The Latin loanword cum, originally a preposition meaning with, in English has come to mean plus or along with being. It usually takes the form [noun]-cum-[noun], with the two nouns denoting characteristics of a person or thing. It's often used to describe an individual's or thing's contradictory or surprising characteristics---for example, "Jimmy is a hunter-cum-animal-activist." Like many Latin loanwords, cum may be either italicized or unitalicized. We usually stop italicizing them when … [Read more...]

Council vs. counsel

Council is always a noun. It refers to an assembly of people brought together for discussion or deliberation. Counsel also has a couple of noun senses---it refers to (1) the act of exchanging ideas or giving advice, and (2) a lawyer or group of lawyers giving legal advice and conducting cases in court---but it's primarily used as a verb meaning to advise. The inflected forms of counsel are spelled differently in the U.S. than everywhere else. In the U.S., they have … [Read more...]

Awhile vs. a while

Awhile is an adverb meaning for a while, and it only works where it would bear replacement with that three-word phrase. Where for a while wouldn't work in its place, it is probably not an adverb, so it should be two words: a while. For instance, in the sentence, "Guests waited awhile for food," awhile is one word because it is an adverb modifying the verb waited (note also that for a while would work in its place). In the sentences, "We have a while left to wait," and, "I saw her a while … [Read more...]

Defence vs. defense

Defence and defense are different spellings of the same word. Defense is preferred in American English, and defence is preferred in all other main varieties of English, including Australian, British, and Canadian English. The spelling distinction extends to most derivatives of defence/defense, including defences/defenses and defenceless/defenseless. But the words defensive, defensiveness, and defensively have an s everywhere. Though defense is now the American spelling, it is not American in … [Read more...]

French definite articles

The English definite article the translates into three separate words in French: (1) le, the definite article for singular masculine nouns; (2) la, the definite article for singular feminine nouns; and (3) les, the definite article for plural nouns of either gender. Before a vowel When either le or la comes before a noun that starts with a vowel sound, the e or a of the article is elided, creating l'---for example, l'eau (the water), l'accent (the accent), l'heure (the hour). A … [Read more...]

French alphabet pronunciation

French and English use the same alphabet (unlike the Spanish alphabet, for example, which has a few extra letters), but the letters are pronounced … [Read more...]


A dangler (also known as a dangling modifier or dangling participle) is a sentence element---usually a participle or a phrase anchored by one---that doesn't relate syntactically to the noun it's intended to modify. In other words, when a modifier doesn't appear where it's logically supposed to be, it's a dangler---for example: Leaving home, the weather was sunny and crisp. Here, because the introductory modifying phrase leaving home immediately precedes the subject the weather, this sentence … [Read more...]

Bad rap vs. bad wrap

A bad wrap is an unappetizing sandwich made of fillings wrapped in a tortilla. A bad rap---otherwise known as a bum rap---is dishonor resulting from false accusations or trumped-up charges. No hyphen is needed in this noun phrase. There's also bad rep (where rep is short for reputation---an abbreviation that dates back centuries), which makes more sense than bad wrap. To have a bad rap is to have a bad rep, but bad rep appears only rarely, and some readers might interpret it as a misspelling … [Read more...]

Instantly vs. instantaneously

Instantly means at once or immediately. Instantaneously is variously assigned several meanings, some of which conflict with each other, but several references sources agree on a primary definition: happening or exerted with no delay in relation to something else. For example, one can tweet instantaneously about live sporting events, and a high-tech car can react instantaneously to changes in road conditions. This sense is indisputably the one usually meant in science, where, for example, Isaac … [Read more...]


An isometric poem or stanza is composed of lines of uniform length. In traditional poetry, most poems were isometric, adhering to a set line length throughout. For example, this stanza by William Blake is isometric: Phoebe dressed like beauty's queen, Jellicoe in faint pea-green--- Sitting all beneath a grot, Where the little lambkins trot. All the lines are seven syllables, or four feet, in length. In this stanza, the lines are metrically identical, but isometric poems and stanzas may also … [Read more...]

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