Healthy vs Healthful

A reader wonders about the use of the adjectives healthy and healthful: Would you please do a segment explaining how, when, and why “healthy” and “healthful” should be used correctly. My tentative belief is that people are “healthy” or not so; and that foods are “healthful” or not so. Am I correct? Many speakers like … Read more

Prime Marks

A reader commenting on a recent post about the En Dash introduced me to a punctuation term that was unfamiliar to me: “the prime mark”: Here’s one for you: teaching about the apostrophe versus the prime or foot mark. Same with the quote marks versus the inch marks. I can only guess that this reader … Read more

Do-gooder Is Not a Positive Term

A reader questions the positive use of the epithet do-gooder: One use of the language that disturbs me is the use by my local paper of the term “Do-gooder” [to refer] to people who are indeed doing good deeds by helping or contributing. However the only definitions I have seen for the term appear to refer … Read more

Empathize vs. Sympathize

A reader says, I’ve always been confused on how to use [the words empathize and sympathize] in proper context. For about 300 years, English speakers didn’t have to choose between sympathize and empathize to express the idea of sharing another’s feelings. Empathize hadn’t been invented yet. The first OED example of sympathize in the sense … Read more

Starting a Business Letter with Dear Mr.

Several years ago, when a reader said he refused to use “Dear So-and-So” to begin a business letter because dear is too intimate a word to use with a stranger, I assumed that he represented a minority of one. Who, I wondered, would interpret an established convention like “Dear Sir” literally? Little did I know! … Read more

Punctuation Review #3: Introducing Quotations

A reader questioned the introduction of a direct quotation with the word that: I’ve had the understanding that preceding what was said with the word “that” indicates that what follows is not a verbatim quote, but rather a description of what was said, and quotation marks are thus not to be used. The conjunction that … Read more

The Changing Meaning of Mural

Because I am used to thinking of a mural as a painting on a wall, I was startled to hear a local radio announcer refer to a contest for artists to submit designs to paint “murals” on storm drains. Storm drains are on the ground. They are also rather small. I think of murals as … Read more

Two Inverted Idioms

As the residents of my state prepared for a cold front, one of the local television anchors remarked, We are in store for a big chill. His meaning was that extremely cold weather was about to descend upon us, but that is not what he said. The word store in the idiom “in store for” … Read more

Contrast and Stand in Contrast To

The other morning I read an article about a man who has built a wonderfully detailed scale model of the Sultana, the steamboat that was the object of the greatest maritime disaster in US history. Note: On April 27, 1865, three of the Sultana’s four boilers exploded, killing nearly 2,000 people. Horrible as it was, … Read more

Ripe vs. Rife

Researching banking in the Roman Empire, I read the following in a scholarly discussion of Roman tax collecting: The process was ripe with corruption and scheming. The context calls for the word rife, not ripe. The process was not “ripe with corruption,” but “rife with corruption,” that is, the process was riddled with corruption. In … Read more

Beginning A Business Letter with First Person Singular

A reader wonders about beginning a letter with the first person pronoun: I was taught never to begin a letter (business or personal) with the word “I.” This must certainly have to do with the mostly outdated concept of humility being a virtue. However, I continue to believe that humility is a virtue and that the root … Read more

Marshmallow and Other Common Spelling Traps

This sentence on a grammar site is intended to illustrate the use of the colon: It is time for the baby’s birthday party: a white cake, strawberry-marshmellow ice cream, and a bottle of champagne saved from another party. (Joan Didion) The use of the colon is fine, but a word is misspelled. I wouldn’t swear … Read more