• Mark Allen

502 (give or take) short tips on grammar, usage, style

I started an almost-daily offering of a grammar, usage or style tip in April, 2009, and last week I tweeted my 500th tip. Here is my archive to date, which also can be found at my business website,

If you want a big gun, ask for a “cannon.” One “n” is for a law or principle, literary works, or a piece of music. The camera is Canon.

Mackinac Island is in the Straits of Mackinac, which link Lakes Huron and Michigan under the Mackinac Bridge. All are pronounced “Mackinaw.”

The coat, blanket and city are all Mackinaw. The word starts with the Ojibwe and comes through French Canadian, hence the pronunciation.

“This” may mean “next” and “next” the one after, but if it’s not absolutely clear which day, month or season, avoid “next” and be explicit.

“Elicit,” a verb, means draw out. “Illicit,” an adjective, is unlawful or wrong. Think of the negative il- prefix. (Yes, licit is a word.)

Mothers “weaning” their babies can remember the spelling shares the “ea” of “breast.” The archaic “ween” is to think or suppose.

Qatar’s name, rhymes with “totter,” is traditional Arabic. The population is less than 900,000. Capital is Doha. People are Qataris.

While “pervert” is a great verb meaning, essentially, “turn away from the right path,” its connotation demands careful use.

“Perverse” can be unusual or downright evil. “Perverted” is that which has been made perverse or that which is sexually depraved.

To “whet” is to sharpen. It also means to sharpen desire, as with an appetite. But “wet” your whistle. The words are unrelated.

“Hone” means “to sharpen,” as in a blade or a skill, and is incorrectly transferred to “hone in on.” But remember the pigeon and “home in.”

The “heel” of a foot or shoe has a double “e,” like “feet” and a shoe width. And it’s what a dog does. “Heal” is to get well.

“Cite” has at least three meanings (quote, commend, issue a summons to), so consider whether there’s a more explicit word.

A “sight” is something seen and a “site” is where something sits (“sit” is probably unrelated, but it’s a good memory trick).

“Continuous” and “continual” mean uninterrupted. “Continual” alone means recurring, and there lies a useful distinction.

Palate, part of the mouth or sense of taste, ends in “ate.” Palette, the board for mixing colors, starts “pale.” Carry it all on a pallet.

Feel free to “pooh-pooh” an idea, but please don’t “poo-poo” it.

“Theatre” is the spelling with the longest history, and it prevails in England. “Theater” is the more common U.S. spelling.

A modern myth holds that “theater” is a building, “theatre” is the art form. Not so. The place is the older sense, and that was “re.”

“Whatsoever” is a fine substitute for “whatever” when emphasizing the negative. It’s from “whatso,” which also meant “whatever.”

“Faze” is an Americanism, but its roots go back a thousand years. “Phase” is unrelated. Think “period” for the one that starts with “p.”

“Struck” is usually the past of “strike,” but use “stricken” for a sudden blow or misfortune or deletions from your permanent record.

Someone with a mustache is either “mustached” or “mustachioed.” Some dictionaries reserve the Italian-sounding word for luxuriant staches.

“Imposter” is an “impostor.” The variant spelling gets nearly 5 million Google hits, but stick to a double “o.

If I ask you to “reference” this tweet, I mean cite it, not read it. The verb often ends up a mistaken substitute for “refer to.”

A “tussle,” or struggle, can lead to “tousled,” or messy hair, but the related words mean different things. “Tussal” is related to a cough.

Most essays I’ve edited are improved simply by taking the first sentence of the last paragraph and moving it to the top. Try it.

“Any” modifies “way” when we write “in any way” or “any way the wind blows.” “Anyway” is an adverb meaning regardless or however.

“Sloe gin” is not a type of gin, but a liqueur made with the berries of a European shrub, the blackthorn, steeped in gin. Drink it slowly.

A “playwright” is the person who has “wrought” or “worked” a play, as with millwright or shipwright. “Write” is unrelated.

Perhaps “a whole nother” has no correct written equivalent, and it should be considered a mispronunciation: “A whole other.”

Dictionaries call “ahold” a casual or dialectic Americanism. It means “hold.” It’s better to avoid it in formal writing.

“Impacted” is one of several medical conditions involving bones, bowels or teeth. “Affected” is a much nicer word

“Gray” is the U.S. spelling; “grey” is British. Either is acceptable, but it’s better to use “a” for American, “e” for English.

