Transition Words

A frequent fault of inexperienced writers is a tendency to present thoughts and ideas without showing connections between them, or without making their significance clear to the reader. Transition words and phrases keep the reader on track by showing relationships between ideas and information. Consider the following paragraph: People who adopt a dog need to … Read more

Congratulations on or for?

Several readers have written to ask which preposition should be used with congratulations. Should we say “congratulations on” or “congratulations for”? The answer is, “It depends.” In the singular, congratulation is the action of congratulating. In the plural, congratulations is what one offers to express pleasure in the success or good fortune of another. The preposition … Read more

Can vs. May

Can and may belong to a category of verbs variously referred to as auxiliary, helping, modal, and defective. They are linguistic fossils, deriving from Old English conjugations that have dwindled through time to only one or two forms. May and its past form might come from OE magan, “may, to be able.” In modern English, … Read more

The Eponymy Family

The suffix -nym means name. The word eponym comes from Greek eponymos, “given as a name; bestowing a name on something.” eponym: noun. The person for whom a country or location is named. For example, Romulus is the legendary eponym of Rome. Simón Bolivar is the known eponym of Bolivia. eponym: noun. A proper name … Read more

Fishy Expressions

The Venerable Bede (c.672-735) tells this story about Bishop Wilfrid’s conversion of the South Saxons in the 680s: When the Bishop first came into the kingdom and saw the suffering and famine there, he taught them how to get their food by fishing: for both the sea and the rivers abounded in fish but the … Read more

Subvert and Suborn

A reader has asked for a discussion of the words subvert and suborn. Both are verbs and both have been used with meanings no longer common. Deriving ultimately from a Latin word for “to overturn,” subvert came into English from French subvertir, “to raze, destroy completely.” The meaning has developed from the literal destruction of … Read more

At Whose Earliest Convenience?

Thanks to one of our readers for this: I called a local city council member, and the assistant’s voice message said, “I am sorry I cannot take your call. Please leave a message and I will call you back at my earliest convenience.” The usual formula is, “Please get back to me at your earliest … Read more

Bootstraps and Bootstrapping

In the literal sense, bootstrap is a loop attached at the top back of a boot to make it easier for the wearer to pull on the boot–if, that is, he is sitting down. On a woman’s boot–in the days when women wore skirts to ride, the bootstrap looped round the boot to hold down … Read more

If I Was vs. If I Were

In 1964, when Sheldon Harnick wrote the lyrics for the musical Fiddler on the Roof, he had the poverty-stricken Russian milkman Tevye sing “If I were a rich man.” In 1992, affluent rock star Bon Jovi sang “If I was your mother,” but then in 2008, Beyoncé sang “If I were a boy.” Clearly, both … Read more

Double Negatives to Avoid

A French speaker who says “Je ne sais rien” raises no eyebrows among the educated, but an English speaker who says “I don’t know nothing” is immediately marked as semi-literate. (French ne corresponds to English not and rien to nothing.) Some languages, like French and Spanish, have what is called “negative concord,” usage that allows … Read more

Ignorance or Sincerity?

Grammar consultants are in great demand these days by employers who fear that the inability of their employees to speak and write grammatically gives their businesses a black eye. In addition to including English lessons in their employee training programs, some administrators go so far as to correct subordinates as they go about their work. … Read more

Itch vs. Scratch

Confusion as to whether to use scratch or itch is evident on the web. For example, the video of a cat scratching its own back has the label, “Cat itches his own back.” A pet care site features the question, “If a dog is uncontrollably itching an area to the point of bleeding, what can … Read more