Masterful vs. masterly

In their traditional senses, masterful means imperious or domineering, and masterly means with virtuosic skill. But the original meaning of masterful has all but disappeared, and the two words are now used interchangeably. Moreover, masterful has taken over much of masterly's territory and appears to be pushing the latter word out of the language.1 Careful writers are free to honor the original sense of masterful, but this might just cause confusion. Examples For example, these old … [Read more...]

Moustache vs. mustache (vs. mustachio)

Mustache is the U.S. spelling of the word referring to hair on the upper lip. Moustache is the preferred spelling in all the main varieties of English from outside the U.S.  Mustachio, which resembles the Italian word for the facial hair but is spelled differently, was originally a variant of mustache, but it has long been used to refer to an especially luxuriant mustache. The past-participial adjectives corresponding to these words are mustached, moustached, and … [Read more...]

Re-create vs. recreate

The prefix re- can be attached to almost any verb without requiring a hyphen, but we tend to make exceptions with re- constructions that would cause confusion with no hyphen. Because recreate, meaning to amuse oneself with an activity, is a word in its own right, the verb re-create, meaning to create again, benefits from the hyphen. But because recreate is an exceedingly rare verb, there's actually little chance of the two being confused, so many publications omit the hyphen and use recreate to … [Read more...]

Frivolity vs. frivolousness

Frivolity means (1) silliness, (2) lightheartedness, or (3) a frivolous thing. Not all frivolous things are lighthearted or silly, but frivolity tends to carry these connotations. Frivolousness, which most often comes up in legal contexts, means the quality of being unworthy of serious attention. It does not have lighthearted connotations. In judicial proceedings, frivolousness wastes time. Examples Frivolousness We further deny Mr. Freeman's motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis in … [Read more...]


The adverb overly has a long history of use in English, but it's usually unnecessary. The prefix over- conveys the same meaning as overly, and it can be attached (without a hyphen) to any common adjective. Examples Here are a few examples of overly constructions that could be made less wordy with the prefix over-: Sure, compensation---particularly pensions and benefits---for many public employees is overly generous [overgenerous]. [Kansas City Star (article now offline)] The result is an … [Read more...]

Over- and under- (prefixes)

The prefixes over- and under- (meaning, respectively, (1) too or (2) above, and (1) insufficiently or (2) beneath) are living prefixes, meaning they may be attached to virtually any adjective or verb without requiring a hyphen. Your spell check might tell you not to use words like underintelligent, overlove, undermarket, overroof, underfoundation, and oversunny, but spell check is often wrong in instances like these. These are perfectly good coinages that do not require hyphens. Even so, … [Read more...]

Ocher vs. ochre

Ocher and ochre are different spellings of the same word, referring to (1) any of several earthy mineral oxides of iron occurring in brown, yellow, or red and used as pigments, and (2) a moderate orange yellow. The only difference is that ocher is the American spelling while ochre is preferred outside the U.S. Both spellings are many centuries old, and historical Google Books searches (which can be inaccurate when it comes to texts before 1800) uncover more instances of ocher than ochre in … [Read more...]

Vicious vs. viscous

Vicious means (1) evil, immoral, or depraved; (2) spiteful, malicious, (3) aggressive, and (4) severe or intense. Viscous means having relatively high resistance to flow (think mud or industrial sludge). Examples Viscous Gallons of the viscous amber fluid have been given to politicians and journalists, as the apiarists of Australia lobby for action against the imminent incursion of Asian bees. [Sydney Morning Herald] The thick and heavy bitumen, sometimes called tar or tar sands, is too … [Read more...]

Basis (on a daily basis, on a regular basis, etc.)

The common phrases on a daily basis and on a regular basis are wordy for daily and regularly. The same applies to similar constructions such as on an hourly basis, on a yearly basis, and so on. Such phrases can usually be shortened to single-word adverbial equivalents. Wordier basis-based phrases are appropriate where no one-word adjective exists, such as with on an adjusted basis and on a trial basis. But these are rare. Examples These instances of on a daily basis or on a regular basis … [Read more...]

Wreath vs. wreathe

The difference between wreath and wreathe is similar to that between breath and breathe as well as sheath and sheathe. Wreath is a noun, and wreathe is its corresponding verb, meaning (1) to twist or entwine into a wreathe, or (2) to decorate with or as with a wreath. So, for instance, during the holiday season, one might festively wreathe a tree with wreaths. Examples Wreath That could be why every January, I get a certain sugar craving that can only be satisfied by an icing-drenched, … [Read more...]

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