B A R E L Y B A D  W E B  S I T E  



Here are some words I seem to care about for some reason.

Table of Contents for Words Page

Unlike elsewhere on this site, the hyperlinks in the table of contents below are not underlined.  The individual articles on this page are designed to be read somewhat in order, starting with the first column then going down, then the middle and the rightmost, but if you want to pick and choose, below is the list.

Lay versus Lie
Future Pluperfect
R's Are Us
Comfortable Sharing
Might v. May
I.e. versus E.g.
A Hundred to One
He or She
Healthy v. Healthful
From A to 3
At Least 10 to 15
Misplaced Only
Silly Headlines
Steep Learning Curve
Like versus Such as
Those Kind
Center Around
Between the Cracks
Several Trivial Pairs
Excessive Equivocation
That's Thats
That's Who
Seven words that
    don't mean a lot
1. Incredibly
2. Literally
3. Inconceivably
4. Regularly
5. Indefinitely
6. Enormity
7. Massive
Feel versus Think
Not Whether or Not
Whether Not If
I mean
In Terms of
Peeve 1
Peeve 2



For a different look at the subject of certain words, go HERE, where you'll find a lucid discussion of a couple dozen "non-errors" (a few of which I discuss here).  The author uses the descriptive approach to usage, i.e., he tells how people do talk and write.  On this very Web page I take the other approach, called the prescriptive, meaning I mean to tell you how you should talk and, especially, write.

Thanks go to those of you who have suggested I specifically distinguish between spoken and written English.  Let me herewith do so.  Some of the distinctions I make here between pairs of words are of less importance if you're having a casual, face-to-face conversation than if you're writing a scholarly paper or a president's State of the Union address.

But even in spoken English among best friends, it's rare that using the wrong word isn't wrong.

Similarly, over the years I have become less strict about or have abandoned adherence to rules that make no sense, that serve no useful purpose.  An example is the rule that says you may not end a sentence with a preposition.  Another example is the rule that prohibits splitting an infinitive.  Such rules should not be taught or followed because they can make effective communication harder, not easier.

I recommend a book titled The Sense of Style in which Steven Pinker explains how to improve sentences using his tree diagrams.  I downloaded my copy for free from the local library to my tablet.

This whole thing started with the slightly edited article below titled "Lay versus Lie" I wrote for my girl's kindergarten teacher.  After I mailed it, in an involuntary, follow-up fit of silliness I wrote "The Future Pluperfect Subjunctive Preterite in Today's Modern World."  Following that are a few useless paragraphs about the letter "R."

Then I return to almost completely deadly seriousness with "Might versus May."

(If you like this, you might also like my monograph about Crossword puzzles.  And you might like my articles about the games of 20 Questions and Charades, which are all about words.)

This page about words I seem to care about goes on rather at length, and you may return to the top of this page, as with everywhere on this site, by clicking any bar that looks like the one immediately below.

Lay versus Lie

If you aren’t sure how to use the verbs lay and lie (or their companions laid and lain) you should read this.

First you need to know what a direct object is.  Some sentences in English contain a direct object, such as "Bob eats a pie," in which the subject is Bob, the verb is eats, and the direct object is a pie.  In the sentence "Bob eats," there is no direct object. 

For those of you who care, the first eats is a transitive verb, the second intransitive.  The idea in a transitive verb is that the subject, the actor, transmits some sort of action, some sort of idea expressed by a verb, to the direct object.  In verbs that are intransitive, there is no transference of anything from the subject to the direct object because there is no direct object.

Now let’s look at the two classes, those sentences with a direct object and those without one, with respect to the verbs "lay" and "lie."

—  Setting something (a direct object) down

We’ll start with those sentences, which almost no one ever gets wrong, where there is a direct object.  The present tense example, in which Bob is setting a pie on the shelf, is "Bob lays a pie on the shelf."  The past tense example is "Bob laid a pie on the shelf."  The past perfect tense example is "Bob had laid a pie on the shelf."

I don't show examples for the present perfect tense, but it's the same as the past perfect except you replace "had" with "has" or "have."  So, "Bob had laid a pie on the shelf" becomes "Bob has laid a pie on the shelf," and "We had laid a pie on the shelf" becomes "We have laid a pie on the shelf."

—  Lying down (no direct object)

Now to the sentences where there is no direct object, the ones people do get wrong.

The present tense example is "Bob lies down," not "Bob lays down."  There’s no direct object, i.e., Bob is not setting down something else, i.e., he, as the subject of the sentence, is not "verbing" some other object or substance, he’s doing it to himself, i.e., he himself is getting prone or supine.  He is lying on the bed, not laying on the bed.

The past tense example is "Bob lay down," not "Bob laid down."  If you want to say that Bob did lie down at some time in the past, then say that he lay down.

The past perfect example is "Bob had lain down," not "Bob had laid down."

Now, study the bottom row (lie, lay, lain) below.


Present tense

Past tense

Past perfect


Now I lay the pie on the shelf.

Please lay the pie on the shelf.

Now Bob lays the pie on the shelf.

Yesterday I laid the pie on the shelf.

Earlier I had laid the pie on the shelf.

No direct

Now I lie [not lay] on the bed.

Please lie [not lay] on the bed.

Now Bob lies [not lays] on the bed.

Yesterday I lay [not laid] on the bed.

Earlier I had lain [not laid] on the bed.

Top of Words - page 1

The Future Pluperfect Subjunctive Preterite
in Today's Modern World

Here's the conjugation of the future pluperfect subjunctive preterite for the version with no direct object.

First person singular: If I will have had lain down.
Second person singular: If you will have lay down.
Third person singular: If he will had have done laid down.
First person plural: If we will have done lied down.
Second person plural: If y'all will have done lie down.
Third person plural: If they-all will had have done layed theirself down.

The conjugation for the version with a direct object is identical but for these two exceptions:

First person plural: If we will had done lied down the pie on the shelf.
Third person plural: If thems will have done layen the pie on that there shelf.


Test question!!  I mean, in what organic sense does this, like, conjugation actually relate to the natural dynamic paradigms of sort of today's modern world in terms of lifestyle?  So, share what agenda issues you think it actually addresses in a relevant way . . .


Top of Words - page 1

R's Are Us

I have a theory about how the letter "R" is pronounced by certain people.  The first half of my theory is that someone, or more likely some mischievous creature, is stealing their R's.  You know, those people who pronounce library as "libary" and so on.  It's almost as though they can't quite manage to pronounce that many R's in one word, so they drop one or move it.

These are all actual pronunciations I've heard or words I've read somewhere, except as noted.  I've been adding to the list as new examples arise, but if you have any you'd like to contribute, let me know.

adversary advesary
agriculture agerculture
arbitrary arbitary
aperture apature
barbed wire bobbed wire
barbiturate barbituate
berserk bezerk
bombardier bombadier
burglar burgular
camaraderie camaderie
celebratory 1 celebatory
cerebral 2 cerbral
children childern
cormorant comorant
corroborate cooberate
controversy contoversy
defibrillator defibulator or
deteriorate deteriate
entrepreneur entepreneur or
environment enviornment
error air
February Febuary* or
Federal Reserve Federeserve
fraternity faternity
fraternize fratrenize
fruition furition
further futher
garnering garning
governor govenor
grocery store grocey store
hierarchy hyarchy
hyperbaric hypabaric
infrared infared
infrastructure infastructure
interpret interpet
interior inteer
itinerary itinery
jewelry joolery
juror joor
krugerrand kugerrand
Labrador Labador
libertarian libetarian
library libary**
literature litature
mirror meer
mirror mirrel
operable opetable
ornery onery
paraphernalia paraphenalia or
particular paticular or
particularly particuly or
partition patition
peremptory preemptory
peripheral peripheal or
perspiration prespiration
poltergeist poltregeist
portrait potrait
preliminary peliminary
prerogative perogative
proliferation poliferation
proprietress proprietess
prostrate prostate
prurient purient
quarter quoter
reciprocating recipocating
repertoire repetoire or
reservoir rezzavoir
respiratory respitory***
San Bernardino San Bernadino
secretary secetary
spectrograph spectograph
surprise suprise
sufferers suffers
temperature tempature
terrestrial terrestial or
terrorist terrist****
thermometer themometer
throw thoh
turmeric tumeric
vernacular venacular
veterinarian vetinarian
war-mongering 1 war-mongling
warrior woyer

*To see a quick example of "Febuary" that occurred the very day my girl turned ten, click here.

