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For God’s sake

By the usual standards of English grammar, the irreverent utterance of exasperation should be for God's sake, with an apostrophe to show that god's is possessive and with sake in the singular form, but the phrase appears idiomatically in several other forms---for example: He's a third-stringer for God's sakes! [The Collegian (link now dead)] This is a school, for god sake, not a wilderness attraction! [LBPost] They can't even keep their hockey team, for god sakes, and Canada gets one? … [Read more...]

Numerals

Style guides differ on some points involving the use of numerals (i.e., for example, 16 and 44 instead of sixteen and forty-four) in texts, but there are two rules on which most agree: (1) Spell all integers from zero to ten. (2) Use numerals for numbers 11 and above. Some publications make the cut at nine instead of ten, but most do have a consistent policy.  In practice, there are a few common exceptions---namely: (a)     Numerals are usually used for all numbers in texts involving math, … [Read more...]

On the lam

The idiom is on the lam, not on the lamb. The exact origins of this sense of lam are unknown, but it's believed to be a late 19th-century U.S. slang term. It was originally a verb meaning to escape, and it's still occasionally used in that sense, but today it mostly functions as a noun. To be on the lam is to escape, to flee justice, or to be in hiding from law enforcement. Examples An accused East Coast mobster, on the lam for more than 10 years, was found by the FBI in an unlikely occupation … [Read more...]

Fastly

Fast is one of a category of adjectives that double as adverbs without requiring the -ly ending. Because fast works this way---and it does for all its main senses, including in a speedy manner and in a secure manner or tightly---the adjectival fastly is a superfluous word. The -ly adds nothing. There is some resistance to flat adverbs (that is, adverbs such as fast that take adjectival forms), and when using fast this way you might encounter people who claim the word should be changed … [Read more...]

Ilk

According to dictionaries, the noun ilk does not necessarily have negative connotations. Derived from a Scottish term meaning the same, the word is synonymous with type and kind, and it's usually used in phrases like of that ilk or of his/her ilk. It refers to a person's associates or colleagues. Logically, there's nothing inherently disparaging about this sense of ilk. It's neutral. But in contemporary usage, ilk has become negative. This is perhaps due to ilk's similarity in sound to … [Read more...]

Sentence-ending prepositions

The "rule" that a preposition should not end a sentence goes back to the 18th century, when some grammarians believed English should bend to the rules of Latin grammar. But like the spurious prohibition against starting sentences with conjunctions, this rule goes against the glorious flexibility of English and often leads to unnatural-sounding sentences. Ending sentences with strong words is a good idea, but not when it means contorting the language away from natural expression. Winston … [Read more...]

Adaption vs. adaptation

Adaption and adaptation are different forms of the same word, and they share all their meanings, which include (1) the act of changing to suit new conditions, and (2) a work of art recast in a new form or medium. But the longer word, adaptation, is preferred by most publications and is much more common. Adaption is not completely absent, but it usually gives way to the longer form in edited writing.  Both forms are old. The OED lists examples of adaption from as long ago as the early 17th … [Read more...]

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. [KJRH.com] 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...]

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