Homogenous vs. homogeneous

Homogeneous means (1) of the same or similar nature, and (2) uniform in structure or composition. Its corresponding noun is homogeneity. Homogenous, whose corresponding noun is homogeny, is a little-used biological term whose old sense has mostly been lost. Today, it's primarily a variant of homogeneous in general usage, though it still has uses in science, where spelling it any other way would be considered an error. Though some careful nonscientific writers continue to try to keep the words … [Read more...]


To deign is to condescend to do something. When you deign to perform an action, you perceive the action to be beneath your dignity, but you reluctantly do it anyway. For example, a person used to fine dining might deign to eat fast food when nothing else is available, or a usually dignified man might deign to dress up as a clown to entertain his grandkids. In conventional usage, deign is always followed by to. For instance, instead of she doesn't deign say hello, we write she doesn't deign to … [Read more...]

Subjects and predicates

Every sentence and clause must have two components: the subject and the predicate. The subject is the noun, pronoun, or noun phrase that performs the action of the sentence's main verb. The predicate includes the action (the verb) and all attributes of the action. In English, subjects almost always come before predicates. But they don't always come right at the beginnings of sentences. For instance, consider this sentence: If total national debt across all sectors is calculated, as opposed … [Read more...]

Empathy vs. sympathy

When you understand and feel another's feelings for yourself, you have empathy. It's often spoken of as a character attribute that people have to varying degrees. For example, if hearing a tragic news story makes you feel almost as if the story concerns you personally, you have the ability to empathize. When you sympathize with someone, you have compassion for that person, but you don't necessarily feel her feelings. For instance, if your feelings toward someone who is experiencing hardship … [Read more...]


Because spendthrift contains the word thrift, which on its own means frugal or wise with money, some people mistakenly assume a spendthrift is someone who is frugal or careful with money. But it actually means the opposite; a spendthrift is someone who spends money recklessly or wastefully. In Middle English, where spendthrift originates, thrift meant well-being or prosperity, so spendthrift literally translates in modern English to spend prosperity. In other words, a spendthrift is someone who … [Read more...]

Descendant vs. descendent

Descendant is both an adjective (meaning either moving downward or descending from an ancestor) and a noun (for someone who descends from someone else). Descendent is a less common variant used indiscriminately in place of descendant in all its uses. There is a traditional distinction between the two forms, and some English reference books still give it credence. It is that descendent is the adjective and descendant the noun, the logical basis for this being that the older adjective should … [Read more...]


Smorgasbord, a loanword from Swedish (originating in Old Norse), means (1) a meal featuring a variety of dishes, or (2) a varied collection. In both the word's accepted senses, variety is key. For example, these writers use smorgasbord in its traditional sense because it refers to a variety:  It's a smorgasbord of gripes ranging from income inequality to poor housing to executive pay. [Wall Street Journal] As usual, Harvey pulls in a smorgasbord of musical genres, including dark-wave, dirty … [Read more...]

For God’s sake

By the usual standards of English grammar, the irreverent utterance of exasperation should be for God's sake, with an apostrophe to show that god's is possessive and with sake in the singular form, but the phrase appears idiomatically in several other forms---for example: He's a third-stringer for God's sakes! [The Collegian (link now dead)] This is a school, for god sake, not a wilderness attraction! [LBPost] They can't even keep their hockey team, for god sakes, and Canada gets one? … [Read more...]


Style guides differ on some points involving the use of numerals (i.e., for example, 16 and 44 instead of sixteen and forty-four) in texts, but there are two rules on which most agree: (1) Spell all integers from zero to ten. (2) Use numerals for numbers 11 and above. Some publications make the cut at nine instead of ten, but most do have a consistent policy.  In practice, there are a few common exceptions---namely: (a)     Numerals are usually used for all numbers in texts involving math, … [Read more...]

On the lam

The idiom is on the lam, not on the lamb. The exact origins of this sense of lam are unknown, but it's believed to be a late 19th-century U.S. slang term. It was originally a verb meaning to escape, and it's still occasionally used in that sense, but today it mostly functions as a noun. To be on the lam is to escape, to flee justice, or to be in hiding from law enforcement. Examples An accused East Coast mobster, on the lam for more than 10 years, was found by the FBI in an unlikely occupation … [Read more...]

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