A canard: “No one-sentence paragraphs.” It’s not a hierarchy; they perform different functions. One sentence often is plenty.

“Renumeration” is a common misspelling. The word, like “money,” has the “m” before the “n.” So, “remuneration.” Or you could just say “pay.”

There is nothing wrong with calling yourself “me.” Use “myself” only when the subject already is “I” or “me.” #irepeatmyself

To “make do” with less is to make what little you have do something. “Make due” is a common mistake.

Old-French speakers combined “pro” and “offer” to form “proffer.” Maybe they had a reason, but “offer” does the job.

“Bemused” means absorbed in thought, especially enough to make you confused. It doesn’t mean amused, despite similar origins.

Hyphens in ages are used for nouns: “a race for 3-year-olds” or adjectives: “22-year-old Scotch.” No hyphen needed in “13 years old.

Most dictionaries and AP keep the space in “under way.” It’s something sticklers will insist on, even as we close other words.

Epcot originally was written EPCOT, for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Walt’s plans included a model town.

Winnie the Pooh is Disney’s name for the bear A.A. Milne called “Winnie-the-Pooh” (and Christopher Robin called “Winnie-ther-Pooh”).

Disney World (two words) in Florida contains four theme parks. The original is the Magic Kingdom. Disneyland (one word) is the original park in California.

“Graffiti” is an Italian plural: “The graffiti were everywhere.” But don’t fret. It’s accepted as a mass noun: “The graffiti was … .”

The contraction is for “you all” (not “ya all”), so it’s “y’all,” not “ya’ll.”

“Weak” is spelled with an “a,” as are associated words anemic, ailing, atrophied. “Week” has a double “e,” as does “seven.”

Two words for “skin care” is the overwhelming choice. “Healthcare” likely will become one word long before “skincare.”

“Nonprofit” and “not-for-profit” are interchangeable. I prefer the shorter version (certainly as a noun) without a hyphen.

Computer-speak has made “iteration” more common, often simply for “version.” In math and computers, each iteration gets closer to a goal.

An “iteration” is a repetition, so there’s no “first iteration.” “Reiteration” is a second repetition, but few worry about that distinction.

We tend to use “10 iterations” as we would “10 repetitions” in exercise. It’s better to use “version” or a similar word to be clear.

In Britain, you are more likely to “enquire.” In the U.S., “inquire” is more common.

As much as I try to hulk-smash the verb “impact” when I see it, it’s the adjective “impactful” that makes me gnash my teeth.

“Impact” for “affect” has been having an effect since 1935. @wordnik says it took off in the 1980s. We can but nobly resist.

“Precedents” are set; priorities take “precedence.” Presidents often set precedents.

“Access” as a verb is widely accepted despite its short life. Some still consider it jargon, but the alternatives can be clumsy.

The OED traces the verb form of “access” to 1962; the first non-computer reference comes in 1978 (noted in “Verbatim” magazine).

The Gaelic term “life water” is now spelled “whiskey” in Ireland and the U.S. and “whisky” in Scotland, England and Canada.

“Rye” in the U.S. refers to the grain used, but in Canada it might mean “whisky.”

If it’s from Scotland, it’s “scotch” or “Scotch whisky.” It’s Tennessee “whiskey.” Bourbon is a Kentucky whiskey.

Reach a “consensus.” It’s unrelated to “census,” so consent to keep its trailing letters in agreement: s s s.

“Sensual” had sexual implications by the 1600s, prompting Milton to coin “sensuous” for simply pertaining to the senses.

After Milton invented it, “sensuous” went untouched until Coleridge picked up on it in the 1800s.

“Worse comes to worst” seems more logical than the original idiom, “worst comes to worst.” Either is generally accepted.

“Worse comes to worse” gets more Google hits than other varieties of the idiom. But it’s better to throw at least one “t” in there.

The root of “dual” and “duel” is “duo” (two). The “a” spelling is for the adjective. “Duel,” the fighting word, is a noun or verb.

“Frier” is a variant of “fryer,” which is fish or chicken suitable for frying, someone who fries, or a cooking utensil.

“Flier” is preferred for a handbill or aviator. “Flyer” is common, but most sources say it’s a variant. Both date to 17th century at least.

