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Zero-sum game

A zero-sum game is a situation, especially a competitive one, in which there is no net gain among the participants. If one gains, it means others have to lose an equivalent amount. For example, if the only way for you to gain $1,000 is to deprive someone else of $1,000, you’re in a zero-sum game. The term is also sometimes used to refer to situations in which one’s own gains offset one’s losses. These are zero-sum game’s popular meanings, anyway. Followers of game theory, where the phrase … [Read more...]

Bound vs. bounded

The verb bind makes bound in the past tense and as a past participle. So, for example, if you tied together two things this morning, you bound them together, and the two things were then bound together. Bounded is the past tense and past participle of the verb bound, which has two main definitions: (1) to confine or serve as the boundary of, and (2) to leap or spring. For example, an island is bounded on all sides by water, and somewhere a rabbit bounded out of a bush this morning. Bind is … [Read more...]

Parlay vs. parley

To parlay is (1) to place a bet as part of a series of bets using cumulative winnings; (2) more simply, just to bet; or (3) to maneuver something of advantage to receive something else of much greater value. To parley is to have a discussion, especially one between enemies or opposing sides. Both words also have corresponding noun senses: a parlay is a bet, and a parley is a discussion. The two are not quite homophones (parlay is pronounced par-LAY; parley is PAR-lee), but they are often … [Read more...]

Blessed vs. blest

Blessed is the past tense and past participle of bless. Blest is an archaic form that shows up mainly in references to old, mostly poetical texts and as a poetic affectation. Elsewhere, it has been pushed out of the language. This is the case throughout the English-speaking world. Both spellings descend from older forms in Old and Middle English, and both developed around the  14th century,1 though blessed is probably a little older. Blessed is one of a number of -ed words that gained a -t … [Read more...]

Real-time vs. real time

Real-time, with a hyphen, is an adjective describing something in which results, feedback, or statistical data follow input with no noticeable delay. The word is increasingly spelled realtime, and this may eventually become the standard spelling if people continue to find the adjective useful. For now, though, the hyphenated form is preferred. Real time is two words where the phrase functions as a noun, usually embedded in the adverbial phrase in real time. If this is confusing, just remember … [Read more...]

Tete-a-tete

Tete-a-tete (pronounced tet-uh-tet) comes from the French tête-à-tête, which translates literally to head to head. In English, we use it mainly as (1) a noun meaning a private conversation between two people, (2) an adjective meaning involving two people conversing in private, and (3) an adverb meaning done in private between two people. These are its conventional meanings, anyway. The phrase is also sometimes used to mean a match or competition between two people, and it's sometimes used to … [Read more...]

Crumby vs. crummy

Crummy means shabby, miserable, or of little value. The word was originally spelled crumby, but crumby is shedding that definition and is increasingly confined to its older senses---(1) full of or covered in crumbs, and (2) tending to break into crumbs. In the second sense, it's synonymous with crumbly.  Crumby has been in English since the 17th century, and it gained the slang senses now associated with crummy in the 19th century.1 Crummy has several little-used old definitions,2 but it … [Read more...]

Log in vs. login

Login, spelled as one word, is only a noun or an adjective. For example, the information you use to sign into your email is your login (noun), and the page where you sign in is the login page (adjective). Log in is two words when it functions as a verb. For example, you log in with your login information. Related Log on vs. log in There is much precedent for the distinction. Many two-word phrasal verbs have one-word equivalents that function as nouns and adjectives---for example, check … [Read more...]

Berserk

In Old Norse writings, berserkers are warriors who fight in a furious, uncontrollable, possibly drug-induced trance that gives them great strength and courage. The word came to English in the early 19th century and was initially used mainly in reference to the warriors, but it was soon shortened to berserk and gained its secondary, now more common meaning: frenetically upset or violent. The adjective is often embedded in the verb phrase go berserk, similar in construction and meaning to phrases … [Read more...]

Installment vs. instalment

The noun referring to something issued or paid at intervals is spelled installment in the U.S. Outside the U.S., it's spelled with one l---instalment. Canada is the only English-speaking country outside the U.S. where installment is common; it appears in 21st-century Canadian books and news publications about twice for every three instances of instalment. Related Installation vs. installment Both spellings are as old as the word itself, which originated in the 16th century, and the … [Read more...]

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