**I resisted including "libary" till January 1st of 2005.  I always assumed no one ever really said "libary" except as a joke, but I was wrong.

1 Heard on NPR. 

*** Update of April 13, 2010: This is literally a screen shot in that I used a camera to take a shot of my TV screen a few minutes ago.  The phone number reaches a law firm named Ferrer & Associates in Dallas.

**** Update of August 26, 2005: Below is an example from the AP via The Kansas City Star.



And here's the moiety of the theory.  Whoever's stealing their R's is a sort of Robin Hood in that he gives his ill-botten gooty to those people who just can't get enough.

amortize amateurize
apiary aperary
auxiliary auxiliarary
arduous ardurous
bandied (about) bandered (about)
beneficiary beneficiarary
bushes burshes
camaraderie carmraderie
categorize catergorize
cauterize carterize
children chirdren
cotter (pin) carter
cryogenic cryrogenic
daughter dorter
differentiate differenturate
exemplary exemplarary
excavate excravate
familiar farmiliar
familiarity familiararity
fervently ferverently
forger forgerer
heart-rending heart-rendering*
incendiary incendirary
integral intregral
lavatory lavaratory
notorious nortorious
pejorative perjorative
perforate preforate
perform preform
perseverance perserverance
pestiferous pesteriferous
photographer phertographer
prostate prostrate
protuberance protruberance
sherbet sherbert
subsidiary subsidirary
stye star
washing warshing
water warter

*For an example of "heart-rendering," go here, but don't forget to come back.

Here are a couple other pronunciation problems that seem to involve the letter R: masonry as "masonary" and realtor as "realator."  Or how about asterisks as asteriks?**

**Or even asiterks?

I wonder why R is such a troublemaker?  Or, maybe in the case of "realator" the problem is with the letter L.  L and R are the two liquids in English, defined by the RHU2 in linguistic terms as "a consonant articulated without friction and capable of being pronounced like a vowel."

Update of September 27, 2000: I just learned (from a crossword puzzle I played this morning) that the word realtor is trademarked by the National Association of Realtors, so it should be Realtor or even Realtor™.  Who knew?

And I wonder whether the trouble with too few R's is similar to the problem so many people have managing to work in the L sound in the letter "W."  Instead of "doubleˇyou" it comes out "dubbyˇoo."

And here's another interesting phenomenon which I will mention without further comment until I learn more about it: Many Orientals cannot distinguish between the two liquids in spoken English speech.  They cannot hear the difference between the "R" sound and the "L" sound, and when they try to pronounce either they are just as rikery as not to swap them or land somewhere in the middle.  I think this is different from the speech impediment called rhotacism.

Update of October 9, 2011: A few days ago I listened to someone on the radio, probably NPR, assert that there is a period during childhood development when we are able to discriminate among speech sounds we hear and that after that period we can no longer do so.  Presumably the brain during this learning period is wiring itself for speech sounds and thereafter it resists further wiring.  For example, if during this critical period you never heard anyone pronounce the letter T or the letter D but rather it was always a sound in between (try making these two sounds and you'll see, er, hear there is a kind of middle ground), then according to this theory whenever you hear someone speak the pure T sound or the pure D sound, you will not be able to "hear" the difference, i.e., even though your ears are working just fine, your brain isn't capable of distinguishing between them.  And if that's true then it's not surprising that if you can't hear the difference then you also can't speak the difference.

Another example that might or might not involve both liquids is pronouncing comfortable as "COMFTERBLE."  Even I do this, although I use that word way less than some people.

Comfortable Sharing

While I'm on the subject, I don't think comfortable should mean "satisfied" or "pleased" or "approving," as in:

  • "I'm not comfortable with that argument in favor of reviving slavery."

  • "As long as the zoning change doesn't affect my giraffe collection, I'm comfortable with it."

And don't get me started on the saccharine overuse of share, as in:

  • "Johnny, please share with us about your experiences last week on Mars."

  • When asked where he buried his victims' bodies he replied, "Sorry, that's something I'm not comfortable sharing."

So, a final actual example of an actual mispronunciation involving either or both of the actual letters L and R: So, Dan Quayle and George W. Bush -- and, to be fair, thousands of other people -- actually pronounce nuclear "nucular."  So, what's actually surprising is that Jimmy Carter does too.  So, this guy actually was an actual nuclear physicist by education, and he was the actual president of the actual United States for four years, yet he always actually pronounced it "nucular."  So, someone should have actually told him.

Still, he is the best former president in my memory.  The others since Eisenhower have, for one reason for another (succumbing to a gunshot wound and Alzheimer's come to mind), basically done nothing whatsoever compared to Carter, who's been out overseeing elections and negotiating between countries and winning Nobel Peace Prizes and supporting Habitat For Humanity and just generally throwing his weight, and his not inconsiderable talent and brainpower, around for good causes.  It'll be interesting to see how Clinton and Obama turn out.

Update of October 2011: Clinton, a good president in my opinion, has turned out just fine.  George W. Bush, a bad president, has not so far, but maybe in time.

Update of March 31, 2107: It's too early to tell, but I suspect based on his performance as president for eight years Obama will turn out just fine too.  Trump, based on his performance in the first 67 days of his presidency, will turn out to be worse than useless.

I also suspect George W. Bush is secretly happy that Trump is such a bad executive.  With each new gaffe Trump perpetrates, George pumps his fist and smirks that smirk of his and thinks to himself, "Oh, goody, that's one more reason I won't go down as the worst president in living memory!"

I had rather strong feelings about George W. and I have much stronger feelings about Trump.

R's Or Or's

Try this next time you get the chance: Ask a native of St. Louis what the name of the U.S. gold bullion depository is, and the answer will be pronounced "Fart Knox."

End of silliness.  No more silliness.  I plomise.

Update of January 2003: I don't know whether this is related, but a fair number of native Chicagoans pronounce Loyola "Lie-ola," but they don't pronounce toy boat "tie boat."  Furthermore, I'm all the time hearing people who can correctly pronounce "fat tar" pronouncing jaguar as if it rhymes with "fat tire" -- jaguire.  If "fat tar" is effortless, why is jaguar a problem?

Top of Words page

Might versus May

May is rarely a proper substitute for might, no matter what any dictionary tells you.  May should properly be reserved for reference to permission, and might alone should refer to uncertainty.

(Yes, this is another one of those distinctions in which I don't care what the dictionary says, because I'm right.)

So, if I ask you what you're going to do next weekend for fun, it would be improper for you to say, "I may play golf."  Well, it would be improper if what you mean is "I'm thinking maybe I'll play golf."  If you have a wife who keeps you on a short leash, maybe you mean that you have permission to play golf.  But if all you mean is that you might decide to play golf, then might is the word you want.

Now, in many contexts the misuse of may for might is no big deal.  Most of the time we know what the other person means, although not always, and that's the point.  Why get it wrong if you don't have to?

Sometimes the confusion produces absurd results.  For example, according to an NPR broadcast on December 22, 1999, "The U.S. State Department announced that American tourists abroad may be the victims of terrorists over the millennium holiday."

Exact opposite.  Here's an example, from a computer game's error message, in which what is said is the exact opposite of what is meant:

Starcraft is unable to read a required file.  Your Starcraft CD may not be in the CDROM drive.  Please ensure that the Starcraft disc is in the CDROM drive and press OK."

Update of May 14, 2002: There's another example of the exact opposite here.

