Falling Prey to Error

In researching articles for Daily Writing Tips, I stumble upon all kinds of interesting topics and curious examples of usage. One recent search led me to a site dedicated to clinical philosophy, where I found this sentence in an article about the importance of words in the exchange between therapist and patient: Furthermore, we all … 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

The Many Uses of “Set”

The OED has nine entries for the ubiquitous word set: an acronym, two nouns, two adjectives, two verbs, an obsolete conjunction, and the combining form that appears in such words as setback. Considering how many ways the word is used, it’s surprising that set isn’t misused more often. Until recently, I’d been aware of only … Read more

May or Might—Does It Matter Which?

The verb may is one of the oldest in English. Through the centuries, it has been used with a variety of meanings that need not trouble modern English speakers. Only two forms survive: may and might. The words are often used interchangeably, but a few distinctions still matter Mother, May I? I’m old enough to … Read more

What Does “Mien” Mean?

Until recently, I thought everyone agreed on the meaning of mien. Dictionaries do. Someone’s mien is their general appearance and manner, especially the expression on their face, which shows what they are feeling or thinking.—Collins Dictionary a person’s look or manner, esp. one of a particular kind indicating character or mood.—Oxford Dictionary of Difficult Words … Read more

“Bully,” a Word with a Split Personality

Bully is one of many English words that have undergone semantic degeneration or pejoration. Beginning as a pleasant word, bully is now associated with one of the lowest forms of human behavior. The origin of the English word is obscure, but it may come from Dutch boel, “lover (of either sex). Boel could also mean … Read more

Supremist, Supremacist, and Agent Nouns

Reader venqax poses a question about the use of the four-syllable agent noun supremacist in preference to three-syllable supremist. On the topic of “new” words, I’m curious about *supremacist*, as in the apparently omnipresent white supremacists. Why not “supremist”? There is often a quick response to unnecessary elongations like preventative and orientate (talking to Americans! … Read more

Amelioration: A Nice Semantic Shift

Semantics is the branch of linguistics concerned with meaning in language. Students of semantics trace the ways that words and phrases change meanings over time. Semantic change—also called semantic drift, semantic shift, semantic development and semantic progression— takes different forms. One type of change is amelioration: the development of a more favorable meaning for a … Read more

Is “Myself” a Polite Way To Say “Me”?

A reader commenting on “TV’s War on Me and I” asks, Is it your opinion that when a speaker refers to him/herself as “myself” (instead of “I”) that it is an attempt to avoid sounding conceited? Short answer: No. Speakers of Irish English often use myself where standard usage calls for I or me and … 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

Apposition and Anarthrous Premodifiers

A reader wonders if this sentence containing nouns in apposition has enough commas: As a club, we must extend our thoughts and deepest sympathies to John’s wife Hazel, and his children Matthew and Julia. Commas with appositives An appositive is a noun or noun element that follows another noun and serves to identify it further. … Read more

The Name Is not the Person

Words as labels The first principle of semantics is that the word is not the thing. Words are labels for things that exist in the physical world or in our thoughts. The word air is not identical with the substance that we breathe. The word kindness is not the quality we wish more people would … Read more