Rule of thumb

The idiom rule of thumb, meaning a principle that's widely useful but not strictly accurate in all circumstances, has origins in the practice of making measurements with one's thumb.1 In this idiom, rule originally carried one of its now little-used definitions---a straight-edged device used for measuring or drawing lines---but it's now taken on the more common definition. Now, when you hear the phrase rule of thumb, it's more or less synonymous with general rule. Contrary to the old myth now … [Read more...]

Palindrome (poetry)

In poetry, a palindrome (from the Greek palindromos, meaning running back again) is a poem, line, or sentence that reads the same both forward and backward, either letter by letter or word by word. One early example, attributed to Gregory of Nazianuzus (329--389 A.D.), is in Latin: nipson anomemata me monan opsin This translates to, Wash my transgressions, not only my face. There are also some well-known examples in English, such as these two attributed to Napoleon: Madam, I'm … [Read more...]

Overnight vs. over night

Overnight is one word when it functions as an adjective or adverb, as in these examples: Cover and refrigerate overnight. [Mommy's Kitchen] His Olympic super-combined originally was set for Tuesday but an overnight snowstorm forced organizers to push the race back to Sunday. [Associated Press] This covers most instances in which the words over and night work together. The two-word phrase over night is reserved for constructions such as I prefer day over night, but these don't come up often. … [Read more...]

Conjunctions to start sentences

If anyone tells you starting sentence with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet) is incorrect, hand them any piece of professional writing and have them take a look. In literature, journalism, speeches, and formal writing of all kinds, using these conjunctions to start sentences is more than just acceptable; it's ubiquitous. Open any book, even one with technical, scholarly, or otherwise formal writing, and you are likely to find numerous examples. There are exceptions, of … [Read more...]

Whence vs. from whence

Whence, according to its conventional definition, means from where, so the phrase from whence is logically redundant. But this doesn't stop people from using from whence, a phrase that has been common for centuries. When hearing the sentence Whence came you?, one may feel something is missing---specifically, a preposition---even though the sentence is well constructed without it. That's why from whence is so often used instead of whence alone, as in these examples: Without warning, he dissolves … [Read more...]


The verb cast is conventionally uninflected in the past tense and as a past participle. Casted  is an old form---examples are easily found in texts from every century from the 14th to the present---but it has given way to cast in modern English. In current usage, however, casted is gaining ground, especially where cast means either (1) to assemble actors for a performance, or (2) to throw out bait and/or a lure on a fishing line. (Both these senses have extended metaphorical uses where casted is … [Read more...]


The noun aegis, usually embedded in the phrase under the aegis of, means protection, auspices, or sponsorship. It comes from the Ancient Greek aigis, which denoted a shield or armor made from the skin of a goat. So when a Greek poet wrote that a hero was under the aegis of the gods, this meant the hero was under divine protection. Examples The Office of Unclaimed Funds, under the aegis of the state comptroller, had set up a table at the Hilton. [New York Times] Providing aid to Greece and … [Read more...]

Directional words

-ward vs. -wards In American English, the preferred suffix is -ward---for example, westward, forward, backward, downward. Outside American English, -wards is preferred---so, westwards, forwards, backwards, and downwards. But it's not a clean distinction, and both suffixes are used everywhere. The -ward suffix may be placed at the end of any noun without requiring a hyphen. Spell check may catch words like cityward, mountainward, oceanward, or workward, but that shouldn't stop us from using … [Read more...]

Sight vs. site

A site is (1) a place where something is located, or (2) a website. While site has few definitions, sight has many, including (1) the ability to see; (2) one's field of vision; (3) something seen; (4) a place or thing worth seeing; and (5) the part of a firearm used to aim. It appears in the common phrases set one's sights, out of sight, sight unseen, and sight for sore eyes. Examples A woman's skeleton found at a building site in Manchester city centre may have lain undiscovered for up to 50 … [Read more...]

Bait vs. bate

The archaic verb bate, meaning to lessen the intensity of, rarely appears in modern English outside the phrase bated breath. So unless you're using bated breath, the word you're looking for is probably bait, which has several meanings, including (1) something used as a lure, (2) to lure or entice, and (3) to taunt or ridicule. Baited breath is a misspelling. Most often, bait means a lure used to hook or trap an animal, a sense often employed metaphorically---for example: So when the news hit … [Read more...]

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