Using Words Correctly, Effectively, and Imaginatively
Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words
Here in our Glossary of Usage you will find more than 300 sets of commonly confused words--with links to definitions, examples, and practice exercises that should help you to keep these words straight.
Answers to Practice Exercises (Glossary of Usage)
Here are the answers to the short practice exercises that accompany each set of words in our Glossary of Usage.
What Is Language?
The following observations on language, drawn from the works of various writers and scholars, take us beyond simple definitions. Approaching the subject from different metaphorical perspectives, these quotations should serve as points of departure for your own exploration of the mystery of language.
Writers on Words
Speaking for all writers, the Irish dramatist Samuel Beckett once said, "Words are all we have." It's no surprise, then, that over the centuries writers have often reflected on the nature and value of words--their hazards and pleasures, limitations and possibilities. Here are 20 of those reflections.
Writers on Writing: Ten Tips for Finding the Right Words
Here are some points worth considering the next time you find yourself in search of the right word.
Six Common Myths About Language
In "Language Myths," edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill (Penguin, 1998), a team of leading linguists set out to challenge some of the conventional wisdom about language and the way it works. Of the 21 myths or misconceptions they examined, here are six of the most common.
Key Events in the History of the English Language
This timeline offers a glimpse at some of the key events that helped to shape the English language over the past 1,500 years.
A Quick Quiz on the History of the English Language
This quiz will test your understanding of some of the key events noted in our Timeline of the English Language.
History of the English Language: A Mini-Anthology
These ten brief passages illustrate the development of the English language over the past millennium: from the end of the Old English period, through Middle English, to Modern English.
Loanwords in English: The Bastard Tongue
English has unashamedly borrowed words from more than 300 other languages, and there's no sign that it plans to close its lexical borders any time soon.
Introduction to Etymology: Word Histories
The etymology of a word refers to its origin and historical development: that is, its earliest known use, its transmission from one language to another, and its changes in form and meaning.
Neil Postman's Exercise in Etymology
In this article, Neil Postman describes an engaging way of introducing students to the subject of etymology and the multicultural history of the English language.
Semantic Change and the Etymological Fallacy
Because most words undergo some degree of semantic change, the one reliable guide to a word's meaning is present-day usage rather than history.
Where Do New Words Come From?
The process of fashioning new words out of old ones is called derivation--and here are six of the most common varieties.
Something Borrowed: A Matching Quiz on Loanwords
Over the past 1,500 years, English has borrowed words from more than 300 other languages. To test your knowledge of where our words came from, take this matching quiz on loanwords.
Name That "-nym": A Brief Introduction to Words and Names
We've all played with words that have similar or opposite meanings, so no points for recognizing "synonym" and "antonym." And in the online world, almost everyone relies on a "pseudonym." But how about some of the lesser known "-nyms" (a suffix derived from the Greek word for "name" or "word")? Here are 22 language-related terms that end in "-nym."
Name That "-nym": A Matching Quiz
Here's a chance to test your familiarity with 10 language-related terms ending in "-nym" (a suffix derived from the Greek word for "name" or "word").
Blends: Practice in Identifying Word Parts
A blend (or portmanteau word) is a new word formed by packing together the sounds and meanings of two other words. In this exercise, you'll practice unpacking these words to see how they're put together.
Notes on English as a Global Language
In this edition of Language Notes, we turn our attention to Global English, World English, and the rise of the English language as a lingua franca.
Five Words That May Not Mean What You Think They Mean
It's not unusual for the meanings of words to change over time. What's especially intriguing--and often perplexing--is to observe such changes in our own time. Here we consider five examples of words that may not mean what you think they mean: literally, fulsome, ravel, peruse, and plethora.
Beautiful Words: Competitions and Composition
What do you think is the most beautiful-sounding word in English? Consider these unpredictable choices by well-known writers, and then encourage your students to write about their favorite words.
Notes on Nouns
Welcome to our latest roundup of facts, figures, and wild hunches concerning the English language. In this article we turn our attention to nouns.
Notes on Second-Person Pronouns
It's hard for a new pronoun to break into the language. But now and then a fresh one does emerge, while some older items--like the second-person pronouns "thou," "thee," and "thine"--just fade away.
