A seldom-used definition of toilet is the act or process of dressing or grooming oneself. It shares this definition with the French loanword toilette, which always refers to the grooming process and never to the bathroom fixture. In English, toilette (usually pronounced in the French style twa-LET, but it's sometimes toy-LET) was more common in the 19th century than now, but it's not obsolete. It survives as a useful word for a specific thing. Examples The file containing Mr Brown's … [Read more...]


In English, the loanword faux has the same meaning it has in French: artificial, or just fake. The word has been in English for several centuries, it was once used only to describe imitation products such as faux pearls or faux leather. During the last few decades, however, faux has burst from this confinement and is now used as a synonym of fake in all sorts of contexts. Its use is often not strictly justified, especially where reliable English words like fake or false would work just as well, … [Read more...]

Bulk, balk, baulk

Bulk means (1) size, mass, or volume, (2) a large mass or matter, (3) the major portion, (4) to cause to swell or expand, and (5) being in large mass or quantity. The less common balk, usually a verb, means primarily to stop short and refuse to go on. It's usually followed by the preposition at, though several other prepositions work. Baulk is a British variant of balk. In British publications, balk and baulk are used interchangeably, and both spellings appear about equally often. Canadian … [Read more...]

Half-mast vs. half-staff

In American English, a flag flown halfway up its flagpole as a symbol of mourning is at half-staff, and a flag flown halfway up a ship's mast to signal mourning or distress is at half-mast. The distinction does not run deep, though, as the terms are often mixed up, especially in unofficial contexts. Outside North America, half-staff is not a widely used term, and half-mast is used in reference to half-raised flags both on land and at sea. Half-mast is also preferred in Canada for both uses, … [Read more...]

Internet (capitalization)

Many American style guides recommend capitalizing the first letter of Internet, and most major American publications (as well as many Canadian ones) do so. Outside North America, internet is rarely capitalized. The non-U.S. approach makes more sense. There is no good reason to capitalize internet. The convention in English is to capitalize the first letters of proper nouns, which are the official names of people, places, objects, or events. The internet is none of these. It was originally … [Read more...]


Reappropriate and its noun reappropriation are so new that some dictionaries don't list them. And because spell check doesn't approve of reappropriate and its derivatives, many writers place an unnecessary hyphen after the first syllable---re-appropriate. But re- is the type of prefix that can be attached without a hyphen to virtually any verb, and reappropriate is a perfectly good form. Reappropriate has two main meanings. First, it means to appropriate again, as with funds that are taken … [Read more...]

Admission vs. admittance

Admission means (1) the act of allowing to enter, (2) the right to enter, (3) the price required to enter, and (4) an acknowledgment of truth. The word is often figurative; for example, you might gain admission to a college or club without physically entering it. Admittance refers to the act of physically entering. Though you might gain admission to a college months before the school year starts, admittance doesn't happen until you actually get there. Examples A much cited study finds that … [Read more...]

Dike vs. dyke

In American and Canadian English, dike is the preferred spelling of the noun referring to (1) an embankment used to prevent floods, and (2) a low wall dividing lands. Dyke is the preferred spelling in all other main varieties of English. Dyke is also a derogatory slang word referring to a lesbian. While this sense of dyke has been reappropriated and made positive by some, it is still generally considered offensive and should be shunned outside very specific contexts. Examples American and … [Read more...]

Tidbit vs. titbit

In American and Canadian English, tidbit is the preferred spelling of the noun referring to (1) a choice morsel or (2) a pleasing bit of something. Titbit is preferred everywhere else. Neither spelling is right or wrong. Titbit is older, but tidbit is etymologically justifiable (the first syllable likely comes from the archaic colloquialism tid, meaning tender). And tidbit is not so new itself; it was well established in American English by the early 1800s. Examples North America While … [Read more...]

Biceps and triceps

Biceps and triceps---each denoting a type of muscle---are singular nouns that look like plurals. Bicepses and tricepses are the logical plurals, but they're only rarely used. In most contexts, biceps and triceps are usually treated as plural, and bicep and tricep have become the conventional singular forms. This is the case outside scientific and medical writing, anyway. Examples In most types of writing, biceps and triceps can be either singular or plural---for example: [H]e tried to smack a … [Read more...]

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