This is an experimental hypertext version of the FAQ for the newsgroup alt.usage.english. The original version belongs to Mark Israel. This copy was prepared by Peter Moylan. Its location will probably change in future.
Remark: this copy is by now a few versions out of date. See pointers below if you want a more current version.
Archive-name: alt-usage-english-faq
Posting-Frequency: monthly
Last-modified: 12 Mar 1995


by Mark Israel
Last updated: 12 Mar 1995

New entry this month: How did "Truly" become a personal name?

  1. Yes, I know that this file is too big for some newsreaders. If you are cursed with such a newsreader, you can ftp this file from (It's also on the World Wide Web. No, I haven't rewritten it to take advantage of Hypertext.) Or you can send me e-mail and I'll send it to you in pieces. Sorry for the inconvenience, but there are more of us who appreciate the convenience of a single file.
  2. Please send suggestions/flames/praise to me by e-mail rather than post them to the newsgroup. The purpose of an FAQ file is to reduce traffic, not increase it.
  3. This is in no sense an "official" FAQ file. Feel free to start your own. I certainly can't stop you.
  4. Please don't expect me to add a topic unless (a) you're willing to contribute the entry for that topic; (b) *either* the topic has come up at least twice in the newsgroup, *or* the entry gives information that cannot readily be found elsewhere; and (c) if the topic has been controversial in the newsgroup, your entry attempts to represent conflicting points of view. Thanks to all who *have* contributed!

Table of Contents


alt.usage.english is a newsgroup where we discuss the English language (and also occasionally other languages). We discuss how particular words, phrases, and syntactic forms are used; how they originated; and where in the English-speaking world they're prevalent. (All this is called "description".) We also discuss how we think they *should* be used ("prescription").

alt.usage.english is for everyone, *not* only for linguists, native speakers, or descriptivists.

Guidelines for posting

Things you may want to consider avoiding when posting here:
  1. re-opening topics (such as singular "they" and "hopefully") that experience has shown lead to circular debate. (One function of the FAQ file is to point out topics that have already been discussed ad nauseam.)
  2. questions that can be answered by simple reference to a dictionary.
  3. generalities. If you make a statement like: "Here in the U.S. we NEVER say 'different to'", "Retroflex 'r' is ONLY used in North America", or "'Eh' ALWAYS rhymes with 'pay'", chances are that someone will pounce on you with a counterexample.
  4. assertions that one variety of English is "true English".
  5. sloppy writing (as distinct from simple slips like typing errors, or errors from someone whose native language is not English). Keep in mind that the regulars on alt.usage.english are probably less willing than the general population to suffer sloppy writers gladly; and that each article is written by one person, but read perhaps by thousands, so the convenience of the readers really ought to have priority over the convenience of the writer. Again, this is *not* to discourage non-native speakers from posting; readers will be able to detect that you're writing in a foreign language, and will make allowances for this.
  6. expressions of exasperation. In the course of debate, you may encounter positions based on premises radically different from yours and perhaps surprisingly novel to you. Saying things like "Oh, please", "That's absurd", "Give me a break", or "Go teach your grandmother to suck eggs, my man" is unlikely to win your opponent over.
You really *are* welcome to post here! Don't let the impatient tone of this FAQ frighten you off.

Related newsgroups

There are other newsgroups that also discuss the English language. bit.listserv.words-l (which is a redistribution of a BITNET mailing list -- not all machines on Usenet carry these) is also billed to be for "English language discussion", but its participants engage in a lot more socializing and general chitchat than we do.

sci.lang is where most of the professional linguists hang out. Discussions tend to be about linguistic methodology (rather than *particular* words and phrases), and prescription is severely frowned upon there. Newbies post many things there that would better be posted here.

alt.flame.spelling (which fewer sites carry than carry alt.usage.english) is the place to criticize other people's spelling. We try to avoid doing that here (although some of us do get provoked if you spell language terms wrong. It's "consensus", not "concensus"; "diphthong", not "dipthong"; "grammar", not "grammer"; "guttural", not "gutteral"; and "pronunciation", not "pronounciation").

alt.usage.english.neologism is described as being for "meaningless words coined by psychotics". Fewer sites carry it, and it has little traffic.

rec.puzzles is a better place than here to ask questions like "What English words end in '-gry' or '-endous'?", "What words contain 'vv'?", "What words have 'e' pronounced as /I/?", "What Pig Latin words are also words?", or "How do you punctuate 'John where Bill had had had had had had had had had had the approval of the teacher' or 'That that is is that that is not is not that that is not is not that that is is that it it is' to get comprehensible text?" But, before you post such a question there, make sure it's not answered in the rec.puzzles archive.

Language features peculiar to the U.K. get discussed in soc.culture.british as well as here. Before posting to either newsgroup on this subject, you should check out Jeremy Smith's British-American dictionary, available by anonymous ftp from

If you have a (language-related or other) peeve that you want to mention but don't particularly want to justify, you can try alt.peeves. ("What is your pet peeve?" is *not* a frequently asked question in alt.usage.english, although we frequently get unsolicited answers to it. If you're new to this group, chances are excellent that your particular pet peeve is something that has already been discussed to death by the regulars.)

If you're interested in the peculiarities of language as used by computer users, get the Jargon File by anonymous ftp from ( (also available in paperback form as _The New Hacker's Dictionary_, ed. Eric S. Raymond, 2nd edition, MIT Press, 1993, ISBN 0-262-68079-3). This is also the place to find answers to questions like "How do you pronounce '#'?" You can discuss hacker language further in the newsgroup alt.folklore.computers, or in the moderated newsgroup comp.society.folklore .



The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), 2nd ed. (OED2) (Oxford University Press, 1989, 20 vols.; compact edition, 1991 ISBN 0-19-861258-3; additions series, 2 vols., 1993, ISBN 0-19-861292-3 and 0-19-861299-0), has no rivals as a historical dictionary of the English language. It is too large for the editors to keep all of it up-to-date, and hence should not be relied on for precise definitions of technical terms, or for consistent usage labels.

Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Merriam-Webster, 1961, ISBN 0-87779-206-1) (W3) is the unabridged dictionary to check for 20th-century U.S. citations of word use, and for precise definitions of technical terms too rare to appear in collegiate dictionaries. People sometimes cite W3 with a later date. These later dates refer to the addenda section at the front, *not* to the body of the dictionary, which is unchanged since 1961. W3 was widely criticized by schoolteachers and others for its lack of usage labels; e.g., it gives "imply" as one of the meanings of "infer" and "flout" as one of the meanings of "flaunt", without indicating that these are disputed usage. Others have defended the lack of usage labels. An anthology devoted to the controversy is _Dictionaries and THAT Dictionary: A Case Book of the Aims of Lexicographers and the Targets of Reviewers_, ed. James Sledd and Wilma R. Ebbitt (Scott Foresman, 1962).

Please don't refer to any dictionary simply as "Webster's". _Books in Print_ has 5 columns of book titles beginning with "Webster's"!

Among collegiate dictionaries, the ones most frequently mentioned here are Collins English Dictionary (3rd edition, HarperCollins, 1991, ISBN 0-00-433287-3) and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition (Merriam-Webster, 1993, ISBN 0-919028-25-X) (MWCD10). Merriam-Webster publishes sub-editions of its collegiate dictionaries, so look at the copyright date to see exactly what you have. _The Chambers Dictionary_ (Larousse, 1993, ISBN 0-550-10255-8) is a respected British dictionary now also available on CD-ROM.

If you're interested in etymology, get The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (3rd edition, Houghton Mifflin, 1992, ISBN 0-395-44895-6) (AHD3) or Henry Cecil Wyld's _Universal English Dictionary_ (Wordsworth, reprinted from 1932, ISBN 1-85326-940-9). These are two of the few dictionaries that trace words back to their reconstructed Indo-European (Aryan) roots.

Although AHD3 looks larger than a collegiate dictionary, its word count puts it in the collegiate range. If you want an up-to-date dictionary that is larger than a collegiate, get the Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2nd edition, Random House, revised 1993, ISBN 0-679-42917-4) (RHUD2).

Online dictionaries

The OED is available on CD ROM for PCs, and server-style for Unix systems. For info on obtaining the Unix version in North America, phone the Open Text Corporation in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: e-mail If you want to submit citations for the next edition of the OED, you can contact the OED staff directly at Info from Alex Lange: The online OED is encoded with the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), which is ISO 8879:1986 and is discussed in obscure detail on the comp.text.sgml newsgroup. The funny-looking escape codes beginning with "&" are known as "text entity references". The ISO has defined a slew of such for use with SGML: publishing symbols, math and scientific symbols, and so on. A good place to start for information about SGML and its uses is an article "SGML Frees Information", Byte, June 1992.

