A leg up

The idiom a leg up means (1) a boost or (2) a position of advantage.1 When you get a leg up on your competition, you're at least temporarily ahead of them in some significant way. The phrase comes from foot racing, where getting a leg up at the start of the race gives an edge. Examples These writers demonstrate how a leg up is conventionally used: And he might have a leg up on the rest of the contestants because of his shooting style. [ESPN] The so-called credit bidding gives a leg up to … [Read more...]

Previous vs. prior

The adjectives prior and previous are both useful synonyms of earlier and past, and there is no substantive difference between them. Some people do make various distinctions between them in their personal usage, but none of these distinctions are borne out in broader usage. The words are usually interchangeable. Examples Mayor Robert Dean Smith was arrested Wednesday on allegations he violated a probation from a previous drunken driving conviction. [] The two have a prior … [Read more...]

Populace vs. populous

Populous, meaning having many inhabitants, is always an adjective. Populace is a noun referring to a population or the general public. So we might say, for example, that a populous city has a large populace. But while populace is roughly synonymous with population, the words' connotations differ slightly. Population is neutral, while populace often carries a superior tone toward the group it refers to. Examples Unfortunately, he's forgotten how to speak German, and the populace can't … [Read more...]

Amount vs. number

Amount is used in reference to mass nouns (i.e., uncountable nouns such as bravery, water, and charisma). Number is used in reference to count nouns (i.e., countable nouns such as dog, year, and eyeball). For example, because the noun person can be counted, the phrase amount of people might be considered incorrect. The distinction tends to weaken, however, when we're talking about great numbers. The amount of people in the room would sound wrong to many careful speakers of English, while the … [Read more...]

Their, there, they’re

Even professional writers occasionally mix up their, there, and they're in their absentminded moments. These errors can hurt a writer's credibility, however, so it's important to use these words cautiously. Their Their functions as an adjective. It is the possessive of they---for example: The neighbors watch their TV very loud. Cats get grouchy without their dinner. Most wives love their husbands. There There functions in several ways. It can be an adverb meaning at, in, or toward … [Read more...]

Color vs. colour

Color and colour are different spellings of the same word. Color is the preferred spelling in American English, and colour is preferred in all other main varieties of English. The distinction extends to all derivatives of the word. Colored, coloring, colorer, colorful, and discolor are the U.S. spellings, and coloured, colouring, colourer, colourful, and discolour are preferred outside the U.S. History Both spellings are many centuries old. Color, now regarded as the American spelling, in fact … [Read more...]

Ketchup, catsup, catchup

Catsup was once the predominant spelling of the tomato-based condiment, but ketchup is preferred in today's English by a large margin. The latter more closely approximates the word's pronunciation, and it's also closer in sound to the likely source---either the Cantonese k'e chap or the Malay kechap, both originally types of fish sauce. Catchup is listed in dictionaries, but few writers use it. Outside North America you are more likely to hear ketchup or catsup referred to as tomato sauce … [Read more...]

Medal, meddle, metal, mettle

Definitions Medal has one narrow definition. It refers to a flat piece of metal stamped with an inscription and given (1) as an award for placing high in a competition or (2) to commemorate brave performance in war. Metal refers to any of a category of elements that usually have shiny surfaces, conduct heat and electricity, and can be melted. Metal is also a genre of music (short for heavy metal). Mettle refers to (1) courage and fortitude, and (2) inherent quality of character and … [Read more...]

Used to

The idiomatic phrase used to (not use to) has two unrelated uses: (1) as an adjective meaning accustomed, and (2) an auxiliary verb meaning, roughly, did and implying that an action was habitual in the past and does not continue in the present. Examples In the context of used to, used is synonymous with accustomed---for example: The show's amazing costumers, who are used to doing things on the fly, make the necessary adjustments to our outfits while we do a music check. [People] But … [Read more...]

Definite articles

In English, the only definite article is the. It precedes singular and plural nouns and noun phrases. It's used in three main contexts. 1.  The precedes a noun or noun phrase that needs no further qualification---for example: The weather was horrible. The Senate is a mob of 100 wholly owned political subsidiaries. [USA Today] [S]omeone reported being bitten by a dog. The dog was quarantined. [The Umpqua Post] 2.  The precedes a thing that is about to be clarified. Here are three … [Read more...]

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