Words Ending in -ance and -ence

A reader asked if there were some easy-to-remember spelling tip for dealing with words ending in -ence and -ance. Both endings derive from Latin nouns. Words from Latin nouns ending in -entia affluence from affluentia, “abundance” audience from audientia, “a hearing” benevolence from benevolentia, “good will” continence from continentia, “self-control” diligence from diligentia, “accuracy” Words … Read more

Mood vs. Tense

Judging by comments I’ve read on this and other language sites, many people are not quite clear as to the difference between the grammatical terms mood and tense. For example, I’ve seen such expressions as “subjunctive tense” and “progressive mood.” Because both tense and mood have to do with verbs, the confused terminology is understandable. … Read more

Study, Learn, and Read

Some ESL speakers have trouble with these verbs. To study is to apply the mind to the acquisition of knowledge. Books are the first avenue that comes to mind, but as the object of study is the acquisition of knowledge, other means include observation and experiment. Play is a form of study for children. Although … Read more

For Free and Other Pleonastic Expressions

pleonasm: The use of more words in a sentence or clause than are necessary to express the meaning Pleonastic expressions are common in conversation. We all use turns of phrase in which we repeat ourselves: “the books were few in number,” “We made advance dinner reservations,” “I know with positive certainty.” few: adjective. amounting to … Read more

Abstract Nouns from Adjectives

Abstract nouns may be formed from adjectives by adding the suffix -ness: happy/ happiness, sad/sadness, kind/kindness, cheerful/cheerfulness. However, a large group of adjectives have distinct nouns that do not require a formation with -ness or any other suffix. A common stylistic fault is to add the -ness ending to adjectives that already have corresponding noun … Read more

Idioms with Compare

The verb compare comes from Latin comparare, “to pair together, couple, match, bring together.” It occurs in four common English idioms. to compare someone or something to someone or something to compare someone or something with someone or something to compare notes on something or someone to compare apples and oranges compare with or to … Read more

Bigot, The All-Purpose Insult

Bigot, a word usually associated with religion, has expanded its meaning considerably. Its original sense was “a person who shows excessive religious zeal, a religious hypocrite.” Here are some (unedited) examples of its current use: Obama: Close-Minded Economic Bigot Sailor Calls Romney a ‘narrow-minded bigot’ Jehmu Greene: Portrait of Black Bigotry Liberals are some of … Read more

Quote vs. Quotation, Invite vs. Invitation

One of my college professors insisted that quote is a verb and quotation is a noun and never the twain shall meet. For example, a writer quotes from an author, but the quoted material is a quotation, never “a quote.” Although I still observe the distinction in my own writing, I have become aware that … Read more

Abstruse vs. Obtuse

What’s the difference between abstruse and obtuse? Both are adjectives. Abstruse comes from a Latin word meaning “concealed, hidden, secret.” In English it means “difficult to understand.” Remarking on complaints about the apparent meaninglessness of literary prizes, Jennifer Szalai writes, Prizes are awarded to tepid, undemanding best sellers everyone reads; prizes are awarded to obscure, … Read more

Oblivious to or of?

A reader wonders why, “In modern usage, we hear…‘oblivious to’ more than we hear the correct usage.” Writing about oblivious in 1926, H. W. Fowler felt that the word was “badly misused”: 1. Its right sense is no longer aware or no longer mindful; it is not simply unaware or unconscious or insensible. 2. Even … Read more

10 Words Often Misspelled in Business Correspondence

Most word processing programs have a built-in spell checker, but business correspondence still goes out with misspelled words that a checker would have caught. I’m not talking about words like bare and bear, which are both English words acceptable to an automatic spelling program, but words like definite and separate, which have no homophones, and … Read more

Et cetera, Re, and Sic

When the Latin-loving educated classes finally started taking English seriously enough to write their works in, they brought a lot of Latin terms with them. Some of the terms remain in the language, among them et cetera, re, and sic. Et cetera Commonly abbreviated etc., the Latin phrase et cetera is used at the end … Read more