The adverb overly has a long history of use in English, but it's usually unnecessary. The prefix over- conveys the same meaning as overly, and it can be attached (without a hyphen) to any common adjective. Examples Here are a few examples of overly constructions that could be made less wordy with the prefix over-: Sure, compensation---particularly pensions and benefits---for many public employees is overly generous [overgenerous]. [Kansas City Star (article now offline)] The result is an … [Read more...]

Over- and under- (prefixes)

The prefixes over- and under- (meaning, respectively, (1) too or (2) above, and (1) insufficiently or (2) beneath) are living prefixes, meaning they may be attached to virtually any adjective or verb without requiring a hyphen. Your spell check might tell you not to use words like underintelligent, overlove, undermarket, overroof, underfoundation, and oversunny, but spell check is often wrong in instances like these. These are perfectly good coinages that do not require hyphens. Even so, … [Read more...]

Ocher vs. ochre

Ocher and ochre are different spellings of the same word, referring to (1) any of several earthy mineral oxides of iron occurring in brown, yellow, or red and used as pigments, and (2) a moderate orange yellow. The only difference is that ocher is the American spelling while ochre is preferred outside the U.S. Both spellings are many centuries old, and historical Google Books searches (which can be inaccurate when it comes to texts before 1800) uncover more instances of ocher than ochre in … [Read more...]

Vicious vs. viscous

Vicious means (1) evil, immoral, or depraved; (2) spiteful, malicious, (3) aggressive, and (4) severe or intense. Viscous means having relatively high resistance to flow (think mud or industrial sludge). Examples Viscous Gallons of the viscous amber fluid have been given to politicians and journalists, as the apiarists of Australia lobby for action against the imminent incursion of Asian bees. [Sydney Morning Herald] The thick and heavy bitumen, sometimes called tar or tar sands, is too … [Read more...]

Basis (on a daily basis, on a regular basis, etc.)

The common phrases on a daily basis and on a regular basis are wordy for daily and regularly. The same applies to similar constructions such as on an hourly basis, on a yearly basis, and so on. Such phrases can usually be shortened to single-word adverbial equivalents. Wordier basis-based phrases are appropriate where no one-word adjective exists, such as with on an adjusted basis and on a trial basis. But these are rare. Examples These instances of on a daily basis or on a regular basis … [Read more...]

Wreath vs. wreathe

The difference between wreath and wreathe is similar to that between breath and breathe as well as sheath and sheathe. Wreath is a noun, and wreathe is its corresponding verb, meaning (1) to twist or entwine into a wreathe, or (2) to decorate with or as with a wreath. So, for instance, during the holiday season, one might festively wreathe a tree with wreaths. Examples Wreath That could be why every January, I get a certain sugar craving that can only be satisfied by an icing-drenched, … [Read more...]

Forbidding vs. foreboding

The adjective foreboding, meaning presaging something, connotes a sense of imminent danger. When something is foreboding, one gets the sense that something bad is going to happen. Although the participle works as an adjective, the word is more often used as a noun referring to a sense of imminent danger. For example, one might feel foreboding on hearing a rumble of distant thunder. Forbidding means hostile, unfriendly, or tending to impede progress. Things that are forbidding may cause fear, … [Read more...]

Omelet vs. omelette

For the breakfast dish consisting of eggs that have been beaten, cooked until set, and folded over, American publications prefer omelet, and this is the spelling recommended by most American English reference sources. In all other main varieties of English, the French spelling, omelette, is preferred. These are the preferences shown in 21st-century edited writing, anyway. There's no rule saying Americans can't prefer the French spelling or that British writers can't prefer the American one, … [Read more...]

Do apologize

Do apologize is a bureaucratic-sounding phrase best avoided in any genuine apology. The insertion of the helper word do ahead of apologize distances the speaker from the apology and hence the offending action, and this may only further infuriate the apology's recipient. The effect is subtle, but consider how much more convincing these apologies would sound if do were removed: "I do apologize very sincerely for the mistakes I have made," he said. [Louisville Courier-Journal (link now … [Read more...]


Avail has three meanings: (1) to make use of; (2) to be of use; and (3) benefit or advantage. In the first sense, avail is always a reflexive verb, followed by a reflexive pronoun such as myself, oneself, or herself, with the pronoun referring to the person or thing performing the action---for example: Residents visiting the library could avail themselves of the park district's facilities and programs. [Chicago Sun-Times] Cooper's is not technically a defamation suit, although it does avail … [Read more...]

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