Blowup vs. blow up

In the U.S. and usually in Canada, blowup is one, unhyphenated word when it functions as a noun referring to (1) an explosion (usually figurative), (2) an outburst of temper, (3) an enlargement of a photograph, or (4) a collapse in performance (especially in sports). It also works as an adjective for items that are inflated with air---for example, blowup doll, blowup bed. The two-word form, blow up, is the verb meaning (1) to explode, (2) to inflate, or (3) to lose one's temper. Blowup never … [Read more...]

Phenomena, phenomenon

Phenomenon is singular. Phenomena is plural. Although many Greek and Latin plurals eventually give way to English forms, phenomena is one of the few that is preserved by convention, and many English speakers consider it the only correct plural. Of course, there would be nothing wrong with the English plural, phenomenons, but it has yet to gain much ground on the traditional plural.  Examples Both phenomena have garnered a decent amount of coverage over the last year. [Guardian] I'm … [Read more...]

Sacrilege, sacrilegious

Sacrilege is a noun meaning the misuse or desecration of something sacred. Sacrilegious is the corresponding adjective. The words are commonly misspelled sacrelige and sacreligious. Though sacrilegious things are often against religion, sacrilegious and religious have different roots. The similarity in sound is coincidental. Sacrilege comes from the Latin sacer (meaning sacred) and legere (meaning to gather), and religion comes from the Latin religio. If you have trouble remembering how to … [Read more...]

Card shark vs. card sharp

Card sharp is preferred in British English, while card shark is more common in American, Canadian, and Australian English. They share their main definitions---namely, (1) a professional card player, (2) a person who is skilled in card games, and (3) a person who is skilled in cheating at card games. The British card sharp more often implies cheating. Card shark, especially in American English,is often simply a term for someone who spends a lot of time playing cards. Both terms are sometimes … [Read more...]

The late

In reference to a recently deceased person, the late shows respect. It's often used to inform or remind readers that a mentioned person has died recently, and it's sometimes a polite way of saying recently deceased, even when virtually everyone knows that the person is recently deceased. In general, it applies to anyone who has died in the last decade or so, and it almost always carries a note of reverence. So, for example, the late Osama bin Laden might strike some English speakers as too … [Read more...]

Bawl out

Although we usually use the verb bawl to mean to cry or sob loudly, it has a another rarer definition---namely, to utter in a loud voice. This is the sense of bawl meant in the informal phrasal verb bawl out, which means to scold loudly or reprimand harshly. It's also sometimes used to mean sing loudly. Ball out is a misspelling. Examples On set, she earned a reputation as an irritable young prima donna who would often bawl out stagehands and fellow actors when she did not get her … [Read more...]


As a noun, the French loanword laissez faire has two main definitions: (1) the principle that government should not control business, and (2) the wish not to control others. It translates literally to allow to act. In English, laissez faire is unhyphenated when it functions as a noun, and hyphenated when it functions as an adjective (e.g., laissez-faire policies). In practice, though, many publications ignore this distinction and hyphenate the term no matter how it functions. Laissez faire is … [Read more...]

Knee-jerk, kneejerk

Knee-jerk, which usually functions as a phrasal adjective (and is hyphenated), is synonymous with automatic, unthinking, reflexive, and instantaneous. The term was coined in the late 19th century, and it refers to the human knee's reflexive jerk when struck. As an adjective describing a human feeling or action, it usually denotes one's initial, unthinking response to something, but it can also describe a response so habitual that one no longer thinks about it. Knee-jerk is so useful that it's … [Read more...]

Envoi vs. envoy

The noun envoy has two main definitions: (1) a representative of a government who is sent on a diplomatic mission, and (2) a short closing stanza in certain forms of poetry (or an analogous closing section in any work of art). Envoi is an alternative spelling of the second sense of envoy. Though most major dictionaries list the literary definition under envoy, envoi tends to appear in writing on poetry. The word has also been extended into use in relation to other art forms. Book epilogues and … [Read more...]

Barbed wire

For the strong wire with sharply pointed barbs, barbed wire is the standard term. It's simple: barbed is an adjective modifying the noun wire. The variants barb wire and barbwire are listed in some dictionaries and appear in quoted speech and informal writing, but barbed wire is more logical and is also more conventional in the industries that produce and use the wire. Bobwire, bob wire, and bobbed wire do reflect how some people pronounce the term, but those spellings are widely considered … [Read more...]

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