have to" which exactly equals the meaning of "must" but is much more common, and has the word "to" in it.) In English we don't say "can it to be true?" and we don't say "can it is true?" We say, "can it be true?" Therefore, "be" all by itself IS the infinitive. The term used to describe the function of "to" in "to be or not to be" is APPURTENANCE. "To" is an appurtenance to the infinitive. So give the person who wrote the preamble to every Star Trek episode a rest. "To boldly go where no one has gone before" is CORRECT. Some might deem it stylistically awkward, but that's different from incorrectness. And by the next example I hope to demonstrate the fallacy of thinking insertion of adverbs between "to" and its infinitive is always undesirable: "He's not going just to comply." This is NOT equivalent to "he won't simply comply", it's equivalent to "he's not going THERE simply to comply". Many times you can put the adverb after the supposed infinitive, but not here: "He's not going to comply just" makes no sense. If you substitute "simply" for "just" in this sentence-- "he's not going to comply simply"-- the meaning changes from simply complying (meaning complying without conditions) to complying in a simple manner (meaning complying in a certain way, with certain "simple" affectations such as words chosen, or little or no movement). We're splitting hairs here, but the goal of language-- whether it's achievable or not-- is clarity of meaning. Now, yes, we can say "he's not simply going to comply" but we run into the same danger as with "he's not just going to comply", and colloquially we use "just" more often than "simply" in constructions like this -- at least I do. (Other uses of "simply" would digress from the example, which uses "just".) So by saying "he's not going to just comply" we are not only not splitting a fictional infinitive, we are also communicating an idea that "he" will most likely be against complying. If we say "he won't just comply", we introduce an even more definite idea of unwillingness than "he's not going to just comply", which has as its implied complement "he'll need some convincing". "He's just not going to comply" implies certainty that he won't comply.

When a verb has both a modifying adverb and a direct object, putting the adverb between the infinitive and the object can lead to confusion or at least cumbersomeness, yet in writing people go out of their way to avoid the alleged split infinitive in favor of clunky prose. Example: "I told him quietly to come in and move the sofa." -- rather than "I told him to quietly come in and move the sofa." This is done SOLELY because the writer thinks it's incorrect to put anything between an infinitive and its APPURTENANCE, which is the technical term for "to" in any "to + verb" construction. (In fact, this appurtenance can govern several infinitives at once without being repeated, as in this case: I wanted him to do 2 things quietly: come in, and move the sofa.) But "I told him quietly" is equivalent to "I quietly told him" and doesn't address the manner in which I wanted him to come in and move the sofa. What about "I told him to come in quietly and move the sofa"? That doesn't include the moving of the sofa under the blanket of requested quietness. Similarly, putting "quietly" after "the sofa" doesn't address how I wanted him to come in. But let's temporarily remove "come in" and deal with "to move the sofa" by itself. "I told him to move quietly the sofa" is technically allowable, but inadvisable and it sounds wrong: it's clunky because a verb shouldn't be separated from its direct object by another word if at all possible, and this particular verb "move" can be either transitive (as here) or intransitive (as in "move around") and for an instant the meaning is taken to be "move around quietly" because no direct object has been stated yet. (Yet I have seen constructions exactly like this in science magazines.) Yes, we can write or say "I told him to move the sofa quietly" perfectly correctly, but in order to make a sentence equivalent in meaning to "I told him to quietly come in and move the sofa" we would have to repeat "quietly" after each action: "I told him to come in quietly and move the sofa quietly." This is unnecessary verbiage. So if you've worried about being perceived an illiterate because you put adverbs between "to" and an infinitive, stop. You may boldly insert adverbs, or better: you have the right to boldly insert adverbs where none have gone before.

--- back to contents ---

stationary or stationery?

This is a very easy thing to fix: If you sell paper, cards, envelopes, and other dry goods associated with letter-writing, homework and general hardcopy production, you are a STATIONER and your store or department is a STATIONERY. If you are not moving, or your orbit around the planet keeps you above the same point on the surface, you are STATIONARY. Unfortunately, American pronunciation of these two words is identical -- but the same can be said of two, too, and to, but people mostly get those right. There is no excuse for poor spelling. Reasons, yes, but no excuse. Just because a national store chain puts "Stationary" up in two-foot-high letters above their greeting cards area doesn't make it any less incorrect.

