Unknown quantity

Unknown quantity is an idiomatic phrase from mathematics. Though it originally referred to unspecified variables, it's now used more broadly to mean a person or thing whose action or effect is unknown or unpredictable. For example, we might use unknown quantity to describe someone whose behavior is erratic, someone who has received a chance to do something for the first time, or someone we simply don't know much about. Of course, unknown quantity can still be used to describe an unspecified … [Read more...]

Earthy vs. earthly

Earthly and earthy were originally synonyms, but the adjectives have undergone differentiation over time. Today, earthly means of, relating to, or characteristic of the earth (often as opposed to heavenly or divine). Earthy means (1) plain, (2) natural, or (3) indecent or coarse. Food and wine writers love using earthy to describe plain flavors that balance extremes. Examples Earthly Walk through the big red god gates and you leave the earthly world behind, entering a world where the gods and … [Read more...]

Usually always

Because usually and always have conflicting meanings, usually always is a self-contradictory phrase. People often use it where they mean simply usually or, in other words, most of the time. So in most cases, always is the unnecessary word and could be removed with no loss of meaning. … [Read more...]

In the throes of

Throes refers to a condition of agonizing struggle or difficulty. It is the word used in the phrase in the throes of, which means to be in the midst of (something difficult). Because throes are by definition violent, painful, or otherwise agonizing, it doesn't make much sense to use in the throes of as a neutral synonym of in the midst of. For example, it would be odd to say, "We are in the throes of an economic recovery"---this phrase comes from a recent news story---because an economic … [Read more...]

Straight vs. strait

Straight is primarily (1) an adjective meaning extending in the same direction without curving, and (2) an adverb meaning directly. (It does have some rare noun senses, mainly referring to straight parts of roads and straight lines.) Strait is almost always a noun. It means a narrow channel joining two larger bodies of water. It also has a few mostly archaic adjective definitions, but these are almost never used. The phrasal adjective strait-laced uses one of the archaic definitions … [Read more...]

Canvas vs. canvass

Canvas, with one s, is always a noun. It refers to (1) a heavy, coarse, closely woven fabric used for tents and sails; (2) a piece of such fabric on which a painting is executed; (3) a fabric of coarse open weave, used as a foundation for needlework; and (4) a background against which events unfold. Canvass, with two s's, has a few rare noun meanings, but it is most often used as a verb. Its main definitions are (1) to examine carefully or discuss thoroughly, (2) to go through an area to … [Read more...]

Analyse vs. analyze

Analyze is preferred in American and Canadian English. Analyse is the preferred spelling outside North America. There are no other differences between analyze and analyse. The s/z distinction extends to the participles, analyse/analyze and analysing/analyzing, as well as to other derivatives such as analyser/analyzer and analysable/analyzable, but analysis is the corresponding noun in all varieties of English. Examples For example, these British and Australian spell analyse with an s: She … [Read more...]

Cosmetology vs. cosmology

Cosmetology (whose root is cosmetic) is the study or art of cosmetics and their use. The job of a cosmetologist is to make people beautiful. Cosmology (whose root is cosmos) is the study of the physical universe considered as a totality of phenomena in time and space. Cosmologists consider vast questions such as the origins and trajectory of the universe, the movements of galaxies, and the nature of space-time. Cosmetology is mainly an American term, but it has begun to work its way into … [Read more...]

Fait accompli

The French loanword fait accompli translates literally to accomplished fact. In English, it's a noun phrase referring to something that has been accomplished and cannot now be changed. Although it can refer to facts or conclusions, it's usually used in reference to deeds. A fait accompli is irreversible. Examples Some residents said they had considered the project a fait accompli. [New York Times] Neither of those facts makes the purchase a fait accompli for Rogers. [Toronto Sun] The … [Read more...]

Subtle vs. subtil

Subtle is the standard spelling of the adjective meaning (1) so slight as to be difficult to detect, (2) difficult to understand, (3) able to make fine distinctions, and (4) characterized by skill or ingenuity. Subtil is an archaic spelling of subtle. It is no longer used in any variety of English (though it is a modern word in French and German). Subtle's corresponding noun is subtlety, though subtleness appears occasionally. Its adverb is subtly. … [Read more...]

About Grammarist
Contact | Privacy policy | Home
© Copyright 2009-2014 Grammarist