Monthly Archives: August 2014

Alright or All right?


This is an easy one: so far, “alright” is not considered an acceptable form of this construction. “Alright is all wrong” might help you to remember. However, given the prevalence of the one-word spelling in advertising and popular culture, I predict it is only a matter of time before “all right” will be “all wrong.” Meanwhile, I’m hanging in there with the purists.

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Is This Really So Difficult?

I hope you are familiar with the donation sites that ask you to click every day to support various causes (breast cancer, autism, hunger, literacy, veterans, and several others). I have been clicking for years. You can click on all of them in under a minute and can even select having a reminder sent to you daily. The causes are supported by various businesses; you are not required to pay anything—just a click a day.

I have to admit, my heart sank when I got to the diabetes site today. This was the welcoming message:


Does no one proofread? Does no one understand that most words ending in S are merely plurals, not possessives? Are these rhetorical questions?

Despite my curmudgeonly reaction to the errant apostrophe, I still do encourage you to support these causes daily; it will take only one minute of your time.


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All in the Family: Making Names Ending with S Plural



You can always write about the Williams family or the Watkins family, but the rule in pluralizing a name ending in S is, as you would expect, to add —ES. Therefore, the first family in the previous sentence is the Williamses and the second is the Watkinses. I can hear you shouting about how weird those names look. What I find interesting is that people have no problem saying or writing “keeping up with the Joneses.” Why then is it difficult to want to keep up with the Hopkinses or the Chamberses?

That Jones family has been around so long that we are all inured to the plural. Chances are even if you write the plural correctly for other names, you will still pronounce the plural form as the singular: you’ll drop the sound of the —ES: “We’re having dinner next Saturday with the Hopkins(ES).” But do write it correctly.

Adding an apostrophe does NOT make a plural: “Watkins’s” is the possessive form of one person named Watkins, as in “Dr. Watkins’s umbrella.” In fact, you can drop that final S after the apostrophe and you’ll still be correct. However, writing that you are “having dinner with the Watkins’s” is always going to be wrong.

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I needed to use the word “sanction” the other day and thought about how it has two opposite meanings (a contronym): A sanction means approving of something (asking a boss to sanction your project) or sanctioning by boycotting (as in sanctioning certain companies that take positions you do not agree with).

The word “cleave” is similarly a contronym, meaning to stick to something (The toddler cleaved to her mother’s arm) and also to split or sever (Pioneers needed to cleave logs to keep their cabins warm).

Here are some more contronyms on a list from this source:

dustto remove dust. to cover with dust.

hystericalfrightened and out of control. funny.

nervyshowing nerve or courage. excitable and volatile.

mootdebatable. not worth debating. (Pronounced as spelled, not as MUTE)

fastmoving quickly. solid and unable to move.

seedto sow seeds. to remove seeds.

weatherto withstand a storm. to wear away.

screento show, e.g., a film. to hide something.

boundfastened to a spot. heading for somewhere.

apologyan expression of regret for something. a defense or justification of something.

striketo hit. to miss (in baseball).

I love being a word nerd.

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Letters of Sympathy


Doubtless, these are the most difficult letters to write. You are feeling awkward, sad and helpless and are writing to someone who has suffered an enormous loss, be it a death or serious injury or perhaps a robbery, job loss, bankruptcy, natural disaster, miscarriage, stillbirth, death of a pet—you get the idea.

What you should NOT do is ignore the situation. I know you feel awkward, but the person suffering the loss wants to hear from you and will be disappointed if you fail to write. Put their feelings before your own.

Here are a few guidelines that could help you:

1. Use your natural voice. Picture the person you’re writing to and use the same words as if you were face to face. Do not revert to the platitudes, clichés and euphemisms associated with grief, such as “offering condolences,” “the dearly departed,” “loved one,””at this tragic time.” Avoid euphemisms: words for death such a “passed away,” “passed,” “passed on,” “expired” (as George Carlin used to say, “like a magazine subscription”). If a person has died, it is fine to use the words “death” and “died.” That is what happened.