“Burned” and “burnt” both were born in the 1500s and both remain acceptable. In the U.S., -ed prevails, but -t is used for colors.

The OED calls “burned” “slightly archaic, and somewhat more formal in effect.” U.S. dictionaries tend to call the -t spelling a variant.

I think of “burned” as something that happened and “burnt” as a state of being, but I can’t find anything that corroborates that. Offerings, though, are “burnt.”

“Earth” is capitalized when not immediately preceded by “the” and when referring to the whole planet. It’s generally lowercase otherwise.

If it’s relevant, “Jew” is no less an appropriate noun than “Christian” or “Sikh.” But “Jewish” is the adjective form.

Oxford American says “geographic” is a derivative of “geographical.” M-W calls the longer a variant. The shorter form is much more common.

OED has “geographical” earlier than “geographic,” and the Century Dictionary lists its definition under “geographical.”

“Commentator” is established, so we probably shouldn’t be so hard on the backformation “commentate.”

“Orient” yourself in U.S. English. “Orientate” is more common in Britain, but it brings undeserved scorn in the U.S.

For the process by which something is absorbed, the old past-tense spelling “absorpt” lives on in “absorption.”

“Adsorption” is too close to its cousin to be really useful. It’s the process by which a liquid or gas clings to a solid surface.

“Appreciable” means great enough to be perceived. It doesn’t necessarily mean you like it.

“Systemic” means pertaining to the whole system; “systematic” is a method based on a plan or system.

E-mail is accepted as either countable or uncountable. I can read my e-mail or my 50 e-mails.

The plural of “zero” is preferably “zeros” in American dictionaries, differing with the OED. Most dictionaries accept either plural.

For some reason, one “zeroes in,” dictionaries say. “Zero in” is a WWII invention; its earliest use seems to be related to guns, not planes.

The Japanese Zero was a translation, so called because of the imperial year (2600 or 1940) in which it was introduced.

Ol’ or ol for “old” has been around for centuries; “ole” seems to be a 19th century U.S. spelling. Neither is standard.

It’s still OK to be lightheartedly gay, but context is important. The centuries-old “gay” has meant homosexual since at least the 1930s.

“Gay” for sexual orientation has become the predominant meaning. It can refer to men and women, but “gay and lesbian” is more common.

The OED has a 1914 reference to “queer,” used extensively in an @latimes story quoting a man describing the gay community in Los Angeles.

“Spite” is from “despite,” related to “despise.” Now interchangeable, “despite” and “in spite of” have largely lost their malicious meaning.

“Bass” in music sounds like and comes from “base.” The odd spelling was influenced by the Italian “basso.” The fish is unrelated.

We separate each item in a series of long phrases the same way we separate a series of short items: with commas. #usesemicolonswisely

“Basis” is a thing’s foundation or schedule. “Bases” is the plural of “basis” and “base.” Avoid “bases” for a singular concept.

A group can be diverse; don’t call an individual “diverse.”

“Faculty” can take a singular or plural verb, but that doesn’t mean you can use “faculty” to mean one person.

In the U.S., we drop the “e” when combining “judge” and “-ment.” Some blame Webster, but “judgment” seems to have the better history.

If you’ve been creeping, you have “crept.” “Creeped” is only for when you are “creeped out.” “Crept out” means sneaked away.

“Alright” is nonstandard, but common in casual use. “All right” is the safe construction.

“Altogether” is completely. “All together” is all in one place or time. It’d be altogether cool if you all together said hi.

The plural noun “throes” has hazy roots in suffering and pain; it’s often used with “passion.” “Throws” go on your sofa or shoulders.

“Eminent” is famous; “imminent” is impending. The root is “to project,” the former in a good way, the latter as in hanging over your head.

“Dispel” ideas, thoughts, fears, crowds — things that can be scattered. If it can’t scatter (accusations, attention), better to divert it.

“Wreak” means cause, so the expression is “wreak (or wreaked) havoc.” “Wrecked havoc” doesn’t make sense.

A “strait” is a narrow waterway. Try to navigate it and you might find yourself in “dire straits.” “Straight is unrelated.”

“Strait” has roots in the Latin word for “drawn tight,” which also begat “constrict.” So, strait-laced, straitjacket.

