Where the verb agree means to come to an agreement (on something), Americans and Canadians make it intransitive, meaning it takes a preposition, usually on or to, when it has an object. For instance, opposing parties might agree on a compromise. Outside North America, especially in the U.K., the … [Read more...]

Inexplicable vs. unexplainable

Inexplicable and unexplainable are mostly interchangeable---both describe things that can't be explained---and using one in place of the other is never a serious error. They have differentiated slightly in modern use, though. Inexplicable tends to describe things that are seemingly without logic, … [Read more...]


An oxymoron is a literary or rhetorical device in which two contradictory terms are used together for emphasis or poetic effect or to arrive at a unique meaning. A few of the most commonly cited ones are deafening silence, living dead, open secret, and controlled chaos. The word came to English via … [Read more...]

Ground zero

Ground zero originally referred to the point on the ground immediately under an exploding atomic bomb. Because it is at the center of the explosion, ground zero is the point of greatest devastation. This is a bad thing, obviously. Yet in recent years, writers often use the phrase to refer to the … [Read more...]

Disinterested vs. uninterested

Disinterested traditionally means having no stake in the matter. For example, when you are arguing with someone, you might bring in a disinterested third person to help settle the issue fairly. Uninterested traditionally means not engaged, bored, or unconcerned. Many careful writers still observe … [Read more...]


Lubber is an old word (dating from the 14th century) meaning a clumsy or stupid person.1 This is its sense in the sailing term landlubber, which refers to an unseasoned sailor. The word alludes to what veteran sailors regard as new sailors' distinctive ineptitude at sea. See this passage from Herman … [Read more...]


The traditional definitions of intercourse are (1) communication or exchange between countries, and (2) frequent or habitual intercommunication between people or things. But while these senses live on, the word now most often refers to sexual intercourse, even where the modifier sexual is absent. To … [Read more...]

Funner, funnest

Some English traditionalists claim that the only correct comparative form of the adjective fun is more fun, that the only superlative is most fun, and that funner and funnest are only appropriate in the most informal contexts. This rule might once have been justifiable, but today it is obsolete, and … [Read more...]

Authorise vs. authorize

For the verb meaning to grant authority or to give permission, authorize is the standard spelling in American and Canadian English. Authorise is standard in all main varieties of English outside North America. The distinction extends to all derivative words. North Americans use authorized, … [Read more...]

Disassemble vs. dissemble

Most English speakers can correctly infer from the negative prefix dis- that disassemble means the opposite of assemble. Dissemble is trickier because it sort of sounds like it should mean the opposite of assemble, but it actually means (1) to disguise (either oneself or something else) behind a … [Read more...]

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