2. Saying you’re sorry is honest. Try to recall a happy occasion or event surrounding the person who died. You can be lighthearted and even funny in your reminiscence; it will bring a smile to the one who has suffered the loss.

3. Don’t ask what you can do to help. That is vague and likely will not be picked up on. Instead, say you will call soon and check on them. Then put this on your calendar and do it.

4. Tell the person who has suffered the loss that you do not expect a response, that you know it is a burden.

5. Close with an expression of sympathy and affection (if appropriate) and a wish that the bereaved find comfort in memories of happy times in the past.

If you are honest and natural, your letter will be gratefully received. You will have done something good for someone in a difficult situation. It is far more meaningful to write honestly and openly than just to send a sympathy card with your signature after the message.

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Commonly Misused Words


These three everyday words are frequently used incorrectly. Their true meanings may surprise you.

1. ENORMITY: Does not imply gigantic size. It means extreme evil, as in “the enormity of the murder of Abraham Lincoln.”

2. NAUSEOUS: Doesn’t mean to feel as if you are going to vomit; it means to cause that feeling in others. If you are about to toss your cookies, you are    NAUSEATED.

3. PERUSE: Does not mean to read quickly, to skim. It means to look over something very carefully.

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I’ve Been AWOL

I haven’t posted in a while because I spent the last 10 days having a houseful of guests including our two precious grandchildren. We spent the time hitting some of the cultural highlights, including exhibits on Pompeii, Byzantium, dinosaurs, gems and minerals, and a stellar art exhibit at the LA County Museum, entitled “From Van Gogh to Kandinsky,” one I consider perhaps the best show LACMA has ever mounted.

Looking at what I titled this post and my mentioning of LACMA reminded me how often I hear people confuse abbreviations with acronyms. All acronyms are abbreviations, but not all abbreviations are acronyms. Acronyms are abbreviations pronounced like words: snafu. fubar, NASA, ASAP, laser, LSAT and GMAT, among others.


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If You’re a Scrabble Player


If you’re a really dedicated Scrabble player, you’ve probably memorized all the two-letter words no one ever uses in real life, such as qi and za and ki. Now a new edition of the Merriam-Webster Scrabble Players Dictionary has been released and gives you permission to use the following, ahem, words:







Quinzhee, which as you know is an Iniut word meaning a combination of an igloo and a hole in the ground

I prefer to play Wordscraper, a Scrabble-like game on steroids that seems to be available only on Facebook. I prefer it because you can rack up much higher scores than in Scrabble. It also accepts some very odd words, including some abbreviations and some non-English words.

Anyone hungry? Let’s go out for some za.  Gack! I will never say that, but I have played it, especially when I can get the Z on a quadruple letter or on a 5X score for the word. Incidentally, you can make it plural if you have an S.

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Wondering and Guessing


Take a look at the following sentences:

1.  I wonder how long this meeting is going to take?

2. Guess how many jellybeans are in this jar?

Just this morning I saw errors such as the ones in those sentences in both the LA Times and the New York Times.

Did you just reread those sentences and decide neither one contained an error? I’m guessing most people would think that. But look what those sentences are doing:

The “wonder” sentence shows that the writer has a question about how long that dreaded meeting will take. But, in fact, that sentence merely states a fact, the fact that the writer does not know the length of the meeting. It is a simple declarative sentence.

The “guess” sentence is a command: “I am telling you to guess how many jellybeans are in the jar.” The people being addressed have a question in their minds, but the speaker/writer of that sentence is issuing an order, not a question.

When you need to write “wonder” or “guess,” do not automatically throw in a question mark. Only if those words are contained in an actual question (Do you wonder how Igor ever was hired as the chief lab manager? Can you guess how many jellybeans are in this jar?) should you use a question mark.


(That can be an abbreviated question, “Do you understand?” or a command, “You must understand.”  It’s the first; you knew that.)

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