More exact opposite.  For a better example, I remember a BBC Radio broadcast from maybe 1997 discussing a serial killer who was decapitating gay men in the streets of London, in the manner of Jack the Ripper.  The very last line of the broadcast was from an interview of a Scotland Yard detective, who said, "The killer has slaughtered ten gay men so far, and it's our opinion that he may continue."

Update of September 5, 2012: Matt Bissonnette, using the pen name Mark Owen, recently published a book titled No Easy Day about his experiences as a U.S. Navy SEAL and who was one of the SEALs who shot and killed Osama bin Laden.  The Pentagon has issued statements alleging Bissonnette's book reveals secrets that shouldn't have been revealed.

Here's the quote from CNN: "Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters that officials believe the book contains sensitive and classified material."

Here's how that was reported on NPR this morning: "[According to the Pentagon,] that book may contain sensitive information."

Again, the exact opposite.

I.e. ("That is") versus E.g. ("For example")

These two abbreviations are rarely interchangeable.

I.e. is the abbreviation for a two-word Latin term, id est.   Translated word for word, id est means "that is."

E.g. is the abbreviation for a two-word Latin term, exempli gratia.  Translated quickly and best, it means "for example."  Translated a little longer, it means "for the sake of example," where gratia means "sake," and exempli means "example."

Proper use: "Most of the time in casual conversation it doesn't matter whether every word is right, it matters only whether the other person gets what you're saying, e.g., 'I only want ketchup on my hamburger' versus 'I want only ketchup on my hamburger.' "  In this context, the abbreviation e.g. is appropriate, because it is merely shorthand for "for example."

Proper use: "Most of the time in casual conversation it doesn't matter whether every word is right, i.e., according to me, it matters only whether the other person gets what's being said."  Here, in this context, I'm defining what I mean by "right," so I use "that is."

You'll never confuse these two if you mentally translate what they mean into English first.


I think way too many people overuse the term hero, and I think they should stop.

As I see it – and I don't care what the media tell you – a hero is not merely someone who gets injured in a noble cause.  For example, consider that Captain Scott O'Grady, the U.S. Air Force pilot who was shot down over Bosnia in 1995 and managed to stay alive -- while injured behind enemy lines for six days till he was rescued by a Marine search-and-rescue mission -- was almost always referred to as a hero, or as courageous.

But as I see it he was just an unlucky pilot.  He got shot down, he ejected and pulled the rip cord too soon, he shat his pants, he pondered whether to murder civilians in Bosnia, and he was forcibly disarmed when he entered the rescue helicopter.

I mean, after all, he got shot down, and I'm pretty sure getting shot down looks bad on your pilot résumé.  Not only was he a bad pilot, he cost the U.S. taxpayers $20 million for an F-16.  Plus which he endangered the members of the rescue commando, all of whom might have been injured or captured or killed.  Plus which the cost of that commando probably ran to several hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Plus which during those six days behind enemy lines he was performing absolutely no useful work whatsoever for the U.S. Air Force . . . and I'll bet he got paid for those six days too.  All in all, getting shot down is not, all by itself, heroic.

So, what did that pilot do that was so heroic, if you believe what everyone at the time was saying about him?  What he did was, after he got shot down, he survived long enough, even though his face was burned a bit, to be rescued.  But what, really, is heroic about that?  It seems to me that, instead, his survival was purely selfish.  Perfectly appropriate, of course, but still purely selfish.

(Understand that Captain O'Grady seems to agree with what I think a true hero is, because whenever he had the opportunity he disclaimed any courage on his part.  He did go on to call his rescuers heroes.  I disagree with him on that part, but enough.)

No, I define heroism differently.  To me a hero is someone who voluntarily risks his own health for a noble cause.  There's a difference between getting injured and voluntarily risking your health.

Now, if you're saying to yourself, "Well, that pilot, merely by becoming a fighter pilot, voluntarily risked his health for a noble cause, didn't he?" I would agree.  But if that's all it takes then all the other pilots in the U.S. Air Force were equally heroic, yet none of them got parades and scads of media attention and photo-ops with the president and extra special medals and two books written about them.  The difference between them and the pilot who got shot down is just that: They didn't get shot down.

Here's an example of a true hero: the infantryman who throws himself on a grenade tossed into a crowded foxhole.  Now that's exactly what my definition of a hero is: someone who voluntarily risks his health for a noble cause.

It's important to note that, according to my definition, it doesn't matter whether the grenade explodes.  If it's a dud the infantryman is no less a hero; and if it does explode he is no more a hero, because getting hurt is not in any way part of being heroic.  It is knowingly taking the risk of getting hurt that's part of heroism.  (The other part is selflessness.)

Here's a more instructive example.  Compare the guy who throws himself into a raging river to save a drowning infant, even though he can't swim, to the swimming pool guard who jumps into a pool to try to rescue that same drowning infant.

Now, let's add some more facts before we make the comparison: First, the non-swimmer in the river failed to save the infant, and he himself survived entirely without injury.  Second, the pool guard did save the infant, but after he did so he bonked his head on the ladder getting out of the pool, lost consciousness, and was in a coma for two days.

Which of these two people will get more admiration from the media, and which will be referred to more often as a hero?

To me, the non-swimmer in the river is by far the more heroic.  He knew, of course, that he couldn't swim, yet he voluntarily threw himself into a dangerous situation -- a raging river -- to try to save someone else.  It was at that moment, when he threw himself into the river, that he acted heroically, and it doesn't matter that he failed to save the infant, and it doesn't matter that he didn't get hurt.

The pool guard was only barely heroic.  When he threw himself into the pool, he knew he was a strong swimmer, and he knew a swimming pool is hardly dangerous at all (especially compared to a raging river), and he knew that rescuing the infant would hardly add to the risk he faced.  He did not voluntarily risk his health, because the task at hand was not dangerous to him.  And the fact that he did save the infant does not add to his heroism, because whatever degree of heroism he exhibited had already occurred when he threw himself into the pool.  That he saved the infant has only to do with his ability to swim and to perform the rescue maneuvers in time, which are abilities we pretty much expect of him if he's going to cash his paychecks.  Similarly, that he was injured on the ladder does not add to his heroism quotient; it only adds to his klutz quotient.

So, why so many words about this one word, "hero"?  Because if we overuse it we demean it.  If we call people heroes who aren't then we dilute the true meaning.  If a hero is just any old person who gets injured in pursuit of a noble cause, like the pool guard, then how do we refer to the people who truly are heroes according to my definition?  As I see it, we should reserve the term hero for those who deserve it, because we should want to encourage more heroism.  If I'm in your foxhole, I want you to feel really good about being referred to as a hero, however posthumously.  I want you to know that the term is not used indiscriminately to refer to anyone who gets hurt in a good cause.  I want you to jump on that grenade for me because you'll know that only those people who voluntarily risk their health in a noble cause will be called a hero.



Update of November 4, 2001: I wrote the article above sometime in 1998.  In the "Ask Marilyn" column of today's edition of Parade Magazine there appears this article by Marilyn VOS Savant, said to be the known universe's most intelligent form of life.

Question: What is your definition of a hero?  -- William Trush, Gilbert, Ariz.

Answer: In my opinion, heroes exist in different degrees, like great men and women: Some are even greater than others.  But, in essence, I believe that a hero is a person who risks his or her own life (maybe losing it) in a selfless, successful effort to save the life of another.

For example, if a mother dives into a river to save her struggling child, she isn't really a hero; but if she dives into a river to save a struggling child unknown to her, she is clearly a hero if she is successful.  And, if not, she certainly behaved heroically.

Likewise, acts of self-defense, even when the lives of others are also at stake, do not quite rise to the level of heroism, although they may be courageous.  In addition, the degree of individual heroism grows with various factors, such as nobility of purpose, the degree of risk and so on.  So, wartime itself does not produce heroes; instead, it awakens the giants among us.

It seems Ms. Savant has conflated two meanings of the word hero, which would explain why her answer drifts away from the original focus.