Info from Graham Toal: The Webster Server is best accessed via the "webster" program (use the archie service to find it). An old Webster's dictionary (not the one used by the NeXT or the Webster Server, though it looks as if it might have been that version's grandfather) is available by anonymous ftp from in the directory media/literary/dictionaries . Roget's Thesaurus (1911 version, out of copyright) is available from has Collins English Dictionary (1st edition) converted to a Prolog fact base; the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary; and the MRC Psycholinguistic Database (150,837 word forms, expanded from the headwords in the Shorter Oxford, with info about 26 different linguistic properties). Read the conditions of use for the Oxford Text Archive materials before using; most texts are available for scholarly use and research only.

Anu Garg ( runs a public-access wordserver that provides dictionary (using Merriam-Webster's Collegiate), thesaurus, acronym and anagram services by e-mail. He also has a mailing list, "A.Word.A.Day", that mails out a vocabulary word and its definition to its subscribers every day. For information on these services, send a blank message with subject "Help" to

General reference

_The Oxford Companion to the English Language_ (ed. Tom McArthur, Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-19-214183-X) is an encyclopaedia with a wealth of information on various dialects, on lexicography, and almost everything else except individual words and expressions. _Success With Words_ (Reader's Digest, 1983, ISBN 0-88850-117-X) is especially suitable for beginners.

Books on linguistics


Books on usage

The best survey of the history of usage disputes and how they correlate with actual usage is Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Merriam-Webster, 1989, ISBN 0-87779-032-9 (WDEU).

Among conservative prescriptivists, the most highly respected usage book is the Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by H. W. Fowler -- 1st edition, 1926 (MEU); 2nd edition, revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, Oxford University Press, 1965, ISBN 0-19-281389-7 (MEU2). Robert Burchfield (who edited the OED supplement) was supposedly working on a 3rd edition, although nothing seems to have come of this.

_The Elements of Style_ by William Strunk and E. B. White (Macmillan, 3rd ed. 1979, ISBN 0-02-418190-0) and Wilson Follett's _Modern American Usage_ (Hill and Wang, 1966, ISBN 0-8090-0139-X) have their partisans here, although they aren't as *widely* respected as Fowler.

Liberals most often refer to the Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, by Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans (Random House, 1957, ISBN 0-8022-0973-4 -- out of print).

Books that discriminate synonyms

Style manuals

_The Chicago Manual of Style_ (University of Chicago Press, 1993, ISBN 0-226-10389-7) covers manuscript preparation; copy- editing; proofs; rights and permissions; typography; and format of tables, captions, bibliographies, and indexes.

Book on mathematical exposition

Books on phrasal verbs

Books on Britishisms, Canadianisms, etc.

There are many *hundreds* of differences between British and American English. From time to time, we get threads in which each post mentions *one* of these differences. Because such a thread can go on for ever, it's helpful to delimit the topic more narrowly.

The books to get are _The Hutchinson British/American Dictionary_ by Norman Moss (Arrow, 1990, ISBN 0-09-978230-8); _British English, A to Zed_ by Norman W. Schur (Facts on File, 1987, ISBN 0-8160-1635-6); and _Modern American Usage_ by H. W. Horwill (OUP, 2nd ed., 1935).

Jeremy Smith ( ) has compiled his own British-American dictionary, available by anonymous ftp from as pub/networking/bigfun/usuk_dictionary.txt . He plans to publish it as a paperback.

For Australian English, see _The Macquarie Dictionary of Australian Colloquial Language_ (Macquarie, 1988, ISBN 0-949757-41-1); _The Macquarie Dictionary_ (Macquarie, 1991, ISBN 0-949757-63-2); _The Australian National Dictionary_ (Oxford University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-19-55736-5); or _The Dinkum Dictionary_ (Viking O'Nell, 1988, ISBN 0-670-90419-8).

For New Zealand English, there's the _Heinemann New Zealand Dictionary_, ed. H. W. Orseman (Heinemann, 1979, ISBN 0-86863-373-9); and _A Personal Kiwi-Yankee Slanguage Dictionary_, by Louis S. Leland Jr. (McIndoe, 1987, ISBN 0-86868-001-X).

For South African English, see _A Dictionary of South African English_, ed. Jean Branford (OUP, 3rd ed., 1987, ISBN 0-19-570427-4).

For Canadian English, see _A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles_ (Gage, 1967, ISBN 0-7715-1976-1); the _Penguin Canadian Dictionary_ (Copp, 1990, ISBN 0-670-81970-0); or the _Gage Canadian Dictionary_ (Gage, 1982, ISBN 0-7715-9660-X).

Books on phrase origins

Books on "bias-free"/"politically correct" language

Books on group names

James Lipton _An Exaltation of Larks_ Viking Penguin, 1991, ISBN 0-670-3044-6


Basic English

Basic English (where "Basic" stands for "British American Scientific International Commercial") is a subset of English with a base vocabulary of 850 words, propounded by C. K. Ogden in 1929. Look under "Ogden" in your library's author index if you're interested. (We're not.)


E-prime is a subset of standard idiomatic English that eschews all forms of the verb "to be" (e.g., you can't say "You are an ass" or "You an ass", but you can say "You act like an ass"). The original reference is D. David Bourland, Jr., "A linguistic note: write in E-prime" _General Semantics Bulletin_, 1965/1966, 32 and 33, 60-61. Albert Ellis wrote a book in E-prime (_Sex and the Liberated Man_). You can also look at the April 1992 issue of the _Atlantic_ if you're interested. (We're not.) The following book contains articles both pro and con on E-Prime: _To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology_, ed. D. David Bourland and Paul D. Johnston, International Society for General Semantics, 1991, ISBN 0-918970-38-5.


How to represent pronunciation in ASCII

Beware of using ad hoc methods to indicate pronunciation. The problem with ad hoc methods is that they often wrongly assume your dialect to have certain features in common with the readers' dialect. You may pronounce "bother" to rhyme with "father"; some of the readers here don't. You may pronounce "cot" and "caught" alike; some of the readers here don't. You may pronounce "caught" and "court" alike; some of the readers here don't.

The standard way to represent pronunciation (used in the latest British Dictionaries and by linguists worldwide) is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For a complete guide to the IPA, see _Phonetic Symbol Guide_ by Geoffrey K. Pullum and William A. Ladusaw (University of Chicago Press, 1986, ISBN 0-226-68532-2). IPA uses many special symbols; on the Net, where we're restricted to ASCII symbols, we must find a way to make do.

The following scheme is due to Evan Kirshenbaum. I show here only examples for the sounds most often referred to in this newsgroup. The examples transcribe British Received Pronunciation (RP) except as noted. For Evan's complete scheme, illustrated with examples from U.S. English, see Evan's own regular posts here and to sci.lang, or send e-mail to Evan (

The consonant symbols [b], [d], [f], [h], [k], [l], [m], [n], [p], [r], [s], [t], [v], [w], [z] have their usual English values.

[A] = [<script a>] as in "calm" /kA:m/, French "bas" /bA/
[A.] = [<turned script a>] as in "odd" /A.d/ (Not much used to transcribe U.S. pronunciation; the tendency is to use [A] or [O] instead.)
[a] as in French "ami" /a'mi/, German "Mann" /man/, Italian "pasta" /'pasta/, Chicago "pop" /pap/, Boston "park" /pa:k/. Also in diphthongs: "dive" /daIv/, "out" /aUt/
[C] = [<c cedilla>] as in German "ich" /IC/
[D] = [<edh>] as in "this" /DIs/
[E] = [<epsilon>] as in "end" /End/
[e] as in "eight" /eIt/, "chaos" /'keA.s/
[g] as in "get" /gEt/
[I] = [<iota>] as in "it" /It/
[I.] = [<small capital y>] as in German "Glück" /glI.k/
[i] as in "eat" /i:t/
[j] as in "yes" /jEs/
[N] = [<eng>] as in "hang" /h&N/
[O] = [<open o>] as in "all" /O:l/, "oil" /OIl/
[o] as in U.S. "old" /oUld/, French "beau" /bo/
[R] = [<right-hook schwa>], equivalent to /@r/, /r-/, or even /V"r/
[S] = [<esh>] as in "ship" /SIp/
[T] = [<theta>] as in "thin" /TIn/
[t!] = [<>] as in "tsk-tsk" or "tut-tut" /t! t!/
[U] = [<upsilon>] as in "pull" /pUl/
[u] as in "ooze" /u:z/
[V] = [<turned v>] as in "up" /Vp/
[V"] = [<reversed epsilon>] as in "fern" /fV":n/ (rhotic /fV"rn/)
[W] = [<o-e ligature>] as in French "heure" /Wr/, German "Köpfe" /'kWpf@/
[x] as in Scots "loch" /lA.x/, German "Bach" /bax/
[Y] = [<slashed o>] as in French "peu" /pY/, German "schön" /SYn/, Scots "guidwillie" /gYd'wIli/
[y] as in French "lune" /lyn/, German "müde" /'myd@/
[Z] = [<yogh>] as in "beige" /beIZ/
[&] = [<ash>] as in "ash" /&S/
[@] = [<schwa>] as in "lemon" /'lEm@n/
[?] = [<glottal>] as in "uh-oh" /V?ou/
[*] = [<fish-hook r>], a short tap of the tongue use by some U.S. speakers in "pedal", "petal", and by Scots speakers in "pearl": all /pE*@l/
- previous consonant syllabic as in "bundle" /'bVnd@l/ or /'bVndl-/, "button" /bVt@n/ or /bVtn-/
~ previous sound nasalized
: previous sound lengthened
; previous sound palatalized
' following syllable has primary stress
, following syllable has secondary stress

Here is the scheme compared with the transcriptions in 4 U.S. dictionaries. (Most British dictionaries now use IPA for their transcriptions.)

