Indefinite articles

An indefinite article is a limiting adjective that precedes an unspecified thing, person, or idea. In English, the only indefinite articles are a and an. The article always comes first in its noun phrase, sometimes preceding other adjectives in the phrase (for example, a precedes the adjective black in a black dog). A is used when the following word begins with a consonant sound (e.g., a dog, a historic event, a yeti), and an is the correct article when the following word begins with a vowel … [Read more...]

Fay, fey

Fey is traditionally an adjective meaning (1) fated to die or (2) in a disordered state of mind like one prepared to die, while fay is traditionally a poetic noun referring to a fairy or an elf (fay has the same Old French origin as fairy). Today, the two words have melded into the sense of fey most English speakers are familiar with---fairylike, elfin, or otherworldly. The darker definitions of fey are mostly gone, and the original fay is now just an archaic variant of fairy. There are still … [Read more...]


Humongous is the standard spelling of the adjective meaning extraordinarily large. The exact origins of the word are mysterious, but the earliest instances of humongous in print are found in American publications from the early 1960s. The word is probably a fusion of huge, monstrous, and tremendous. Some dictionaries list humungous as an alternative spelling, but humongous has taken root in the language and is now far more common than the alternative. Humongous might be considered out of … [Read more...]

Dam vs. damn

The noun dam refers to a structure used to hold back water. The word also works as a verb; to dam is (1) to hold back by means of a dam, or (2) to close up or obstruct. To damn is (1) to condemn, (2) to bring about the failure of, (3) to prove guilty, or (4) to send to everlasting punishment. Using dam is easy because it almost always has to do with barriers built across waterways. Damn is a little trickier because it has many definitions and in some uses is widely considered a curse … [Read more...]

On the wagon, off the wagon

To be on the wagon is to refrain from drinking. It applies especially to someone who has been a serious drinker in the past. To be off the wagon is to be drinking, usually again after a period of sobriety. There are a few theories behind the origin of on the wagon, but the idiom likely comes from the early 20th-century American expression on the water-wagon, which meant one was drinking water instead of alcohol. Whatever its origins, on the wagon apparently predates off the wagon. On … [Read more...]

Infect vs. infest

There are two main differences between infect and infest. First, infection involves germs or viruses, while infestation involves a menacingly large number of pests or parasites (e.g., mosquitos or rats). Second, an infection applies to a body, while an infestation applies to a place. For example, when rats infest a city, they might carry diseases that can infect people. These words get tricky when used metaphorically, but it's easy to keep them straight if you remember the literal … [Read more...]

Bourgeois, bourgeoisie

The French loanword bourgeois works as both an adjective and a noun. Its main definition is of, relating to, or typical of the middle class, but it also works as a noun referring to a middle-class person. It often has negative connotations; as an adjective, bourgeois can be synonymous with conventional and conformist­, which are often meant negatively when applied to people. Bourgeoisie, which is only a noun, is more general. It denotes the middle class as a whole, rather than just a … [Read more...]

Pullout, pull-out, pull out

In American English, pullout is one word when it functions as a noun or an adjective. It is two words, pull out, when it functions as a verb. British writers usually use the hyphenated pull-out where Americans use pullout. Canadian and Australian English are inconsistent on the matter; some Canadian and Australian publications use pullout, and some use pull-out. Examples Pullout (U.S.) More recently, when Democrats were pushing for a quick pullout from Iraq, the R's said the D's were … [Read more...]


The noun onus (plural onuses) is synonymous with burden and responsibility and is interchangeable with those words. It comes from Latin, where it means load or burden, and it entered English in the 17th century via the phrase onus probandi, a bit of legal jargon meaning burden of proof. By the 19th century, onus had entered nonlegal usage. Incidentally, onus and the adjective onerous, meaning burdensome, share common Latin roots. Examples Last year Illinois put the onus on shoppers to … [Read more...]

Flotsam and jetsam

In maritime lingo, flotsam is wreckage or cargo that remains afloat after a ship has sunk, and jetsam is cargo or equipment thrown overboard from a ship in distress. The precise meanings are lost in the common phrase flotsam and jetsam, which describes useless or discarded objects. The phrase is sometimes used to describe items floating or washed ashore, but it has also been extended into metaphorical use for any accumulation of odds and ends. Examples The two words most often appear together, … [Read more...]

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