Eggcorns, complements, and multiple modals

For my monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about these linguistic items.

Wet your appetite for eggcorns is an overview of that special type of error known by linguists as eggcorns, examples of which include wet your appetite and gun-ho:

Close-up of acorn danging at the end of a thin stem. The acorn is green in a pale-brown cap and points down towards the ground. The background is greenish-grey and out of focus.Whet is not a common or familiar verb, but wet is, and wet suggests the way your mouth waters or your stomach juices flow when you’re about to eat. So wet your appetite seems right. Gung-ho means ‘very enthusiastic, especially about something that might be dangerous’, but gung (from Chinese) is not a familiar morpheme in English, whereas gun is – and gun is strongly associated with danger. Hence gun-ho.

The post shows how eggcorns differ from folk etymologies, malapropisms, and mondegreens. (Inevitably, someone was enraged by the headline and jumped straight to the comments section.)


You might should know about double modals looks at a grammatical feature used in some dialects of English, especially in the USA but also in Scotland and northern England:

Can, could, will, would, shall, should, may, might, must, ought, and dare are modal verbs (aka modal auxiliaries, or just modals for short). Combine them and you get a double modal. The most common forms, at least in American English, are might could, might can, and might would, but many other pairs occur: might should, may can, should ought, must can, may will, and so on. Different combinations will be more or less typical or acceptable for different users.

I came across one just this morning (‘We might could work that together’) in the book I’m reading, Fear Itself by Walter Mosley – who also featured in my earlier post on multiple modals – but I never hear them spoken in Ireland.


A complement of compliments aims to sort out these words and their associated adjectives, complimentary and complementary. Confusable pairs like these are often explained in books and on websites without any help with remembering the difference, which is where the real problem lies. So I offer mnemonics:

Complement probably gives people more difficulty. Its meaning is related to complete, with which it shares the first six letters – including that ‘e’ in the middle, which is our next mnemonic. Macmillan Dictionary’s entry for the verb, sense 1, has the sample line: ‘The plants are chosen to complement each other’, and for sense 2: ‘This project is intended to complement, not replace, local authority programmes.’ Both convey the sense of something being completed – or supplemented, which, with its medial ‘e’, reinforces the mnemonic.

If you have alternative mnemonics, or even complementary ones, let’s hear them.

[Image cropped from original by Rene Mensen, shared under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.]

11 Responses to Eggcorns, complements, and multiple modals

  1. astraya says:

    My work often involves reading about ‘complementary protection’. Alongside refugees, those having a ‘well-founded fear of persecution, there are others for whom ‘as a necessary and foreseeable consequence of … being removed from Australia to a receiving country, there is a real risk that [they] will suffer significant harm’. Just occasionally, this comes out as ‘complimentary protection, which I don’t think any country recognises or grants.

  2. I compliment things I like?

  3. Niall says:

    For complement/compliment, I like to think of it as the two ‘e’s in complement as complementing each other. It might not be helpful to use a word to define itself, but it works for me!

  4. While I don’t recommend sexism in language, especially against my own gender, I’ve often deployed a mnemonic in this case that takes advantage of stereotypes: compliments are for him (with the vowel *I*), the vain one (think rooster or peacock or dandy), and complements are for the nurturing her (with an *e*), like a mother hen. Or just a mother.

    Like the others, whatever works.

    And it reminds me to avoid vanity at the same time.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Whatever works, indeed. I’ve just noticed that a mnemonic could be fashioned based on the ‘Lem’ hidden in complement, for fans of the author, as long as they remember that they’re not supposed to compliment his work.

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