       Merriam-Webster    American Heritage Random House     Webster's New World

[A] a umlaut a umlaut a umlaut a umlaut
[A.] (merged with [A]) o breve o (merged with [A])
[a] a overdot (merged with [A]) A a overdot
/AI/ i macron i macron i macron i macron
/AU/ a u overdot ou ou ou
[C] (merged with [x]) (merged with [x]) (merged with [x]) H
[D] th underlined th in italics th slashed th in italics
/dZ/ j j j j
[E] e e breve e e
/E@/ a schwa a circumflex a circumflex (merged with [e])
/eI/ a macron a macron a macron a macron
[g] g g g g
[I] i i breve i i
[I.] ue ligature (merged with [y]) (merged with [y]) (merged with [y])
[i] e macron e macron e macron e macron
[j] y y y y
[N] ng ng [O] o overdot o circumflex o circumflex o circumflex /OI/ o overdot i oi oi oi ligature /oU/ o macron o macron o macron o macron [S] sh sh sh sh ligature [T] th th th th ligature /tS/ ch ch ch ch ligature [U] u overdot oo breve oo breve oo [u] u umlaut oo macron oo macron oo macron [V] (merged with [@]) u breve u u [V"] (merged with [@]) u circumflex u circumflex u circumflex [W] oe ligature oe ligature OE ligature o umlaut [x] k underlined KH KH kh ligature [Y] oe ligature macron (merged with [W]) (merged with [W]) (merged with [W]) [y] ue ligature macron u umlaut Y u umlaut [Z] zh zh zh zh ligature [&] a a breve a a [@] schwa schwa schwa schwa - superscript schwa syllabicity mark unmarked '
Auditory files demonstrating speech sounds can be obtained by anonymous ftp from (or on the World Wide Web at Look in "/user/ai/areas/nlp/corpora/pron" and "/user/ai/areas/speech/database/britpron".

rhotic vs non-rhotic, intrusive "r"

A rhotic speaker is one who pronounces as a consonant postvocalic "r", i.e. the "r" after a vowel in words like "world" /wV"rld/. A nonrhotic speaker either does not pronounce the "r" at all /wV"ld/ or pronounces it as a schwa /wV"@ld/. British Received Pronunciation (RP) and many other dialects of English are nonrhotic.

Many nonrhotic speakers (including RP speakers, but excluding most nonrhotic speakers in the southern U.S.) use a "linking r" -- they don't pronounce "r" in "for" by itself /fO/, but they do pronounce the first "r" in "for ever" /fO 'rEv@/. Linking "r" differs from French liaison in that the former happens in any phonetically appropriate context, whereas the latter also needs the right syntactic context.

A further development of "linking r" is "intrusive r". Intrusive-r speakers, because the vowels in "law" (which they pronounce the same as "lore") and "idea" (which they pronounce to rhyme with "fear") are identical for them to vowels spelled with "r", intrude an r in such phrases as "law [r]and order" and "The idea [r]of it!" They do NOT intrude an [r] after vowels that are never spelled with an "r". Some people blanch at intrusive r, but most RP speakers now use it.

How do Americans pronounce "dog"?

Those who round their lips when they say it would probably transcribe it /dOg/; those who don't round their lips, /dAg/.

Very few people in North America distinguish all three vowels /A/, /A./, and /O/. Speakers in Eastern and Southern U.S. merge /A./ and /A/, so that "bother" and "father" rhyme. Speakers in Western U.S. and in Canada merge /A./ and /O/, so that "cot" and "caught", "Don" and "Dawn" are pronounced alike. Some speakers merge all three vowels. The Oxford Companion to the English Language says: "The merger of vowels in _tot_ and _taught_ begins in a narrow band in central Pennsylvania and spreads north and south to influence the West, where the merger is universal. [...] In New England, where the merger is beginning to occur, speakers select the first vowel; in the Midland and West, the second vowel is used for both." Although /A./ is seldom used to transcribe American pronunciation, the vowel transcribed /O/ may sound like /A./ to non-American speakers, or it may sound like /O/.

There is a further complication with "dog": U.S. dictionaries give the pronunciations /dOg/, /dAg/ in that order (and similarly with some other words ending in "-og", although which ones varies from dictionary to dictionary). "Dawg", the name of the family dog in the comic strip "Hi and Lois", may be intended to convey the pronunciation /dOg/ to (or from) people who usually pronounce the word /dAg/; or it may be intended as how a child in a community where /A./ and /O/ are merged might misspell "dog".

Words pronounced differently according to context

There is a general tendency in English whereby when a word with a stressed final syllable is followed by another word without a pause, the stress moves forward: "kangaROO", but "KANGaroo court"; "afterNOON", but "AFTernoon nap"; "above BOARD", but "an aBOVEboard deal". This happens chiefly in noun phrases, but not exclusively so ("acquiESCE" versus "ACquiesce readily"). Consider also "Chinese" and all numbers ending in "-teen".

"Offence" and "defence", usually stressed on the last syllable, are often in North America stressed on the first syllable when the context is team sports. (In the U.S., of course, they are spelled with -se .)

When "have to" means "must", the [v] in "have" becomes an [f]. Similarly, in "has to", [z] becomes [s]. When "used to" and "supposed to" are used in their senses of "formerly" and "ought", the "-sed" is pronounced /st/; when they're used in other senses, it's /zd/.

In many dialects, "the" is pronounced /D@/ before a consonant, and /DI/ before a vowel. Many foreigners learning English are taught this rule explicitly. Native English speakers are also taught this rule when we sing in choirs. (We do it instinctively in rapid speech; but in the slower pace of singing, it has to be brought to our conscious attention.)

Words whose spelling has influenced their pronunciation

"Cocaine" used to be pronounced /'cocain/ (3 syllables). "Waistcoat" used to be pronounced /'wEskIt/. "Humble" and "human" were borrowed from French with no [h] in their pronunciation. "Forte" in the sense of "strong point" comes from French, where the "e" is not pronounced.

"Zoo" is an abbreviation of "zoological garden". The (popular but stigmatized) pronunciation of "zoological" as /zu@'lA.dZik@l/ (as opposed to /zo@'lA.dZik@l/) is due to the influence of "zoo".

"Elephant" was "olifaunt" in Middle English, but its spelling was restored to reflect the Latin "elephantus". Similarly, "crocodile" was "cokedrill".

"Golf" is Scots. The traditional Scots pronunciation is /gof/. "Ralph" was traditionally pronounced /ref/ in Britain -- Gilbert and Sullivan rhymed it with "waif" in _H.M.S. Pinafore_; that's how the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams pronounced his name; and even today actor Ralph Fiennes (of _Schindler's List_ fame) is said to pronounce his name /ref faInz/.

"Medicine" and "regiment" were two-syllable words in the 19th century: /'mEdsIn/ and /'rEdZm@nt/. /'mEdsIn/ can still be heard in RP.

King Arthur would have pronounced his name /'artur/.

The new pronunciations in such cases are called "spelling pronunciations". The "speak-as-you-spell movement" is described in the MEU2 article on "pronunciation".



Strictly, an acronym is a string of initial letters pronounceable as a word, such as "NATO". Abbreviations like "NBC" have been variously designated "alphabetisms" and "initialisms", although some people do call them acronyms. WDEU says, "Dictionaries, however, do not make this distinction [between acronyms and initialisms] because writers in general do not"; but two or the best known books on acronyms are titled _Acronyms, Initialisms and Abbreviations Dictionary_ (19th ed., Gale 1993) and _Concise Dictionary of Acronyms and Initialisms_ (Facts on File, 1988).

