Somersault is the standard spelling of the noun denoting the acrobatic stunt involving a complete revolution of the body with the knees bent. Alternative spellings such as summersault, somersalt, and summerset appear in some dictionaries and are not completely absent from published writing, and your spell check might not catch them, but somersault is by far the most common form and is most faithful to the word's French roots. … [Read more...]

Opossum vs. possum

The term possum covers about 70 species of marsupials native to Australia and surrounding islands. Opossum covers over 100 species of marsupials living in the Western Hemisphere. Opossums are often referred to colloquially as possums (or 'possums), but in scientific contexts, possum and opossum refer to different groups of animals. Examples Western marsupials We saw an opossum in our backyard last week. Have they always lived in Michigan? [letter to Detroit Free Press] In the Appalachian … [Read more...]

Feminity vs. femininity

Femininity is the standard form of the noun referring to behavior or qualities thought to be characteristic of females. Fiminity is an old variant, and some find it appealing because it is shorter and easier to say. Yet in modern English, it appears only very rarely, and femininity prevails by an overwhelming margin. The ngram below graphs occurrence of the two forms in a large number of English-language texts published through the 20th century. As you can see, feminity barely registers … [Read more...]


Aught is a pronoun meaning anything whatever. Though the word has an archaic ring in the U.S., it is fairly common outside North America, especially in the U.K., where it's a dialectal synonym of anything. Aught is an ancient word. It goes back to Old English in various forms, and though it has taken many spellings over the centuries, its meaning has remained consistent through history. It means the same today as it did a thousand years ago, and unlike many other old words, it has not piled … [Read more...]

Chic vs. sheik

The adjective chic (pronounced sheek) comes from French. It means conforming to the current fashion, stylish, or sophisticated. Sheik (which is pronounced either shake or sheek) refers to (1) an Islamic religious official, or (2) a leader of an Arab family or village. Sheikh is a less common variant. Examples These writers use chic in the conventional sense: Just over a year ago, she chopped off her long dark locks for a chic short bob. [Daily Mail] Vacancy rates are still rising and … [Read more...]

Evoke vs. invoke

To evoke is (1) to summon or call forth, (2) to call to mind, and (3) to call up a memory from the past. To invoke is, primarily, to call upon something, especially aid, assistance, or a higher power. Less commonly used senses of invoke include to cite for justification (such as when a lawyer invokes a precedent to make an argument), to conjure, and to resort to. Examples As with terrorism, the public has deep concerns about America's place in the world, but these worries do not evoke a strong … [Read more...]

Force majeure

The French loan phrase force majeure (meaning, literally, greater force) has two meanings in English: (1) superior or overpowering force, and (2) an unexpected or uncontrollable event. The latter sense is used more often. Force majeure is most often used in legal contexts, usually in reference to events that are beyond a person's or company's control. A force majeure clause of a contract outlines the extreme conditions under which one or both parties may be freed from obligation or liability. … [Read more...]

Neighbor vs. neighbour

Neighbor is preferred in American English, and neighbour is preferred in all the other main varieties of English. The words are the same in every other respect. The spelling difference extends to derivative words such as neighborhood/neighbourhood, neighborly/neighbourly, neighbored/neighboured, and neighboring/neighbouring. Examples U.S. It's neighbor vs. neighbor on rural Ritchie Highway [Baltimore Sun] In summer, the rink area is a sprawling lawn, neighbored by restaurants and chess … [Read more...]

Nonprofit vs. not-for-profit (vs. non-profit)

There is no real difference in meaning between nonprofit and not-for-profit. Both can be used to describe organizations that do not redistribute surplus funds to owners or shareholders. Nonprofit is about twice as common in U.S. publications, but not-for-profit is gaining ground because it more accurately reflects how these organizations work. Most nonprofit/not-for-profit organizations do make profits. It's just that the profits are reinvested into company operations. The one-word form tends … [Read more...]

Nary a

The phrase nary a---which means not one, no, or not a and fits where any of those would work---derives from never a (via ne'er a). As it's dialectal, it might be considered out of place in formal writing. Yet that doesn't stop writers from using it in all sorts of contexts. Examples But nary a snarl nor bark was heard from this entire bunch. [Wall Street Journal] [I]t's hard to think of a modern action movie that doesn't feature at least one orgasmic detonation, followed by cool guys … [Read more...]

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