Noun/Verb Agreement with “Number”

When a sentence begins with “A number of,” should the verb that follows be singular, or plural? For example, when a sentence refers to a number of objections being raised, is was correct, or should you use were? In this case, number stands in as a vague reference to the quantity of objections, but the … Read more

Focus vs. Locus

What’s the difference between a focus and a locus — is it all just hocus-pocus? — and where does nexus fit in? The technical meaning of focus is “a point of convergence or divergence, or seeming divergence,” in terms of particles of matter. It also refers to adjustment for clear vision as well as the … Read more

Does Everyone Know Every One?

Writers are sometimes confused about when to attach any, every, and no to one or body as a closed compound and when to treat one of these word pairs as just that: a two-word phrase. Here are guidelines and sample sentences for each combination: Any Body/Anybody The two-word alternative, which refers to people’s physical form … Read more

All About Ellipses

Three dots. Dot, dot, dot. What could be simpler? Then why do those dots make so many writers dotty? The rules for use of ellipses are not as simple as they seem. But they are manageable. First, a definition: An ellipsis (from the Greek word elleipsis — also the source of ellipse, meaning “an oval” … Read more

7 Terms with the Root “-Vore”

Are you a locavore? Probably not — it’s still a fringe movement — but you should know what it means, even if you do not consider yourself a member of the class. A discussion of locavore and six related words follows: 1. Locavore The term was coined in 2005 by a group of San Franciscans … Read more

The Rules of Engagement in English

In the same day, this site received, among readers’ responses to my recent post Courtesy Titles and Honorifics, two diverse email messages: One was a reasonable, well-written support of the writer’s opinion that, as she was taught, because the courtesy title Ms. is an artificial designation that doesn’t abbreviate anything, it should not include a … Read more

Book Review: “Spunk and Bite”

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, has been widely celebrated as one of the masterworks of English usage. Time magazine listed it as one of the one hundred most influential books written in English since 1923. More than ten million copies of the slim little volume that elucidates good … Read more

Older vs. Elder

Which comparative adjectival term meaning “more advanced in age” is more correct in usage? Many people still prefer to use elder and its superlative eldest, but they tend to be, well, older; the choice of that last word is becoming the alternative of choice. One reason is that there is no word eld to serve … Read more

7 Idioms from the Military

Military terminology and slang is a rich source of expressive expressions. Most, like “bite the bullet,” are clichés, but some, such as “bomber crew,” are unusual (so much so, sometimes, that in writing they may require a partial explanation). 1. Awkward Squad This obscure but oh-so-useful phrase originated in military usage to refer to a … Read more

15 “Dis-” Words and Their Relations

Words with the antonymic prefix dis- are easily confused with similar-looking terms starting with mis- or un- that usually have differing connotations or entirely distinct senses. Here are comparative definitions of some of these terms, along with etymological identification: 1-2. Disassemble/Dissemble/Misassemble The first two words have a shared etymology but distinct meanings. To disassemble originally … Read more

Courtesy Titles and Honorifics

There was a time when it was considered proper form to refer indirectly to people in writing with a courtesy title or an honorific — a designation that identifies gender, profession, or title of nobility. That time, to the great relief of writers everywhere, has passed. Of course, in direct address — in a salutation, … Read more

7 Heavenly Bodies as Sources of Adjectives

1. Earth Through in modern usage our planet’s Latin name, Terra, appears only in science fiction, the adjective terrestrial is often employed to refer to phenomena associated with Earth or with land as opposed to water. It is also the root of extraterrestrial, the term for any (so far conjectural) life-form that does not originate … Read more