Dictionaries are split, by the way, on whether “strait-laced” needs that hyphen or is one word, so you’re safe either way.

“Seldomly” is no more a word than “oftenly.” “Seldom” is the adverb, so resist the urge to add -ly.

Taut is stretched or pulled tight; taught is what students are. Keep the spelling tight for former; it’s trickier to learn the latter.

Two people point out they’ve seen “taunt” used in place of “taut.” Please note that I’m opposed to taunting those who can’t be taught.

Marseille, the old French city, is commonly spelled ending with an “s,” but not in France. The French national anthem is “La Marseillaise.”

“Privation” and “deprivation” mean states in which necessities are lacking. “Deprivation” is more common and more broadly applied.

“Incase” is a considered a variant spelling of “encase,” though both spellings are hundreds of years old. “Just incase” is just wrong.

“Supposably” is a common mispronunciation of “supposedly,” but it’s also a different word meaning “arguably” (think “suppose”).

“Prospectus” is from French, based on the Latin verb for looking ahead. Plural is “prospectuses.” “Prospecti” does not exist in Latin.

“Digitization” is more common and more logical than “digitalization.” Digitize to convert to digits (as in binary). Digital is an adjective.

“Prostrate” is the verb or adjective meaning lying face down on the ground. “Prostate” is the gland. Try not to mix them up.

“Eminent” describes an important person; “preeminent” means “most eminent.” If you have more than one, they can’t all be “preeminent.”

Despite once being synonyms, “enormity” and “enormousness” are different. Keep “enormity” for something evil or outrageous.

“Myself” refers back to the subject: “I’m typing this tweet myself.” It’s not a substitute for “I” or “me.” #yesirepeatmyself

“Off of” is idiomatic at best. In other “of” constructions, it’s not as big (of) a deal, but dropping can be an improvement.

You “loathe” (verb) a “loathsome” (adj.) thing if you intensely dislike it; if you are “loath” (adj.) you’re reluctant (“loath to leave”).

I would line up for a lineup without a hyphen in the noun. It started with a hyphen, but it was used without by 1926 in reference to a police lineup.

“Agenda” is plural; the singular is “agendum,” but “agenda item” is much more common. For more than one agenda, it’s “agendas.”

“Whether or not” is not incorrect because “or not” serves as a negative option to the positive statement that follows.

But because “whether” implies a choice, “or not” may seem superfluous and often can be dropped. “I don’t know whether you are correct.”

“Or not” is necessary if you are saying something is so regardless of the choices. “I’m right whether or not you agree.”

Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points to a 300-year tradition of including “or not” with “whether.”

.@BryanAGarner calls the idea that “whether or not” is not redundant a “superstition.”

Style guides say consult a favorite dictionary on whether to capitalize animal breeds. Generally, only place names are upper case.

The Guardian-Observer style guide counsels against using Wales as a unit of measurement (“50 times the size of Wales”). It’s silent on Rhode Island.

Britain is made up of England, Scotland and Wales, each having its own laws and national football team.

“Dumpster” is a trademark for a big trash container. But the brand has changed hands and it’s quickly becoming generic.

Appetites are “hearty;” so is a jovial or energetic person. “Hardy” is robust or resolute. Similar words, but remember “heart” and “hard.”

“Nil” is a 19th-century contraction of the Latin “nihil,” or “nothing.” It’s common in sports scores or for likelihood.

“Stationery” comes from a stationer, once a bookseller who sold from a shop (or station). “Stationary” is at rest, unchanging.

Plenty of restaurant names use “grille,” but that’s the term for a ventilated grating, such as on a car. We cook on a “grill.”

In the case of compensation for a loss, the word is “insure.” For making sure of something, I prefer “ensure,” but either word is OK.

There is nothing wrong with “subtler,” despite what Microsoft Word says. Or “suppler.”

“Amongst” is not wrong, but it means the same thing as “among.” And although it sounds old-fashioned, “among” is the older form.

“World War I” is more common in U.S. and “First World War” is more common in U.K. “World War One” is an uncommon formation.

The AP Stylebook likes World War I. The style guides for Reuters and the Guardian are silent on the topic. Winston liked “First World War.”

“Pled” is still considered nonstandard despite wide use in the U.S. “Pleaded” remains the better choice for past tense of “plead.”

