Free rein vs. free reign

The usual spelling of the phrase meaning freedom to do as one pleases is free rein, not free reign. The latter is a common misspelling, and it almost makes sense given reign's meaning (i.e., the exercise of sovereign power). But free rein, an allusion to horseback riding, is the original form, and it is much more common in published texts. The OED lists instances of its use from as long ago as the 17th century.1 As the ngram below suggests, free reign is a much newer … [Read more...]

Favorite vs. favourite

Favorite and favourite are different spellings of the same word. Favorite is the preferred spelling in the U.S., while favourite is preferred in all the other main varieties of English. These preferences extend to all derivatives, including favorites/favourites, favoritism/favouritism, and favorited/favourited. Favourite has been the preferred spelling in British English for several centuries, but this does not mean that favorite is a late arrival to the language or even American in origin. … [Read more...]

Toward vs. towards

Toward and towards are equally acceptable forms of the word primarily meaning in the direction of. Other than the s at the end, there is no difference between them. Some people differentiate the two words in various ways, but these preferences are not borne out in the usage of most English speakers. Neither form is more formal or informal or more or less logical than the other (the Oxford English Dictionary says towards is more colloquial in British English, but we see no evidence that this is … [Read more...]

Masterful vs. masterly

In their traditional senses, masterful means imperious or domineering, and masterly means with virtuosic skill. But the original meaning of masterful has all but disappeared, and the two words are now used interchangeably. Moreover, masterful has taken over much of masterly's territory and appears to be pushing the latter word out of the language.1 Careful writers are free to honor the original sense of masterful, but this might just cause confusion. Examples For example, these old … [Read more...]

Moustache vs. mustache (vs. mustachio)

Mustache is the U.S. spelling of the word referring to hair on the upper lip. Moustache is the preferred spelling in all the main varieties of English from outside the U.S.  Mustachio, which resembles the Italian word for the facial hair but is spelled differently, was originally a variant of mustache, but it has long been used to refer to an especially luxuriant mustache. The past-participial adjectives corresponding to these words are mustached, moustached, and … [Read more...]

Re-create vs. recreate

The prefix re- can be attached to almost any verb without requiring a hyphen, but we tend to make exceptions with re- constructions that would cause confusion with no hyphen. Because recreate, meaning to amuse oneself with an activity, is a word in its own right, the verb re-create, meaning to create again, benefits from the hyphen. But because recreate is an exceedingly rare verb, there's actually little chance of the two being confused, so many publications omit the hyphen and use recreate to … [Read more...]

Frivolity vs. frivolousness

Frivolity means (1) silliness, (2) lightheartedness, or (3) a frivolous thing. Not all frivolous things are lighthearted or silly, but frivolity tends to carry these connotations. Frivolousness, which most often comes up in legal contexts, means the quality of being unworthy of serious attention. It does not have lighthearted connotations. In judicial proceedings, frivolousness wastes time. Examples Frivolousness We further deny Mr. Freeman's motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis in … [Read more...]


The adverb overly has a long history of use in English, but it's usually unnecessary. The prefix over- conveys the same meaning as overly, and it can be attached (without a hyphen) to any common adjective. Examples Here are a few examples of overly constructions that could be made less wordy with the prefix over-: Sure, compensation---particularly pensions and benefits---for many public employees is overly generous [overgenerous]. [Kansas City Star (article now offline)] The result is an … [Read more...]

Over- and under- (prefixes)

The prefixes over- and under- (meaning, respectively, (1) too or (2) above, and (1) insufficiently or (2) beneath) are living prefixes, meaning they may be attached to virtually any adjective or verb without requiring a hyphen. Your spell check might tell you not to use words like underintelligent, overlove, undermarket, overroof, underfoundation, and oversunny, but spell check is often wrong in instances like these. These are perfectly good coinages that do not require hyphens. Even so, … [Read more...]

Ocher vs. ochre

Ocher and ochre are different spellings of the same word, referring to (1) any of several earthy mineral oxides of iron occurring in brown, yellow, or red and used as pigments, and (2) a moderate orange yellow. The only difference is that ocher is the American spelling while ochre is preferred outside the U.S. Both spellings are many centuries old, and historical Google Books searches (which can be inaccurate when it comes to texts before 1800) uncover more instances of ocher than ochre in … [Read more...]

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