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Complacent vs. complaisant

Complacent means self-satisfied, smug, or contented to a fault. Complaisant, a relatively recent loanword from French, means cheerfully obliging or tending to go along with others. Both have negative connotations when applied to a person, and they might share a little common ground, but they're easy to keep separate. Think of a complacent person as someone who is willfully ignorant, unconcerned, or overcontented, while a complaisant person is a pushover, willing to do whatever anyone … [Read more...]

Nouns as adjectives

Nouns sometimes function as adjectives. For example, in each of these phrases, the first word is usually a noun but here functions as an adjective modifying the second word: city government, article writer, bicycle thief, Sunday picnic, pumpkin pie. Adjective--noun confusion When this type of functional switching could cause confusion, consider rewording. Consider this sentence: Ask the cooler guy if we need more fish. Here, cooler could be interpreted in two drastically different ways. … [Read more...]

French accent marks

French uses several accent marks to guide pronunciation. These are the most commons ones. 1. L'accent aigu: The aigu accent points to the right and upward. Only appearing above the letter e, it changes the letter's pronunciation to ay---for example, médecin (may-deh-sehn, meaning doctor), étouffer, (ay-too-fay, meaning to stifle), marché (mar-shay, meaning market). 2.  L'accent grave: The grave accent points to the left and upward. It can appear over any vowel, but it only alters … [Read more...]

Betwixt

Betwixt means the same as between. It is rare in the U.S., where it is considered an archaism, but it's still used fairly often in British English, more often in speech than in writing. It sometimes appears in the redundant cliché betwixt and between, meaning in an intermediate position or neither one thing nor another. Examples Except where betwixt is still a living word, its use can come across as a sometimes cutesy, sometimes pretentious affectation. For instance, it is at least a little … [Read more...]

Foot

Through the history of poetry, a metrical foot has meant many different things. Today, with regard to modern poetry in English, a foot is usually thought of as a stressed syllable along with its attendant unstressed syllables. So, in general, a line of poetry contains as many feet as there are stressed syllables. For example, the Wallace Stevens line, This single place in which we are and stay, has five stressed syllables---sing, place, which, are, and stay---which give it five feet. But … [Read more...]

Cum

The Latin loanword cum, originally a preposition meaning with, in English has come to mean plus or along with being. It usually takes the form [noun]-cum-[noun], with the two nouns denoting characteristics of a person or thing. It's often used to describe an individual's or thing's contradictory or surprising characteristics---for example, "Jimmy is a hunter-cum-animal-activist." Like many Latin loanwords, cum may be either italicized or unitalicized. We usually stop italicizing them when … [Read more...]

Council vs. counsel

Council is always a noun. It refers to an assembly of people brought together for discussion or deliberation. Counsel also has a couple of noun senses---it refers to (1) the act of exchanging ideas or giving advice, and (2) a lawyer or group of lawyers giving legal advice and conducting cases in court---but it's primarily used as a verb meaning to advise. The inflected forms of counsel are spelled differently in the U.S. than everywhere else. In the U.S., they have … [Read more...]

Awhile vs. a while

Awhile is an adverb meaning for a while, and it only works where it would bear replacement with that three-word phrase. Where for a while wouldn't work in its place, it is probably not an adverb, so it should be two words: a while. For instance, in the sentence, "Guests waited awhile for food," awhile is one word because it is an adverb modifying the verb waited (note also that for a while would work in its place). In the sentences, "We have a while left to wait," and, "I saw her a while … [Read more...]

Defence vs. defense

Defence and defense are different spellings of the same word. Defense is preferred in American English, and defence is preferred in all other main varieties of English, including Australian, British, and Canadian English. The spelling distinction extends to most derivatives of defence/defense, including defences/defenses and defenceless/defenseless. But the words defensive, defensiveness, and defensively have an s everywhere. Though defense is now the American spelling, it is not American in … [Read more...]

French definite articles

The English definite article the translates into three separate words in French: (1) le, the definite article for singular masculine nouns; (2) la, the definite article for singular feminine nouns; and (3) les, the definite article for plural nouns of either gender. Before a vowel When either le or la comes before a noun that starts with a vowel sound, the e or a of the article is elided, creating l'---for example, l'eau (the water), l'accent (the accent), l'heure (the hour). A … [Read more...]

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