Epigram vs. epigraph

An epigram is (1) a concise, clever saying, or (2) a short, witty poem. An epigraph is (1) a motto or quotation at the beginning of a literary composition, or (2) an inscription on a statue or building. An epigram can be an epigraph, but the two are far from interchangeable. Of course, epigraph is also not to be confused with epitaph, which is an inscription on a tombstone. Examples And for those pining for Karl's Twitter wisdom, here's his latest epigram: Luxury is the ease of a t-shirt in … [Read more...]

Et al.

Et an abbreviation of the Latin loanphrase et alii, meaning and others. It is similar to etc. (short for et cetera, meaning and the rest), but whereas etc. applies to things, et al. applies to people. Et al. does not need to be italicized in normal use. It does take a period after the second word, even when it falls in the middle of a sentence. In general, et al. is best reserved for citations and other parenthetical remarks in academic or other types of formal writing. It can sound … [Read more...]

Program vs. programme

In British English, program refers to computer programs and their programming, and programme is used for all other senses of the word. New Zealanders tend to go along with the British distinction, and programme is preferred by government and the media. Australians have for several decades been moving steadily to adopt program for all senses, but programme is still used, albeit much less commonly, and seldom in the media and official publications. Americans and Canadians don't use programme at … [Read more...]

Service (as a verb)

Service was originally a noun only, but it has a few longstanding verb definitions that most dictionaries accepted long ago. Some of its verb senses have sexual connotations that can arise unintentionally when the word is used in nonsexual contexts. The nonsexual definitions of service as a verb are (1) to make fit for use, repair, or maintain; and (2) to make interest payments on a debt. But another long-accepted definition of service is to copulate with. It usually applies to the role of … [Read more...]

Imperious vs. impervious

Someone who is imperious is (1) arrogantly domineering or overbearing, or (2) regal. In the first sense the word is synonymous with dictatorial, and it comes from the Latin imperium, which means extreme authority. It is often extended to mean masterly, perhaps due to a misinterpretation of the word as meaning without peer. This use of the word is out of line with the word's traditional definition, but it's common enough to be considered a secondary sense Impervious means (1) incapable of … [Read more...]

Healthcare vs. health care

Healthcare is on its way to becoming a one-word noun throughout the English-speaking world. The change is well underway in British publications, where healthcare already appears about three times as often as health care and is used as both a noun and an adjective. Many American and Canadian publications resist the change, meanwhile, and health care remains the more common form in North American newswriting, as well as in government and scholarly texts. In many cases---such as on health-related … [Read more...]

At loggerheads

The idiom at loggerheads, which usually functions as a predicate adjective, means in a dispute. Its origins are mysterious. Loggerhead originally referred to a stupid person, and in the 17th century it took a new definition---thick-headed iron tool. When at loggerheads came about soon thereafter, it may have referred to the use of loggerheads as weapons in fights. In any case, at loggerheads (loggerheads is always plural in the idiom) now implies harsh disagreement but not necessarily … [Read more...]


To mothball something is to make it inactive or put it in storage. The word developed this sense just after World War II when ships deactivated by the domobilizing U.S. military were said to be "mothballed," referring figuratively to the practice of putting mothballs in the pockets of stored clothing to prevent damage. Today the word is used this way throughout the English-speaking world. Examples The Tennessee Valley Authority agreed Thursday to mothball 18 coal-fired boilers. [Wall Street … [Read more...]

Dreamed vs. dreamt

There is no difference between dreamed and dreamt. Both are considered correct, and both function as the past tense and past participle of the verb dream. Dreamed is preferred in all main varieties of English, but dreamt is especially common in British English; while American writers use dreamt about a tenth as often as dreamed, British writers use dreamt about a third of the time. Dreamt is more often used in the figurative senses of the word---especially in the phrase dreamt … [Read more...]

Speak to

The phrasal verb speak to is widely used idiomatically to convey various senses, including show, demonstrate, express, relate to, address, or speak about. For example, one might say that this post speaks to the meaning of speak to, or that the existence of this idiom speaks to a gap in the language, or that these examples speak to how the phrase is commonly used. The phrase could usually give way to a one-word synonym, but people seem to like using it, especially in speech. Because the … [Read more...]

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