Sleight of hand

Sleight is an old noun meaning deftness, dexterity, cunning, or a trick. The word is preserved primarily in the idiom sleight of hand deftness of the hand or a trick of the hand, depending on which sense of sleight we use. There are literal sleights of hand---for example, card tricks---but the term is more often used metaphorically to refer to instances of trickery, craftiness, or deception. The idiom is often misspelled slight of hand, which, taken literally, might describe someone who has … [Read more...]

Disburse vs. disperse

To disburse is to pay out or to expend funds. Without exception the word relates to money. To disperse is to scatter or to cause to vanish. It is possible for money to be dispersed, but that's usually a bad thing; money that is paid out or expended for a given purpose is disbursed. Disburse's corresponding noun is disbursement, not disbursal. Disperse's corresponding noun is dispersal, not dispersement. Examples The words are often mixed up---for example As Greece waits for its euro-region … [Read more...]

First-world, third-world

The terms third-world and first-world are often potentially offensive code words. Except where their original meanings are meant, they are best avoided in formal communication and in texts meant for diverse audiences. When coined in the 1950s, First World denoted the Western democracies and countries aligned with them, Second World denoted the Soviet Union and its allies, and Third World referred to all nations not aligned with either side. But today these terms' original senses are … [Read more...]


Notwithstanding is mainly a preposition meaning in spite of. Most dictionaries also list it as an adverb meaning nevertheless, but this sense is rarely used in modern English. Notwithstanding is always one word, and this has been the standard spelling for many centuries. Although notwithstanding usually means exactly the same as in spite of, it is often positioned differently. In spite of always comes before its object---e.g., "In spite of your feedback, I'm not changing anything." … [Read more...]

Sensual vs. sensuous

The main definitions of the adjective sensuous are (1)  of, relating to, or derived from the senses, and (2) appealing to the senses. Sensual also means appealing to the senses, but it often has erotic connotations that sensuous doesn't have. Think of sensual as often a cross between sensuous and sexual. Still, the line between sensual and sensuous is sometimes blurry, and mixing them up is usually not a serious usage problem. Examples Sensuous Peering into the gloom of the temples I … [Read more...]

Beg the question (usage)

Begging the question is a logical fallacy in which a conclusion is based on an assumption that is as much in need of proof as the premise. Because that phrase is out there, and because many people are unfamiliar with the fallacy, beg the question is widely used to mean raise the question. This use of beg the question is a common peeve among people who care about English usage, but the phenomenon is so widespread that we should probably just accept that begging the question has multiple … [Read more...]

Gender vs. sex

Gender was traditionally used mainly in grammar, language, and linguistics contexts to refer to the sex assigned to nouns (especially in non-English languages). For example, the gender of the French noun maison (house) is feminine, while the gender of livre (book) is masculine. Words of the same gender tend to have similar endings, and they affect the forms of some of the surrounding words. Sex, meanwhile, was traditionally the term for males or females viewed as a group. In recent decades, … [Read more...]

Turtle, tortoise, terrapin

Turtles are an order of reptiles characterized by their bony shells. A tortoise is a turtle that lives on land. There are some complicated technical issues surrounding these terms, and the usage habits vary among British, American, and Australian English. But as long as you're not a biologist, you're safe referring to any turtle that lives primarily on land as a tortoise. There are also sea turtles---obviously, turtles that live in the sea---and terrapins, a species of turtle native to … [Read more...]

Incredible vs. incredulous

Incredible means difficult to believe. Incredulous means unwilling or unable to believe. So something that is difficult to believe is incredible, and if you have trouble believing something, you are incredulous. Related Credible vs. credulous These adjectives were once variants of each other, but they diverged a few centuries ago, and now they are no longer considered interchangeable. They are still occasionally mixed up, but many readers will consider this an error. Examples What … [Read more...]

Ice tea vs. iced tea

The original phrase is iced tea, and this spelling is still more common in print. Yet for many English speakers, ice tea more closely resembles the pronunciation, and this spelling has gained significant ground in 21st-century writing. There might still be some English speakers who consider it incorrect, but it is common in informal writing and is even making inroads in edited publications. Other terms have undergone this shift. For example, ice cream and ice water were originally iced cream … [Read more...]

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