--- back to contents ---

I wish you would have seen it

This common error, in my opinion, results directly from poor schooling, as well as from a close resemblance to similar wish-constructions in other tenses. However, like the double negative, it is a common construction in other Indo-European languages that don't treat verb tenses like English does. I don't think many people will lose any sleep over this one, but for the insatiably curious, here's how it's supposed to work.

Let's examine "would". It can mean "might" (do something) or "once did" (do something). In constructions having to do with wishing, its use is necessarily restricted to hypothetical situations, in fact unreal situations in all but the future tense (because the future hasn't happened yet so the thing still might occur). So to tell someone of a desire on your part that they should see something, you would say "I wish you would see it: then you'll understand" ("you would" is often contracted to "you'd"). This is almost equivalent to saying "I want you to see it so you'll understand", except "would" implies doubt that it will happen, just like "wish" does. It's also why "I hope you will see it" -- and "I hope you see it" -- are different: they imply more possibility, and thus it's acceptable to use straight future or present tense with hope -- and unacceptable to say "I hope you would see it" -- but not unacceptable to say "I would hope that you would see it"!

This use of "would" in "I wish you would see it ..." is called the past conditional, even though it's referring to a future possibility: just one reason the error in question is so easy to make. No one would say, "I wish you will see it: then you'll understand", because it makes no sense to express the certainty inherent in "will" in a phrase about something that's uncertain. So far, so good. Now let's try to tackle the past-tense version of this. If something happened that I saw and you didn't, but I wish you had, the correct form is "I wish you had seen it: then you'd understand". This "had seen" is called the pluperfect (also known as past perfect) and -- if for no other reason than someone declared it correct -- it is the accepted correct construction for expressions of wishing for something to have happened that did not happen. Using "would" here doesn't ruin the meaning: if anything it makes it sound more conversational.

Something else muddies the issue further: the related word "could", which, like "would", is sometimes used for pure past tense (="was able to") and sometimes for conditional ("might be able to"). "I wish you could have seen it" (meaning "I wish it were not the case that you weren't able to see it") is perfectly acceptable according to the books, as good as "I wish you could see it", the meaning of which is different from "I wish you would see it" since it implies inability whereas "would" does not.

The reason "I wish you would have seen it" makes no sense is that, in the past, there is no possibility that something which didn't happen can somehow still happen, as opposed to the present where something that hasn't happened yet might still happen. The past is past, and so there's no room for implied possibility in a sentence like this. Done with explaining; I'll end with more examples of the correct way:
If I had known you were coming I would have baked a cake.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have acted differently.
I wish I had acted differently.
I wish someone had stopped the first person who said something like "If you would have been there you would have seen it" from saying it; then maybe I wouldn't have to endure people saying it now.

--- back to contents ---

I wish I was/I wish I were

The subjuctive tense is almost gone from English, but if you're going to do Shakespeare or otherwise use older English constructions for some reason, an understanding of the subjunctive is required. The use of "were" in "I wish I were there", meaning "I am not there and I want to be there", is one such example of surviving subjunctive use. With such alternatives as "I wish I could be there" it's easy to just lest this one go into the wastebasket, but using it keeps alive a piece of variety in English that it would be a shame to lose. We probably hear this use more often in the phrase "if that were the case", which is even used by people who say "I wish I was there"! We can even drop the "if" if we word it thus: "Were that the case, ..." which is still acceptable though considered archaic. However, any story-writer should know how to use this tense, the full scope of which is outside the purview of this little rant of mine. Consult a grammar book.

--- back to contents ---

Where (are) you at?

The "at" is grammatically unnecessary, but because words like "whither" and "whence" have largely been replaced by "where to" and "where from", using "at" is a logical clarification of the use of "where". Also, in abstract uses such as states of mind, "where he's at" communicates something that "where he is" simply does not convey. Also, in the other regional construction "Where you at?", which is almost Russian in its syntax, leaving "at" out would just sound wrong.
Personally, I would prefer the return of "whither", whence", "hither", "hence", "thither" and "thence" to their former frequency; but Southern and City English are more common and powerful than Shakespeare and this tide will not be stemmed. So that about sums up where I'm at with this one.

--- back to contents ---

Please hold while your call is being transferred.

