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Vain, vein, and vane

Vain is an adjective meaning (1) excessively pleased with one's own appearance or accomplishments, (2) not yielding the desired outcome, and (3) pointless. It's also used in the idiom in vain, meaning to no avail or in an irreverent manner (as in taking the Lord's name in vain). A vein is a membranous tube that carries blood to the heart in animals, and the word has numerous other definitions derived from this one.  Vane, the least common of the three words, is primarily a shortened form … [Read more...]

Begging the question (fallacy)

Begging the question, sometimes known by its Latin name petitio principii (meaning assuming the initial point), is a logical fallacy in which the writer or speaker assumes the statement under examination to be true. In other words, begging the question involves using a premise to support itself. If the premise is questionable, then the argument is bad. The most basic instances of begging the question involve rephrasing. In these examples, the statement following because just restates the … [Read more...]

Till, until, ’til

Till, as a variant of until, is a preposition meaning up to the time of. Till---not 'til, an unnecessary abbreviation---has been in the language for centuries, and there's no reason not to use it. To some it may sound less formal than until, but the two words are interchangeable in almost all contexts. Because many Americans mistakenly view till as incorrect---we're not sure why this is---the word is much more common outside the U.S. (though until is far more common everywhere). Here are a … [Read more...]

Toe the line

The idiom is toe the line, not tow the line. The phrase derives from track-and-field events in which athletes are required to place a foot on a starting line and wait for the signal to go. Race officials used to shout "Toe the line!" where now they shout "On your marks!" Since entering the language, the idiom has developed to mean do what is expected or act according to someone else's rules or expectations. Examples These days, he suggested, you've either got to toe the line or get out. … [Read more...]

Through vs. thru

Through and thru are different spellings of the same word. Thru is the less preferred form, however, and it might be considered out of place outside the most informal contexts. If you're writing for school or for a job application, for instance, through is definitely the safer choice. One exception: The shorter spelling is often used in drive-thru, where the term relates to getting fast food or banking without exiting one's car. But though the shorter spelling has gained ground in this … [Read more...]

Root vs. route vs. rout

The most common definition of root is the underground portion of a plant (though this sense is usually used metaphorically). It has many other meanings, however, including (1) to dig with the snout or nose, (2) to rummage, and (3) to give audible encouragement for a contestant or team. The meaning of route is narrower. Route refers to (1) a road, course, or way from one place to another, (2) a customary line of travel, (3) a means of reaching a goal, (4) a fixed course for a salesperson or … [Read more...]

En route

The French loan phrase en route, pronounced on root, means (1) on or along the way, or (2) on the road. It is sometimes written on route. This form is logical as it conveys roughly the same meaning as en route, but readers who are familiar with the French term might consider it a misspelling. En route is also sometimes written as one word---enroute. This spelling is common enough to have earned its way into some dictionaries, but the two-word form is still more common. En route has been in … [Read more...]

Stained glass

The term for glass colored with pigments is stained glass, not stain glass. Stained here is a participial adjective modifying the noun glass. Stain doesn't function as an adjective, so it can't modify glass. Examples When it's a phrasal adjective preceding the noun it modifies (almost always window), the phrase has a hyphen between stained and glass---for example: Judge Robert Main Jr. on Thursday unveiled a stained-glass map of Saranac Lake that he commissioned. [The Adirondack Daily … [Read more...]

Assail vs. assault

Assail and assault share several definitions, including (1) to attack with or as if with violent blows, (2) to attack verbally, and (3) to beset. They are often used interchangeably, and they even share an origin---the Old French asilir (which in turn comes from Latin)---but there are subtle differences in usage: assail rarely refers to violence, instead referring to verbal attacks, while assault is usually harsher and often does refer to violence. Somewhat confusingly, assailant, the noun … [Read more...]

Among vs. amongst

Amongst is a variant of among. There is no difference between them. While amongst is fairly common---though still rare compared to among---in British, Australian, and Canadian English, it is rare in American English and may even have an archaic ring. The -st at the end of amongst is a holdover from a period of English in which s sounds were added to words (usually nouns) to make adverbs. Other examples of words inflected this way include always, once, whence, and unawares, and there are a few … [Read more...]

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