Notes on Prepositions
One of the traditional parts of speech and a member of a closed word class, a preposition is a word or phrase that shows the relationship between other words and phrases in a sentence. Here are brief answers to some frequently asked questions about prepositions.
Identifying Prepositions in Common English Idioms
This exercise will give you practice in using appropriate prepositions with 20 common English idioms.
Notes on Contractions
As writing becomes increasingly colloquial, contractions are showing up more often in print. To show there's some degree of logic to current ways of contracting words, we've put together these notes.
Notes on THE Definite Article
In this edition of Language Notes, we look at (and listen to) the most commonly used word in English--formally known as the definite article.
Notes on Verbs
In this edition of Language Notes, we turn our attention to the most active part of speech: verbs.
Notes on "Ain't"
Though frequently heard in casual speech, "ain't" has been described as "the most stigmatized word in English." What is it about this simple negative contraction that so agitates language mavens?
"Oh, Wow!": Notes on Interjections
Find out why interjections (from "ah" to "zounds") are regarded as the outlaws of English grammar.
The Earliest English Dictionaries
Contrary to popular belief, Samuel Johnson's two-volume "Dictionary of the English Language" (1755) was not the first word book in English. During the preceding century and a half, well over a dozen dictionaries of one sort or another had appeared in English. We'll look at four of the most significant ones.
Samuel Johnson's Dictionary
Here are nine things that every logophile should know about Samuel Johnson's monumental "Dictionary of the English Language'--and a few interesting facts about Dr. Johnson himself.
An Introduction to Noah Webster
By way of introduction, here are ten facts worth knowing about the great American lexicographer Noah Webster.
In this exercise, you will explore the origins of 10 words that have experienced some interesting changes in meaning over the centuries.
From A to Z: Quick Facts About the Alphabet
"Writers spend years rearranging 26 letters of the alphabet," novelist Richard Price once observed. "It's enough to make you lose your mind day by day." It's also a good enough reason to gather a few facts about one of the most significant inventions in human history.
Noah Webster's Plan to Reform English Spelling
The only remotely influential exponent of spelling reform in English was the American lexicographer Noah Webster. Four decades before publishing the first edition of his "American Dictionary of the English Language" (1828), Webster spelled out a plan to renovate American English.
What Is a Ghost Word?
"Phantomnation" is a perfect example of a ghost word--a word that exists only in a dictionary and has never actually been used.
Reading the Dictionary
Ammon Shea's exercise in reading the dictionary illustrates the richness of English and the complexities involved in crafting precise definitions.
Which "Webster's Dictionary" Is the Real Thing?
For over a century, "Webster's dictionary" has been legally meaningless as a brand name. In fact, anybody is free to put out a dictionary with "Webster" in the title--and many publishers have done just that.
Ambrose Bierce on Lexicographers
What is the primary role of a dictionary: to describe or to prescribe language use? Consider how the American satirist Ambrose Bierce answered this question in his own lexicon, "The Devil's Dictionary."
Free Online Dictionaries You've Probably Never Heard Of
You'll find countless specialized dictionaries on the Web. Some of these are clearly labors of love, the work of amateur lexicographers. Others are wikis, developed by communities of volunteers. Here are seven of the best.
The 100 Most Frequently Used Words in English
Listed here, according to the 100-million-word British National Corpus, are the 100 most frequently used words in English.
The 100 Most Important Words in English
British rhetorician I.A. Richards introduced this list of "the most important words" in his book "How to Read a Page: A Guide to Effective Reading."
200 Words and Phrases That Ticked You Off in 2009
When invited to submit expressions that ticked them off, readers responded enthusiastically--with usage errors, redundancies, misspellings, mispronunciations, and specimens of slang, jargon, and textspeak. Here are 200 pet peeves submitted by some very ticked-off defenders of the English language.
200 Words and Phrases That Ticked You Off in 2010
People have various reasons for disliking (or downright loathing) certain words. It may be a buzzword that has worn out its welcome or an overly familiar redundancy, mispronunciation, or perceived usage error. Some of us have "zero tolerance" for elision, malapropisms, minced oaths, or verbing. Since posting our original article on word...
