Does “Raze” Need “to the Ground”?

A reader asks about the sentence: “Vikings razed many monasteries to the ground.” Is not “to the ground” in this statement superfluous? Where else could it be razed to? The question puts me in mind of Lear’s response when his daughter proposed to reduce some of his amenities because he didn’t need them: Reason not … Read more

Apparently and Presumably

A reader has asked for a discussion of the difference between the words apparently and presumably. A meaning for presumably is easy to pin down. The OED gives one current definition: presumably: Qualifying a statement as likely but not known for certain: as one may presume or reasonably suppose; in all probability. Merriam-Webster’s definition is … Read more

Butt Redux

Seven years ago, I wrote a post called “The Ubiquitous Butt.” In it, I admitted my own distaste for the word, but acknowledged that butt had by then won a place in general usage: The word butt in the sense of buttocks was once considered unsuitable for general use. Comedians used it to get a … Read more

Should “Next Day” Be Preceded by “the”?

A reader poses a question about a usage that occurs in one of my posts from 2009. Calvin Coolidge was in Vermont when President Harding died in California. Coolidge’s father, a notary public, administered the oath at 2:47 a.m. Next day Coolidge returned to Washington where he repeated the oath before Justice A. A. Hoehling. … Read more

Endearing and Ravished

English has such a rich vocabulary, writers have little excuse to use a word that is almost right. As Twain famously put it, The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. Two adjectives that writers may want … Read more

Anaphora, Epistrophe, and Symploce

Three rhetorical terms that describe a type of repetition are anaphora, epistrophe, and symploce. Anaphora is the repetition of a word or sequence of words at the beginning of successive clauses, phrases, or sentences. Martin Luther King Jr. made frequent use of anaphora. In the “I Have a Dream” speech (August 1963), he began a … Read more

Awkward and Untoward

Both these adjectives are in frequent use on the web: awkward: about 163,000,000 hits in a Google search untoward: about 5,290,000. Language, as the media illustrates daily, can be used to illuminate or obscure ideas. The purpose of adjectives is to make writing more vivid. Used judiciously, they can clarify ideas being presented. The vastness … Read more

Code-switching Is Not Cultural Oppression

Until recently, I thought that most English teachers shared my view that mastering a standard form of English is the acquisition of a desirable skill that is as much a basic of a general education as learning the four math functions. I never viewed acquiring a second dialect as a betrayal of one’s home dialect … Read more

Words To Describe Disasters

The past few weeks have seen a surge of fevered rhetoric in the media. Here are a few examples: Senator Warns of a Republican Blood Bath Lawmakers gloomy, back on defense after debate fiasco Election Experts Warn of November Disaster [One Party] warns of chaos if [Other Party] wins Senators warn of ‘catastrophe’ if eviction … Read more

Meanings of “Of Course”

A reader asks about the placement of the phrase, “of course”: Please discuss which of the following is correct: “Of course, the photography was superb.” “The photography was, of course, superb.” “The photography was superb, of course.” Short answer: They are all correct. Although In some contexts, the placement of an adverb or adverbial phrase … Read more

Too Many Shades of Disheveled?

A word’s original meaning often expands over time. For example, take decimate, from Latin “to take a tenth.” The element dec is from decem, the Latin word for ten. One meaning was “to tithe,” but the sense that has given us the English word related to destruction is from a Roman military practice: To select … Read more

Bureaucrats and Politicians

A reader has asked for a discussion of the words, bureaucrats vs officials, and lawmakers vs politicians. [I’d] like to know what teachers and English-language experts think of the use of these terms in the media, politics, or in everyday conversation. For example, why using “bureaucrats” in a sentence will generate a different reaction than … Read more