Avocation vs. vocation

A vocation is a calling, an occupation, or a large undertaking for which one is especially suited. It can be roughly synonymous with career or profession, though vocation connotes a seriousness or a commitment that these words don't always bear. An avocation is something done in addition to one's vocation---usually a hobby. Both are rooted in the Latin vocāre, meaning to call. In its early English use, vocation usually had religious implications. One who had a vocation was called by God … [Read more...]

Hold sway

One centuries-old meaning of the noun sway is power or controlling influence. This is the sense intended in hold sway and similar phrases. To hold sway (usually over something) is to have and exert power and influence. Often the phrase implies that the person or thing holding sway prevails over other competing influences. Examples Whatever the merits of competing economic models, there is no question that in the United States, cutthroat capitalism holds sway. [New York Times] The “modern … [Read more...]

Crack down vs. crackdown

A crackdown (one word, no hyphen) is an official effort to forcefully repress or restrain something. Crack down (two words) is crackdown's corresponding verb. To crack down is to forcefully repress or restrain. For example, repressive governments tend to crack down on antigovernment protests. The actions these governments take against the protests might be termed crackdowns. Crackdowns tend to be especially harsh, usually involving force. … [Read more...]


The adverb awfully has two drastically different meanings. Literally, it means in an awful manner. For example, we might say that a football player who had a bad day on the field played awfully. But the word also has a more slangy sense, making it synonymous with very. For example, we might say that a player who scored three goals played awfully well. This usage might be considered out of place in formal writing, and it can cause confusion. The latter sense came about in the middle 19th … [Read more...]


Craps is a game in which players make wagers on the outcomes of rolls of dice. Because dice tumble randomly and the outcome is not predictable, craps is a game of chance. From this we can infer the meaning of the metaphorical term crapshoot---that is, a situation whose outcome is not predictable. Crapshoot is a new word. The earliest examples we can find are from the 1960s, but it was not widely used until the '80s. Even today it is still primarily an Americanism, though a few scattered … [Read more...]

Sulfur vs. sulphur

For the pale yellow nonmetallic element found especially in volcanic deposits, sulfur is the usual spelling in American English. Sulphur is generally the preferred spelling in nonscientific texts from outside North America, but sulfur is gaining ground in scientific writing throughout the English-speaking world. Related Phosphorus vs. phosphorous Silicon vs. silicone The spelling distinction extends to derivative words such as sulfuric/sulphuric, sulfate/sulphate, and … [Read more...]

Fungi vs. funguses

Though fungus has Latin roots, it has been an English word for many centuries, so there is nothing wrong with pluralizing it in the English manner---funguses. But even though there is nothing wrong with the English plural, fungus is one of a handful of Latin-derived words whose Latin plurals are conventionally preferred even in today's English. In 21st-century writing of all kinds, and especially in scientific writing, fungi is the more common plural and hence the safer choice. … [Read more...]

Inside baseball

In modern usage, inside baseball is a figurative adjective meaning appreciated by only a small group of insiders or aficionados. It also serves as a noun denoting inside-baseball matters. The term is usually used in politics, where the inside-baseball business includes the sorts of things political strategists think about but which the public is not necessarily privy to or interested in. But it works in any context where the details of a subject are too technical or uninteresting for most people … [Read more...]

E.g. vs. i.e.

The abbreviation e.g.---short for the Latin phrase exempli gratia---means for example. It is different from i.e.---short for the Latin id est---which means that is, namely, or in other words. The two are sometimes mixed up, but other than being abbreviations of Latin phrases, they share no common ground. E.g. is easy to remember because both it and example start with e. With i.e., just remember that it and that is are both two syllables, or make a mental connection between i.e. and the … [Read more...]

Drop off vs. drop-off (vs. dropoff)

Drop off is a verb---e.g., "I need to drop off the kids." Drop-off is a noun---e.g., "There was a drop-off in sales last month." The noun is sometimes spelled without a hyphen---dropoff. This is not yet the prevalent form (and your spell check probably says it's wrong), but it is gaining ground and is likely to gain widespread acceptance sooner or later. … [Read more...]

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