Quick entries: P-Q

  • Note: Many of the entries here will eventually become full-length posts. Some are rough and have not been fully researched. If you have any corrections or would like to add anything, please comment.


    Paediatrics vs. pediatrics: pediatrics in North America; paediatrics outside North America. The spelling distinction extends to all derivative words.

    Paid vs. paying: A paying customer is a customer who has paid. A paid customer is bad for business.

    Paraphernalia: personal belongings or articles for a particular activity. In English, it is treated as a mass noun and takes a singular verb.

    Parcel: In American English, the verb parcel is inflected parceled and parceling. In varieties of English from outside the U.S., it’s parcelled and parcelling.

    Parlor vs. parlour: In the U.S., it’s parlor. Everywhere else, it’s parlour.

    Passable vs. passible: Passable means able to be passedPassible, used very rarely, means capable of feeling.

    Pass muster: to be deemed acceptable after an inspection. It comes from the military, where soldiers are mustered (i.e., called together) for inspection. Pass mustard does not make sense (though to cut the mustard means to pass gas).

    Passed vs. past: Passed is the past tense and past participle of the verb pass, so we use it in constructions like we passed them an hour ago and we have passed them. Passed has no other uses. Past is the adverb used in constructions like they walked past us.

    Passing strange: Passing was once used as an adjective and adverb meaning very or beyond. For some reason, this sense of the word  survives in almost exclusively in the phrase passing strange, which means very strange or beyond strange.

    Pasteurise vs. pasteurize: In the U.S. and Canada: pasteurizepasteurizedpasteurizingpasteurization, etc. Outside North America: pasteurisepasteurisedpasteurisingpasteurisation, etc.

    Pastime: something used to pass the time, especially a hobby, sport, or other pleasant activity.

    Patsy: (1) a person who is easily taken advantage of; (2) a scapegoat.

    Pay the piper: to bear the consequences of one’s actions.

    Peckish: (1) a little hungry; (2) irritable.

    Penis: The English plural is penisesThe Latin plural, penes, appears sometimes, especially in scientific contexts. Penii has no etymological basis.

    Person (first, second, third): In first-person, the narrator speaks of herself. In second-person, she speaks of you. In third-person, she speaks of others.

    Personage: a famous or important person. Also just a fancy word for person.

    Peter out: to end weakly.

    Phallus: Don’t listen to the dictionaries that list phalli first. That’s the Latin plural. The English plural is phalluses.

    Philippic: a passionate verbal denunciation.

    Pipsqueak: a small or unimportant person.

    Pithy: short and to the point; concisely expressing much meaning.

    Platypi vs. platypuses: We speak English, so platypuses is the plural of the long-established English word platypus. But platypi is favored by some Latinists, scientists, and fans of quirky words.

    Plenteous, plentiful, plenty: Plenteous usually gives way to either of the other two.


    Polite company: company in which it behooves one to exhibit social grace.

    Poobah: an important person, especially one who holds multiple powerful offices. As it comes form a fictional work (Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado), it is not offensive.

    Potatoes: the plural of potato (even though potato doesn’t end in e).

    Potluck: in North America, a communal meal to which all attendees bring a dish. One word.

    Powwow: a conference or a gathering of different groups. It comes from an anglicization of a Native American term, and it might be considered at least a little offensive.

    Prebiotic, probiotic: Both are one word, with no hyphen.

    Prima donna: Italian for first ladyDonna bears respect. In English, though, the phrase is used to mean a temperamental, demanding person, especially one in show business. It refers to both females and males.

    Primary (as a verb): in American electoral politics, to challenge an incumbent in a primary.

    Prioritise vs. prioritize: means to make a priority. In the U.S. and Canada, it’s prioritize, prioritized, prioritizing, prioritization, etc. Outside North America, it’s prioritise, prioritised, prioritising, prioritisation, etc.

    Privy: To be privy to something, especially secret knowledge, is to have knowledge about it. The word also works as a noun referring to an outdoor toilet.

    Proceed to: usually bears removal.

    Prodigious: extraordinary or impressively great. It has little to do with our modern senses of prodigy.

    Promoter: not promotor.

    Promulgate: to make known by public announcement.

    (The) proof is in the pudding: The degree of success is uncertain until the results can be evaluated.

    Proverbial: widely referred to.

    Proviso: a clause in a document that makes a stipulation or a limitation.

    Proximal vs. proximate: They mean the same.

    Puppy love: affection that is new, innocent, passionately felt, but not very deep.

    Purple prose: prose that is showy, elaborate, or overemotional.

    Pusillanimous: cowardly. Don’t confuse with pugilistic, meaning of or relating to boxing. 

    Put on airs: (1) to act superior; (2) to build oneself up as something one is not.

    Putz: a fool, idiot, or sucker.

    Qua: in the capacity of.

    Quixotic: overidealistically driven to perform impossible tasks. From Don Quixote.


    1. Presume vs assume

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