One meaning is the one above that I tried to define further, a person who voluntarily risks life or limb in furtherance of a good cause by performing an act of heroism.

The other meaning of "hero" refers to a personage such as Abraham Lincoln or Michael Jordan.  Such people are regarded as heroes by many people because they are role models.  Their status as heroes relies on a body of work over time, and it does not involve risking their health.

These two meanings of "hero" are, or at least should be, entirely unrelated to each other.

A Hundred to One

What's wrong with this statement?

"You shouldn't bet the lottery.  The likelihood of winning the $53.75 million lottery, with a nearly two-to-one advantage to the house, is 100 million to one."

That is the likelihood of losing the lottery.  The likelihood of winning is one to 100 million.

So, in this example the likelihood was misstated by a factor of 100,000,0002, or 10,000,000,000,000,000 (ten quadrillion).

Update of November 27, 2001:  According to a graphic produced by Golf Digest and printed in today's Kansas City Star, the chance that you'll make three holes-in-one in a single round is 2 trillion to 1.  So in this case the likelihood was misstated by a factor of 2,000,000,000,0002, or


(4 septillion).

--- The rest of this section is unfinished because I can't seem to handle the math.  If you can please .

Update of October 12, 2005:
This article appears in today's Kansas City Star.


What's wrong with this statement?

"You shouldn't bet the lottery.  The likelihood of winning the $53.75 million lottery, with a nearly two-to-one advantage to the house, is 100 million to one."

That is the likelihood of losing the lottery.  The likelihood of winning is one to 100 million.

So, in this example the likelihood was misstated by a factor of 100,000,0002, or 10,000,000,000,000,000 (ten quadrillion).

Update of November 27, 2001:  According to a graphic produced by Golf Digest and printed in today's Kansas City Star, the chance that you'll make three holes-in-one in a single round is 2 trillion to 1.  So in this case the likelihood was misstated by a factor of 2,000,000,000,0002, or


(4 septillion).

Update of October 12, 2005: This article appears in today's Kansas City Star.

If the first statistic is correct, that the probability of three holes-in-one in a single round is 1 in 2 trillion, then the probability of getting eleven is approximately 1 in 1.27 X 10^45, or


If you think like the idea of thinking about numbers so large, you can skip ahead in the Words pages to here, but don't forget to come back, and you can also go here.

There are two factors making Kim Jong Il's feat even more unlikely.  First, golf is an extraordinarily difficult game to play even after decades of lessons and practice.  For full swings (as opposed to putts), the proper way to grip the club is not obvious or natural, the proper way to take one's stance is not obvious or natural, and most certainly the proper way to swing the club is not obvious or natural.  It takes only the tiniest of errors in the grip or the stance or the swing to produce a miserable shot.  Furthermore, you have to choose the right shot and the right club to begin with, and you have to predict the winds, and you have to predict the way the ball will roll once it's landed.  Learning how to perform all those steps well, particularly the swing itself, is time-consuming.

Many of the best, most experienced players in the world go years without a single hole-in-one, so to imagine that an utter novice, someone who had never before played a round of golf, could make even two such holes-in-one is just, well, stupid.

Still, it must have happened in the history of all of golf that someone has hit a hole-in-one on his first round.  I can't prove it, but it certainly isn't impossible.  But to get eleven requires feats of unlikelihood that make 1.27 X 10^45 look doable.

Because, second, golf courses offer a limited number of par-three holes.  To be fair to Kim Jong Il, let's assume he played a course with a par as low as 68 (most are 71 or 72).  Such a course would have an absolute minimum of two par 4's, although I doubt any such course exists in the world.  Most have more than six par 4's and the average is probably eight or ten.  But let's give Kim the benefit of a huge doubt and pretend the course he played had only two.

It is mathematically impossible for an 18-hole course to contain more than ten par 3's and two or more par 4's and still have a total par of 68 or more, so the best possible arrangement for Kim Jong Il is for there to have been ten par 3's, two or more par 4's, and the rest par 5's.  Therefore the most likely scenario by far is that he aced ten par 3's and one par 4.

So we have to multiply the probability of his having aced ten par 3's, which if you remember is 1 in 1.27 X 10^45, by the probability of his having aced a par 4.  As you can see from the paragraph here, only one hole-in-one on a par 4 has been achieved in any PGA tournament ever, so I think we can assume it's unlikely that it happens very often anywhere on a real, full-length course.  To drive a ball from tee to green on a par 4 is not impossible.  Certain par-4 holes on certain courses can be driven in one shot, but they are so rare that they have a name, a "reachable par 4."


Generally, par 4's are long enough from tee to green that you can't drive the ball that far in


Kim is short, making it less likely he reached a par 4.

There are par 4's that can


We can make some very rough estimates as to how many times a golfer has driven a ball on a par 4, and from there we can make some very rough estimates as to how many times those drives have resulted in a hole-in-one.  Let's assume fff


According to an article in The Kansas City Star that ran on June 18, 2007, "Golf Digest has reported that even a PGA Tour pro's chances at a hole-in-one are 1 in 3,756, and an amateur's odds are 1 in 12,750."  Does this mean

This means the pro must play 208-2/3 rounds before expecting to get a hole-in-one.  The amateur must play 708-1/3 rounds.  If you play once a week eight months a year (which means we know you're an amateur), you can expect a hole-in-one every 20 years or so.  For you to get 11 holes-in-one, then, would take you 220 years.  But Kim Jong Il did it in one round, and not just any old round either, but his very first round.  And don't forget that at least one of those was on a par 4.

North Koreans are among the most destitute people in the world, and they need money.  If Kim Jong Il entered the twenty richest pro golf tournaments he could rake in a cool 20 million fff or so a year (obviously he'd win every one), and he could donate it to his subjects and have a pretty good time besides.


If the first statistic is correct -- that the probability of three holes-in-one in a single round is 1 in 2 trillion -- then the probability of getting eleven is approximately 1 in 1.27 X 10^45, or


If you like the idea of thinking about numbers so large, you can skip ahead in the Words pages to here, but don't forget to come back, and you can also go here.




If the first statistic is correct, that the probability of three holes-in-one in a single round is 1 in 2 trillion, then the probability of getting eleven is approximately 1 in 1.27 X 10^45, or


If you think like the idea of thinking about numbers so large, you can skip ahead in the Words pages to here, but don't forget to come back, and you can also go here.  [fff What I did was take the cube root of 2 trillion to arrive at the p of one hole-in-one, which is 12,599.2105.  Then I raised that to the 11th power.  [May 14, 2009: Doesn't this ignore the likelihood of back-to-back holes-in-one?]

There are two factors making Kim Jong Il's feat even more unlikely.  First, golf is an extraordinarily difficult game to play even after decades of lessons and practice.  For full swings (as opposed to putts), the proper way to grip the club is not obvious or natural, the proper way to take one's stance is not obvious or natural, and most certainly the proper way to swing the club is not obvious or natural.  It takes only the tiniest of errors in the grip or the stance or the swing to produce a miserable shot.  Furthermore, you have to choose the right shot and the right club to begin with, and you have to predict the winds, and you have to predict the way the ball will roll once it's landed.  Learning how to perform all those steps well, particularly the swing itself, is time-consuming.

Many of the best, most experienced players in the world go years without a single hole-in-one, so to imagine that an utter novice, someone who had never before played a round of golf, could make even two such holes-in-one is just, well, stupid.

Still, it must have happened in the history of all of golf that someone has hit a hole-in-one on his first round.  I can't prove it, but it certainly isn't impossible.  But to get eleven requires feats of unlikelihood that make 1.27 X 10^45 look doable.

Because, second, golf courses offer a limited number of par-three holes.  To be fair to Kim Jong Il, let's assume he played a course with a par as low as 68 (most are 71 or 72).  Such a course would have an absolute minimum of two par 4's, although a course with only two would be so odd as to be worthy of note.  I doubt any such course exists in the world.  Most have more than six par 4's and the average is probably eight or ten.  But let's give Kim the benefit of a huge doubt and pretend the course he played had only two.

