Q: Is this a run-on sentence?: "The thing I liked about Andy Rooney is that he didn't just play a curmudgeon on television, he was one." -- Shelley Cetel, West Hartford, Conn.
A: Grammatical purists would call this a "comma splice" -- a comma erroneously used to join or "splice" two independent clauses. They would replace the comma with a ...Read more
"Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton would likely be heavily engaged in reigning in Wall Street."
When I encountered that sentence in a newspaper story, I conjured the absurd vision of Sanders and Clinton wearing crowns while ringing the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange.
The intended verb, of course, is "reining in," meaning "...Read more
Today, some random notes from the Word Front ...
--"Conversation" sensation: People don't discuss or debate a topic anymore; they have a "conversation." They "start the conversation." They "frame the conversation." They "join the conversation." And if they're open to discussion, they're "happy to have that conversation." I'd be happy to have ...Read more
Q: In a recent newspaper article on a criminal case involving an issue of missing records, a judge is quoted thus: "But in this case, the trout is just not in the milk. The recordings are just not in the files." The expression "the trout is just not in the milk" is new to me. Any notion of the underlying reason for this expression?" -- Tom ...Read more
Q: How did the high-heeled shoe for ladies become known as a "pump"? -- Melanie via email
A: Asking me about a type of women's shoe is like asking a Muscovite about surfboards. True fact: Until I was around 40 years old, I didn't know the difference between a dress and a skirt. And women's shoes? Let's put it this way, I'm no Carrie Bradshaw....Read more
Why do we say that someone with well-toned muscles is "ripped"?
Could it be a reference to the ripped T-shirt of the muscular Marlon Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire"? A variation of "rippled" (because a six-pack of abdominal muscles has a rippled appearance)? An allusion to "Ripped" Van Winkle, who reportedly did ab crunches during his 20...Read more
Q: I pronounce the word "forte," meaning "personal strength or talent," as "fort," not "FOR-tay," and I am criticized for this. What's the real deal on this? -- Jean Tintle, Whiting, N.J.
A: The easy answer is that you're correct and the criticizers are wrong. But the real deal is a little bit more complicated.
The "forte" meaning "strength"...Read more
When a monster approaches, people are likely to yell, "Watch out!" And it's this notion of a warning that gave us the word "monster."
In Latin, the verb "monere" meant "to warn," so its noun form, "monstrum," meant "an evil omen." "Monstrum" eventually became "monstre" in Middle English and "monster" in modern English.
"Monster" originally ...Read more
The Far Side of SilenceRobert B. Marcus Jr.
Alexander Gray is an ex-Seal with an impossible assignment. Air Force One is shot down over the Mediterranean Sea with no survivors. The new president secretly orders the U.S. Navy to prepare the Sigonella Naval Air Station on Sicily for a clandestine and experimental ...
I've received a flurry of letters and emails in response to two recent columns, so I wanted to share some of these snowflakes with you. (Not to imply that any of my readers are flaky, of course.)
--Advanced Place-'meant' -- I recently explained how a criminal was identified because his ransom note described the swath of grass between the ...Read more
"Police Search for Man in Wal-Mart Hidden Camera Case"
When Linda Carlson of Middletown, Conn., sent me this newspaper headline, she wrote, "I read several times before I realized that it wasn't about a very large camera case or a very tiny man."
When newspaper editors compress a detailed and sometimes complicated news story down into a few ...Read more
Donald Trump has been described with many words, some of which we can't reproduce here. But just about everyone agrees that he's "candid," "blunt," "frank" and, on a good day, even "sincere."
When you call Trump "candid," picture him wearing a flowing white robe like Moses. Now stop laughing.
"Candid" derives from the Latin "candidus," ...Read more
Q: I've heard that "cousin" derives from "co-sin" because cousins are often accomplices in mischief. Could that possibly be true? -- Chris Ryan, New York City
A:Well, if you're thinking about the time my cousin Ricky and I took the wheels off my little sister's baby carriage to make a soapbox car, you might be right. But, alas, "cousin" has a...Read more
Beware the Mad Slasher! Stalking the dark alleys of English, he suddenly leaps from the shadows to slice sentences with his razor-keen blade.
No magazine, memo or monograph is safe from his gash, and he's attacking more frequently and more randomly.
A devil with a knife, the slasher can split ("his/her"), or trim ("care of" to "c/o"), or ...Read more