Sine qua non

Sine qua non, meaning an indispensable element, is a loanword from Latin, translating roughly to without which not. It's always a noun, usually italicized (although italicization is not necessary), and it's usually preceded by the or a and followed by of. As with all rare loanwords, sine qua non works when you're reasonably certain most of your audience will know what it means. Elsewhere, using an English alternative is usually best (in this case, e.g., prerequisite, requirement, essential … [Read more...]

Defuse vs. diffuse

To defuse (something) is to make a threatening or dangerous situation safer. For example, you might defuse a violent argument by calming the people involved, or you might literally defuse a bomb by deactivating its fuse. Diffuse works as both a verb and an adjective. To diffuse something is to disperse it or spread it out. When something is dispersed or spread out, it is diffuse. Because diffuse works as an adjective, diffused is only necessary as a verb form. Defuse doesn't work as an … [Read more...]

Rack vs. wrack

Wrack is roughly synonymous with wreck. As a noun, it refers to destruction or wreckage. As a verb, it means to wreck. It is now mostly an archaic word, preserved mainly in a few common phrases. Rack has many definitions, but the one that makes it easily confused with wrack is to torture. This sense comes from the use of medieval torture devices---called racks---on which victims' bodies were painfully stretched. So, figuratively speaking, to rack something is to torture it, especially in … [Read more...]

Loose vs. lose

Lose is only a verb. To lose is to suffer a loss, to be deprived of, to part with, or to fail to keep possession of. Loose is mainly an adjective used to describe things that are not tightly fitted. Where it is a verb, it means to release---for example, they loosed the dogs on the intruders---but the word is only rarely used this way. It also has a noun sense mainly confined to the idiom on the loose, which means at large. When you need a verb meaning to partially release or to … [Read more...]

Already vs. all ready

Already is an adverb. It means either (1) by a specified time, or (2) so soon. The two-word phrase all ready means completely prepared, or it's used to indicate that everyone in a group is prepared. Examples In these cases, already is appropriate because it is an adverb: Doesn't nearly everybody already have a TV (or several) at home? [Time] Britain has already begun to slide back into recession . . . [Telegraph] Her gorgeous, antique-inspired hair comb is already available for purchase … [Read more...]

Everyday vs. every day

Everyday is an adjective used to describe things that (1) occur every day, or (2) are ordinary or commonplace. In the two-word phrase every day, the adjective every modifies the noun day, and the phrase usually functions adverbially. For example, every day you eat breakfast. You brush your teeth every day. Maybe you go for a walk every day. These are everyday activities. When you're not sure which one to use, try replacing everyday/every day with each day. If each day would make sense in its … [Read more...]

Copyright vs. copywrite

Copyright is a noun referring an creator's exclusive legal right to his or her work. A copyrighter is a person who secures copyrights. Other derivative forms include copyrighting, copyrights, copyrighted, and copyrightable.  Copywrite is a rarely occurring backformation from copywriter---which refers to a writer of copy, especially in advertising. It has never caught on, and some might consider it an error. If you want to say what copywriters do, say not that they copywrite but that they … [Read more...]

Gaol vs. jail

Gaol is an obsolescent spelling of the word now usually spelled jail. Other than the spelling, there is no difference between the words. Gaol was common outside North American until fairly recently (it was stamped out of American English in the early 19th century, and dropped out of Canadian use about a century later), but it underwent a steady decline through the 20th century and now appears only rarely. Its most common use today is in the names of jails, but it is still possible to find a few … [Read more...]

Bus stop vs. busstop

The word for a place where buses pick up and drop off passengers is conventionally spelled as two words---bus stop. Some similar phrases fuse into compounds (e.g., stoplight, snowman, headstone), but bus stop has never gone this route, perhaps because the two s's would be awkward. For now, busstop is considered a misspelling. Examples Then the grandma from our hotel kindly shows us how to get to the bus stop. [Washington Post] Meanwhile the group will be selling local vegetable bags at the … [Read more...]

Online vs. on-line

Although a few stodgy editors and style guides still recommend the 1990s-style on-line (with a hyphen) for the computing-related adjective, the trajectory of the language favors online. The latter is now considered acceptable by most dictionaries and English usage guides, and most major publications have changed with the times. Perhaps more important, online is far more common in popular usage. Of course, on line is two words when it functions as an adjective phrase with on modifying the noun … [Read more...]

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