It is mathematically impossible for an 18-hole course to contain more than ten par 3's and two or more par 4's and still have a total par of 68 or more, so the best possible arrangement for Kim Jong Il is for there to have been ten par 3's, two or more par 4's, and the rest par 5's.  Therefore the most likely scenario by far, the one that gives him the best chance, is that he aced ten par 3's and one par 4 for the putative total of 11.

So we have to multiply the probability of his having aced ten [fff NO, above I said 11, not 10] par 3's, which if you remember is 1 in 1.27 X 10^45, [fff NO, it should be 1.00793684 X 10^41] by the probability of his having aced a par 4.  As you can see from the paragraph here, only one hole-in-one on a par 4 has been achieved in any PGA tournament ever, so I think we can assume it's unlikely that it happens very often anywhere.  To drive a ball from tee to green on a par 4 is not impossible.  Certain par-4 holes on certain courses can be driven in one shot, but they are so rare that they have a name, a "reachable par 4."

We can make some very rough estimates as to how many times a golfer has driven a ball on a par 4, and from there we can make some very rough estimates as to how many times those drives have resulted in a hole-in-one.  Let's assume fff


fff Start math over here.

According to an article in The Kansas City Star that ran on June 18, 2007, "Golf Digest has reported that even a PGA Tour pro's chances at a hole-in-one are 1 in 3,756, and an amateur's odds are 1 in 12,750."  fff Does this mean on all holes or just par 3's?  I think we have to assume it means all 18 holes.

If the pros' p of one ace are 1 in 3,756 holes, then the p of three in a single round must be 3,756^3, or 5.298790522 X 10^10, or only 52,987,905,220 (53 billion), not the 2 trillion from the previous Golf Digest fact.


~52.17857143 weeks in a year.  Eight 12ths of that is 34.78571429 rounds per year.  708=1/3 divided by that is 20.36276523 years.  That times 11 aces is 223.9904175 years.



This means the pro must play 208-2/3 rounds before expecting to get a hole-in-one.  The amateur must play 708-1/3 rounds.

If you play once a week eight months a year (which means we know you're an amateur), you can expect a hole-in-one every 20 years or so.  For you to get your 11th ace, then, you would have to play for some 220 years.  [fff NO, I CARE only about only 10 aces on par 3s, then multiply by p of a par-4 ace]  But Kim Jong Il did it in one round, and not just any old round either, but his very first round. 

And don't forget that at least one of those was on a par 4.

North Koreans are among the most destitute people in the world, and they need more and better food and shelter and medical care.  If Kim Jong Il entered the twenty richest pro golf tournaments he could rake in a cool $20 million fff or so a year (obviously he'd win every one), and he could donate fff [population of N. Korea?] $123.45 to each and every one of his subjects and have a pretty good time too.


According to information presented in the August 8, 2016, edition of the Kansas City Star, which is still the world's worst-run newspaper, the day before that Jim Furyk scored a 58 in a PGA round, at the Travelers Championship tournament at the par-70 TPC River Highlands course in Cromwell, Connecticut.  He's the only player in the history of the PGA tour to shoot a score so low.  Only six people have scored a 59, one of whom was Furyk in 2013.

(The question must be asked whether a score of 58 on a par-70 course is as good as a 59 on a par-72 course, since obviously a par-72 course is harder, pretty much by definition, than a par-70 course; in theory it's 2.857% harder.  A better statistic is how much below the course par a particular score is, which eliminates the factor of how long and hard the course is.

Al Geiberger in 1977 was the first player on the PGA tour to shoot a score as low as 59, which he did on a course with a par of 72.  His 59 on a par-72 course means he scored 18.06% under par.  Furyk's 58 on a par-70 course is only 17.14% under par, which means Geiberger, and later Chip Beck and David Duval, performed better.  See here for supposed facts.)

Jim Furyk broke a PGA record by scoring a 58, and to do so he played every hole on the course in par or better, specifically, seven pars, ten birdies, and one eagle.

Note that he did not score any holes-in-one in his round, as, I remind you, Kim Jong Il was said to have done eleven times in his round.  And not just any round, his very first round.  We can compare Jim Furyk to Kim Jong-un, as golfers.   


The Star also reports in that August 8, 2016, edition, without attribution so it can't be checked, that the number of rounds played in PGA history is 1,500,000.



--- Most of the preceding section is a mess, so I hope you didn't bother to read it.


Top of Words - page 1

He or She

Here's my take on using gender-neutral pronouns such as "he or she" in a construction such as "Each member of Congress should vote his or her conscience" or "At last night's meeting the board approved the appointment of an ombudsperson."

(To be completely politically correct, ombudsperson should probably be ombudshuman because of the son in person.  Oh, wait, human has man in it.  OK, let's try again.  How about ombudsearthling?  Yes, there, we've got it.  Of course, that doesn't make it entirely clear that the earthling in question is a member of the, um, human race, which allows for the possibility the board appointed a salamander.  Oops, I mean salapersonder.  Nope, there's that son again.   OK, I have a new idea: How about salapersonordaughterder?  Oh, the hell with it.)

First, whenever using the politically correct terms results in an abrupt interruption in the flow of the words, i.e., whenever there's a jolt that makes the reader pause, the words should be recast.  No amount of benefit from using the politically correct term is worth throwing your reader off the track, even for a moment.

Second, often enough it's not all that difficult to recast the sentence so the problem doesn't arise.  For example, "The members of Congress should vote their consciences" isn't any worse than "his or her conscience," and it enjoys the benefit of not being grammatically incorrect.

Third, when I do choose to use the masculine form to refer to both genders, which I often do in this very Web site, no one notices.  Or at least those who do notice and care are not the people I'm writing to.  I'm writing to people who are smart enough not to think that just because I use the masculine they should be influenced in some illogical way.  I respect my readers more than that.

Fourth, you should not get into the habit of using politically correct terms.  You should examine each such use of he or she to make sure it's appropriate.  For example, if you know that the person holding the press conference you're reporting on is a female, you needlessly deprive your reader of information if you report, "All of the charges of promoting men over women at the company were denied by its president and spokesperson, Pat McKenna."

Hilariously worse: "At the press conference held yesterday by the Committee for Responsible Awareness in Politically-correctness, their ombudsperson stated that he or she will be open to all input from the public."

Now, I just made up that one.  Here's a real one, from an NPR broadcast on September 3, 2001: "Those who continue to borrow from one [credit] card to pay off another end up having his or her interest rates raised."  The person who spoke these words has let his knee-jerk need to appear politically correct become such a habit that he doesn't hear the absurdity.  He has gone way out his way, for no good reason, to sound stupid.

Update of November 22, 2008: Here's another example, from today's Kansas City Star.

"When they are acknowledged for their contribution to the meal, or for his/her value to the family . . . ."  Yipes.

For a more insightful and better-written discussion of the subject of gender-neutral pronouns, see chapters 7 and 8 of Douglas Hofstadter's 1985 BOOK, Metamagical Themas.  Here's what the Long Table of Contents says:

Chapter 7: Changes in Default Words and Images, Engendered by Rising Consciousness.  On the deep, hidden, and oft-denied connections between subconscious imagery and discriminatory usage in everyday language.

Chapter 8: A Person Paper on Purity in Language.   Master Wiliam Satire vents whis [sic] anger at those who, for cheap political reasons, would destroy the beauty of English by introducing ugly neologisms and changing the usage of venerated old terms.

Healthy versus Healthful

These words are not synonymous.  Memorize this: That is healthy which is in good health.  That is healthful which causes good health.

Healthy.  Olympic athletes are healthy.  A fine field of alfalfa is healthy.  I am healthy.

Healthful.  But a green salad and some raisins and a glass of water do not constitute a healthy meal.  They constitute a completely dead meal.

