Defuse/diffuse, hanged/hung, and killer emoji

June 27, 2018

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I write a monthly column about language, I’ve been discussing moral panics and tricky pairs of words.

Diffusion of confusion looks at defuse and diffuse and derived terms, all very often confused, and shows how etymology can provide a mnemonic to help you remember which is which:

Defuse is a surprisingly modern verb. It emerged during World War II in reference to removing the fuse from a bomb, literally de-fuse, with the prefix de- carrying the sense ‘remove’, as in de-ice and dethrone. Within a few years it was being used figuratively, where instead of an explosive device it was a situation being defused. The fuse had become metaphorical.

Hang out with ‘hang’ and ‘hung’ examines an English word of high frequency and curious history – the two past tense forms are a result of two Old English verbs and an Old Norse one becoming ‘increasingly entangled before effectively merging’:

Some writing guides insist that hanged and hung be kept neatly separate. But in practice, each spills a bit into the other’s domain. This has long been a feature of English, with authors such as Austen, Shelley, Faulkner, Updike, and Flannery O’Connor using hung where we might expect hanged. It’s less common, but it’s not wrong. Just be aware that if you use hung this way, some people may criticise the choice.

Will emojis ruin English? poses a question whose answer you can probably guess – and if you have concerns about this, I hope I can ease them. In this post I counter recent reports about the dangers to language that emojis supposedly pose:

The idea that standards are slipping taps into various worries about changes in society. Language becomes a scapegoat for these fears. So when a new communication feature or technology becomes popular, as emojis have, it draws negative attention. . . .

Young people, especially young women, are often blamed for linguistic ‘crimes’ because, being less tied to tradition and habit, they use language more innovatively than older people do. They are a source of linguistic novelty, which critics assume is harmful. Sure enough, the Telegraph reported that four out of five people in the survey identified young people as ‘the worst culprits’. We forget that our own youthful innovations appalled the generation before us.



Who’s confused by whose confusion?

December 17, 2012

The following exchange appears in Jonathan Lethem’s novel Girl in Landscape (on p. 208 of my Faber and Faber edition, 2002):

“I don’t have a home,” said Ben Barth.

“Well, who’s fault is that?” said Wa.

Who’s is a contraction of who is or who has (or occasionally who was): Who’s going? Who’s got tickets? Looks who’s talking; whereas whose is a possessive pronoun – it’s who in the genitive case – so it should have been used in the quoted passage: whose fault is that?

Confusion arises because who’s and whose are pronounced identically, and also because the ’s in who’s can mislead people into thinking it has to do with possession: If the cap isn’t Jo‘s or Jim‘s, then who‘s whose is it? (This apostrophe-led impression of possession probably also inspires the erroneous your’s, her’sour’s and their’s.)

Who’s for whose is a common mistake in informal writing, and it sometimes sneaks past editors too. To keep who’s in its rightful place, you can use the same mnemonic I recommended for it’s and its: just as it’s always means it is or it has, so who’s means who is or who has. Bring this to mind any time you’re uncertain, and you shouldn’t slip up.

I liked Girl in Landscape, incidentally; it’s a coming-of-age story in a sci-fi setting with elements of mystery and western. It also has examples of dialectal would of (We should of killed them; you’d of met him), which I wrote about recently. I’m not a fan of the construction, but since I’ve seen it in dialogue from several capable authors, I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. But I can’t say the same for who’s fault.


Another example of the mistake, this time in the Guardian (‘EDM’s shameful secret: dance music singers rarely get paid’, 6 August 2013):

guardian typo - who's whose

And in Seth’s graphic novel It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken:

seth - it's a good life, if you don't weaken - whose who's

James Crumley’s novel One to Count Cadence (Picador edition, 1994):


Less commonly, the confusion occurs the other way around, as in this article in the Belfast Telegraph:

belfast telegraph whose who's confusion

Why people misspell ‘just deserts’

August 26, 2012

The misspelt phrase just desserts appeared in a recent Businessweek article. (It’s now fixed, so here’s a screenshot; I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to alert them.) This is a common error even in careful writing, and it’s an understandable one. The correct spelling is just deserts. It means ‘what one deserves or merits’ – usually punishment.

Because it’s spoken with stress on the second syllable – just deserts – many writers infer the spelling desserts, a familiar word pronounced the same way. Dessert comes from French dessert, from Latin desservir ‘clear the table’, literally ‘un-serve’ or ‘de-serve’.

