Empathy vs. sympathy

When you understand and feel another's feelings for yourself, you have empathy. It's often spoken of as a character attribute that people have to varying degrees. For example, if hearing a tragic news story makes you feel almost as if the story concerns you personally, you have the ability to empathize. When you sympathize with someone, you have compassion for that person, but you don't necessarily feel her feelings. For instance, if your feelings toward someone who is experiencing hardship … [Read more...]


Because spendthrift contains the word thrift, which on its own means frugal or wise with money, some people mistakenly assume a spendthrift is someone who is frugal or careful with money. But it actually means the opposite; a spendthrift is someone who spends money recklessly or wastefully. In Middle English, where spendthrift originates, thrift meant well-being or prosperity, so spendthrift literally translates in modern English to spend prosperity. In other words, a spendthrift is someone who … [Read more...]

Descendant vs. descendent

Descendant is both an adjective (meaning either moving downward or descending from an ancestor) and a noun (for someone who descends from someone else). Descendent is a less common variant used indiscriminately in place of descendant in all its uses. There is a traditional distinction between the two forms, and some English reference books still give it credence. It is that descendent is the adjective and descendant the noun, the logical basis for this being that the older adjective should … [Read more...]


Smorgasbord, a loanword from Swedish (originating in Old Norse), means (1) a meal featuring a variety of dishes, or (2) a varied collection. In both the word's accepted senses, variety is key. For example, these writers use smorgasbord in its traditional sense because it refers to a variety:  It's a smorgasbord of gripes ranging from income inequality to poor housing to executive pay. [Wall Street Journal] As usual, Harvey pulls in a smorgasbord of musical genres, including dark-wave, dirty … [Read more...]

For God’s sake

By the usual standards of English grammar, the irreverent utterance of exasperation should be for God's sake, with an apostrophe to show that god's is possessive and with sake in the singular form, but the phrase appears idiomatically in several other forms---for example: He's a third-stringer for God's sakes! [The Collegian (link now dead)] This is a school, for god sake, not a wilderness attraction! [LBPost] They can't even keep their hockey team, for god sakes, and Canada gets one? … [Read more...]


Style guides differ on some points involving the use of numerals (i.e., for example, 16 and 44 instead of sixteen and forty-four) in texts, but there are two rules on which most agree: (1) Spell all integers from zero to ten. (2) Use numerals for numbers 11 and above. Some publications make the cut at nine instead of ten, but most do have a consistent policy.  In practice, there are a few common exceptions---namely: (a)     Numerals are usually used for all numbers in texts involving math, … [Read more...]

On the lam

The idiom is on the lam, not on the lamb. The exact origins of this sense of lam are unknown, but it's believed to be a late 19th-century U.S. slang term. It was originally a verb meaning to escape, and it's still occasionally used in that sense, but today it mostly functions as a noun. To be on the lam is to escape, to flee justice, or to be in hiding from law enforcement. Examples An accused East Coast mobster, on the lam for more than 10 years, was found by the FBI in an unlikely occupation … [Read more...]


Fast is one of a category of adjectives that double as adverbs without requiring the -ly ending. Because fast works this way---and it does for all its main senses, including in a speedy manner and in a secure manner or tightly---the adjectival fastly is a superfluous word. The -ly adds nothing. There is some resistance to flat adverbs (that is, adverbs such as fast that take adjectival forms), and when using fast this way you might encounter people who claim the word should be changed … [Read more...]


According to dictionaries, the noun ilk does not necessarily have negative connotations. Derived from a Scottish term meaning the same, the word is synonymous with type and kind, and it's usually used in phrases like of that ilk or of his/her ilk. It refers to a person's associates or colleagues. Logically, there's nothing inherently disparaging about this sense of ilk. It's neutral. But in contemporary usage, ilk has become negative. This is perhaps due to ilk's similarity in sound to … [Read more...]

Sentence-ending prepositions

The "rule" that a preposition should not end a sentence goes back to the 18th century, when some grammarians believed English should bend to the rules of Latin grammar. But like the spurious prohibition against starting sentences with conjunctions, this rule goes against the glorious flexibility of English and often leads to unnatural-sounding sentences. Ending sentences with strong words is a good idea, but not when it means contorting the language away from natural expression. Winston … [Read more...]

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