Strait-laced

The phrasal adjective meaning strict in behavior or morality is strait-laced, not straight-laced. Strait here bears a mostly archaic definition that survives primarily in this phrasal verb---namely, narrow, constricted, or fitting tightly. It's possible to imagine where straight-laced might make sense (for example, in contrasting straight laces with curved ones), but such instances don't come up often.    Examples This movie is about a bunch of strait-laced guys who hit Vegas for a bachelor … [Read more...]

Translucent vs. transparent

Things that are transparent are so clear you can see through them as if there's nothing there. Things that are translucent allow light through but with significant diffusion or distortion. So if you hold something transparent---say, a square of flat, clear glass---in front of these words, you'll be able to read them. If you hold up something translucent---say, a tinted or decorated glass with water in it---you'll see the glow of your screen but probably won't be able to read the … [Read more...]

Ape vs. monkey

monkey

There are three categories of primates: prosimians, apes, and monkeys. Prosimians are a small group comprising lemurs, lorises, bushbabies, aye-ayes, tarsiers, and a few others. Apes are another small group containing larger species of primates such as chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, humans, orangutans, and gibbons. Monkeys include every species of primate that is not an ape or a prosimian. … [Read more...]

Workout vs. work out

As a noun or an adjective, workout is one word. As a verb, it's two words---work out. So, for instance, when it's workout time, you start your workout, work out for a while, and stop. Work out is just one of many phrasal verbs with corresponding one word forms that function as nouns and adjectives. The one-word forms are sometimes hyphenated (e.g., work-out), but more often completely compounded. These forms never catch on as verbs in edited writing, though they are often erroneously treated … [Read more...]

Specter vs. spectre

specter-spectre-british-english

For the noun meaning a ghostly apparition or a haunting or disturbing image, American writers use specter. Everywhere else, spectre is the preferred spelling. Related Varieties of English Both spellings are several centuries old, but spectre prevailed everywhere until the middle 20th century, when the American-style spelling became prevalent in American English. Today, that spelling is also gaining ground in British English, but spectre is still far more … [Read more...]

Vain, vein, and vane

Vain is an adjective meaning (1) excessively pleased with one's own appearance or accomplishments, (2) not yielding the desired outcome, and (3) pointless. It's also used in the idiom in vain, meaning to no avail or in an irreverent manner (as in taking the Lord's name in vain). A vein is a membranous tube that carries blood to the heart in animals, and the word has numerous other definitions derived from this one.  Vane, the least common of the three words, is primarily a shortened form … [Read more...]

Begging the question (fallacy)

Begging the question, sometimes known by its Latin name petitio principii (meaning assuming the initial point), is a logical fallacy in which the writer or speaker assumes the statement under examination to be true. In other words, begging the question involves using a premise to support itself. If the premise is questionable, then the argument is bad. The most basic instances of begging the question involve rephrasing. In these examples, the statement following because just restates the … [Read more...]

Till, until, ’til

Till, as a variant of until, is a preposition meaning up to the time of. Till---not 'til, an unnecessary abbreviation---has been in the language for centuries, and there's no reason not to use it. To some it may sound less formal than until, but the two words are interchangeable in almost all contexts. Because many Americans mistakenly view till as incorrect---we're not sure why this is---the word is much more common outside the U.S. (though until is far more common everywhere). Here are a … [Read more...]

Toe the line

The idiom is toe the line, not tow the line. The phrase derives from track-and-field events in which athletes are required to place a foot on a starting line and wait for the signal to go. Race officials used to shout "Toe the line!" where now they shout "On your marks!" Since entering the language, the idiom has developed to mean do what is expected or act according to someone else's rules or expectations. Examples These days, he suggested, you've either got to toe the line or get out. … [Read more...]

Through vs. thru

through-thru

Through and thru are different spellings of the same word. Thru is the less preferred form, however, and it might be considered out of place outside the most informal contexts. If you're writing for school or for a job application, for instance, through is definitely the safer choice. One exception: The shorter spelling is often used in drive-thru, where the term relates to getting fast food or banking without exiting one's car. But though the shorter spelling has gained ground in this … [Read more...]

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