Style Quiz #9: Geographical and Geopolitical Names

All but one of the following sentences demonstrate incorrect style for capitalization of place names according to The Chicago Manual of Style and other writing guides; revise as necessary: 1. The Atlantic ocean separates the Western and Eastern Hemispheres. 2. Political tensions have abated around the Gulf. 3. Nashville is a Mecca for aficionados of … Read more

Punctuation Quiz #4: Phrasal Adjectives

All but one of the following sentences are incorrect; insert or omit a hyphen in the others as necessary: 1. He’s a sharp dressed young man. 2. As usual, the event was well-attended. 3. I sympathize with his long-suffering wife. 4. She was touched by the open-hearted gesture. 5. The injury turned out to have … Read more

Order, Age, and Pareidolia

In his Essay on Criticism (1711), Alexander Pope (1688-1744) wrote: A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts [swallows] intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely [drinking great quantities] sobers us again. In Greek myth, drinking from the Pierian spring instilled knowledge. In modern terms, Pope … Read more

Careful Writers Make Good Bedfellows (or at Least Good Housemates)

I was interested to read about a recent University of Michigan study that concluded that people who are highly judgmental about writing errors tend to be more introverted and have less pleasant personalities than those who are more forgiving about people’s flawed writing skills. The tools of the study were a questionnaire that, when answered … 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

The Multiple Meanings of “Hail”

When listing hail as one of the words used to describe precipitation recently, I thought about the other definitions of the word. Hail is also used as an interjection to acclaim (“Hail to the chief!”) or salute (“Hail, fellow well met!”) someone, though it’s an archaic usage rarely applied anymore. This meaning stems from the … Read more

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We didn’t want to compete for attention with Walmart and company, so instead of running a Black Friday promotion we decided to run a Black February one! During the month of February we’ll be offering the Pro subscription with huge discounts. Check it out: Monthly plan: $4.99 per month (50% discount over regular price) Yearly … Read more

Parsing Dickens

A reader, reacting to a recent post about parsing, responded with this literary reflection: Two sentences from Dickens Bleak House, chapter one, confuse me as to how to parse them.  [The rain in London has been heavy and the streets a running with mud.] “Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very … Read more

Beware Web Quizzes

Most of us have probably been sucked in by one of the thousands of quizzes that proliferate on the Web as a form of entertainment. My weakness is anything language-related. One that lured me recently has the title “Can You Pass an 8th Grade Test from 1912?” I should have been suspicious as soon as … Read more

When “So” Becomes Annoying

The tiny English word so has numerous uses. Merriam-Webster gives it separate entries as adverb, conjunction, adjective, and pronoun. Most of the time, little so goes about its business unnoticed, but one of its functions has been provoking heated discussion on the Web: the use of so as “a discourse marker.” The term “discourse marker” … Read more


The verb electrocute was coined in the late nineteenth century on the model of execute in the sense of “to inflict capital punishment upon.” Unlike execute, which has a legitimate Latin etymology, electrocute is a portmanteau word. H. W. Fowler (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage) held it in disdain: This word does not claim … Read more

The Changing US Political Symbolism of Blue and Red

In British politics, blue is associated with Britain’s conservative party, the Tories, whereas red is associated with the Labour Party. The same association of blue with political conservatism was once common in US politics, but now red is associated with the conservative party. This change became fixed following the presidential election of 2000. The reversal … Read more