Words with the -ster Suffix

The suffix -ster originated in Old English as -ister, serving to turn a verb into an agent noun, one describing a person who (or thing that) performs an action. Beginning its linguistic life as the feminine equivalent of -er, it survives in the specifically feminine noun spinster—originally, “a woman who spins,” but now a label … Read more

Notes About “Note” and Its Relations

Note (from the Latin noun nota, meaning “note,” and its verb form notare, meaning “to mark or note”) is one of those wallflower words that serves many functions and is the basis of numerous compounds. Here’s a rundown of its uses. The noun note has multiple senses: It refers to a condensed or informal record, … Read more

Enigmas, Puzzles, and Riddles

On the day of the Iowa Caucus, pollster Ann Selzer made the following comment about Donald Trump: He’s just this riddle inside a puzzle. I immediately thought of Winston Churchill’s oft-repeated comment about Russia at the beginning of World War II: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. I couldn’t help wondering if … Read more

Synonyms for “Sofa”

The item of furniture that is usually the centerpiece of a living room or family room or a lobby or waiting room goes by any one of many names, but they have useful distinctions in meaning. Here’s a rundown of sofa and its associated terms. Sofa, ultimately from Arabic, originally denoted a raised carpeted floor, … Read more

Answers to Questions About Tense #3

Three questions from readers about mixing tenses, and my responses to their questions, follow. 1. When I read the following quote recently, I wondered whether it’s wrong for all the verbs to be in the past tense: “Smith said he believed that the company was trying to intimidate employees into not participating in the panel’s … Read more

Voiced vs. Unvoiced Pronunciation

Two terms I often use when writing about pronunciation are voiced and unvoiced. Apparently they are not as familiar in this context as I assumed they were. A reader has asked me to explain my use of them. In one sense, to voice something is the same as to say or speak it: Homeowners voice … Read more