Naval vs. navel

Naval is an adjective meaning of or related to ships, shipping, or the navy. Navel is a noun meaning the mark on the surface of the mammalian abdomen where the umbilical cord was attached during gestation---i.e., the belly button. Navel is also the correct spelling for the sweet orange. Though the words sound the same (please correct us if this is not true in any variety of English), they are not etymologically related. Naval comes from the Latin navis, meaning ship, while navel has origins … [Read more...]

Sooner rather than later

The phrase sooner rather than later is wordy for soon. How this clunky, illogical phrase ever became popular is a mystery, but perhaps some writers feel that soon on its own is not emphatic enough. Available alternatives include before long, shortly, sooner than expected, and in the near future. And when these are not strong enough, there's always very soon, as soon as possible, and now. Examples In fact, any borrowing that you are contemplating should be done sooner rather than later as rates … [Read more...]

Afflict vs. inflict

Afflict, which takes the preposition with, means to impose grievous physical or mental suffering on. Inflict, which takes the preposition on, means to mete out or impose (something on someone). These verbs are easily confused because they're similar in sound and meaning, but there are clear differences between them. Aside from their different prepositions, they also use objects differently. The direct object of afflict is the person, group, or thing suffering from the affliction (e.g., she … [Read more...]

Abjure vs. adjure

The verbs abjure and adjure both involve solemnity or earnestness, but their meanings are different. To abjure is to recant solemnly, renounce, repudiate, or forswear---for example: Yasser Arafat, by contrast, had never permanently abjured violence. [The Guardian] Of course, not all liberals abjure the Constitution. [American Spectator] Adjure, which is often used in religious contexts,means to appeal or entreat solemnly---for example: A father-son duo ... adjure us to wake up lest America … [Read more...]

Lend vs. loan

Traditionally, loan is a noun and lend is a verb. While a minority of writers still observe this distinction, loan is now well established as a verb and probably isn't going to go away. English reference books tend to cite this use of loan as primarily North American. While this was once the case, the verb loan now appears everywhere. To loan someone money and to lend someone money are essentially the same. Still, honoring the traditional distinction is not wrong. Example Loan as a verb The … [Read more...]

Peace of mind, piece of (one’s) mind

Peace of mind is serenity, quietude, or an absence of mental stress. To give a piece of your mind is to tell someone what you think, usually angrily or self-righteously. Examples I then gave the poor student volunteer on the other end of the phone a piece of my mind. [Parkersberg News] If it's peace of mind that you are after, then opting for a fix now could be the best move. [Telegraph] But one guest, getting fed up with these ostentations, gave the host a piece of his mind, … [Read more...]

Dog days

The idiom dog days traditionally refers to the hottest period of the late summer. It has a long and interesting history. The Romans referred to the late-summer period as dies caniculares, literally meaning Dog Star days, out of the belief that the summer heat was caused by the proximity of the star Sirius (the brightest star and part of the Canis Major---Large Dog---constellation) to the sun during these months. This belief may have come from the Greeks or Egyptians. For the Romans, the dog … [Read more...]

Compose vs. comprise

Comprise means to consist of or to be composed of. Compose means to make up the constituent parts of. Parts compose the whole, and the whole comprises the parts. For example, we could say that the United States comprises 50 states and that the 50 states compose the United States. But comprise is widely used in illogical ways, mainly in phrases such as is comprised of. For example, many people would write that the United States is comprised of 50 states even though they obviously mean compose … [Read more...]

To a T

The idiom is to a T, not to a tee or to a tea.1 The origins of this expression are mysterious, but it might refer to the T-square, a drawing instrument used in drafting. It might also have to do with crossing one's T's, as in the expression dotting the I's and crossing the T's. Whatever its origins, the expression now means perfectly or exactly, and it usually takes a capital T. Some writers put quotation marks around the T, but this is unnecessary. Examples My gender has nothing to do with my … [Read more...]

Protagonist, antagonist

A protagonist is the main character in a drama. Technically, there can only be one protagonist in a drama, though writers often use the word in reference to two or more central characters. The antagonist is the main character's chief opponent. Because the protagonist is the main character in the drama---and because there can technically only be one---phrases such as main protagonist and central protagonist are redundant. Example Katniss, the protagonist, is so mixed up from pretending to … [Read more...]

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