Their, there, they’re

Even professional writers occasionally mix up their, there, and they're in their absentminded moments. These errors can hurt a writer's credibility, however, so it's important to use these words cautiously. Their Their functions as an adjective. It is the possessive of they---for example: The neighbors watch their TV very loud. Cats get grouchy without their dinner. Most wives love their husbands. There There functions in several ways. It can be an adverb meaning at, in, or toward … [Read more...]

Color vs. colour

Color and colour are different spellings of the same word. Color is the preferred spelling in American English, and colour is preferred in all other main varieties of English. The distinction extends to all derivatives of the word. Colored, coloring, colorer, colorful, and discolor are the U.S. spellings, and coloured, colouring, colourer, colourful, and discolour are preferred outside the U.S. History Both spellings are many centuries old. Color, now regarded as the American spelling, in fact … [Read more...]

Ketchup, catsup, catchup

Catsup was once the predominant spelling of the tomato-based condiment, but ketchup is preferred in today's English by a large margin. The latter more closely approximates the word's pronunciation, and it's also closer in sound to the likely source---either the Cantonese k'e chap or the Malay kechap, both originally types of fish sauce. Catchup is listed in dictionaries, but few writers use it. Outside North America you are more likely to hear ketchup or catsup referred to as tomato sauce … [Read more...]

Medal, meddle, metal, mettle

Definitions Medal has one narrow definition. It refers to a flat piece of metal stamped with an inscription and given (1) as an award for placing high in a competition or (2) to commemorate brave performance in war. Metal refers to any of a category of elements that usually have shiny surfaces, conduct heat and electricity, and can be melted. Metal is also a genre of music (short for heavy metal). Mettle refers to (1) courage and fortitude, and (2) inherent quality of character and … [Read more...]

Used to

The idiomatic phrase used to (not use to) has two unrelated uses: (1) as an adjective meaning accustomed, and (2) an auxiliary verb meaning, roughly, did and implying that an action was habitual in the past and does not continue in the present. Examples In the context of used to, used is synonymous with accustomed---for example: The show's amazing costumers, who are used to doing things on the fly, make the necessary adjustments to our outfits while we do a music check. [People] But … [Read more...]

Definite articles

In English, the only definite article is the. It precedes singular and plural nouns and noun phrases. It's used in three main contexts. 1.  The precedes a noun or noun phrase that needs no further qualification---for example: The weather was horrible. The Senate is a mob of 100 wholly owned political subsidiaries. [USA Today] [S]omeone reported being bitten by a dog. The dog was quarantined. [The Umpqua Post] 2.  The precedes a thing that is about to be clarified. Here are three … [Read more...]

Title capitalization

According to most English style guides, titles of books, publications, and works of art should always be capitalized---for example, What to Expect When You're Expecting, The New York Times, There Will Be Blood. Use up-style capitalization in these cases; that is, capitalize the first letter of the first and last words and of all words besides short (fewer than five or so letters) articles, conjunctions, and prepositions. Short verbs, nouns, and adjectives are capitalized; for example, in There … [Read more...]


The word wont, not to be confused with want or the contraction won't, has several meanings, but it is most often an adjective, usually followed by to, meaning accustomed, given, or likely---for example: "Stats are for losers," as head coach John Fox is wont to say. [] It made me introspective, as talks with Kris are wont to do. [Chiron Training] Wont is also a noun, its definition being habit or accustomed behavior---for example: Kerry, as is his wont, offered a turbid … [Read more...]

Wreak havoc (and wreaked vs. wrought)

Havoc means widespread destruction. Wreak, a rare verb most common in British English, means to bring about. So to wreak havoc is to bring about widespread destruction. Havoc may reek, and it may cause a wreck, but reek havoc and wreck havoc are nonsensical phrases. The past tense of wreak is wreaked, so the past tense of wreak havoc is wreaked havoc. Forget the old, oft-repeated myth that the past tense of wreak is wrought. Wrought is an archaic past-tense form of work, and it serves as an … [Read more...]

Discrete vs. discreet

Things that are separate or distinct from one another are discrete. This spelling is easy to remember because the two e's in the second syllable are discrete from each other. Discreet means cautious, reserved, or modest, especially in speech. For instance, a discreet person is one who knows when not to speak about sensitive subjects. Discretion is the noun corresponding to discreet, so discretion is a cautious, reserved, or modest manner, and the word is also extended to mean freedom to act … [Read more...]

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