The Network Dictionary of Acronyms is available through World Wide Web ( or by e-mail (send the word "help" to


This spelling of "a lot" is frequently mentioned as a pet peeve. It rarely appears in print, but is often found in the U.S. in informal writing and on Usenet. There does not seem to be a corresponding "alittle".


The spelling "alright" is recorded from 1887. It was defended by Fowler (in one of the Society for Pure English tracts, not in MEU), on the analogy of "almighty" and "altogether", and on the grounds that "The answers are alright" (= "The answers are O.K.") is less ambiguous than "The answers are all right" (which could mean "All the answers are right".) But it is still widely condemned.

"between you and I"

The prescriptive rule is to use "you and I" in the same contexts as "I", and "you and me" in the same contexts as "me". But English speakers have a tendency to regard such compounds as units, so that some speakers use "you and me" exclusively, and others use "you and I" exclusively, although such practices "have no place in modern edited prose" (WDEU). "Between you and I" was used by Shakespeare in _The Merchant of Venice_. Since this antedates the teaching of English grammar, it is probably NOT "hypercorrection". (This is mentioned merely to caution against the hypercorrection theory, not to defend the phrase.) Shakespeare also used "between you and me".

"could care less"

The idiom "couldn't care less", meaning "doesn't care at all" (the meaning in full is "cares so little that he couldn't possibly care less"), originated in Britain around 1940. "Could care less", which is used with the same meaning, developed in the U.S. around 1960. We get disputes about whether the latter was originally a mis-hearing of the former; whether it was originally ironic; or whether it arose from uses where the negative element was separated from "could" ("None of these writers could care less...") Meaning- saving elaborations have also been suggested; e.g., "As if I could care less!"; "I could care less, but I'd have to try"; "If I cared even one iota -- which I don't --, then I could care less."

An earlier transition in which "not" was dropped was the one that gave us "but" in the sense of "only". "I will not say but one word", where "but" meant "(anything) except", became "I will say but one word."

Other idioms that say the opposite of what they mean include: "head over heels" (which could mean turning cartwheels, i.e. "head over heels over head over heels", but is also used to mean "upside- down", i.e. "heels over head"); "Don't sneeze more than you can help", (meaning "more than you cannot help"; "help" here means "prevent"); "It's hard to open, much less acknowledge, the letters" (where "less" means "harder", i.e. "more"); "I shouldn't wonder if it didn't rain"; "I miss not seeing you"; and "I turned my life around 360 degrees" -- not to mention undisputedly ironic phrases like "fat chance", "Thanks a *lot*", and "I should worry".

"different to", "different than"

"Different from" is the construction that no one will object to. "Different to" is fairly common informally in Britain, but rare in the U.S. "Different than" is sometimes used to avoid the cumbersome "different from that which", etc. (e.g. "a very different Pamela than I used to leave all company and pleasure for" -- Samuel Richardson). Some U.S. speakers use "different than" exclusively. Some people have insisted on "different from" on the grounds that "from" is required after "to differ". But Fowler points out that there are many other adjectives that do not conform to the construction of their parent verbs (e.g., "accords with", but "according to"; "derogates from", but "derogatory to").

double "is"

Double "is", as in "The reason is, is that..." is a recent U.S. development, much decried. Of course, "What this is is..." is undisputedly correct.

"due to"

"Due to" meaning "caused by" is undisputedly correct in contexts where "due" can be construed as an adjective (e.g., "failure due to carelessness"). Its use in contexts where "due" is an adverb ("He failed due to carelessness") has been disputed. Fowler says that "_due to_ is often used by the illiterate as though it had passed, like _owing to_, into a mere compound preposition". But Fowler was writing in 1926; what hadn't happened then may well have happened by now.


"Functionality" is often attacked as a needless long variant of "function". But they are differentiated in meaning. "The function of a screwdriver is to turn screws. Its functionality includes prying open paint cans, stirring paint, scraping paint, and acting as a chisel. The function is what it is designed to do. The functionality is what you can do with it." -- Evan Kirshenbaum This specialized meaning of "functionality" is not yet in most dictionaries.

Gender-neutral pronouns

Singular "they" (as in "Everyone was blowing their nose"), which has been used in English since the time of Chaucer, has gained popularity recently as a result of the move towards gender-neutral language. Prescriptive grammarians have traditionally (since 1795, although the actual practice goes right back to 1200) prescribed "Everyone was blowing his nose."

Proposals for other gender-neutral pronouns get made from time to time, and some can be found in actual use ("sie" and "hir" are the ones most frequently found on Usenet -- "hir" is said to have been used in a gender-neutral fashion by Chaucer). Cecil Adams, in _Return of the Straight Dope_ (Ballantine, 1994, ISBN 0-345-38111-4), says that some eighty such terms have been proposed, the first of them in the 1850s.

Discussions about gender-neutral pronouns tend to go round and round and never reach a conclusion. Please refrain.

(We also get disputes about the use of the word "gender" in the sense of "sex", i.e. whether a human being is male or female. This also dates from the 14th century. By 1900 it was restricted to jocular use, but has now been revived because of the "sexual relations" sense of "sex".)

"hopefully", "thankfully"

The OED's first citation for "hopefully" in the passive sense (= "It is to be hoped that") is from 1932, but no unmistakable citation has been found between then and 1954. (WDEU has three ambiguous citations dated 1941, 1951, and 1954.) WDEU's first citation for the passive sense of "thankfully" (= "We can be thankful that") is from 1963. These uses became popular in the early '60s, and have been widely criticized on the grounds that they should have been "hopably" and "thankably" (on the analogy of "predictably", "regrettably", "inexplicably", etc.). You'll find "hopefully" defended in "Mathematical Writing", a set of lecture notes from one of Knuth's courses.

The disputed, passive use of "hopefully" is often referred to as "sentence-modifying"; but it can also modify a single word, as is hopefully clear from this example. :-)

Discussions about these words go round and round for ever without reaching a conclusion. We advise you to refrain.

"It's me" vs "It is I"

(freely adapted from an article by Roger Lustig)

Fowler says: "_me_ is technically wrong in _It wasn't me_ etc.; but the phrase being of its very nature colloquial, such a lapse is of no importance".

The rule for what he and others consider technically right is *not* (as is commonly misstated) that the nominative should *always* be used after "to be". Rather, it is that "to be" should link two noun phrases of the same case, whether this be nominative or accusative:

I believe that he is I. Who do you believe that he is?
I believe him to be me. Whom do you believe him to be?
According to the traditional grammar being used here, "to be" is not a transitive verb, but a *copulative* verb. When you say that A is B, you don't imply that A, by being B, is doing something to B. (After all, B is also doing it to A.) Other verbs considered copulative are "to become", "to remain", "to seem", and "to look".

Sometimes in English, though, "to be" does seem to have the force of a transitive verb; e.g., in Gelett Burgess's:

I never saw a Purple Cow,
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I'd rather see than be one.
The occurrence of "It's me", etc., is no doubt partly due to this perceived transitive force. In the French _C'est moi_, often cited as analogous, _moi_ is not in the accusative, but a special form known as the "disjunctive", used for emphasis. If _etre_ were a transitive verb in French, _C'est moi_ would be _Ce m'est_.

In languages like German and Latin that inflect between the nominative and the accusative, B in "A is B" is nominative just like A. In English, no nouns and only a few personal pronouns ("I", "we", "thou", "he", "she", "they" and "who") inflect between the nominative and the accusative. In other words, we've gotten out of the habit, for the most part.

Also, in English we derive meaning from word position, far more than one would in Latin, somewhat more than in German, even. In those languages, one can rearrange sentences drastically for rhetorical or other purposes without confusion (heh) because inflections (endings, etc.) tell you how the words relate to one another. In English, "The dog ate the cat" and "The cat ate the dog" are utterly different in meaning, and if we wish to have the former meaning with "cat" prior to "dog" in the sentence, we have to say "The cat was eaten by the dog" (change of voice) or "It is the cat that the dog ate." In German, one can reverse the meaning by inflecting the word (or its article): _Der Hund ass die Katze_ and _Den Hund ass die Katze_ reverse the meaning of who ate whom. In Latin, things are even more flexible: almost any word order will do:

Feles edit canem
Feles canem edit
Canem edit feles
Canem feles edit
Edit canem feles
Edit feles canem
all mean the same, the choice of word order being made perhaps for rhetorical or poetic purpose.

English is pretty much the opposite of that: hardly any inflection, great emphasis on order. As a result, things have gotten a little irregular with the personal pronouns. And there's uncertainty as to how to use them; the usual rules aren't there, because the usual word needs no rules, being the same for nominative and accusative.

The final factor is the traditional use of Latin grammatical concepts to teach English grammar. This historical quirk dates to the 17th century, and has never quite left us. From this we get the Latin-derived rule, which Fowler still acknowledges. And we *do* follow that rule to some extent: "Who are they?" (not "Who are them?" or "Whom are they?") "We are they!" (in response to the preceding) "It is I who am at fault." "That's the man who he is."