Not just sickly and ailing, mind you, but flat-out dead.  So this certainly is not a healthy meal.  The salad greens have been wrenched from their life-supporting environment of dirt and sun; the raisins have not only been plucked from their life-supporting vines but they have been intentionally desiccated; and the water was never alive to begin with.  The greens and the raisins and the water are all completely non-viable, so those foods, or any other diet, are as far from being healthy as can be imagined.  Any food you eat, and any product you use on your abs, is dead-bang dead, which is the opposite of healthy.

What such a meal or product might be is healthful.

Speaking of which, how can shampoo ads claim they make your hair healthier?  Surely they don’t mean healthful -- as in good for you if you consume or somehow use the hair -- so they must mean that their products make your hair more healthy, just as they say.  But hair is, of course, completely redundantly 100% dead.  No blood, no nerves, no cellular activity except decay, nothing but dead tissue, just mostly keratin (like your nails) being pushed up out of your skin by newer but no less dead tissue.  So how can shampooing make hair healthy or, better yet "revitalized"?  Hair is always dead, so to say hair can be healthy is no different from saying a rock or a tin can can be healthy.

Here's what can happen if too many people think healthful should be healthy:

Yes, you Cub Scouts out here in the wilderness, I am indeed a mycologist, and that particular amanita you're looking at is quite healthy.

From A to 3

There's a common construction that, while often used, rarely makes sense if you think about it, and I'm against that, and you should be too.  The construction I'm referring to is of the form "from something to something."  For example, "Shop K-mart!  We sell everything from lawn mowers to light bulbs" or "KCUR's music catalog offers everything from blues to bluegrass."

The problem with such constructions is that you have no idea what is included and what is excluded.  Does K-mart sell refrigerators?  Does KCUR offer classical music?

Light bulbs and lawn mowers aren’t obvious endpoints of any range.  Blues and bluegrass aren’t the beginning and end of any particular series.  (In fact, these two examples are particularly lame because the purported endpoints of the purported range are alliterative, implying in K-mart's case for example that they sell only items that start with the letter L.)

Here are two examples of this construction used correctly: "People from Maine to California are buying our product" and "Our zoo has animals from aardvarks to zebras."  In the first case it’s obvious that the range is from one extreme geographical point to the other; clearly every state is meant to be included.  In the second case, it’s obvious that the range is from the beginning of the alphabet to the end; clearly every animal is meant to be included.

Improper use: In a January 27, 2000, broadcast on NPR the commentator was asked what she expected of Clinton's final State of the Union address, and she said, "He will discuss issues ranging from health care to education."   Now, I ask you, what does that mean?

Proper use: In a 1933 review panning Katharine Hepburn’s stage performance in The Lake, that most excellent wit and member of The Algonquin Round Table Dorothy Parker wrote, "She ran the whole gamut of emotions from A to B."

Here’s the test to determine whether such a construction is appropriate: Can you decide, for any given possible thing, whether it’s included in or excluded from the stated range?  If you can’t, the construction is inappropriate.

This type of construction is often expanded to something like this: "From Chaucer to Kant, from Shakespeare to Tennyson, from Salinger to Dostoyevsky."   Now I ask you, even with six endpoints instead of only two, can you name a single author at any time throughout history, from any place in the world, who definitely should be included, or who definitely should not be included?  No, you can't, because Chaucer and Kant aren't endpoints of any recognizable range, nor are the other two pairs.

I think the reason you see this construction in its flawed form so often is that it's cheap and easy.  The writer flashes on some pair of more or less randomly chosen members of the set in question, then he he fills them into the "from A to 3" formula without giving it another thought.  It's easy to do, and I suspect that sometimes the author of such a phrase is also somehow vaguely hoping the reader will miraculously figure out what he means, or at least assume he meant something really good instead of really lazy.

As I say, it's easy.  And wrong.  I say, "Say what you mean, or at least be prepared to explain what you said."  If you can't then you must be prepared to admit either that you were trying to trick us or that you were being sloppy.

A similar error is exemplified by this construction: "The decline in violent crime is in the range of 50% since last year."  What does "in the range of" mean?  If you're going to use the phrase "in the range of," you have to state two endpoints.  You can say, "The drop in violent crime was in the range of 40 to 60%, depending on which side's statistics you believe," but to say that the drop in violent crime was in the range of 50% could mean it's between 40% and 60%, but it could just as easily mean it's between 20% and 80%.  Saying it's between 20% and 80% isn't saying much at all.

Yet another similar error arises when the beginning of the range is stated – indeed, overstated – but then, perhaps due to an extremely short-term memory loss, the end of the range is abandoned altogether.  For example,

Congress passed a variety of different bills this session, ranging from child care, pollution, education, parks management and gun control.

If you've said or written the phrase "Ranging from" then at some later point in the sentence you need the word "to."

Update of November 14, 2016.  Yet a different error involving ranges arose when my local NPR station KCUR said out loud, "Rallies in Missouri against Trump occurred from St. Louis to Kansas City."  In fact, if you followed the story, rallies against the worst U.S. presidential candidate ever were held only in those two cities in Missouri that day.  There were no such rallies in Jefferson City or Columbia or anywhere else between St. Louis and Kansas City, which makes this yet another mistaken use of the phrase "ranging from A to 3."

A Different without a Distinction

Probably as often as not, people who use the word "different" needn't, and therefore shouldn't.  Here's an example from a sports story headline: "Three Different Runners Complete Race in under an Hour."  Well, sheesh, how could they be anything but different runners?  I mean, if they were not three different runners then they'd all be the same runner, right?

Here's a real one: "Two Different Planes Crash into NYC Skyscrapers."  Well, of course they were different planes.  How could they not be?

"Congress passed two hundred different bills this session."  How could they not be different?  I mean, if they weren't different then there'd be only one bill, right?  Worse yet, how about "Congress passed a variety of different bills this session"?

Now, here's a more nearly proper use of different: "Shortly after she stumbled out of the circus tent and cleared her head, she looked down and saw she was wearing two different shoes."  Here's another: "There are three different versions in the Christian bible about Jesus's walking on water."  In the first case we know her shoes don't match.  In the second we know there are variations in the three versions; in case you're interested, they're located at Matthew 4:25, Mark 6:48 and John 6:19.

Another word similar to "different" in its ability to be misused in the same way is "separate."  Here's an example regarding the Trump sycophant Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida.

The URL below points to an instance in which "two separate private planes" appears.



Here's a funny misuse, from the "Dilbert" comic strip of Sunday, September 28, 2003.

baldguys.jpg (12,349 bytes) 09282003

And finally, a misuse from an article in The Kansas City Star of January 12, 2009.


At Least Ten to Fifteen

Along those same lines, a more common error is stating a numerical range that is modified by a nonsensical condition.

Here are some examples:

"The dean of the college said, 'More than ten to fifteen percent of freshmen are unable to write a coherent business letter.' "

Hey, dean, if it's more than fifteen percent then of course it's more than 10%.  And if it's more than 15%, then why are you even mentioning 10%?

"According to the year-long study, at least three to four out of every ten Americans believe in angelic visitations."

If it's at least three then what does the figure of four mean?  If it's at least four then of course it's at least three, in which case the figure of three is meaningless and might as well have been zero.

"We guarantee delivery in four to six weeks."  Are they really guaranteeing that if it looks like they might get it to you in only three weeks, they'll hang onto it for another week?

"The expected return on equity will be no less than five to fifteen percent."

If your broker tells you this, look him in the eye and ask, "Now, which is it?  If it's going to be no less than fifteen percent, then what does the figure of five percent mean?  Or, if you mean it will be no less than five percent, then what does the fifteen percent figure mean?


The use of this seemingly simple and overly common word produces not one, not two, but three unrelated errors.

To begin, either means "one of two things."

Ignoring "two."  In the first type of error, which is more nitpicky, the part in the definition above about "two things" is ignored.  For example, "We will either go to the beach or the mountains or the slime pits."  The beach, the mountains and the slime pits add up to three things, not two.  If the choice is among more than two things, then the word either is inappropriate, because either does not mean "one of any number of things," it means "one of exactly two things."