100 Words and Phrases That Ticked You Off in 2011
Since posting the original 200 Words and Phrases That Tick You Off, we've continued to collect readers' verbal peeves. Here are the results for 2011.
Totally Overworked Words
Really, intensifiers and qualifiers aren't bad words, not at all. Because they're so brutally overworked, you might actually say they deserve our...
William Cullen Bryant's List of Forbidden Words
In 1877, during his long tenure as part owner and editor in chief of the "New York Evening Post," William Cullen Bryant compiled this inventory of forbidden words--an "Index Expurgatorius."
The Triumph of Slang
In the 19th century, language mavens were greatly concerned about maintaining 'purity of diction"--the honor and good standing of English words. But a look at some of the "barbarisms" identified in 19th-century schoolbooks shows that most have since found a respectable place in American English.
What Are "Snarl Words" and "Purr Words"?
The terms snarl words and purr words were coined by S. I. Hayakawa to describe highly connotative language that often serves as a substitute for serious thought and well-reasoned argument.
A Dictionary of Phony Phrases
About sixty years ago, columnist Sydney J. Harris began compiling a list of expressions that mean the opposite of what they say. Here we pick up his project with 20 examples of common verbal hypocrisies.
Language at "-ese": Academese, Legalese, and Other Species of Gobbledygook
One job of the suffix "-ese" is to label a group's characteristic jargon. Because such specialized language can be perplexing to outsiders, it's commonly regarded as gobbledygook. Here are a few examples.
Under the Flapdoodle Tree: Doublespeak, Soft Language, and Gobbledygook
"Flapdoodle" is just one of the many English words that refer to speech or writing that doesn't make a lot of sense. Three terms coined in the 20th century deserve special attention: "doublespeak," "soft language," and "gobbledygook."
The Standard of Usage in English, by Thomas R. Lounsbury (1908)
These excerpts from the opening and closing pages of Thomas R. Lounsbury "The Standard of Usage in English" (1908) demonstrate that concern about the decline of language has had a long history in English. But as Lounsbury points out, such efforts to "save" and "fix" the language have never succeeded--and doubtless never will.
What Are Clichés and Why Are We Supposed to Avoid Them?
Most teachers and usage guides encourage us to eliminate clichés from our writing, characterizing them as "tired," "hackneyed," and "stale." But like so many of the "rules" of writing, the common handbook admonition to avoid clichés is a simplification of a complex idea.
George Carlin's Essential Drivel
Comedian George Carlin clearly knew a thing or two about claptrap--and twaddle, poppycock, balderdash, gobbledygook, and drivel. In fact, "drivel" was the word he used to describe his own writings--"Good, funny, occasionally smart, but essentially drivel."
The William F. Buckley Vocabulary Quiz
Equipped with the vocabulary of a mischievous lexicographer, author William F. Buckley, Jr. delighted (and often perplexed) his readers with an arsenal of what he called "out of town words." Here--for the benefit of word lovers, Buckley admirers, and students preparing for the SAT--is the William F. Buckley, Jr. Vocabulary Quiz, based on some of...
Vocabulary Builder #1: Antonyms
Here's a vocabulary quiz that will test your knowledge of both synonyms and antonyms.
Vocabulary Builder #2: Mark Twain's Words
The words used in this 15-item vocabulary quiz have been drawn from several essays by Mark Twain.
Vocabulary Builder #3: H.L. Mencken's Words
The words used in this 10-item vocabulary quiz have been drawn from several essays by H.L. Mencken.
Vocabulary Builder #4: Ben Franklin's Words
The words used in this 10-item vocabulary quiz have been drawn from several essays by Benjamin Franklin.
Vocabulary Builder #5: Robert Benchley's Words
The words used in this 10-item vocabulary quiz have been drawn from four humorous essays by Robert Benchley.
Vocabulary Builder #6: William Hazlitt's Words
The words in this multiple-choice vocabulary quiz have been drawn from five well-known essays by William Hazlitt.