The similar Latin word deservire ‘serve well’ or ‘merit by service’ led to Old French deservir ‘deserve’, the feminine past participle of which is deserte. This entered Middle English as desert: ‘what is deserved’. It’s an altogether different noun (with different origin) from the Sahara or Antarctic type of desert, an arid place with little or no vegetation.

Shakespeare used desert this way. From Sonnet no. 72:

Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,
To do more for me than mine own desert,
And hang more praise upon deceased I
Than niggard truth would willingly impart

Nowadays, desert (n.) is seldom used in contexts other than just deserts, so it’s no surprise people don’t know it. Maybe they see *just desserts as a food-inspired metaphor: a fitting outcome after an event, like a tart that can be sweet or rotten depending on what poetic justice ordains. It’s a coherent but misleading folk etymology.

To bring the correct spelling more readily to mind, decline dessert. Remember the little-known noun desert and its connection to one-s deserve: just deserts are what one justly deserves.


Edit: @WelshPixie tells me she attended a military defence expo where a large poster showed off a ‘Dessert Runner’ truck. A Google search shows how popular a misspelling this is.

How to avoid confusing ‘pore’ and ‘pour’

June 5, 2012

The homophones pour and pore are sometimes confused: typically pour replaces pore in some form of the phrase pore over. For readers who notice the error – and many do – it can conjure up surreal images of liquid people flowing over the material at hand.

The mistake is usually limited to casual contexts, but it occasionally slips through into edited prose, such as this Irish Independent story from last week:

Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage says this mistaken use of pour “seems to be growing more common in less attentively edited publications”. Yet the words are not difficult to distinguish. Here are brief explanations, along with mnemonics – if you need them – to help remember the appropriate spellings.

Pore as a verb is usually followed by over, less often (but increasingly) by through, and sometimes – in the sense ‘to ponder’ – by on. Pore over means to read or study attentively; to scrutinise: you might pore over a text or a map. Think of the re common to pore and read.

Pour normally has to do with flowing or causing to flow: decanting a liquid or granular substance out of a container. You might pour tea from a pot, or sand from a bucket. Notice that the u in pour conveniently resembles a container.

Why people replace pore with pour is unclear to me; maybe the familiar spelling of pour comes more readily to mind, or perhaps pore is thought of only as a noun (referring to small holes in skin, rocks, or plants). But the words are easily kept distinct with the mnemonics I’ve set out above. If you have a different trick, do let me know.


The mistake appears in Steven Bach’s otherwise well-proofread Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate. From my Faber & Faber edition, 1986:

Steven Bach - final cut - dreams and disaster in the making of heaven's gate - pore pour

Jenny Diski’s Like Mother, Vintage edition, 1990:

Like Mother - pore pour confused

Máirín O’Connor’s story ‘Troubled Water’, in the collection Writers’ Week Award-Winning Short Stories 1973–1994, edited by David Marcus and published by Marino Books in 1995:

Russell Miller’s Bare-Faced Messiah:

Keeping ‘discreet’ and ‘discrete’ discreetly discrete

August 29, 2011

Wordnik’s recent collection of commonly confused words reminded me that it’s been a while since I wrote a post of this sort.* Time for another.

Discreet and discrete are often mixed up. It’s easily done: not only are they homophones with near-identical spelling, they’re also doublets, meaning they diverged from the same original word. In modern English, their spellings and meanings are distinct. Below are mnemonics to help you remember which adjective is which.

Discreet is probably the more familiar word, and is usually used to refer to people, especially their speech, appearance, or behaviour. It means unobtrusive, circumspect and prudent, careful not to attract attention or cause embarrassment, able to keep a secret. Discretion is the noun form. You could think of the adjacent e’s in discreet discreetly sharing a secret: they couldn’t do this with a t in the way.

She promised to be discreet with any sensitive information.
As the meeting began, he yawned discreetly.

Discrete generally means separate, non-continuous, individually distinct; it also has technical usages relating to possible parts or values. Discreteness is the related noun. To remember this spelling, think of the t separating the e’s and keeping them distinct from one another.

A sentence is composed of discrete words.
We divided the work into discrete sections.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has more about the words’ overlapping histories, and shows that they are quite often misspelled even in reputable publications – unless these instances indicate that the words’ spellings are gradually becoming interchangeable again.

But even if that were the case – I’m sceptical – it doesn’t get you off the hook. Careful readers will notice what is, in current usage, a mistake, and may judge your writing accordingly. If you have trouble distinguishing discreet from discrete, use the mnemonics above; or if you have a different trick, do let me know in a comment.
* If you browse my spelling tag, you’ll find (among other things) posts about its and it’s, minuscule, ad nauseam, climatic and climactic, stationary and stationery, peddle and pedal, principal and principle, affect and effect, forego and forgo.

