Quick entries: S

  • 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.


    Salience: Saliency is far less common and has no meanings of its own.

    Sanction: an antagonym, meaning it has contradictory definitions—(1) to encourage or tolerate, and (2) to penalize. Of course, the word has several other definitions.

    Sang vs. sung: Sang has not gained ground as the participle. So, for example, we still say, “I sang the song yesterday. I had not sung it in a year.”

    Sarcophagus: The English plural is sarcophaguses. The Latin plural is sarcophagi. Pick your language.

    Say one’s piece: To speak one’s mind on a matter, usually succinctly and with the understanding that there will listeners will not interrupt. Not say one’s peace.

    Scam vs. sham: A sham is something that is fake or fraudulent but not necessarily malicious. A scam is a fraudulent scheme, usually malicious, designed to take advantage of someone.

    Schema: a diagrammatic model. The English plural is schemas, but some people favor the Latin plural, schemata.

    Schizophrenic: outside medical contexts, used informally to mean (1) wildly inconsistent in unpredictable ways, or (2) containing disparate elements.

    Schmuck: a contemptible person. Came to English from Yiddish in the late 19th century.

    Schtick: a routine or gimmick, especially in the performing arts, and especially one that is overused. Some dictionaries list shtik as the primary spelling, but they are behind the times. Schtick is far more common throughout the English-speaking world.

    Screed: a lengthy discourse, usually one that is boring or monotonous.

    Second that motion: Second that emotion sort of makes sense, but it’s not the conventional phrase, and readers are liable to think it’s wrong.

    Seen vs. saw: Seen is colloquially used as the past tense of see in some American dialects. But in most contexts, saw is the past tense and seen is the participle. For example, “I saw my brother yesterday. I had not seen him in months.”

    Self-starter: business speak for someone who has initiative. Always say you are one.

    Selfsame: fancy for same.

    Selling like hotcakes: selling very well.

    Seminal: (1) of or relating to semen; (2) providing early creative force for a work, a career, or a movement.

    Sensational: Because sensational has gained the new sense outstanding, the word can confuse when used in its older sense, of, relating to, or causing a sensation. Using a synonym is often best. But there is no confusion with sensationalize.

    Sensationalise vs. sensationalize: sensationalize in the U.S. and Canada; sensationalise everywhere else.

    Set vs. sit: Set must act directly on something. For example, you might set down a pen when you’re done using it, but you don’t set down when your legs are tired. When your legs are tired, you sit down (or just sit, if you want be concise). Sit can act directly on things, though, such as when you sit a baby in a high chair.

    Shenanigans: originally meant (1) trickery, pranks, or intrigue carried out in high spirits, but it’s now sometimes used to mean (2) trickery not necessarily carried out in high spirits, and (3) spirited activity.

    Shiv: prison slang for an improvised pointed device used as a weapon, or for the act of attacking someone with such an implement. The verb makes shivved and shivving.

    Shore up: support a structure by propping things against it.

    Sign up vs. signup: The two-word phrase functions as a verb. Signup is a noun or an adjective. E.g., Sign up at the signup table.

    Signal: makes signaled and signaling in American English; signalled and signalling in other varieties of English.

    Since: works in place of because in informal contexts, but this is risky in more formal writing.

    Sizable vs. sizeable: sizable in the U.S. and Canada; sizeable everywhere else.

    Skill set vs. skillset: skill set, for now.


    Skullduggery: crafty deception.

    Slay: makes slew in the past tense. The past participle is slain.

    Smarmy: (1) obsequious or (2) smug.

    Smart phone vs. smartphone: Only the most editorially conservative publications still make it two words. Most of the English-speaking world uses smartphone.

    Smokey vs. smoky: The adjective meaning ofemitting, resembling, or tasting of smoke is smokySmokey is a name (e.g., Smokey the BearSmokey Robinson).

    Snobbery vs. snobbishness: Somewhat snobbish behavior is snobbishness. Very snobbish behavior is snobbery.

    Spake: an archaic past tense of speak. No one uses it anymore.

    Spat vs. spitted: Spat is the past tense of the verb spitSpitted means on a a spit (i.e., a pointed rod used for impaling and cooking meat).

    Spearhead: to serve as leader or go at the front. A single unhyphenated word.

    Specious vs. spurious: Things that are spurious are more obviously false than things that are specious.

    Spic and span: very clean.

    Spoiled vs. spoilt: Spoilt survives primarily in U.K. English, but even in the U.K. it is less common than spoiled, which prevails by a large margin throughout the English-speaking world.

    Spot on: exactly or just right.

    Spry: lively, vigorous, or active.

    Stand alone vs. standalone: Standalone is an adjective and sometimes a noun. As a verb, it is two words.

    Stat: (1) short for statistic; (2) as soon as possible. In the second sense, stat is not an abbreviation

    Still and all: colloquialism for still, where still means all the same or nevertheless.

    Strategy vs. tactic: A strategy is a plan for overall success. A tactic is a plan for a specific action.

    Strived vs. strove: Both are common. Strived is a little less common outside North America.

    Stupefaction: not stupefecation.

    Super- vs. supra-: They are not opposities. In fact, they share much common ground. Both mean above or beyond, but while super- often means just above or just beyondsupra- often means far above or far beyond.

    Supercede vs. supersede: Supersede is preferred.

    Superstorm: a very large storm, especially one resulting from multiple storms joining forces.

    Swashbuckle: to act as a swashbuckler—i.e., a flamboyant, swaggering adventurer, especially one who uses a sword.

    Sweeped vs. swept: Swept is preferred by a huge margin throughout the English-speaking world.

    Sycophant: a self-serving person who seeks to get ahead by latching on to and flattering influential people.

    Synchronise vs. synchronize: In the U.S. and Canada, it’s synchronizesynchronizedsynchronizingsynchronization, etc. Outside North America, it’s synchronisesynchronisedsynchronisingsynchronisation, etc.

    Systematical: no different from the more common systematic.


    1. in recovery from Sound says

      I propose that you look into the term “spic and span.” Why would that mean clean, I wonder? Is it because in the Southwest, it is customary for people of the upper classes to hire as housekeepers or housecleaners people from Spanish-speaking countries (Mexico, Central America, etc.) who are called Hispanic, or derivatively, “spics.” “Get that kitchen super clean! When I return from church, i want it to look like it was cleaned by a Spic!” In northern California, and in New Mexico, any people who speak Spanish have historically been referred to as “Spanish.” Actually, that also happens in the northeast US, where there are more Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and others.

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