But not always. "It is me" is attested since the 16th Century. (Speakers who would substitute "me" for "I" in the "It is I who am at fault" example would also sacrifice the agreement of person, and substitute "is" for "am".)

"less" vs "fewer"

The rule usually encountered is: use "fewer" for things you count (individually), and "less" for things you measure: "fewer apples", "less water". Since "less" is also used as an adverb ("less successful"), "fewer" helps to distinguish "fewer successful professionals" (fewer professionals who are successful) from "less successful professionals" (professionals who are less successful). (No such distinction is possible with "more", which serves as the antonym of both "less" and "fewer".) "Less" has been used in the sense of "fewer" since the time of King Alfred the Great (ninth century), and is still common in that sense, especially informally in the U.S., but in Fowler's day it was so rare in British English that he didn't even mention it.

"like" vs "as"

For making comparisons (i.e., asserting that one thing is similar to another), the prescribed choices are:
  1. A is like B.
  2. A behaves like B.
  3. A behaves as B does.
  4. A behaves as in an earlier situation.
In 1 and 2, "like" governs a noun (or a pronoun or a noun phrase). In 3, "as" governs a clause with a noun and a verb. In 4, "as" governs a prepositional phrase. Look at what the word governs, and you will know which to use.

In informal English, "like" is often used in place of "as" in sentences of type 3 and 4. "Like" has been been used in the sense of "as if" since the 14th century, and in the sense of "as" since the 15th century, but such use was fairly rare until the 19th century, and "a writer who uses the construction in formal style risks being accused of illiteracy or worse" (AHD3). Fowler put "_Like_ as conjunction" first in his list of "ILLITERACIES" (he defined "illiteracy" as "offence against the literary idiom"). The most famous use of "like" as a conjunction was in the 1950s slogan for Winston Cigarettes: "Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should." The New Yorker wrote that "it would pain [Sir Winston Churchill] dreadfully", but in fact conjunctive "like" was used by Churchill himself in informal speech: "We are overrun by them, like the Australians are by rabbits." "Like" in the sense of "as if" was until recently more often heard in the Southern U.S. than elsewhere, and was perceived by Britons as an Americanism. When used in this sense, it is never now followed by the inflected past subjunctive: people say "like it is" or "like it was", not "like it were".

Sometimes, "as" governs a simple noun. When it does, it does not introduce a comparison, but rather may:

  1. indicate a role being played. "They fell on the supplies as men starving" means that they were actually starving men; in "They fell on the supplies like men starving", one is *comparing* them to starving men. "You're acting as a fool" might be appropriate if you obtained the job of court jester; "You're acting like a fool" expresses the more usual meaning.
  2. introduce examples. ("Some animals, as the fox and the squirrel, have bushy tails.") "Such as" and "like" are more common in this use.
  3. be short for "as ... as": "He's deaf as a post" means "He's as deaf as a post."

"more/most/very unique"

Fowler and other conservatives urge restricting the meaning of "unique" to "having no like or equal". (OED says "in this sense, readopted from French at the end of the 18th Century and regarded as a foreign word down to the middle of the 19th.") Used in this sense, it is an incomparable: either something is "unique" or it isn't, and there can be no degrees of uniqueness. Those who use phrases like "more unique", "most unique", and "very unique" are using "unique" in the weaker sense of "unusual, distinctive".

"none is" vs "none are"

With mass nouns, you have to use the singular. ("None of the wheat is...") With count nouns, you can use either the singular or the plural. ("None of the books is..." or "None of the books are...") Usually, the plural sounds more natural, unless you're trying to emphasize the idea of "not one", or if the words that follow work better in the singular.

The fullest (prescriptive) treatment is in Eric Partridge's book _Usage and Abusage_ (Penguin, 1970, 0-14-051024-9). In the original edition Partridge had prescribed the singular in certain cases, but a rather long-winded letter from a correspondent persuaded him to retract.

Plurals of Latin/Greek words

Not all Latin words ending in "-us" had plurals in "-i". "Apparatus", "hiatus", "impetus", "nexus", "plexus", "prospectus", and "status" were 4th declension in Latin, and had plurals in "-us" with a long "u". "Corpus", "genus", and "opus" were 3rd declension, with plurals "corpora", "genera", and "opera". "Omnibus" and "rebus" were not nominative nouns in Latin. "Ignoramus" was not a noun in Latin. "Caucus" and "syllabus" were not Latin words.

Not all classical words ending in "-a" had plurals in "-ae". "Anathema", "aroma", "bema", "carcinoma", "charisma", "diploma", "dogma", "drama", "edema", "enema", "enigma", "lemma", "lymphoma", "magma", "melisma", "miasma", "sarcoma", "schema", "soma", "stigma", "stoma", and "trauma" are from Greek, where they had plurals in "-ata". "Quota" was not a noun in Latin. (It comes from the Latin expression _quota pars_, where _quota_ is the feminine form of an interrogative pronoun meaning "what number". In *that* use, it did have plural _quotae_, but in English the only plural is "quotas".)

Not all classical-sounding words ending in "-um" have plurals in "-a". "Factotum", "nostrum", and "quorum" were not nouns in Latin. (_Totus_ = "everything" and _nostrus_ = "our" were conjugated like nouns in Latin; but "factotum" comes from _fac totum_ = "do everything", and "nostrum" comes from _nostrum remedium_ = "our remedy".) "Conundrum", "panjandrum", "tantrum", and "vellum" are not Latin words.

If in doubt, consult a dictionary (or use the English plural in "-s" or "-es"). One plural that you *will* find in U.S. dictionaries, "octopi", raises the ire of purists (the Greek plural is "octopodes").

The classical-style plurals of "penis" and "clitoris" are "penes" /'piniz/ and "clitorides" /klI'tOrIdiz/.

Foreign plurals => English singulars

Some uses of classical plurals as singulars in English are undisputed: "opera", "stamina". ("Opera", still used as the plural of "opus", became singular in Vulgar Latin, and then in Italian acquired the sense "musical drama", giving rise to the English word.) "Agenda" once excited controversy but is now accepted. Others are the subject of current controversy: "data" (used by Winston Churchill!), "erotica", "insignia", "media", "regalia", "trivia". Yet others are still widely stigmatized: "bacteria", "candelabra", "criteria", "curricula", "phenomena", "strata".

"Bona fides", "kudos", and "minutia" are singulars in Latin or Greek.

"Graffiti" (plural in Italian) is disputed in English. But "zucchini" (also plural in Italian) is the invariable singular form in English (the English plural is "zucchini" or "zucchinis"). The names of types of pasta (cannelloni, cappelletti, ditali, fusilli, gnocchi, macaroni, manicotti, ravioli, rigatoni, spaghetti, spaghettini, tagliarini, tortellini, vermicelli, ziti, which are masculine plural in Italian; and conchiglie, farfalle, fettucine, linguine, rotelle, which are feminine plural; some of the -e words are often spelled with -i in English) are treated as mass nouns in English: they take singular verbs, but plurals are not made from them. (Many of the words listed as disputed above are also treated as mass nouns when they are used as singulars.)

Preposition at end

Yes, yes, we've all heard the following anecdotes:
  1. Winston Churchill was editing a proof of one of his books, when he noticed that an editor had clumsily rearranged one of Churchill's sentences so that it wouldn't end with a preposition. Churchill scribbled in the margin, "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put." (This is often quoted with "arrant nonsense" substituted for "English", or with other variations. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Sir Ernest Gowers' _Plain Words_ (1948), where the anecdote begins, "It is said that Churchill..."; so we don't know exactly what Churchill wrote.)
  2. The Guinness Book of (World) Records used to have a category for "most prepositions at end". The incumbent record was a sentence put into the mouth of a boy who didn't want to be read excerpts from a book about Australia as a bedtime story: "What did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to from out of about 'Down Under' up for?" Mark Brader ( -- all this is to the best of his recollection; he didn't save the letter, and doesn't have access to the British editions) wrote to Guinness, asking: "What did you say that the sentence with the most prepositions at the end was 'What did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to from out of about "Down Under" up for?' for? The preceding sentence has one more." Norris McWhirter replied, promising to include this improvement in the next British edition, but actually it seems that Guinness, no doubt eventually realising that this could be done recursively, dropped the category.
  3. "Excuse me, where is the library at?" "Here at Hahvahd, we never end a sentence with a preposition." "O.K. Excuse me, where is the library at, *asshole*?"
Fowler and nearly every other respected prescriptivist see NOTHING wrong with ending a clause with a preposition; Fowler calls it a "superstition". ("Never end a sentence with a preposition" is how the superstition is usually stated, although it would "naturally" extend to any placement of a preposition later than the noun or pronoun it governs.) Indeed, Fowler considers "a good land to live in" grammatically superior to "a good land in which to live", since one cannot say *"a good land which to inhabit".

