Flammable vs. inflammable

There is no difference in meaning between flammable and inflammable. Both describe things that are capable of burning or easy to ignite, but in all modern varieties of English, flammable is preferred. Inflammable, derived from the verb inflame, is the original word. But because the first syllable is easily misinterpreted as the common negative prefix in- (as in, for example, inescapable, invulnerable, inorganic), the word has always caused confusion. Because this confusion can have … [Read more...]


The conjunction albeit has been labeled archaic, but it appears to be making a comeback, especially in American English. It means though or although, but it is not interchangeable with these words in all circumstances. Think of it as a shorter way of saying although it is or although it be. Examples Albeit is often used to introduce an adjectival or adverbial phrase that makes a concession about the preceding noun or verb---for example: This morning we gratefully received a long overdue … [Read more...]

De rigueur

The loanword de rigueur, meaning socially obligatory, proper, or required by custom, functions as an adjective in English. It comes from French, where it means, literally, of rigor and, less literally, according to strictness. De rigueur is also a common expression in that language, where it means roughly the same as in English. De rigueur has been in English a few centuries, so it does not have to be italicized in normal use (we italicize it here because it is presented out of context). But … [Read more...]

Divorcée, divorcé, divorcee

A divorcée is a woman who has divorced, and a divorcé is a man who has divorced. The words come directly from French, which unlike English uses masculine and feminine forms for most nouns denoting people. In French, divorcé is the past participle of the verb divorcer. When the past participle is used as a noun and made feminine, it takes an extra e. This is true of all regular -er French verbs and their noun derivatives. But while divorcée and divorcé are still common, many English … [Read more...]


The word myriad works as both (1) an adjective meaning innumerable, and (2) a noun referring to an innumerable quantity of something. Using it as an adjective is usually more concise.  For instance, in these sentences the words a and of could be removed from a myriad of with no loss of meaning: There is unrest in Iraq as well, and a myriad of conflicting interests [and myriad conflicting interests]. [National Review] The environmental reviews began in the summer of 2007 and included a … [Read more...]

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...]

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