Timber or timbre

Timbre, pronounced either TIM-ber or TAM-ber (the latter being closer to the French pronunciation), means tone quality. It is primarily a music-related term, but it can refer to other sounds. For example, we might say that a trumpet has a brassy timbre, or that the sound of the crowd during a football game has a timbre like waves on the beach. Timber refers primarily to wood and lumber. Aside from their similarity in spelling and sound (where timbre is not pronounced in the French manner), … [Read more...]


The figurative idiom tongue-in-cheek means meant or expressed ironically or facetiously. The expression has origins in 18th-century England, and it originally referred to a common facial expression used to express contempt. Since then, the contempt-related connotations have mostly disappeared (along with the facial expression, as far as we can tell), and the word mostly denotes irony and facetiousness. Anything said tongue-in-cheek is not to be taken at face value. Examples Tongue-in-cheek … [Read more...]

Broach vs. brooch

Broach is primarily a verb meaning (1) to bring up (a subject),or (2) to pierce in order to draw off liquid. Brooch is a noun referring to a large decorative pin or clasp. Some dictionaries list broach as a variant spelling of brooch, and the words do have related origins (in the Middle English broche, meaning pointed tool), but they are mostly kept separate in modern usage. Broach is also not to be confused with breach. Examples She wanted to reach out to friends, but it never felt like … [Read more...]


Ain't is a centuries-old contraction meaning am not, is not, are not, has not, or have not. The word has been derided by usage authorities throughout its history, and it's still considered unacceptable in formal writing, but it has a secure place in spoken English. In edited writing, ain't is mainly used tongue-in-cheek, as part of a common expression, or in an effort to sound folksy. Examples Let's face it, surfers and surfettes, when the water temps in the high 30s or low 40s, it ain't much … [Read more...]

You (in formal writing)

The superstition that says you shouldn't use you in formal writing is sometimes justified and at other times unnecessarily limiting. If there's no reason why your reader should feel insulted by your use of you, then there's nothing wrong with using this pronoun instead of the less personal one.  For example, these writers have no qualms about using you, and no reasonable person would find these sentences offensive, poorly written, or too informal: When you hear news stories about water from … [Read more...]


Lorry is a nice word, but it has never caught on in American and Canadian English. Where British writers use lorry, North Americans use the clunky tractor trailer or the plain truck. It would be nice to introduce the British word into American and Canadian English, but lorry so far has not gained traction here. It still gives the impression that the writer is either British or affecting a British voice. Lorry is also common in Irish English. And while the word is not absent from Australian … [Read more...]

Ton vs. tonne

In American English, a ton is a unit of measurement equaling 2,000 pounds. In non-U.S. measurements, a ton equals 2,240 pounds. A tonne, also known as a metric ton, is a unit of mass equaling 1,000 kilograms. American English speakers generally have no use for tonne, so the spelling rarely appears in U.S. publications. Elsewhere, fastidious publications use the appropriate spellings for the units of measurement. And ton (often pluralized) is used informally as a noun meaning a large extent, … [Read more...]

Materiel vs. material

While the broad and versatile English word material has been in the language for centuries, materiel, with an e in the last syllable, is a more recent arrival from French. In English, materiel has one narrow definition: the equipment, apparatus, and supplies of a military force. It can apply to weapons, aircraft, parts, support equipment, ships, and almost any other type of equipment used by the military. Unlike material, materiel is pronounced with the final syllable stressed. Some … [Read more...]

United States (plural or singular?)

United States is a singular noun and takes singular verb forms; for example, we say "The United States is in the Western Hemisphere," not "The United States are in the Western Hemisphere." This has been the case for over a century. Think of United States as the name of a country like any other. England, China, and Bahrain, for example, are all treated as singular nouns. United States is the same, even though it takes the form of a plural noun. For example, these publications treat United … [Read more...]

Point of view, standpoint, viewpoint

Point of view, standpoint, and viewpoint are synonyms, all referring to a position (either mental or physical) from which something is observed or considered. A few English reference sources recommend point of view over the alternatives, but viewpoint and standpoint are common, and there's nothing wrong with them. The terms sometimes have connotational differences, though. Standpoint and viewpoint are often synonymous with perspective, while point of view is often treated as gentle synonym of … [Read more...]

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