Lo, lo and behold

Lo is an archaic interjection used to attract attention or to show surprise. It's usually either a standalone sentence (usually with an exclamation point) or set off from the surrounding sentence with commas. In modern writing, it's very difficult to use lo without creating an ironic or archaic tone. These writers do so intentionally: Lo, the 2011 Tony Award nominees. [Vanity Fair] But lo! The female at left really is Bristol Palin. [Gawker] And lo, there shall be a sign that the end … [Read more...]

Enormity vs. enormousness

Enormity has a few meanings. It's sometimes used to refer to (1) extreme wickedness, or (2) a monstrous offense or evil. The word comes from the French énormité, which mean irregularity, and these more extreme senses developed in English a century or two after the word entered the language.1 But enormity is also frequently used interchangeably with enormousness, which means the quality of being great in size, number, or degree. This is not wrong, nor is it a new development; the OED lists … [Read more...]


Offhand is the standard spelling of the adjective describing things that are (1) improvised, or (2) performed without preparation. It is a single word with no hyphen. Offhanded, off-hand, and off-handed all appear fairly often, but each can be replaced with the shorter, simpler offhand. And while offhanded is a superfluous form, offhandedly is the adverb corresponding to offhand---though offhand often functions adverbially  on its own. Examples As an adjective Even his heavy political … [Read more...]

Periodic vs. periodical

Something that is periodic (1) happens at regular intervals, or (2) is intermittent. Periodical means published at regular intervals, and it doubles as a noun referring to something that is published at regular intervals. The words were originally variants of each other, and some dictionaries still list periodical as a variant of periodic, but they are generally kept separate in 21st-century usage.  Related -ic/-ical words Periodic and periodical constitute just one of many -ic and … [Read more...]

Armor vs. armour

Armor is the American spelling of the noun meaning a protective covering. Armour is the preferred spelling in all the other main varieties of English. Other than the spelling, there is no difference between the words. Examples For example, these non-U.S. publications use armour: He has been training for two months, first starting with a vest and then adding bits of armour gradually. [BBC News] A new study, published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, shows that these … [Read more...]

Confidant vs. confidante

Confidant, which refers to one to whom secrets or private thoughts are disclosed, refers to both males and females.  Confidante sometimes appears in reference to females, but the male--female distinction is unnecessary here. One might argue the distinction is justified because it preserves the French forms, but in fact, confidant is not even a French word. It was invented by English writers in the 18th century. The French equivalent is confident (which is indeed inflected confidente for … [Read more...]

Oppress, repress, suppress

To oppress means to keep (someone) down by unjust force or authority. To repress is (1) to hold back, or (2) to put down by force. Suppress, which is broader and more common than the other two, means (1) to put an end to, (2) to inhibit, and (3) to keep from being revealed. There is some crossover between these verbs---and suppress often covers all three words' uses---but oppress usually applies to the mistreatment of a person or group by a more powerful one, repress usually applies to … [Read more...]

Presumptive vs. presumptuous

Presumptive means based on presumption. It's often synonymous with probable. Something that is presumptive can be reasonably guessed based on ample evidence. Presumptuous means (1) going beyond what is proper, or (2) excessively forward. One who is presumptuous presumes too much. Examples Presumptuous It seems cold to disappear to the spare room, presumptuous to sleep in "our" bedroom. [Guardian] It is somewhat presumptuous of me to offer anything since I only know Christchurch from … [Read more...]

Smoothe, smoothen

Smooth is both an adjective and a verb. If you want to make something smooth, you smooth it. Some dictionaries list smoothen, a verb meaning to make or become smooth, but the word is superfluous and can always give way to smooth. Smoothe, which appears about a tenth as often as smoothen, is an old secondary spelling of smooth, but it does not commonly appear in 21st-century published writing. Examples In each of these sentences, smoothe or smoothen could give way to the more … [Read more...]

Sic vs. sick

Sic is (1) a Latin-derived word used to indicate that quoted text is reproduced as it originally appeared, and (2) a verb meaning to set upon or to incite to hostile action. For example, you might sic your dog on a snake. Sick, which is never a verb (except, rarely, in the colloquial phrasal verb sick up), is a misspelling when used in this sense. Sic is inflected as sicced, siccing, and sics. Your spell check might say these forms are wrong, but spell check is behind the times in this … [Read more...]

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