Cut the Clutter: Five Tips
An important step in the editing process is to cut out needless words--vague, repetitious, or pretentious language that can bore or confuse our readers. Here we will learn five strategies for eliminating clutter and practice those strategies in a review exercise.
Five More Ways to Cut the Clutter
As we've already seen, one of the most effective ways to improve our writing is to cut the clutter: eliminate useless words and phrases. Here are five more strategies to apply when revising and editing essays.
Practice in Cutting the Clutter
Here we'll apply the strategies that we have learned for cutting out needless words--deadwood that only bores, distracts, or confuses our readers.
Campaign to Cut the Clutter: Ten Good Small Words
We continue our campaign to cut the clutter by honoring ten common words. Unfortunately, these words are so common that some writers try to avoid their company, favoring longer expressions that mean the same thing. Shorter isn't always better--but often it is.
Campaign to Cut the Clutter: Zinsser's Brackets
"Look for the clutter in your writing," says William Zinsser, "and prune it ruthlessly." In this article, Zinsser explains how he teaches that strategy to his students.
Exercise in Eliminating Deadwood From Our Writing
Because what we take out of our writing can be just as important as what we put in, here we'll practice eliminating needless words--deadwood that bores, distracts, or confuses our readers.
Exercise in Eliminating Wordiness in Business Writing
This exercise will give you practice in eliminating wordiness from workplace memos, letters, emails, and reports.
How to Recover Hidden Verbs
One way to cut the clutter in our writing is to turn unnecessary nouns into verbs.
Because we so often see and hear redundant expressions (such as "free gifts" and "foreign imports"), they can be easy to overlook. Therefore, when editing our work, we need to be on the lookout for redundancies so that we can rewrite them more concisely. Here is a list of the common redundancies.
30 Tips on How to Eliminate Redundant Expressions
As you practice cutting the clutter in your prose, consider these 30 examples of common redundancies, with brief explanations and tips on how to avoid them.
Fifteen Common Blog Errors & How to Fix Them
Even professional writers get tripped up now and then by some commonly confused words: look-alikes and sound-alikes that our spell checkers will never recognize. Here are 15 of the MOST common commonly confused words.
Choosing the Best Words: Denotations and Connotations
These exercises will help make you more aware of the importance of choosing words carefully for what they imply or suggest (that is, their connotative meanings) as well as for what they mean according to the dictionary (their denotations).
Denotation and Connotation Exercise
This exercise will help you distinguish between the denotative and connotative meanings of words.
The Connotative Power of Words
To illustrate the power of connotation, essayist Sydney J. Harris draws some important distinctions between related words .
Using Similes and Metaphors to Enrich Our Writing (Part 1)
Writers use similes and metaphors to explain things, to express emotion, and to make their writing more vivid and entertaining. Discovering fresh similes and metaphors to use in your own writing also means discovering new ways to look at your subjects.
Combining Sentences With Contractions
This exercise will give you practice in applying the first principle introduced in the article "Using Apostrophes Correctly": Use an apostrophe to show the omission of letters in a contraction.
A List of Standard Contractions in English
In this table you'll find some of the most frequently used contractions in English.
Practice in Forming Contractions in English
This exercise will give you practice in forming 20 common contractions in English.
Using Similes and Metaphors to Enrich Our Writing (Part 2)
In addition to creating striking images to make our writing more interesting, similes and metaphors can be used to clarify and convey ideas.
Understanding the meanings of the common prefixes can help us deduce the meanings of new words that we encounter. The table on this page defines and illustrates 35 common prefixes.
Understanding the meanings of the common suffixes can help us deduce the meanings of new words that we encounter. The table on this page defines and illustrates 26 common suffixes.
Common Word Roots
Expand your vocabulary by studying this list of 30 of the most common Greek and Latin root words.
A Quick Quiz on Tricky English Plurals
As pointed out in the article Plural Forms of English Nouns, we usually form the plural by adding "-s" or "-es" to the end of the noun. Except when we don't. Here's an opportunity to test your familiarity with some particularly tricky plurals: 15 questions, two minutes, correct answers on page two.