Repeated words after abbreviations

Disputes occur about the legitimacy of placing after an acronym/ initialism the last word that is abbreviated in it, e.g., "AC current", "the HIV virus". "AC" and "HIV" by themselves will certainly suffice in most contexts. But such collocations tend to become regarded as irreducible and uninterpretable words. "The SNOBOL language" and "BASIC code" are as good as "the BASIC language" and "SNOBOL code"; and why should "an LED display" (Light Emitting Diode display) be reasonable, but not "an LCD display" (Liquid Crystal Display display)? The extra word may guard against ambiguity; e.g., "I've forgotten my PIN" might be mistaken in speech as being about sewing, whereas "I've forgotten my PIN number" identifies the context as ATMs.

"shall" vs "will", "should" vs "would"

The traditional rules for using these (based on the usage of educated Southern Englishmen in the 18th and 19th centuries) are quite intricate, and require some choices ("Should you like to see London?"; "The doctor thought I should die") that are no longer idiomatically reasonable. But if you're dead set on learning them, they're set out in _The King's English_, by Fowler and Fowler (OUP, 1931, ISBN 0-19-881330-9). Usage outside England has always been different: the old joke, where the Irishman cries for help: "I will drown and no one shall save me" and the Englishman mistakes this for a suicide resolution, is contrived, in that an Irishman would far more likely say "no one will save me."

split infinitive

Sir Ernest Gowers wrote in _The Complete Plain Words_ (HMSO, 1954): "The well-known [...] rule against splitting an infinitive means that nothing must come between 'to' and the infinitive. It is a bad name, as was pointed out by Jespersen [...] 'because we have many infinitives without _to_, as "I made him go". _To_ therefore is no more an essential part of the infinitive than the definite article is an essential part of a nominative, and no one would think of calling _the good man_ a split nominative.' It is a bad rule too; it increases the difficulty of writing clearly [...]." The split infinitive construction goes back to the 14th century, but was relatively rare until the 19th.

Fowler wrote (in the article POSITION OF ADVERBS, in MEU) that "to" + infinitive is "a definitely enough recognized verb-form to make the clinging together of its parts the natural and normal thing"; "there is, however, no sacrosanctity about that arrangement". There are many considerations that should govern placement of adverbs: there are other sentence elements, he said, such as the verb and its object, that have a *stronger* affinity for each other; but only avoidance of the split infinitive "has become a fetish".

Thus, although in "I quickly hid it", the most natural place for "quickly" is before "hid", "I am going to hide it quickly" is slightly more natural than "I am going to quickly hide it". But "I am going to quickly hide it" is itself preferable to "I am going quickly to hide it" (splitting "going to" changes the meaning from indicating futurity to meaning physically moving somewhere), or to "I am going to hide quickly it" (separation of the verb from its object). And even separating the verb from its object may become the preferred place for the adverb if "it" is replaced by a long noun phrase ("I am going to hide quickly any evidence of our ever having been here").

Phrases consisting of "to be" or "to have" followed by an adverb and a participle are *not* split infinitives, and constitute the natural word order. "To generally be accepted" and "to always have thought" are split infinitives; "to be generally accepted", "to have always thought" are not.

Negative and restrictive adverbs ("not", "never", "hardly", "scarcely") are characteristically placed before "to" ("To be, or not to be"); but placing adverbs of manner in this position is considered good style only in legal English ("It is his duty faithfully to execute the provisions...").

Clumsy avoidance of split infinitives often leads to ambiguity: does "You fail completely to recognise" mean "You completely fail to recognise", or "You fail to completely recognise"? Ambiguous split infinitives are much rarer, but do exist: does "to further cement trade relations" mean "to cement trade relations further", or "to promote relations with the cement trade"?

The most frequently cited split infinitive is from the opening voice-over of _Star Trek_: "to boldly go where no man has gone before". (_Star Trek: The Next Generation_ had "one" in place of "man".) Here, "boldly" modifies the entire verb phrase: the meaning is "to have the boldness that the unprecedentedness of the destinations requires". If "boldly" were placed after "go", it would modify only "go", changing the meaning to "to go where no man has gone before, and by the way, to go there boldly".

Hardly any serious commentator believes that infinitives should never be split. The dispute is between those who believe that split infinitives should be avoided when this can be done with no sacrifice of clarity or naturalness, and those who believe that no effort whatever should be made to avoid them.

"that" vs "which"

In "The family that prays together stays together", the clause "that prays together" is called a RESTRICTIVE CLAUSE because it restricts the main statement to a limited class of family. In "The family, which is the basic unit of human society, is weakening", "which ... society" is called a NONRESTRICTIVE CLAUSE because it makes an additional assertion about the family without restricting the main statement.

It is generally agreed that nonrestrictive clauses should be set off by commas; restrictive clauses, not. Nonrestrictive clauses are now nearly always introduced by "which" or "who" (although "that" was common in earlier centuries). Fowler encourages us to begin restrictive clauses with "that"; but this is not a binding rule (although some copy-editors do go on "which hunts"), and indeed is not possible if a preposition is to precede the relative pronoun.

Object relative pronouns can be omitted altogether ("the book that I read" or "the book I read"); in standard English, subject relative pronouns cannot be omitted, although in some varieties of informal spoken English, they are ("There's a man came into the office the other day".)

the the "hoi polloi" debate

Yes, "hoi" means "the" in Greek, but the first 5 citations in the OED, and the most famous use of this phrase in English (in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta _Iolanthe_), put "the" in front of "hoi". This is not a unique case: words like "alchemy", "alcohol", "algebra", "alligator", and "lacrosse" incorporate articles from other languages, but can still be prefixed in English with "the". "The El Alamein battle" (which occurred in Egypt during World War II) contains THREE articles.

"true fact"

Many phrases often criticized as "redundant" are redundant in most contexts, but not in all. "Small in size" is redundant in most contexts, but not in "Although small in size, the ship was large in glory." "Consensus of opinion" is redundant in most contexts, but not in "Some of the committee members were coerced into voting in favour of the motion, so although the motion represents a consensus of votes, it does not represent a consensus of opinion."

Context can negate part of the definition of a word. "Artificial light" is light that is artificial (= "man-made"), but "artificial flowers" are not flowers (i.e., genuine spermatophyte reproductive orders) that are artificial. In the latter phrase, "artificial" negates part of the definition of "flower". The bats known as "false vampires" do not feed on blood: "false" negates part of the definition of "vampire".

The ordinary definition of "fact" includes the idea of "true" (e.g., fact vs fiction); the meaning of "fact" does have other aspects (e.g., fact vs opinion). Context can negate the idea of "true". Fowler himself used the phrase "Fowler's facts are wrong; therefore his advice is probably wrong, too" (a conclusion that he was eager to avert, moving him to defend his facts) in one of the S.P.E. tracts.

It follows that "true fact" need not be a redundancy.


In informal English, one can probably get away with using "who" all the time, except perhaps after a preposition.

The prescription for formal English is: use "who" as the subjective form (like "he"/"she"/ "they"), and "whom" as a direct or indirect object (like "him"/ "her"/"them"):

He gave it to me. Who gave it to me? That's the man who gave it to me.
I gave it to him. Whom did I give it to? That's the man whom I gave it to.
I gave him a book. Whom did I give a book? That's the man whom I gave a book.
Note the difference between:
I believe (that) he is drowned. Who do I believe is drowned? That is the man who I believe is drowned.
I believe him to be drowned. Whom do I believe to be drowned? That is the man whom I believe to be drowned.
Note also, that unless you say "It is he", you cannot rely on these transformations for complements of the verb "to be". You may say "It's him", but the question is "Who is it?", definitely not "Whom is it?"

The case of "whoever" is determined by its function in the clause that it governs, not by its function in the main sentence: "I like whoever likes me." "Whomever I like likes me."

Very few English speakers make these distinctions instinctively; most of those who observe them learned them explicitly. Instincts would lead them to select case based on word order rather than on syntactic function. Hence Shakespeare wrote "Young Ferdinand, whom they suppose is drowned". But Fowler called this a solecism in modern English; it might be better to abstain from "whom" altogether if one is not willing to master the prescriptive rules.

"you saying" vs "your saying"

In "You saying you're sorry alters the case", the subject of "alters" is not "you", since the verb is singular. Fowler called this construction the "fused participle", and recommended "Your saying..." instead. The fused participle *can* lead to ambiguity: does "Citizens participating helped the project" mean "Those citizens who participated helped the project", or "The fact that citizens participated helped the project"? (Placing commas around "participating" would yield a third meaning.) Appending an apostrophe to "citizens" would make the second meaning clear.

