Agnostic vs. atheist

An atheist lacks faith in God, believes there is no god, or lacks awareness of gods. An agnostic either believes that it is impossible to know whether there is a god or is noncommittal on the issue. The difference may seem small, but atheism and agnosticism are actually vastly different worldviews. To claim there is no point in trying to prove or disprove God's existence (as many philosophers have done) is to acknowledge the limits of human perception. To take the bold stance that there … [Read more...]

Light vs. lite

Lite has been around in various uses for centuries, but in modern English it is mainly a commercial variant of light. It's used primarily by food companies, and it usually indicates that a product has fewer calories or fat than a comparable product---for example, Miller Lite, Kikkoman Lite Soy Sauce, and Jarlsberg Lite cheese. This use of lite has been common for a few decades, but many companies still prefer light---for example, Bud Light, Newman's Own Light Raspberry & Walnut Vinaigrette, … [Read more...]

Ere vs. err

Ere is a preposition, often seen in old poetry, meaning before or previous to. Err is a verb meaning (1) to make an error or a mistake, or (2) to violate accepted standards. It is the word used in common expressions such as "to err is human" and "err on the side of caution." Examples Ere sounds archaic, but modern writers sometimes use it to give their text a poetic ring---for example: Summer will arrive ere long. [The Telegram] Ere she was installed as the czarina of Writers' Building, … [Read more...]

Tic vs. tick

Tic refers to (1) a habitual spasmodic muscle movement, and (2) a recurrent trait or quirk. The word is only a noun. Tick is both a noun and a verb. Its definitions include (1) a clicking sound, (2) a second or a moment, (3) a mark used to check off an item, and (4) a bloodsucking arachnid or louselike insect. Tick is also the correct spelling in the phrasal verb tick off, meaning (1) to anger, or (2) to check off (a list). Examples Tic I have a nervous tic of scanning the foreign exchange … [Read more...]


When scissors denotes a cutting implement, it can be either plural or singular. For example, both hand me those scissors and hand me that scissors work. Many usage authorities recommend treating scissors as plural, however, and doing so may be the safer choice. When you need it to be singular, pair of scissors is a good alternative. Writers sometimes change scissors into scissor when it's singular, but there's no need for this. Scissor does work as a verb---meaning to cut or clip with … [Read more...]

Part and parcel

The main definition of the idiom part and parcel is a basic or essential part. The phrase has been around at least since the 16th century. Back then, parcel meant an essential component, so part and parcel were roughly synonymous. The phrase apparently began as legal jargon, where this kind of overemphatic wordiness is common. Indeed, most early instances of part and parcel are from legal texts, and the phrase didn't enter broader usage until the 19th century. Examples Overcoming mid-race … [Read more...]

Wit vs. whit

The noun whit has one definition: the smallest particle. It is usually used in the phrase not a whit, which means not at all or not one iota. Wit has several meanings, including (1) intelligence, (2) cleverness, and (3) a person with wit. It is the correct word in the idioms at wits' end and to wit. Not a wit, a common error, doesn't make logical sense (unless it's used to insult someone's cleverness). Examples Whit As for me, I don't feel a whit less hawkish than I did right after 9/11. … [Read more...]


A Pollyanna is a blindly or foolishly optimistic person. The term derives from Eleanor H. Porter's 1913 novel, Pollyanna, about an orphan with an unjustifiably optimistic attitude. The word is primarily an Americanism. It is rare in British and Canadian English, but it appears relatively often in Australian and New Zealand English. The word is spelled like the book title, and it is capitalized. The adjective, Pollyannaish (not Pollyanna-ish---no hyphen needed), meaning foolishly optimistic, … [Read more...]

Rollover vs. roll over

When you need a noun referring to (1) the act or process of rolling over, (2) an accident in which a motor vehicle overturns, or (3) the instance of rolling over funds, use the one-word rollover. The word also works as an adjective in phrases like rollover funds and rollover accident. It is never a verb. For all verb senses, use the two-word phrasal verb roll over. For instance, one might roll over his or her rollover funds.  Because rollover is an adjective, there is no use for the … [Read more...]

Pull the rug out from under

To pull the rug out from under someone is to upset their stability or to cause their plans to fail. To understand this idiom, just imagine what would happen if you suddenly jerked a rug out from under someone standing on it. Pull the rug out from under, which dates from the early 20th century and is likely American in origin, treats this action metaphorically. Examples The president had pulled the rug out from under our ally, forgoing any U.S. policy on any issue the Palestinians would have to … [Read more...]

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