Flack vs. flak

A flack is a person---especially a press agent or publicist---who talks up his or her employer and deflects criticism. Flak (usually a mass noun) refers to (1) antiaircraft artillery, and (2) excessive or abusive criticism (the second definition derives metaphorically from the first). Examples RIM has taken a lot of flak from CNET and others for its decision to pair the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet with a BlackBerry smartphone. [CNET] He promptly became a political flack. [Gawker] Brown … [Read more...]

Web site vs. website

A few editorially conservative publications still use the two-word Web site, but this relic of the 1990s has fallen out of favor throughout the English-speaking world. The one-word, uncapitalized website now prevails by an overwhelming margin. Exceptions are easily found, however, especially in American sources, where Web site (or web site, without the capital w) appears about once for every six instances of website. This is likely due to the influence of the New York Times, which is … [Read more...]

Offence vs. offense

Other than how they are spelled and where they are used, there is no difference between offence and offense. Offense is the preferred spelling in the United States, and offence prevails in all the main varieties of English from outside the U.S. The American spelling gained steam through the 19th century, after being promoted in Noah Webster's 1831 dictionary and all later editions, but didn't become the more common form in the U.S. until the early 20th century. The spelling was not invented … [Read more...]

Summons and summonses

Summons is a singular noun meaning a call by an authority to appear or to do something. It's most often used in legal contexts for notice summoning a defendant or witness to appear in court. Despite the s at the end, summons functions like any other singular noun---for example: Evansville police said they will see that a court summons is issued for a man who they say was too drunk to go to jail early Sunday. [Evansville Courier & Press] Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi will defy a … [Read more...]

Literally vs. figuratively

In its usual sense, literally means exactly, in a strict sense, or to the letter. For example, when someone says, "I am literally foaming at the mouth," this literally means real foam is coming out of his or her mouth. Figuratively means in a metaphorical sense---that is, not in a real sense but in a way that is expressed through figures of speech. So when someone says, "I am figuratively foaming at the mouth," we can infer that he or she is using the idiom foaming at the mouth, which means very … [Read more...]


The phrasal adjective meaning strict in behavior or morality is strait-laced, not straight-laced. Strait here bears a mostly archaic definition that survives primarily in this phrasal verb---namely, narrow, constricted, or fitting tightly. It's possible to imagine where straight-laced might make sense (for example, in contrasting straight laces with curved ones), but such instances don't come up often.    Examples This movie is about a bunch of strait-laced guys who hit Vegas for a bachelor … [Read more...]

Translucent vs. transparent

Things that are transparent are so clear you can see through them as if there's nothing there. Things that are translucent allow light through but with significant diffusion or distortion. So if you hold something transparent---say, a square of flat, clear glass---in front of these words, you'll be able to read them. If you hold up something translucent---say, a tinted or decorated glass with water in it---you'll see the glow of your screen but probably won't be able to read the … [Read more...]

Ape vs. monkey

There are three categories of primates: prosimians, apes, and monkeys. Prosimians are a small group comprising lemurs, lorises, bushbabies, aye-ayes, tarsiers, and a few others. Apes are another small group containing larger species of primates such as chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, humans, orangutans, and gibbons. Monkeys include every species of primate that is not an ape or a prosimian. … [Read more...]

Workout vs. work out

As a noun or an adjective, workout is one word. As a verb, it's two words---work out. So, for instance, when it's workout time, you start your workout, work out for a while, and stop. Work out is just one of many phrasal verbs with corresponding one word forms that function as nouns and adjectives. The one-word forms are sometimes hyphenated (e.g., work-out), but more often completely compounded. These forms never catch on as verbs in edited writing, though they are often erroneously treated … [Read more...]

Specter vs. spectre

For the noun meaning a ghostly apparition or a haunting or disturbing image, American writers use specter. Everywhere else, spectre is the preferred spelling. Related Varieties of English Both spellings are several centuries old, but spectre prevailed everywhere until the middle 20th century, when the American-style spelling became prevalent in American English. Today, that spelling is also gaining ground in British English, but spectre is still far more … [Read more...]

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