Other commentators have been less critical of the fused participle than Fowler. Jespersen traces the construction as the last in a series of developments where gerunds, which originally functioned strictly as nouns, have taken on more and more verb-like properties ("the showing of mercy" => "showing of mercy" => "showing mercy"). Partridge defends the construction by citing lexical noun-plus-gerund compounds. In most of these (e.g., "time-sharing"), the noun functions as the object of the gerund, but in some recent compounds (e.g., "machine learning"), it functions as the subject.


"." after abbreviations

Fowler recommends putting a "." only after abbreviations that do not include the last letter of the word they're abbreviating, e.g., "Capt." for captain but "Cpl" for corporal. In some English- speaking countries, many people follow this rule, but not in the U.S., where "Mr." and "Dr." prevail.

", vs ,"

According to William F. Phillips (, in the days when printing used raised bits of metal, "." and "," were the most delicate, and were in danger of damage (the face of the piece of type might break off from the body, or be bent or dented from above) if they had a '"' on one side and a blank space on the other. Hence the convention arose of always using '."' and ',"' rather than '".' and '",', regardless of logic.

Fowler was a strong advocate of logical placement of punctuation marks, i.e. only placing them inside the quotation marks if they were part of the quoted matter. This scheme has gained ground, and is especially popular among computer users, and others who wish to make clear exactly what is and what is not being quoted.

Some people insist that '."' and ',"' LOOK better, but Fowler calls them "really mere conservatives, masquerading only as aesthetes".

"A, B and C" vs "A, B, and C"

This is known as the "serial comma" dispute. Both styles are common. The style with the extra comma was recommended by Fowler, and is more common in the U.S. than elsewhere. Although either style may cause ambiguity (in "We considered Miss Roberts for the roles of Marjorie, David's mother, and Louise", are there two roles or three?), the style that omits the comma is more likely to do so: "Tom, Peter, and I went swimming." (Without the comma, one might think that the sentence was addressed to Tom.) "I ordered sandwiches today. I ordered turkey, salami, peanut butter and jelly, and roast beef." Without that last comma, one would have a MIGHTY weird sandwich! -- Gabe Wiener. James Pierce reports that an author whose custom it was to omit the comma dedicated a novel: "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God."


Non-native speakers are often unnecessarily cautious in their use of English. Someone once posted to alt.usage.english from Japan, asking, "What is the correct thing to say if one is being assaulted: 'Help!' or 'Help me!'?" Not only are they both correct; there was a whole slew of responses asking, "Why the heck would you worry about correctness at a time like that?"

It may happen that your post's greatest departure from English idiom is something unrelated to what you are asking about. If you like, say "Please correct any errors in this post"; otherwise, those who answer you may out of politeness refrain from offering a correction.

Although not so stratified as some languages, English does have different stylistic levels. In a popular song, you may hear: "It don't make much difference." When speaking to a friend, you will probably want to say: "It doesn't make much difference." If you are writing a formal report, you may want to render it as: "It makes little difference." So it's helpful if when posting, you specify the stylistic level that you're enquiring about.

If you prefer to make a query by e-mail, rather than posting to the whole Net, you can send it to the Purdue University Online Writing Lab. Send e-mail to They also have an ftp/gopher site, "".

"a"/"an" before abbreviations

"A" is used before words beginning with consonants; "an", before words beginning with vowels. This is determined by sound, not spelling ("a history", "an hour", "a unit", "a European", "a one"). Formerly, "an" was usual before unaccented syllables beginning with "h" ("an historian", "an hotel"); these are "now obsolescent" in British English (Collins English Dictionary), although "an historian" is retained in more dialects than "an hotel".

Before abbreviations, the choice of "a"/"an" depends on how the abbreviation is pronounced: "a NATO spokesman" (because "NATO" is pronounced /'neItoU/); "an NBC spokesman" (because "NBC" is pronounced /Enbi'si/) "a NY spokesman" (because "NY" is read as "New York (state)").

A problem: how can a foreigner *tell* whether a particular abbreviation is pronounced as a word or not? Two non-foolproof guidelines:

  1. It's more likely to be an acronym if it *looks* as if it could be an English word. "NATO" and "scuba" do; "UCLA" and "NAACP" don't.
  2. It's more likely to be an acronym if it's a *long* sequence of letters. "US" is short; "EBCDIC" is too bloody long to say as "E-B-C-D-I-C". (But of course, abbreviations that can be broken down into groups, like "TCP/IP" and "AFL-CIO", are spelled out because the groups are short enough.)
Is it "a FAQ" or "an FAQ"? Either is acceptable. "FAQ" is more likely to be mentally expanded to "frequently asked question" if you're talking about a *particular* (frequently asked) question than if you're talking about "an FAQ file".

"A number of..."

"A number of ..." usually requires a plural verb. In "A number of employees were present", it's the employees who were present, not the number. "A number of" is just a fuzzy quantifier. ("A number of..." may need a singular in the much rarer contexts where it does not function as a quantifier: "A number of this magnitude requires 5 bytes to store.")

On the other hand, "the number of..." always takes the singular: "The number of employees who were present was small." Here, it's the number that was small, not the employees.

When to use "the"

This is often quite tricky for those learning English. The book _Three Little Words; A, An and The: a Foreign Student's Guide to English_ by Elizabeth Claire (Delta, 1988, ISBN 0-937354-46-5) has been recommended.

The article "the" before a noun generally indicates one specific instance of the object named. For example, "I went to the school" refers to one school. (The context should establish which school is meant.) Such examples have the same meaning across most (all?) dialects of English.

The construct , with no intervening article, often refers to a state of being rather than to an instance of the object named by the noun. The set of commonly used preposition-noun combinations varies from one dialect to another. Some examples are:


Present Subjunctive

The present subjunctive is the same in form as the infinitive without "to". This is also the same form as the present indicative, except in the third person singular and in forms of the verb "to be".

The present subjunctive is used:

  1. in third-person commands: "Help, somebody save me!" Most third- person commands (although not those addressed to "somebody") are now expressed with "let" instead. The following (current but set) formulas would probably use "let" if they were being coined today: "So be it"; "Manners be hanged!"; "... be damned"; "Be it known that..."; "Far be it from me to..."; "Suffice it to say that..."
  2. in third person wishes. Most third-person wishes are now prefixed with "may" instead, as would the following formulas be: "God save the Queen!"; "God bless you"; "God help you"; "Lord love a duck"; "Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done."; "Heaven forbid!"; "The Devil take him!"; "Long live the king!"; "Perish the thought!"
  3. in formulas where it means "No matter how..." or "Even if...": "Come what may, ..."; "Be that as it may, ..."; "Though all care be exercised..."; "Be he ever so..."
  4. after "that" clauses to introduce a situation that the actor wants to bring about. Used to introduce a formal motion ("I move that Mr. Smith be appointed chairman"); after verbs like "demand", "insist", "propose", "prefer", "recommend", "resolve", "suggest"; and after phrases like "it is advisable/desirable/ essential/fitting/imperative/important/necessary/urgent/vital that". "Should" can also be used in such clauses. This use of the subjunctive had become archaic in Britain in the first half of the 20th century, but has been revived under U.S. influence. Note the difference between "It is important that America has an adequate supply of hydrogen bombs" (America has an adequate supply of H-bombs, and this is important) and "It is important that America have an adequate supply of hydrogen bombs" (America probably *lacks* an adequate supply, and must acquire one).
  5. after "lest". "Should" can also be used after "lest". After the synonymous "in case", the plain indicative is usual.
  6. "Come...", meaning "When ... comes"

Past Subjunctive

The past subjunctive is the same in form as the past indicative, except in the past subjunctive singular of "to be", which is "were" instead of "was".

The past subjunctive is used:

  1. for counterfactual conditionals: "If I were..." or (literary) "Were I..." In informal English, substitution of the past indicative form ("If I was...") is common. But note that speakers who make this substitution are *still* distinguishing possible conditions from counterfactual ones, by a change of tense:
                                    Present         Past

    Possible condition: "If I am" "If I was"

    Counterfactual condition: "If I were/was" "If I had been"
    "As if" and "as though" were originally always used to introduce counterfactuals, but are now often used in "looks as if", "sounds as though", etc., to introduce things that the speaker actually believes ("It looks as if" = "It appears that"). In such cases the present indicative is often used.

    Fowler says that there is no "sequence of moods" requirement in English: it's "if I were to say that I was wrong", not "if I were to say that I were wrong".

