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Ex post facto

In Latin, ex post facto literally means from that which is done afterward. In English, we use it to mean after the fact. It's primarily a legal term, and it can sound out of place in informal contexts, where after the fact or synonyms such as retroactive work just as well. Ex post facto is usually used as an adjective, but it also works as an adverb. Here are a few examples of the phrase in action in legal contexts: The Swiss Supreme Court will intervene ex post facto only on restrictive … [Read more...]

Attain vs. obtain

Attain means (1) to achieve, (2) to accomplish, or (3)  to reach the age of. Obtain means to get. There is sometimes common ground between these verbs, especially when somebody obtains something that is closely related to something that is often attained. For example, nuclear technology is something to be attained, while an actual nuclear weapon can only be obtained. Examples In fact, we have been able to attain a commendable level of economic success despite failing urban infrastructure and … [Read more...]

Carrot, carat, karat, caret

Karat applies to gold (as a measure of fineness), and carat applies to precious stones (as a unit of weight, equaling 200 milligrams). A carrot is an orange vegetable. A caret is a proofreading symbol (^) used to indicated where something should be inserted. Some dictionaries list karat and carat as variants of each other, but that's just because the words have been confused so often for so long that there's almost no point in trying to keep them separate. Careful writers can keep them … [Read more...]

Prepositions

Parts of speech Adjectives Adverbs Conjunctions Interjections Nouns Prepositions Pronouns Verbs A preposition defines the relationship between two or more nouns, noun phrases, or verbs in a sentence. Many prepositions are monosyllabic words such as off, on, in, up, and down. Others are compounds originating from two separate words---for example outside, upon, throughout, and underneath. Others are multiple separate words (e.g., with regard to, in front of), and still … [Read more...]

Lest

The conjunction lest means (1) for fear that, or (2) in order to avoid. It is followed by something the speaker thinks should be avoided. For example, we might write, "We're going to proofread this twice lest we make errors that hurt our credibility." The clause introduced by lest is usually in the subjunctive mood, but this is not required for writers who aren't comfortable with subjunctive constructions. Examples I won't waste your time responding point-by-point lest I give credence to … [Read more...]

Hara-kiri

Hara-kiri (Japanese for belly-cutting) is the standard spelling of the word denoting the Japanese method of suicide involving disembowelment, usually self-inflicted, with a sword. Harakiri and harikari are accepted secondary spellings, but hara-kiri is the usual one. Hara-kiri is also known as seppuku. There are some subtle historical differences between the words (seppuku is formal, and hara-kiri is slang), but in English they are synonyms. … [Read more...]

Gaudy vs. gawdy

Gaudy and gawdy are different spellings of the same word. Gaudy is recommended by most dictionaries and usage guides, but gawdy is listed as an accepted variant. In either spelling, the word means (1) showy in a tasteless or vulgar way; or it refers to (2) a festival or raucous party, or (3) a showy ornament. Examples Though gaudy is much more common, it is easy to find instances of gawdy in current news publications---for example: But before all the gawdy reflections in the yuletide mirror … [Read more...]

Whereas

The conjunction whereas has a number of meanings, but it's most commonly used to mean although or while in contrast. In these senses of whereas, the word is grammatically identical to while or although. That is, it introduces a dependent clause. Whereas often introduces a thought that contrasts with something in the main clause. For example, consider this sentence: Some couples now both have to work, whereas only one person did before. [Washington Post] In this sentence, whereas introduces … [Read more...]

Flier vs. flyer

Outside the U.S., there is no difference between flyer and flier. They are interchangeable, though flyer is about twice as common as flier. American writers tend to use flyer for small handbills and flier for people and things that fly. This distinction does not run deep, though, and the two spellings are very often used interchangeably even in the U.S., so it's safe to say that neither is correct or incorrect for any sense of the word. An earlier version of this post said simply that flier … [Read more...]

Flounder vs. founder

To flounder is (1) to struggle or move with difficulty, as in mud; or (2) to behave awkwardly or make mistakes. One who flounders does not fail completely but merely struggles. To founder is (1) to cave in, (2) to sink below the water, (3) to fail utterly, or (4) to go lame. While to flounder is merely to struggle, foundering usually involves utter failure. Because there are degrees of struggle and failure, and because failure is often the outcome of struggle, flounder and founder often come … [Read more...]

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