Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic means making well-meaning but negligible adjustments to an endeavor that is doomed to fail. It is a useful phrase, but it has been overused.  The expression goes back at least three decades (the earliest example we could find is from 1975), but its use has picked up sharply during the last few years. You know an expression has worn out its welcome when politicians take to it---for example: Palin derided the GOP "establishment" and accused them of … [Read more...]

Waiver vs. waver

Waiver is a noun with several meanings, including (1) intentional relinquishment of a right or privilege, (2) a dispensation, and (3) a deferment. In most cases, the one who relinquishes a right or privilege gives the waiver, while the one who benefits from the relinquishment receives the waiver. Waver is a verb meaning (1) to move unsteadily back and forth, (2) to vacillate, or (3) to tremble in sound. Related distinctions apply to the verbs waive and wave. Examples Waiver Oak Hills Local … [Read more...]

Some way vs. someway

While sometime, someday, someplace, someone, etc. are all long-established, dictionary-approved words, there is no accepted equivalent compound of the two-word phrase some way. In published writing of all kinds, the two words are almost always separate, as in these cases: We wanted to honor his birthday in some way today and spent a few hours last night reacquainting ourselves with some of Dr. King's speeches. [Chicagoist] That word is generally reserved for music that's new, unusual or … [Read more...]

Whiskey vs. whisky

The difference between whiskey and whisky is simple but important: whisky usually denotes Scotch whisky and Scotch-inspired liquors, and whiskey denotes the Irish and American liquors. The word itself (both spellings) is of Celtic origin, and modern whisky/whiskey distillation practices originated in Ireland and Scotland. Using whiskey to refer to Scotch whisky can get you in trouble in Scotland. Examples In November, China ruled that any product labelled as "Scotch whisky" in China must … [Read more...]

Yoke vs. yolk

Yoke and yolk aren't exactly homophones, but they are sometimes confused due to their closeness in sound. Yolk (which can be a count noun or a mass noun) is the yellow portion of an egg. A yoke is the crossbar that encircles the necks of a pair of oxen or other draft animals. It's usually metaphorical, often as part of the phrases throw off the yoke and under the yoke.  Examples Eager to throw off the yoke of government ownership, the U.K.'s two partially state-owned banks have been quietly … [Read more...]

Espresso vs. expresso

Expresso started as a misspelling of espresso, which came to English from Italian and refers to a strong, pressure-brewed coffee. But because expresso has so often appeared in place of espresso, we can perhaps consider it a variant. And indeed, some dictionaries now list it as such. This doesn't change the fact that many English speakers consider expresso wrong, however, and some will no doubt continue to do so no matter how common it becomes. So if you don't want anyone to think you're … [Read more...]

Fictional vs. fictitious

The adjective fictitious began as a variant of fictional, but the words have differentiated over time. Although both can be used to mean imaginary or fabricated, fictional is often used to describe imaginative works of art and things relating to them. A science-fiction novel, for instance, is fictional, as are its characters and story. Fictitious usually means, more generally, imaginary or fabricated, without necessarily referring to fictional works of art. For example, a nonexistent illness one … [Read more...]

Instinctive vs. instinctual

At root, instinctive and instinctual are essentially the same; both mean (1) of or arising from the instinct, or (2) pertaining to the instinct. There is a subtle difference between them in some writing on psychology published in the last century. In these contexts, instinctive describes any unlearned response no matter how basic. For example, the fight-or-flight response to danger is instinctive, as is the tendency for babies to cry when hungry. Instinctual, meanwhile, describes feelings, … [Read more...]

Amok vs. amuck

Amok is the 21st-century standard spelling of the word meaning (1) in a frenzy to do violence, or (2) in an uncontrolled state. Amuck is an old alternative spelling of the Malaysian loanword, and it had a few decades of prevalence before the middle 20th century, but it has now fallen out of favor. A few usage authorities still recommend the latter spelling, but amok is preferred in edited writing of this century. Examples I also love running amok at De Kaaskamer, the ideal spot for a tour of … [Read more...]

Hanged vs. hung

Hung is the past tense and past participle of hang in most of that verb's senses. For instance, yesterday you might have hung a picture on the wall, hung a right turn, and hung your head in sorrow. The exception comes where hang means to put to death by hanging. The past tense and past participle of hang in this sense, and only in this sense, is hanged. When someone is hung out of malice but with no intent to kill, as described in the example below, hung is the conventional word: They hung … [Read more...]

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