The verb transpire traditionally means (1) to give off vapor, or (2) to become known, but today it is most often used as a formal synonym of happen. Some very careful English users resist this change, but it is well established and probably can't be stopped. Strictly speaking, though, there is no use for this sense of transpire even in formal contexts, as the ancient and reliable happen always works in its place. Examples For example, these writers use transpire as a formal word for … [Read more...]


The French loanword sans is a slightly fancy but appealingly quick way to say without. Careful writers who value unaffected prose are likely to use without instead of sans, but there is nothing wrong with using sans if you like the way it sounds. Though it's originally French, it has a long history of use in English. The Oxford English Dictionary lists examples in English from as long ago as the 14th century, but the word was not widely used until the early 19th century. In French, the s at … [Read more...]

Bight vs. bite

The verb meaning to cut, grip, pierce, or tear with the teeth is bite. The word also has several noun definitions, most having to do with biting and stinging. A bight is (1) a loop in a rope, and (2) a bend in a shoreline or the bay formed by such a bend. The inflected forms of bite are bit and bitten. Examples But the pizza compels your attention to the last bite. [] Point Old stood at an angle to the smashing seas, making a sheltered bight behind it, and into this bight … [Read more...]

Pedal vs. peddle vs. petal

Pedal always relates to bicycles, pianos, organs, boats, looms, sewing machines, and other machines. The pedals are the foot-operated components. The word also functions as a verb meaning to operate pedals. Its participles are pedaled and pedaling in American English. Outside the U.S., they are pedalled and pedalling. Peddle is a verb meaning to sell or to travel about selling goods. It often refers to the sale of illicit goods. And petal is easy. It is always a noun referring to one of … [Read more...]


For the noun meaning a brief account of one's professional or work experience and qualifications, most English reference sources recommend résumé, with the French accent aigu on both e's. This is good advice for all formal contexts, but the accented résumé is likely to fade out of English sooner or later, as most accented words from other languages eventually lose the accents in English. The issue is less important in British and Australian English, where curriculum vitae---or, usually, … [Read more...]

Worse comes to worst

The idiom worse comes to worst means if the worst possibility should occur. When the idiom originated centuries ago, worst comes to worst was the conventional formulation. Worse comes to worst gradually took over, but in 21st-century writing a third option, worse comes to worse, is gaining ground. We prefer worse comes to worst because of the logical progression from comparative to superlative, but writers can be forgiven for using the other forms, as none makes much logical sense under close … [Read more...]

Sow wild oats

Sow is an agricultural term meaning to scatter seed over the ground for growing. This is the sense borne by the verb in the idiom sow [one's] wild oats---though of course it's metaphorical.  The metaphor, which means to indulge in adventure or promiscuity during youth, traditionally applies only to males, but there's no good reason to enforce this today. Examples Might as well make sure the boy doesn't cause too much trouble while he's sowing his wild oats, right? [Discover Magazine] The … [Read more...]

Irregular plural nouns

In English, there are hundreds of nouns that don't follow the standard rules for pluralization. There are no easy ways to remember them, so they generally have to be memorized. Some of the rarer irregular plurals are often misused, leading to the creation of variant forms, which usually encounter resistance at first but eventually make it into the language. For example, the plural of formula has traditionally been formulae, but formulas is now far more common, and few would call it … [Read more...]

Freshwater vs. fresh water

Freshwater is an adjective used to describe inland bodies of water and things that live in water that is not salty. It is two words---fresh water---when it doesn't function as an adjective. So a freshwater lake, for instance, is one that has fresh water, and a freshwater fish is one that lives in fresh water. See also Saltwater vs. salt water … [Read more...]

Smelled vs. smelt

In American and Canadian English, the verb smell makes smelled in the past tense and as a past participle. Outside North America, English speakers use smelled and smelt interchangeably, and neither form is significantly more common than the other. For North Americans, smelt usually means (1) to melt or fuse ores, and (2) any of several small, silvery fishes of the family Osmeridae found in fresh waters of the northern hemisphere. Smelt as a form of smell is not unheard of in North America, … [Read more...]

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