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  • 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.