Vertex vs. vortex

The noun vertex has two meanings: (1) the highest point, and (2) the point at which the sides of an angle intersect. Vortex refers to a whirling mass of matter. Both are often used metaphorically---vertex for the meeting point between two or more things, and vortex for any chaotic, figuratively swirling mass. Though the words have no definitions in common, they're both derived from the Latin vertere, meaning to turn. Each is pluralized in a pair of ways---vertexes/vertices, and … [Read more...]

Straw man fallacy

The straw man fallacy involves misrepresenting an opponent's position to make it easier to refute. Straw man arguments often oversimplify opposing views or disregard inconvenient points in favor of points that are easy to argue against.  Examples In many instances, the person committing the straw man fallacy highlights the most extreme position of the opposing side---for example: Opposing argument: Teens should be taught about contraception methods so they can practice safe sex should they … [Read more...]

Subconscious vs. unconscious

Subconscious and unconscious are synonyms when they're informal adjectives meaning occurring in the absence of awareness or thought. For example, to say that kittens make you feel anxious on a subconscious level is the same as saying they make you feel anxious on an unconscious level. But unconscious is the more scientific term, and it's the usual choice in science and medicine. Subconscious is fairly common in quasi-scientific writing, but its definition is fuzzy, and it often signals that the … [Read more...]

In the affirmative

In the affirmative is wordy for yes. Like many phrases from legal jargon, in the affirmative is useful if you need absolute clarity, but in most contexts the wordiness is unnecessary. In the affirmative could almost always be replaced with affirmatively or simply yes. Examples In each of these cases, there's no reason in the affirmative should not be shortened to yes or affirmatively: The poll asked average Israelis if they support such a program, and 82 percent responded in the affirmative. … [Read more...]

Maul vs. mull

As a verb, maul means (1) to injure by or as if by beating, or (2) to lacerate. The word is also a noun referring to a heavy hammer. Mull, which is only a verb, is a synonym of ponder, often used with over. So mull is the correct spelling in the common phrase mull over. Maul is the correct spelling in reference to violent attacks. A third homophone, mall, is only a noun, primarily referring to a large shopping complex containing a variety of businesses. Examples Maul I was frantic when … [Read more...]


Because doubtless conventionally works as an adverb (in addition to being an adjective) even though it lacks the adverbial -ly ending, the -ly adverb doubtlessly is superfluous. It's not wrong, but it always bears replacement with a shorter alternative. It addition to doubtless, there is the adverbial phrase no doubt, and there is also the slightly longer undoubtedly, which is more emphatic. Examples Doubtlessly is not wrong in these examples, but doubtless would work in its place: I saw no … [Read more...]

Impending vs. pending

Something that is pending is awaiting conclusion, confirmation, or fulfillment---for example, the birth of a child, the results of a test, or a just-submitted order from an online store. Something that is impending is about to occur or threatening to happen. The word can have sinister connotations and tends to apply to negative or threatening things. Examples Pending If pending state legislation becomes law, a herd of deer that are used to being fed could have to fend for themselves. … [Read more...]

Spaces between sentences

The old typographical superstition that it's proper to use two spaces after a sentence should be laid to rest. Virtually every major style guide recommends a single space, and most major publishers and publications comply. If you don't believe us, take any book off the shelf or visit any editorially scrupulous website and look closely at the spacing. Chances are good you will find no double spaces between sentences. The two-space "rule" came about thanks to the monospaced type used by … [Read more...]

Timber or timbre

Timbre, pronounced either TIM-ber or TAM-ber (the latter being closer to the French pronunciation), means tone quality. It is primarily a music-related term, but it can refer to other sounds. For example, we might say that a trumpet has a brassy timbre, or that the sound of the crowd during a football game has a timbre like waves on the beach. Timber refers primarily to wood and lumber. Aside from their similarity in spelling and sound (where timbre is not pronounced in the French manner), … [Read more...]


The figurative idiom tongue-in-cheek means meant or expressed ironically or facetiously. The expression has origins in 18th-century England, and it originally referred to a common facial expression used to express contempt. Since then, the contempt-related connotations have mostly disappeared (along with the facial expression, as far as we can tell), and the word mostly denotes irony and facetiousness. Anything said tongue-in-cheek is not to be taken at face value. Examples Tongue-in-cheek … [Read more...]

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