Cognates of Cognition

Cognition is the use of mental processes such as learning, remembering, thinking, and understanding. It stems from the Latin verb cognoscere, meaning “become acquainted with.” Not every word with the letter string “c-o-g” is related, but quite a few are. Details about cognition’s cognates follow. But first, a look at the construction of the words. … Read more

What, Exactly, Is Synergy?

Synergy may be defined as “increased effectiveness, achievement, etc., produced as a result of combined action or co-operation.” Until the late 1950s, the term was probably most commonly seen in a scientific context to describe the interaction of organs or nerves. Now it is common in corporate-speak and popular as a brand name for various … Read more

25 Idioms with Clean

The adjective clean has many senses: “free from dirt, contamination or disease, or pollution,” “fair” or “pure,” “clear” or “legible,” “smooth,” “empty,” “complete” or “thorough,” “skillful,” “free of a claim or impediment,” and “free from corruption or from lasciviousness or obscenity”; it also refers to freedom from drug addiction or lack of possession of contraband … Read more

5 Types of Problems with Parenthetical Punctuation

Introducing additional but nonessential information into a sentence complicates the reader’s task when punctuation is misused. Here are five sentences that illustrate various punctuation problems associated with creating parenthetical elements in a statement. (Note that parenthetical, here and in other posts on this site, does not refer literally to the use of the punctuation marks … Read more

Use of Names of Greek Letters in English

Because of the significance of Greek civilization in the development of engineering, mathematics, and science, names for Greek letters of the alphabet are widely employed in English to represent various constants, functions, and variables, though such use has extended to less technical contexts as well. Here’s a discussion of more casual usage. Alpha and beta, … Read more

No End and To No End

A reader corrected my usage in the following extract from a previous post: Suggesting that one form of speech is preferable to another, however, can annoy people no end. The reader corrected this passage by inserting a to in front of “no end” Suggesting that one form of speech is preferable to another, however, can … Read more

Grounded and Ten Other Idioms with Ground

When I was still young enough to be under parental supervision, if I did something ill-considered, I was not “grounded”; I “lost privileges.” The use of grounded to mean “confined to home outside school hours” had not yet penetrated to our neck of the woods. I was familiar with grounded in connection with electricity and … Read more

All About Zero

Zero is the basis of a small set of terms and idiomatic phrases, which are listed and defined below. Zero derives, through French and Italian, from the Latin term zephirum, which in turn stems, as do the other mathematical terms algebra and algorithm, from Arabic: Sifr means “cipher” (and is the origin of that word … Read more

Aught vs. Naught

Aught and naught both mean “nothing.” Ought they to be antonyms rather than synonyms? Actually, aught means “something” or “anything”; it’s from the Old English word awiht, meaning “ever a thing.” (The second syllable is cognate with whit, meaning “very small thing,” and wight, meaning “living being,” though the latter is also used sometimes in … Read more

50 Words with Alternative Spellings

What is one to do when one finds a choice of spellings in the dictionary? Most dictionaries specify the preferred variant when two or more spellings of a word are listed, but others aren’t so clear. According to Merriam-Webster’s website, the former spelling is more common than the latter for the following words and is … Read more

Yay, Hooray, Woo-hoo and Other Acclamations

Traditional exclamations of triumph or vindication come into and go out of fashion, but they tend to beget variations, and they usually begin with one of several similar sounds, as exemplified by yay, hooray, and woo-hoo. Here’s a discussion of those terms of acclamation and others, all of which are almost invariably followed by exclamation … Read more

3 Cases of Complicated Hyphenation

When and where to use a single hyphen is perplexing enough for many writers, but when two or more are required, or one of the terms to be connected with a hyphen consists of more than one word, confusion is rampant. Here are several sentences that illustrate various problems with hyphenation of complex elements. 1. … Read more