That the Worst Puns Are the Best, by Charles Lamb
"There is a persistent difference of opinion about puns," Max Eastman said, "some finding them cottony in the mouth, and others doting on the taste of them." As Charles Lamb makes clear in this brief essay, he enjoyed the taste of a good pun--that is, one which "will least bear an analysis."
Store Name Puns
A liquor store named Boo's, a clothing shop named Knit Wit, and a portable-toilet rental service in Chicago named (get ready) Oui Oui Enterprises. Go ahead--roll your eyes and groan: these are the painfully punny (and sometimes funny) names of shops and restaurants on the main streets and high streets of the English-speaking world.
Complimentary of Chess: An Exercise in Alliteration
This exercise in alliteration originally appeared in "Gleanings From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, Science and Art," edited by Charles C. Bombaugh (T. Newton Kurtz, 1860).
Under various titles, this extended exercise in double entendre was reprinted frequently throughout the middle decades of the 19th century. This version, titled "Ingenious Subterfuge," originally appeared in "Gleanings From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, Science and Art," edited by Charles C. Bombaugh (1860).
A Pun-gent Chapter
This half-baked exercise in paronomasia (or punning) appeared in "Gleanings From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, Science and Art," edited by Charles C. Bombaugh (1860).
Labels for Locals: A Quiz on Demonyms
Let's find out if you can tell the difference between a Cestrian and a Cytherean. Test your familiarity with demonyms by taking this quiz: match the place names with the names and nicknames for the people who live there.
Common Scholarly Abbreviations
This list contains some of the common abbreviations found in scholarly documentation--that is, in footnotes, parenthetical notes, glossary entries, and bibliographic references in research papers, articles, and books.
Toponyms: A Matching Quiz on Words Derived From Place Names
"Toponym" refers to either a place name or a word coined in association with a place. Test your familiarity with toponyms by taking this matching quiz.
The Language of Baseball
Does the game of baseball have its own language or jargon? To find out, we dip into Paul Dickson's New Dickson Baseball Dictionary (1999).
Copyediting is the work that an editor does to improve a manuscript and prepare it for publication. Here we reveal some of the jargon of the copyediting trade: 140 terms and abbreviations used by editors in their efforts to produce copy that is clear, correct, concise, consistent, and comprehensible.
The American Dialect Society's Words of the Year
Here, as determined by members of the American Dialect Society, are the words and expressions that have been recognized as Words of the Year since 1990.
Commonly Confused Latin Abbreviations in English
Nowadays, a sound rule for using Latin abbreviations (such as "e.g.," "etc.," "et al.," and "i.e.") is not to use them at all. But if we must use Latin abbreviations, let's learn how to use them correctly.
Memorandum by Charles E. Carryl
This nonsensical alphabet poem is the daily "exercise" recited by Bob Scarlet, a character in Charles E. Carryl's children's book "The Admiral's Caravan" (1891). When you can answer all the questions in these verses, Bob says, "you can answer anything."
O-U-G-H, by Charles Battell Loomis
Composed well over a century ago, this bit of light verse by Charles Battell Loomis nicely illustrates the vagaries of English spelling and pronunciation.
False Relations: Words and Meanings
Here an anonymous poet shows that when it comes to language, appearances can be deceiving: words that look similar to each other may have very different meanings.
Names and Nicknames for Residents of States
In these tables, you'll find the official names for residents of the 50 states along with alternative names and nicknames.
A New Song of New Similes, by John Gay
As you read John Gay’s mini-anthology of "New Similes," consider how many of his figurative comparisons might today be thought of as clichés.
How to Flatter an Audience With Euphemisms, Dysphemisms, and Distinctio
One of the craftiest orations in the history of American politics was the "Whiskey Speech," delivered in April 1952 by a young Mississippi legislator named Noah S. "Soggy" Sweat, Jr.
A TV Guide to Grammar and Usage
Richard Castle on "your" and "you're," Abby Sciuto on neologisms, Shawn Spencer on "literally" and "figuratively": as this sampler demonstrates, now and then you can learn about language with the television on.
The Best of the Guardian Style Guide
For your information and amusement, here are 15 favorite entries from the third edition of "Guardian Style."