Crick (variant of creek)

Crick is a variant of creek originating in the U.S., where it reflects a dialectal pronunciation of the word for a small, shallow stream. Crick might be nonstandard, but it is established enough to be considered an alternative form, and it is even listed in some dictionaries. In writing, crick is often used to create a rustic tone. Examples Crick appears often in American fiction, especially in first-person narratives and in dialogue---for example: Just as I was passing a place where a kind … [Read more...]

Bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah

A bar mitzvah is (1) a 13-year-old Jewish boy who has assumed full religious obligations, and (2) the coming-of-age ceremony that recognizes a 13-year-old Jewish boy as a bar mitzvah. Bat mitzvah is the corresponding term for females. In Hebrew, mitzvah means commandment, bar means son, and bat means daughter. The terms do not need to be capitalized or italicized. Mizvah is a variant of mitzvah, but it appears only rarely in modern writing. Examples In the following examples, bar mitzvah … [Read more...]

Pray vs. prey

Pray is always a verb. To pray is (1) to utter a prayer to a god or another higher power, and (2) to make a fervent request. Prey is (1) a noun referring to one that is hunted or attacked, and (2) a verb meaning to hunt, catch, or eat as prey. Examples Others compare drought to a python, which slowly and inexorably squeezes its prey to death. [New York Times] They, evidently, agreed that I ought not to pray in the church basement nor to pray on the church grounds. [Marshall … [Read more...]


In its original sense, the noun caveat means a warning or caution. It comes from Latin, where it means, literally, let him beware. Caveat did not originally mean a qualification, condition, or limitation, but this newer sense is well-established, even if it hasn't fully supplanted the older one. Examples Examples of caveat used as a synonym of qualification or limitation abound in publications from throughout the English-speaking world---for example: The scheme's major caveat is that it's … [Read more...]

Pleaded vs. pled

Pleaded is the standard past tense and past participle of the verb plea. Pled has always been considered incorrect by people who make such judgments, but it is so common that we have to accept it as an alternative form. And pled is not just an Americanism, as some have claimed. It appears just as often (about one pled for every twenty pleadeds) in current British and Canadian news publications. Australians are the exception; they still seem to shun pled almost completely. Examples Pled is … [Read more...]


Burthen is an archaic variant of burden. It was common in English as recently as the late 19th century, but it is mostly absent from the language today. It was often used as a nautical term denoting the tonnage of a ship, as in phrases like "a schooner of 200 tons burthen." This sense of burthen outlasted all the others, but it is now obsolete as well. Examples The absence of officers and privates from their duty under various pretexts, while receiving pay at great expense and burthen to the … [Read more...]


Whac-A-Mole, not Whack-A-Mole, is the name of the American arcade game that involves whacking erratic plastic moles with a mallet. The correct spelling of Whac-A-Mole may seem an esoteric point, but the word has entered the language as a metaphorical term for something that keeps popping up no matter how many times one tries to get rid of it. If we wish to honor the word's source, the only correct spelling is Whac-A-Mole. Still, getting writers to use Whac-A-Mole (or even the lowercased … [Read more...]

Device vs. devise

Device is a noun. Devise is a verb (with rare exceptions). The noun has a few definitions; it can refer to (1) an invention serving a particular purpose, (2) a technique, and (3) a literary contrivance. To devise is to form, plan, or arrange in the mind. So one might devise a device---though the words are not often closely associated with each other. Devise has a separate set of definitions in law, and the legal term does function as a noun referring to (1) property or lands given by will or … [Read more...]

Handful, handfuls

As a noun referring to (1) a small, undefined number or quantity, or (2) the amount that a hand can hold, handful is one word (and has one l). Handfuls is the conventional plural, meaning that it is the one listed in dictionaries and that appears most often in edited writing. Hands full might seem logical, especially in reference to actual hands, but it tends to give way to handfuls wherever the two words function together as a noun. For instance, one would say, "She has took handfuls of candy," … [Read more...]

Inalienable vs. unalienable

English has changed since the founders of the United States used unalienable in the signed final draft of their 1776 Declaration of Independence (some earlier drafts and later copies have inalienable). Inalienable, which means exactly the same thing---both mean incapable of being transferred to another or others---is now the preferred form. Unalienable mainly appears in quotes of or references to the Declaration. Inalienable prevails everywhere else. Although English usage rarely takes … [Read more...]

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