“Breach” is related to “break” and keeps the “ea” spelling. If you use “breech,” you’re probably talking about childbirth.

“Breeches” are short trousers and, by extension, buttocks. Hence, breech birth.

“Expedient” means practical and convenient, not always with regard to fairness. If you mean quick, you want the related word “expeditious.”

It’s Ph.D. in the AP Stylebook, but PhD in the Chicago Manual of Style and all my dictionaries. AP also keeps the periods in M.A., B.A.

“Soldiers” are members of the Army, and Marines object if that word is used to describe them generically.

I am with all ye lovers of dashes, but I try not to overindulge. If a colon or comma works, I hold onto my dashes for later.

“Confectionery” is a collection of sweets or a shop. “Confectionary” usually is an adjective. If you confuse them, you’re not the first.

“That” often is superfluous. But don’t omit it without carefully reading what’s left. Keep it for clarity; omit if excessive.

“Prospective” means potential, as with a prospect. “Perspective” is a view or point of view. The root (“to look at”) is shared.

“Any one” emphasizes the singular. If the pronoun is indefinite, anyone can write it as one word.

So, if you might be speaking of a bunch of people, use “anyone.” If there is but one possibility, use “any one.”

For numbers, “more than” and “over” have long been interchangeable. Many publications reserve “over” for spatial relationships.

“Blond” is the preferred adjective regardless of gender. “Blonde” is the feminine noun, but be careful with labels.

“Collectible” has a Latin root but it’s complete without the suffix. So much for those tricks. It’s enough to make one downright irritable.

Two related tricks help with -able vs. -ible. If you can form a word by losing the suffix, it’s usually -able. If the word is Latin, -ible.

“Collectable” is the variant spelling in the U.S., but preferred in the U.K.

It’s “a historic.” In Britain, it’s often “an” for some silly reason. If the letter is sounded, go with “a.”

For something to be “historic,” it must be important to history. If it just happened in the past, it’s “historical.”

History is not just what has happened, but the retelling of what has happened (which isn’t always quite what happened).

“Antennas” is the common, preferred plural for those things we used to have on our TVs. “Antennae” is preferred for insect feelers.

When you “infer,” you’re using evidence to draw a conclusion. If you’re hinting or indirectly indicating, the word is “imply.”

North America’s marsupial is the “opossum,” even though “possum” is more common and no one “plays opossum.” OED dates both to early 1600s.

“Troupe” is the French word for “troop,” but we use it for a group of performers. A “trouper” works hard without complaint.

“Bated” is what your breath is when you are waiting expectantly. “Bate” is an old shortening of “abate.” “Bait” is unrelated.

Use “that” with restrictive clauses, which contain essential information. If your clause is just extra info, start with “which.”

A “council” is a deliberative body. “Counsel” is advice or a lawyer on a case. Facing a suit, the council sought counsel from its counsel.

It’s common, but “presently” meaning “now” is frowned upon. It can mean “soon,” but the proper meaning is “immediately.”

If you change something 360 degrees, you end up where you started. Making a 180-degree change is a reversal.

Businesses may have a “comptroller” or a “controller.” Same job; same pronunciation. The former is a 500-year-old misspelling.

“Climatic” means related to the climate or weather. “Climactic” refers to the climax of a story or event.

“Die” is the singular, “dice” the plural. “Dice” as a singular is both old and common, but in writing especially, “die” predominates.

You “pore” over your books if you are studying hard and “pour” over them if you miss your coffee mug.

“Taut” means stretched, tense, or efficient. To “tout” is to sell something or try to persuade. Words are unrelated.

To “flout” is to mock or otherwise show disdain; to “flaunt” is to show off. “Flautist” is a fancy-schmancy way of saying “flutist.”

The plural of “symposium” is “symposiums.” Academics like to say “symposia,” but the word is Greek, not Latin. It means “drink together.”

You might find a rare reference to “mongeese,” but the correct plural is “mongooses.” The word “goose” is unrelated.

“Appraise” means to assess, as in value or quality. “Apprise” is to inform. “Apprize” means “appraise,” but it’s rare and best avoided.

A “regime” is a government or, as with its cousin “regimen,” a system for doing things. “Regimen” is likely to have a medical connotation.

“Segue,” a verb or noun, is a transition. It’s a musical term broadly applied. “Segway” is a brand of “personal transporter.”