I do note that there is a benefit to using "either" at the beginning of a list of more than two items, which is that it signals that you have to choose only one from the list to follow.  If you omit the "either," the reader must wait till the end of the sentence to see the "and" or the "or" after the penultimate item to realize the list allowed for only one choice.  Maybe I'm changing my mind about this one.

Ignoring "one."  In the second type of error, which is not at all nitpicky, the part in the definition above about "one" is ignored.  For example, "Place a silver wreath at either side of the mantel" is not the same as "Place a silver wreath at each side of the mantel."  In the latter example the instruction clearly states that you are to place one wreath on one side of the mantel and a second wreath on the other side – two wreaths.  In the former example, the literal meaning of the instruction is to place a silver wreath on one side or the other of the mantel – only one wreath.

Now, if you get misled by the first example, the worst thing that can happen is that Martha Stewart will disapprove of your mantel (although probably not if you buy the book HERE first).  But how about these examples?

Insert a catheter into the carotid artery on either side of the neck


If you press the green button on either side of the main panel, the nuclear weapon will be disarmed.

Misplaced either.  In the third type of error either is misplaced, usually by being placed too early in the sentence.  For example, there's a difference between "We will either go to the beach or the mountains" and "We will go to either the beach or the mountains."  In the second example, you're saying what you mean, in which either modifies the two choices.  In the first example you are saying that you will either go somewhere or that you . . . ? well, that's the point: You don't say.

Now, having said that, of course I agree that in conversation it's usually not hard to figure out which word or words the speaker meant for either to modify.  Indeed, I made the mistake of a misplaced either in the third paragraph of this section, and I'm pretty sure you didn't notice it.  Still, at least in formal writing, I see no need to get it wrong.

Update of March, 2002:  A correspondent recently tried to claim that either has yet another meaning, not related to any of the wrong or right ones above.  I argued that it doesn't either.

. . . or.

This is a weird but common one.  Here's a real example I heard today, which is Monday.  "Do you want to make an appointment or?"  That was it.  The woman who answered the phone at the dentist I use got up to "or" and just stopped talking.  Apparently she thought that was enough, because she was done talking until I answered.

When I hear someone end with "or," I simply do not respond.  Instead, because I've been taught not to interrupt, and also because I hate to be interrupted, I wait for the person, in this case the receptionist at my dental office, to finish.

As I see it, one of the few words that can't possibly end a sentence, or in this case a question, is "or."  It would be as if I said, "I would like a hamburger and" or "I would like a hamburger but," except that the final word is never "and" or "but," it's always "or."

I suspect the reason some people do this, ending with "or," is that they've run out of anything else to say and they're hoping I will finish their thoughts for them.  I don't know that, I just know it doesn't work with me.

Misplaced Only

This word is misused about as often as not.  The problem is not with whether to use it at all but rather where to use it.

In a computer manual appears this sentence:

From the History screen you are only allowed to delete the last ten entries.

What is meant, as it turns out, is that the user may delete no more than ten entries, but because only is misplaced, what it really says is, "The only thing you're allowed to do from the History screen is delete the last ten entries," which is quite a different thing.

The solution would have been simply to move only to where it belonged:

From the History screen you are allowed to delete only the last ten entries.

(Interestingly, in the Filipino version of English this sentence would properly be rendered by moving "only" all the way to the end, producing "From the History screen you are allowed to delete the last ten entries only."   In Englipino, "only" typically comes after the thing it modifies, which sometimes makes a lot of sense.)

If you have difficulty figuring out where only goes in any given sentence, here's a simple trick: Stick it in in every grammatically acceptable place in the sentence and see which is best.  Almost invariably it will be as near as possible to the thing it modifies.

Update of January 25, 2004  In an article in today's Kansas City Star appears this ironic quote: "When I was an intern here [at The Star], you could only make three mistakes before you got fired."  This example of a misplaced only would hardly be noteworthy except for the fact it's in an article about how newspapers should strive never to make mistakes, no matter how small.


Nominal, no matter what any dictionary says, means "in name."  It doesn't, or at least shouldn't, mean "small."

The Latin affix nom means "name," as in nominate and nomenclature and nom de plume.

Improper use: "Ironically, the disgraced former CEO of a Fortune 500 oil company is now working for a nominal salary as a grease-monkey at a struggling gas station."  It might be a small salary compared to what he earned before, but it is hardly nominal even at minimum wage.  Just ask the owner of the gas station who has to write him that paycheck every week.

There are plenty of synonyms for small, but nominal has a special, narrower meaning for which there are practically no synonyms.

Two proper uses: "Although the nominal owner of the original Declaration of Independence is the U.S. government, it truly belongs to all people who yearn to be free."  "The nominal 1.5 volts of a typical fresh BATTERY are invariably exceeded, according to tests, by at least five percent."  You can learn the difference between nominal and actual dimension of lumber here (search for "nominal"), where you'll see that the nominal value is always larger than the actual value.

If too many of us use nominal to mean small -- perhaps because we mistakenly think it sounds classier -- eventually the original, narrower meaning becomes lost to us.  Our vocabulary shrinks, and we have to resort to the use of several words where one correct one would have done.  Language becomes less efficient.

And by allowing nominal to get mooshed out so that to too many people it means nothing more than the idea of "small," language also becomes less clear.  Some speakers will use nominal properly to mean "in name only," and their audience will mistakenly misconstrue it to mean "small."  Other speakers will mistakenly use nominal to mean "small," and their better-educated audience will take it to mean "in name only."

Losing a special, useful vocabulary word to misuse is never desirable.  And it's not like the list of terms that already do mean "small" is all that few or short or little or wee or teeny or tiny or meager or limited or microscopic or spare or puny or scant or picayune.

Silly Headlines

Here's a (probably apocryphal) story I remember from about thirty years ago, during the Cold War.  It's just too cute to leave out of this article about words.

It was about two headlines -- one in an American newspaper and the other in a Soviet newspaper -- reporting on the same event, a relay race in which, as it turned out, the only competitors were the American and Soviet teams.  The American team won.

The American headline was

Americans Beat Soviets in Relay Race.

The Soviet headline was

Soviets Second in Relay Race.
Americans Next to Last.

Steep Learning Curve

Here's a simple question: What does this mean?

Because of the seemingly illogical complexities of the many related procedures, novices will have to overcome a steep learning curve.

It means that novices face a difficult task, that it will take them a long time to learn the procedures, right?

Well, help me analyze this here.

Below are graphs of two learning curves.  They are identical except for the angle of the learning curve, which is the narrow line running at an angle up and right from the origin, the zero point.

The vertical axis shows the degree of progress in learning, perhaps as indicated by successive proficiency tests.  The higher you are on the vertical axis at any moment in time, the more you have learned.

The horizontal axis shows the passage of time, where time 3, which might be in hours, is later than time 0.  Incidentally, many graphs of this sort show the passage of time on one of the two axes, and it is always on the horizontal axis.  I have never seen a graph in which time was measured along the vertical axis, and I'll bet you haven't either.  The reason is that it is traditional -- indeed, universal -- for the independent factor to be on the horizontal axis, because it's always the dependent factor, shown along the vertical axis, that we're measuring.  The dependent factor here is learning, that is, learning depends on time spent, not the other way around (which would be ridiculous).

Consider the graph on the left.  At time 1 the degree of learning is equal to 2/3rds, at time 2 the degree of learning has risen to 1 1/3rd, and by time 3 it has reached 2.

learning_curvea5.gif (843 bytes)         learning_curveb5.gif (905 bytes)

Now consider the graph on the right, the steeper learning curve.

On the steeper learning curve, which everyone says is hard, at time 1 the degree of learning is equal to 1, at time 2 it's equal to 2, and at time 3 it's equal to 3.  So, plainly the steeper learning curve is the easier one, not the harder one.