A minuscule matter of spelling

July 28, 2010

Minuscule’s main use is as an adjective meaning tiny or insignificant. It can also mean written in minuscule (= minuscular), referring to a small cursive mediaeval script. Minuscule as a noun can refer to this palaeographic writing or simply to a lowercase letter.* But its general use as an adjective is what we usually encounter, and it’s the variation in its spelling (minuscule or miniscule) that interests me here.

The word comes from French minuscule, from Latin minusculus, fem. minuscula, as in minuscula littera, ‘slightly smaller letter’. Minuscula is formed by adding the diminutive suffix -cule to minus, neuter of minor — ‘less, smaller’ — from Proto-Indo-European *mei-, ‘small’. The common prefix mini- has probably lent minuscule a folk etymology that influences its contemporary spelling: miniscule is a popular variant. Pronunciation might also have played a part.

Here are some examples of miniscule I’ve come across in books:

There is even a miniscule dance floor for the perpendicular manifestations of horizontal intentions (Hugh Leonard, A Peculiar People)

Only in the microscopic domains of the atom, or the vast reaches of interstellar space, do miniscule discrepancies between nature according to Newton and nature according to Nature make themselves known. (Ian Stewart, Does God Play Dice? The New Mathematics of Chaos)

hiragana […] often, in miniscule writing, glosses obscure kanji to help the reader (Steven Roger Fischer, A History of Language)

Miniscule occupies a grey area of legitimacy and is likely to attract criticism. Some call it non-standard; others dismiss it as an error. Bryan Garner rejects it, MWDEU doesn’t, while The Columbia Guide to Standard American English sits on the Fence of Judgement but advises the uncontroversial spelling minuscule. The OED says miniscule is ‘very common but regarded as erroneous’; Oxford Dictionaries considers it an acceptable variant.

Unless you’re prepared to argue miniscule’s case, you’re better off avoiding it. If you want to remember the more correct form, think of its old association with minus, or tell yourself that minuscule is preferred by us.

* Its counterparts are majuscule (n., adj.) and majuscular (adj.).

Ad nauseum ad nauseam

June 24, 2010

Ad nauseum is a common misspelling of ad nauseam, even among careful writers. It’s a subtle enough error to slip past the copy editors of reputable publications (recently here, for example, until a commenter pointed it out). The wayward spelling ad nausea also appears, sometimes as a joke. I mentioned ad nauseam before, along with a mnemonic to commit the correct form to memory, but the prevalence of ad nauseum suggests the need for a dedicated post; some background information might help.

Ad nauseam is an adverbial phrase, clearly Latin: ad here means to; nauseam is nausea in the accusative. So ad nauseam means to (sea-)sickness, i.e., to a nauseating or sickening extent, often figurative for “to a very tiresome or boring degree”. To do anything ad nauseam is to be sick of doing it. The phrase is said to originate from argumentum ad nauseam, a term in logic similar in sense to argumentum ad infinitum. It has been used in English since the 17C.; there’s a slightly earlier form, usque ad nauseam or ad nauseam usque (all the way to nausea, i.e., to the point of nausea), which is rarely encountered nowadays.

The difficulty with spelling ad nauseam probably results partly from its Latin origin: we recognise its Latin-ness but associate the language more with -um endings. There’s also the indistinct pronunciation: though it’s correctly pronounced /ad ‘nɔːzɪam, -sɪam/, the closing /-am/ is often rendered as /-ɘm/. The unstressed vowel sound ɘ is a schwa, known in Spelling Bee circles as “the dreaded schwa” because it’s so difficult to guess which vowel lies behind it. Thus it is with ad nauseam. To remember the spelling, think of nausea. Or more elaborately, say to yourself: “I am nauseated not to know.” If you think it might be -um, consider ummm a hint that you should keep wondering about it another moment, until you think: “Ah! Now I am sure: it’s ad nauseam.”

Google search hits shouldn’t be taken literally, but they can offer a crude indication of popularity; and a comparison today shows the erroneous form topping the traditional by 530,000 to 476,000. I could say I see ad nauseum ad nauseam, but that would be an overstatement. (Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with exaggeration.) It’s possible that ad nauseum will eventually be accepted as standard — English is not Latin, after all — but for now I advise the use of the standard spelling ad nauseam.