Port vs. starboard

Port and starboard are nautical terms with origins in Old English. Their meanings are simple: to an observer standing on a boat and facing the front of the craft, port is the left side of the boat, and starboard is the right. If it helps, just remember that port and left are both four-letter words ending in t. Both adjectives are often used to make the phrasal adjectives port-side and starboard-side, which are hyphenated. Of course, side doesn't add anything to the words, which already denote … [Read more...]


The noun deconstruction originally referred to a postmodern philosophy and literary-criticism movement that seeks to undo conventional assumptions underlying the meanings of texts. Deconstruction as a synonym of dismantlement or demolition began as a careless misappropriation of the literary term, but this use is now so widespread it must be accepted. Examples In the following examples, deconstruction is used where dismantlement or demolition (or, in the third example, dismantles) would also … [Read more...]

Mischievous vs. mischievious

Mischievous is the standard spelling of the adjective meaning causing mischief. Mischievious is a misspelling, but it is so common that it may someday gain acceptance. For now, it doesn't regularly appear in edited writing, and dictionaries and spell check have yet to accept it, for what that's worth. The misspelling is not new. The OED lists instances of mischievious going back to the 17th century, and a Google Books search reveals a few thousand instances from before 1920. So while … [Read more...]


The noun dearth, meaning a scarce supply, is synonymous with shortage and scarcity. A time of dearth is one in which things are dear---dear being the root of dearth---so there are things, just not many or much of them. So, at least traditionally, dearth does not mean a complete lack or absence. For example, if you have $12.43 in your bank account, you have a dearth of funds. If you have $0.00 in your account, you don't even have enough for a dearth. So phrases like complete dearth and total … [Read more...]

Crevasse vs. crevice

Crevices are small, usually narrow cracks or gaps in a surface. Think of the word as a synonym of split, crack, rent, and cranny. A crevasse is a large fissure, especially in a glacier. The word's synonyms include abyss and chasm. Crevice and crevasse are not actually homophones---as crevice is pronounced KREV-iss, while crevasse is pronounced kruh-VOSS---but their similarity in sound and meaning makes them easy to confuse. The words have a common origin---the Old French cravace---but they … [Read more...]

Run-on sentences

A run-on sentence is not simply a sentence that is too long. Rather, it is a sentence in which two or more independent clauses are fused together without the proper punctuation or conjunctions needed to hold them together in a grammatically correct way. There are many types of run-ons. We'll cover the three most common.  1. Comma splices A run-on sentence with a comma splice consists of two independent clauses separated by a comma and missing a conjunction---for example: I need a new TV, … [Read more...]

Dove vs. dived

Dived is the traditional past tense and past participle of the verb dive. But the newer dove, which probably came about by analogy with similar words like drove and wove, has been in the language approximately two centuries and is now standard in American and Canadian English. Outside North America, where dived still prevails by a large margin, some might consider dove wrong. According to this ngram, which graphs occurrence of the phrases he dived and he dove in a large number of American … [Read more...]

Complacent vs. complaisant

Complacent means self-satisfied, smug, or contented to a fault. Complaisant, a relatively recent loanword from French, means cheerfully obliging or tending to go along with others. Both have negative connotations when applied to a person, and they might share a little common ground, but they're easy to keep separate. Think of a complacent person as someone who is willfully ignorant, unconcerned, or overcontented, while a complaisant person is a pushover, willing to do whatever anyone … [Read more...]

Nouns as adjectives

Nouns sometimes function as adjectives. For example, in each of these phrases, the first word is usually a noun but here functions as an adjective modifying the second word: city government, article writer, bicycle thief, Sunday picnic, pumpkin pie. Adjective--noun confusion When this type of functional switching could cause confusion, consider rewording. Consider this sentence: Ask the cooler guy if we need more fish. Here, cooler could be interpreted in two drastically different ways. … [Read more...]

French accent marks

French uses several accent marks to guide pronunciation. These are the most commons ones. 1. L'accent aigu: The aigu accent points to the right and upward. Only appearing above the letter e, it changes the letter's pronunciation to ay---for example, médecin (may-deh-sehn, meaning doctor), étouffer, (ay-too-fay, meaning to stifle), marché (mar-shay, meaning market). 2.  L'accent grave: The grave accent points to the left and upward. It can appear over any vowel, but it only alters … [Read more...]

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