Confused Words #7: Dual vs. Duel

Both dual and duel derive from the Latin adjective dualis, “containing two,” from Latin duo, “two.” The English adjective dual refers to something that pertains to or consists of two parts. For example, a “dual carriageway” is a road with separate carriageways divided by a strip. An airplane or motor vehicle might have “dual controls” … Read more

Personification vs. Anthropomorphism

A reader asks: Is there a difference between Personification and Anthropomorphism? If they’re not the same, could you please explain it? Both words convey the idea of attributing human characteristics to something not human. Personification comes from the verb personify. One meaning of personify is “to represent or imagine a thing or abstraction as a person.” … Read more

Hack, Hacker and Hacking

A reader is puzzled by a new permutation of the word hack: The word “hack”, until recently, meant to break into someone’s Internet account or system. Now I see it meaning “tips” or “suggestions”.  Am I correct? Like this reader, the only meaning that hack held for me in regard to computers was as a … Read more

Two Bad Prefixes

The English prefix caco- comes from a Latinized form of Greek kakos, “bad, evil.” The English prefix mal- derives from Latin malus, “bad, evil.” A familiar “caco” word in English is cacophony, which combines “bad” with phone, “sound.” One meaning of cacophony is “the use of harsh sounding words or phrases.” For example: “There are … Read more

Fitting Quotations

Incorporating direct quotations effectively is an important writing skill. Here is an example of an ill-fitting quotation in an article about media doctor Mehmet Oz who was recently the subject of a Senate hearing. It’s from an article by Terrence McCoy in The Washington Post (print and digital): “I recognize that oftentimes they don’t have … Read more

Confused Words #6: Imply vs. Infer

A commonly cited usage error is that of mixing up the verbs imply and infer. Here are some examples from the Web: Incorrect: My girlfriend inferred it was over without actually saying it. Correct : My girlfriend implied it was over without actually saying it. Incorrect: In your letter, you infer that your partner is … Read more

Acronym vs. Initialism

Every so often I’m taken to task for referring to an unpronounceable string of letters as an acronym instead of an initialism. I’m sure there must be contexts in which the distinction is important, but I’ve never felt the need to distinguish between acronyms and initialisms in writing for a general audience. For one thing, … Read more

Punctuation Review #3: En Dashes

Dashes are not the same as hyphens. An en dash is wider than a hyphen, and an em dash is wider than an en dash: hyphen: – en dash: – em dash: — The terms en dash and em dash originated in the days when text to be printed was set in type by hand. … Read more

What is Grammar?

A Web search for the word grammar brings up about 171,000,000 hits. Many of the links lead to discussions of “bad grammar.” In popular usage, grammar can mean anything from misspelling a word to putting an apostrophe where it doesn’t belong. In Modern English Usage (1926-1964), Fowler defines grammar as “a general term for the … Read more


A reader asks, What is the meaning of “wayward”? When would it be used in a positive context? When would it be used in a negative context? Because wayward is a negative sort of word, I can’t think of a context in which it would be used positively. Modern speakers use wayward as an adjective, … Read more

Collision and Collusion

A philosophical question from a reader prompts this post: I find it very interesting how collision is so close to collusion, considering the strange financial shenanigans that occur in that business [insurance and collision repair].  What is the background of these two words?  Are they actually related in any way? Clearly, the reader has had … Read more

Calls To Action

A reader wonders about the plural for a marketing term: Recently the CEO of a company wrote an email to me saying that his software would automatically generate “call-to-actions.” I am pretty sure he should have written “calls-to-action.” Am I right? The reader is correct. When pluralizing a compound word that contains more than one … Read more