Continual vs continuous – what’s the difference?

September 15, 2022

Introduction and origins

What’s the difference between continual and continuous? There’s a short answer, but it’s misleading, so – surprise! – I’m going with the long and complicated one.

Some people make a firm distinction between the two adjectives, but others don’t or only sometimes do. The distinction has merit, but it’s not categorical, more the codification of a general but lopsided pattern.

Because the words are so close in sense and use, they’re often used interchangeably (the adverbs continually and continuously even more so). This seldom leads to confusion or difficulty, but it’s also true that each word has domains it specializes in and others it’s less suited to.

Both words come from Latin continuus ‘hanging together, uninterrupted’, continual arriving via Old French continuel. Their endings, ­–al and ous, are common adjective-forming suffixes. The words’ more recent history sheds light on their use, but first let’s look at how they’re defined, since this reflects how they’re used and gets to the centre of the problem.

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Unlikely syntax will lead to clarity

June 1, 2022

This Reuters story about monkeypox, published on 30 May 2022, has an unfortunate ambiguity in its headline:

Beneath the Reuters logo is the headline, in black on white: 'Unlikely monkeypox outbreak will lead to pandemic, WHO says'

The same headline appeared on sites syndicating the report, like Yahoo! News and Nasdaq, and with trivial differences at the US’s ABC News, India’s Business Standard, Singapore’s Straits Times, and others.

The problem is the main clause:

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Wordable awareness

April 7, 2022

I came across an interesting word in Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man (Picador, 2007). It appears in the middle of a conversation between an estranged couple, here discussing their son:

‘We talked about it,’ Keith said. ‘But only once.’
‘What did he say?’
‘Not much. And neither did I.’
‘They’re searching the skies.’
‘That’s right,’ he said.
She knew there was something she’d wanted to say all along and it finally seeped into wordable awareness.
‘Has he said anything about this man Bill Lawton?
‘Just once. He wasn’t supposed to tell anyone.’
‘Their mother mentioned this name. I keep forgetting to tell you. First I forget the name. I forget the easy names. Then, when I remember, you’re never around to tell.’

Seeped into wordable awareness is a lovely phrase, and wordable is a curiously rare word, given its straightforward morphology and transparent meaning. It has virtually no presence in large language corpora:

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The strange absence of ‘ambiguate’

August 22, 2021

If I asked you to name or invent a word that means ‘make ambiguous’, what would it be – ambiguify? ambiguate? I’ve felt an occasional need for such a term, to say that a word or piece of syntax ambiguates the meaning in text or speech.

I mean, sure, I can say ‘makes the sense ambiguous’. But there’s no reason not to have a one-word verb. After all, we have its antonym, disambiguate: to make something unambiguous. More on that later.

Take this use of since: Since I’ve been injured, I haven’t gone running. Does it mean ‘because’ or ‘since the time that’? Is its meaning causal or temporal? Without further information, there’s no way to be sure. The choice of conjunction ambiguates the sense.

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Dialect, dinkum, and dude

July 19, 2020

Those are the latest three topics I’ve covered in my language column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Being bidialectal explores how our accents and dialects can change with circumstances, with some keen observations on dialect loss by Zadie Smith. Multidialectalism often starts at school:

Through formal education, many of us learn a standard or prestige variety of a language for use in public or formal contexts. Shifting from one variety to another – going from a work meeting to an informal chat, for example – is known as code-switching.

The fact that different dialects are appropriate in different spheres of life means that people generally become bidialectal or multidialectal. Though these adjectives may be unfamiliar, it’s the same idea as bilingual and multilingual, but with different dialects of the same language.

Dude, where’s my etymology? is the inevitable title for an outline of the curious history of dude. The word’s ultimate origin was a mystery for decades:

Dude started off as a word similar to dandy, referring mockingly to ‘a man who cares a lot about his appearance and always wears fashionable clothes’. An early citation in the OED refers to ‘highly perfumed town dudes wearing creased pants’. This led to the phrasal verb dude up, meaning to dress up or accessorize fashionably: a 1958 New Statesman article referred to ‘country cousins duding up to impress less snappy dressers back home’. From this emerged sense 1a, ‘a man from a city in the eastern U.S. or Canada who goes on vacation to a western ranch’, which is connected to the phrase dude ranch.

The dinkum oil on ‘fair dinkum’ looks at the range of uses and senses of a famously Antipodean word whose etymology has invited some creative speculation:

The dinkum oil [true facts] about dinkum is that it probably originates in English dialect. Joseph Wright, in his pioneering English Dialect Dictionary, reports the word’s use in Derbyshire and Lincolnshire in the late 19th century to mean ‘work’ or ‘a due share of work’. He also cites an early Australian example, in the novel Robbery Under Arms: ‘It took us an hour’s hard dinkum to get near the peak.’ According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word may come from Middle English ding, ‘to work’.


Dictionary of Affixes

June 12, 2020

Michael Quinion, the writer behind the wonderful World Wide Words, has updated his lesser-known Dictionary of Affixes. (Both are linked in this blog’s sidebar.) Quinion said he noticed the dictionary site ‘beginning to look very tired’, so he made various edits and updates.

Affixes, the building blocks of English, are integral to its morphology. Quinion calls them ‘those beginnings and endings that help form a large proportion of the words we use’, echoing the subtitle of his book Ologies and Isms: Word Beginnings and Endings (OUP, 2002), where much of the website’s material first appeared.

From the Introduction:

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Literal decimation

March 20, 2020

Talk to any committed language peever,* and sooner or later you’ll hear about decimate: that it properly means ‘kill one in ten’ and should not be used to mean ‘destroy a large proportion of’ or ‘inflict great harm or damage on’. This is because decimate originally referred to a practice in the Roman army of executing one in ten men in mutinous groups.

It’s the etymological fallacy: the belief that a word’s older or original meaning is the only correct one or is automatically more correct than newer, conventionally accepted ones. Words that repeatedly elicit the fallacy include aggravate, alternative, dilemma, fulsome, refute, and transpire. It’s often a vehicle for pedantic or snobbish triumphalism: I acquired this knowledge, and you didn’t, so I must display it.

Decimate is infamous in editorial circles for this reason. My rule, featured in the A–Z of English usage myths, is that if you say decimate can only mean ‘kill one in ten’, you must also call October ‘December’. (See also: quarantine for any period other than 40 days, etc.) For authoritative discussion, browse the usage notes in a few good dictionaries, starting with AHD.

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