We hear this almost every time we are put on hold on the phone. It is INCORRECT to use the present progressive tense ("is being"), passive or active voice (in this case passive), along with "while", with the meaning intended here. The proper tense is the simple present: "while your call is (or better: gets) transferred". There are constructions where "is being" is correct, for example: "I am sitting here twiddling my thumbs while my call is being transferred." The tenses match. In the "please wait" case, we have an imperative which implies a future finished action, and this shouldn't be paired with a progressive which by its nature defines an incomplete action.

But the meaning isn't harmed by this construction, so it could be considered a minor fault, if it weren't part of the larger corpus of errors rampant in modern American English.

If my explanation didn't convince you, look at this example: "You stay here while I go shopping." This is exactly the same construction as in the "please wait" example. I have never heard anyone say something like, "You stay here while I am going shopping." "You stay here while I am on the phone," YES, because that's not a progressive use of "am". So pardon me now while I calm down. Okay, now I'm calming down. Okay, now I have calmed down. See?

More of these as they occur to me and I have the time to enter them. Suggestions gratefully accepted; no guarantees of inclusion.

--Adam Klein

--- back to contents ---


adjective: qualifies a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase. Examples: big, dastardly.
adverb: qualifies a verb, adjective, another adverb, an adjectival phrase or an adverbial phrase. Examples: very, swimmingly.
Case: form of a noun or pronoun that describes its semantic relation to the rest of the sentence.
Clause: a unit of grammatical organization consisting of a subject and predicate.
Conjugation: form of a verb that qualifies something about the action, usually the person or the time. Examples: I do/ he does/ I went; we showed them.
Conjunction: a word that links independent clauses. Examples: and, or, but, because, since.
Contraction: the joining of two separate words while deleting some of the letters of one, and sometimes changing the spelling of the other; and one of the two correct uses of an apostrophe. Examples: It's not yoursI'm not giving it back, and I won't.
Declension: form of a noun or pronoun that qualifies something about the action, e. g. whether it's a subject or an object. Examples: I do/ he does; we showed them/ it was showed by us.
Gerund: a verb-derived word that functions as a noun. Example: his drumming was sorely missed.
Complex: a group of words that together behave like a single part of speech. Example: adjectival complex: a flock of geese; adverbial complex: he went into town.
Inflection: form change of a word to specify its grammatical function, resulting in different case and conjugative forms. Also used to describe stress, but this is more correctly called intonation.
Intonation: the stresses used in a word or phrase, either in pitch or intensity or both.
Modifier: any part of speech that has an effect on another part of speech in the sentence. Examples: adjectives, adverbs, participles.
Noun: describes a living being, place, thing or concept. Example: dog, beach, rock.
Participle: form of a verb qualifying the manner of action. Examples: doing, done, showing, showed.
Phoneme: a perceptually distinct unit of sound, represented graphically by a letter or group of letters. Some English letters can represent two phonemes, and some groups of letters represent a single phoneme. Examples: a represents one ("a" as in "a car") or two ("a" as in the letter "a") phonemes, depending on pronunciation, though dipthongs are often treated as single sounds even though they're not; be has two, "b" and "e"; through has three: "th", "r", and "ough".
Phrase: a small group of words standing together as a conceptual unit. Example: to the hilt (adverbial phrase).
Possessive: the English equivalent of the genitive case, more or less, denoting possession of something or inclusion in something. Examples: his, mine, its; Lucy's pocketbook.
Predicate: the part of a sentence or clause containing a verb and stating something about the subject. Example: I went inside.
Pronoun: specifies a person. Examples: I, me, you, he, him, she, her, it, we, us, you, they, them. Flavors: subject pronoun (I); object pronoun (me); reflexive or emphatic pronoun (myself).
Sentence: a set of words complete in itself, typically containing a subject and predicate, but often also containing several related clauses and thus more than one subject and predicate. Example: I went inside.
Subject: a noun, pronoun, name or phrase that is doing the action in a clause.
Tense: a verb form describing the time, continuance or completeness of the action. Examples: present tense: I do, I show; present progressive tense: I am doing, I am showing; past tense: did, showed; future tense: will do, will show; conditional tense: would do, would show.
Verb: derscibes an action or state. Examples: do, show.
--- back to contents ---
Site originally designed and built by Tami Swartz. She'll build your site too, just contact her.
Site tested with Netscape 7.2, Firefox, Internet Explorer 5.2.2 and Safari 3.1.1 for Mac. Best viewed with screen set to 1024X768 pixels or greater. Report any problems to Adam Klein.