  2. for counterfactual wishes: "I wish I were..."; "If only I were..."; (archaic) "Would that I were...". Again, substitution of the past indicative is common informally. Achievable wishes are usually expressed with various verbs plus the infinitive: "I wish to...", "I'd like you to..."
  3. in literary English, sometimes to introduce the apodosis ("then" part) of a conditional: "then I were" = "then I would be".
  4. in "as it were" (a formula indicating that the previous expression was coined for the occasion or was not quite precise -- literally, "as if it were so").



"A.D." stands for _Anno Domini_ = "in the year of the Lord", not for "after the death".


The 1947 incident often related by Grace Hopper, in which a technician solved a glitch in the Harvard Mark II computer by pulling a moth out from between the contacts of one of its relays, *did* happen. However, the log entry ("first actual case of bug being found") indicates that this is *not* the *origin* of this sense of "bug". It was used in 1899 in a reference to Thomas Edison. It may come from "bug" in the sense of "frightful object", which seems to be related to "bugbear" and "bogey", and goes back to 1588. See the Jargon File.

"Caesarean section"

The OED erroneously states that Julius Caesar was born by Caesarean section. But Caesarean section was always fatal in antiquity, and Julius' mother is known to have survived. "Caesarean section" may have been coined by someone who THOUGHT that Caesar was born this way; it may come from an order (Lex Caesarea) of the Caesars of Imperial Rome that any pregnant woman dying at or near term was to be delivered by C-section; or it may simply come from Latin _caedo_ "I cut".

Also not named directly after Julius Caesar are "Caesar salad" (allegedly named after a restaurant named Caesar's in Tijuana, Mexico); and "Julian day" (number of days elapsed since 1 January 4713 B.C., used in astronomy; named by Joseph Scaliger after his father, Julius Caesar Scaliger). The computer term "Julian date" (date represented as number of days elapsed from the beginning of a chosen year) was apparently inspired by "Julian day".


"Canola" is defined as "any of several varieties of the rape plant having seeds that contain no more than 5% erucic acid and no more than 3 mg per gram of glucosinolate". If you ever come across rapeseed oil that is *not* canola, I would avoid it, because erucic acid causes heart lesions, and glucosinolates cause thyroid enlargement and poor feed conversion!

Rape plants have been an important source of edible oil for almost 4000 years. Canola was developed after World War II by two Canadian scientists, Baldur Stefansson and Richard Downey.

"Canola" is variously explained as standing for "Canada oil, low acid", and as a blend of "Canada" and "colza". I imagine that "Mazola" (a brand name for corn [= "maize"] oil) had an influence.

"Canola" was originally a trademark in Canada, but is now a generic term. It's the only term now in use here; some sources do say that canola was "formerly called rape".

"Designer eggs", low-cholesterol eggs developed at the University of Alberta, are produced by adding canola and flax to the hens' diet.


This word, meaning "extremely satisfactory", was first recorded in 1919, and was originally heard chiefly among U.S. black jazz musicians. The tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878-1949) popularized the word, and claimed to have coined it when he was a shoeshine boy in Richmond; but a number of Southerners testified that they had heard the word used by parents or grandparents in the late 19th century. Suggested origins include: a supposed Italian word _copacetti_; a Creole French word _coupersetique_ meaning "that can be coped with"; and the Hebrew phrase _kol besedeq_ "all with justice". RHUD2 says that all these theories "lack supporting evidence".


"Crap" does not derive from Thomas Crapper. Thomas Crapper (1837-1910) did exist and did make toilets. (At least 3 authors have gone into print asserting he was a hoax, but you can see some of his toilets at the Gladstone Pottery Museum, Uttoxeter Road, Longton, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire ST3 1TQ, U.K.; phone +44 782 3113 78.) The word "crap" was imported into English from Dutch in the 15th century, with the meaning "chaff". It is recorded in the sense of "to defecate" from 1846; Thomas Crapper did not set up his business until 1861. Also, Thomas Crapper did not "invent" the flush toilet (the ancient Minoans had them); he merely improved the design.


People often ask why "flammable" and "inflammable" mean the same thing. The English words come from separate Latin words: _inflammare_ and the rarer _flammare_, which both meant "to set on fire". Latin had two prefixes _in-_, one of which meant "not"; the other, meaning "in", "into", or "upon", was the one used in _inflammare_. "Inflammable" dates in English from 1605. "Flammable" dates from 1813, but was rare until, because of concern that the "in-" in "inflammable" might be misconstrued as a negative prefix, "flammable" was adopted by the U.S. National Fire Protection Association in the 1920s; underwriters and others interested in fire safety followed suit.

"Flammable" is still commoner in the U.S. than in Britain; in figurative uses, "inflammable" prevails (e.g., "inflammable temper").


"Fuck" does NOT stand for "for unlawful carnal knowledge" or "fornication under consent of the king". It is not an acronym for anything at all. It is a very old word, recorded in England since the 15th century (few acronyms pre-date the 20th century), with cognates in other Germanic languages (MWCD10 and RHUD2 cite Middle Dutch _fokken_ = "to breed (cattle)", and Swedish dialect _fokka_ = "to copulate"). Eric Partridge, in the 7th edition of _Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English_ (Macmillan, 1970), said that it "almost certainly" comes from the Indo-European root _peuk-_ (which is the source of the English words "compunction", "expunge", " impugn", "poignant", "point", "pounce", "pugilist", "punctuate", "puncture", "pungent", and "pygmy"), but AHD3 does not cite an Indo-European root.


Contrary to what you may have read in Xaviera Hollander's book _The Happy Hooker_, the "prostitute" sense of "hooker" does NOT derive from Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker (1814-1879), a major general on the Union side of the U.S. civil war, whose men were alleged to frequent brothels. "Hooker" in this sense goes back to 1845 (see AHD3); the U.S. Civil War did not begin until 1861. It may come from the earlier sense of "thief" (which goes back to 1567, "to hook" meaning to steal), or it may refer to prostitutes' linking arms with their clients. A geographical Hook (Corlear's Hook in New York City, or the Hook of Holland) is also possible.


"Kangaroo" does NOT derive from the aboriginal for "I don't understand". Captain James Cook's expedition learned the word from an aboriginal tribe that subsequently couldn't be identified. Since there were a *large* number of Australian aboriginal languages, and it has taken some time to record and catalogue the surviving ones, for many years the story that it meant "I don't understand" was plausible. The search was further complicated by the fact that many aboriginal languages imported the word *from* English. But if you consult an up-to-date English dictionary, such as RHUD2, you will see that "kangaroo" is derived from the Guugu-Yimidhirr (a language spoken near Cooktown, North Queensland) word _ga-urru_ "a large black or grey species of kangaroo".

Similar stories are told about "llama" (a Quechua word, not from the Spanish _Como se llama?_ "What's it called?"); "indri" (this one DOES derive from the Malagasy word for "Look!"); and several place names, among them Canada (_kanata_ was the Huron- Iroquois word for "village, settlement"; Jacques Cartier is supposed to have mistaken this for the names of the country); Istanbul (said to come from a Turkish mishearing of Greek _eis ten poli_ "to the city"); Luzon (supposedly Tagalog for "What did you say?"); Nome (supposedly a printer's misreading of a cartographer's query, "Name?"); Senegal (supposedly from Wolof _senyu gal_ "our boats"); and Yucatan (supposedly = "I don't understand you").


This British colloquial word for "toilet" was established by the 1920s. Suggested origins include: French _lieu d'aisance_ = "place of easement" French _On est prie de laisser ce lieu aussi propre qu'on le trouve_ = "Please leave this place as clean as you find it" French _Gardez l'eau!_ = "Mind the water!" (supposedly said in the days before modern plumbing, when emptying chamber pots from upper-storey windows) "louvre" (from the use of slatted screens for a makeshift lavatory) "bordalou" (an 18th-century ladies' travelling convenience) "looward" or "leeward" (the sheltered side of a boat) "lee", a shepherd's shelter made of hurdles "lieu", as in "time off in lieu", i.e., in place of work done "lavatory", spoken mincingly "Lady Louisa Anson" (a 19th-century English noblewoman whose sons took her name-card from her bedroom door and put it on the guest lavatory) a misreading of room number "100" (supposedly a common European toilet location) a "water closet"/"Waterloo" joke. (James Joyce's _Ulysses_ (1922) contains the following text: "O yes, _mon loup_. How much cost? Waterloo. water closet.")


This one has generated LOTS of folklore. The following list of suggested origins and info comes from MEU2, from Eric Partridge's _Dictionary of Historical Slang_ (1972 edition, Penguin, 0-14-081046-X), and from Cecil Adams' _More of the Straight Dope_ (Ballantine, 1988, ISBN 0-345-34145-2). Thanks to Jeremy Smith for his help. The abbreviations on cracker boxes, shipping crates, cargoes of rum, et al., became synonymous with quality.