On May 4, 2020, because of the COVID-19 restrictions, I was binge-watching the hilarious (Amazon) Prime Video comedy series, sadly now ended, called VEEP.  In the eighth episode of the second season a character pulls from his pocket a graph showing the vice-president's career over time.  Inexplicably, whoever drew the chart got it wrong, i.e., time is shown on the Y-axis rather the X-axis where it's supposed to be, and the result, not surprisingly, doesn't make sense.  I include below a blow-up of a "screen shot," in the sense that I took a photograph of my paused television screen, just so you can see that time must be on the X-axis.

The point the character was trying to make is that the vice-president's CAREER over TIME has gotten worse, but because time is on the wrong axis the only interpretation is that, despite the arrowhead, her career has gotten better.  At an early time, down near the origin where the axes intersect, her career is at a low point.  As time passes, i.e., as we go up on the Y-axis, her career gets better and better, which is the opposite of the point of the graph.

If you think I've got any of this wrong, and you certainly wouldn't be the first, please .



Along those same lines, what is meant by "It's downhill"?

Here's one usage: "I pedaled for ten minutes without a break before I crested the peak, and it was all downhill from there."

Here's another usage: "First he lost his job, then his girlfriend.  And then he tried crack cocaine.  It was all downhill from there to the back alley where the detectives found his diseased and drug-ridden body."

Which is it?  Is downhill good or bad?

Am I the only person who has noticed this?

Like versus Such As

There's a difference between like and such as.  Use it, and certainly recognize it lest you get fooled.  Most often, like is used where such as should be.

Like means "in the manner of."  Such as means "an actual example."

Improper use: I remember from several years ago a radio spot for a concert that was to take place near where I live.  The promos said, "Get your tickets now to see artists like Elton John and Billy Joel."  In fact, the artists were Elton John and Billy Joel.  Indeed, if this were to be taken literally, it could mean that your ticket would buy you a performance by two John and Joel imitators.

You see this kind of misuse all the time: "Leading Republicans like Hatch, Hyde and Quayle support the flag-burning amendment," when in fact those exact three themselves do support it.

Unless it's clear which members of the potential population should not be included, always be wary of the "like" construction.  Like means "in the manner of this one," but it also includes the idea of "not necessarily this exact one."  For example, here's a proper use: "Since the end of the 1960s, people from all parts of the world like Hitler have tried but failed to institute a new world order."

Those Kind

Use of this construction is simply illiterate at best, and illiterate and misleading at worst.

For example, "I've tried a lot of skis, and I like these kind best."  Or "The candidate said that those organic sort of issues are relevant."

The illiteracy arises from a mismatch in number.  Those is plural, as in "those cars."  But kind is singular, as in "I'll have only one kind of ice cream."

"Those kind" is like saying "Several of the car."  Since kind is singular, you should say, "This kind" or "that kind," not "these kind" or "those kind."

If for some rare reason you really do need to refer to more than one kind of thing, which itself implies more than one member of more than one set, then add an "s" to the end of kind.  For example, "These kinds of paintings are what we specialize in."

But then what did you mean by "kinds"?  If you were referring to just Monets or just abstracts, then you should have said "this kind of painting," not "these kinds."  Only if you specialize in, say, both Monets and abstracts should you say "these kinds."

Lesson: When it comes to kinds and sorts, it's almost always "this" and "that," not "these" and "those."

Update of January 25, 2008: At right is a scan of part of an ad mailer I received today from a Kansas City car-repair shop.  If you've got one of those cars made in South America, these guys might be able to fix it but they don't SPECIALIZE in that kind, so beware.


This word seems to have two entirely unrelated meanings, and only one of them is right, no matter what any dictionary says to the contrary.

Proper use:

"The postal worker was suspicious of the parcel labeled NOT A BOMB."

Improper use:

"The postal worker saw a suspicious parcel labeled NOT A BOMB."

See the difference?  In the first case it is the postal worker who is suspicious, i.e., he has a suspicion about something.  In the second case it is the parcel that's suspicious, but a parcel can't suspect anything, it can't be suspicious of anything.

You can use the adjective suspect to modify the noun if you like: "The dog got excited about the suspect suitcase labeled CONTENTS SMELL LIKE BUT ARE NOT MARIJUANA."

A more common instance of the improper type of use:

"Yes," said the detective on the witness stand, "when I espied the defendant blithely riding down the street on that giraffe, I thought he was suspicious, so I clandestinely kept an eye on him."




Update of May 1, 2007: Today's Kansas City Star brings us another improper use.



Center Around

If you think about it you'll realize that center around just doesn't make sense, as in "The novel centers around the exploits of Bilbo Baggins."  The novel can revolve around the exploits if it really wants to, but it can't center around anything.  The center is the center, and whatever is around is outside the center, if you see what I mean.  If you like the term center, the preposition that should follow is on.  "The novel centers on the exploits of Bilbo Baggins."

Speaking of center, unless you can distinguish between the two, don't use the currently fashionable epicenter where center will do.  Paris is not the epicenter of fashion, and Hollywood is not the epicenter of film stars.

Between the Cracks

Here's a similar error in thinking.

"The study showed that after elementary school it was the marginal students who fell between the cracks of the educational system."

I remember once having an argument with someone who insisted that her statement "I could care less" meant she could not care less.  Despite my several attempts to explain how the word not literally reversed the meaning, she assured me she was right.

She never did apprehend the difference, and I remember realizing later that, to her, the individual words themselves were meaningless; all that mattered to her was the sound, the phrase.  Just as with "center around" and "between the cracks" and "I miss not having my dog," she literally couldn't understand what the problem was.

Several Trivial Pairs

If you want to impress the 1% of English speakers who know the distinctions, here are some pairs of words you shouldn't confuse.

Sneaked v. Snuck

This one's perfectly simple: Always say, "Sneaked."

Dived v. Dove

This one's equally simple: Always say, "Dived."

For example, "Is a pigeon the same thing as a dived?"

Cement v. Concrete

This one's just as simple.  Cement is a powder and concrete is the stuff that hardens.  In case you forget, think of the term Portland cement, which is a fine powder made mostly of ground-up limestone with a little clay and gypsum mixed in.  To repeat, cement is a powder.

It's unfortunate that those big trucks that contain concrete in a constantly revolving drum are called cement trucks (or, if you're me and five years old, a "ment fruck"), because they should be called concrete trucks.  Concrete, which contains a surprising amount of water when it's fresh (which can easily be five years), consists of a 1-2-3-4 mixture, which is one part water, two parts cement (which I remind you is a powder), three parts sand and four parts gravel (typically what's called "AB3").  If you leave out the gravel you have what's called mortar mix, which is what masons use to build brick walls.  If you're going to mix it yourself, perhaps in a wheelbarrow as the container using a hoe as the mixer, you should add enough water -- whether for concrete or mortar mix -- until it looks and feels "right."  Same with stucco and grout.  Good luck.

Just today, which is yet another coronavirus day (May 21, 2020), I shot the photo at right of a concrete pumper.  Imagine how powerful such a pump must be to move concrete that high.

Hanged v. Hung

This one's almost as simple: Use hanged when you're referring to hanging by a noose, and use hung for everything else.  "He was hanged till he was dead," not "He was hung till he was dead."

But nevertheless

First, note the spelling of the second word.  It's all one long word.  But of course that's not why I mention the phrase "but nevertheless."  No, the reason is that one word or the other is redundant.  But and nevertheless mean the same thing, so every time you hear someone say "But nevertheless" you are listening to someone who enjoys speaking long words for no good reason.

Continuous v. Continual

These similar-looking words are not synonyms.  "Continuous" means without a break whereas "continual" doesn't.  A good example of "continuously" is a supposed fact about the well-known Kelly's bar in Westport, Kansas City, Missouri, which I've been to way too many times.  Kelly's claims its location is the oldest continuously occupied building in Missouri.  It was built in 1850.

If there had been even the briefest moment during which it was not occupied, the claim would have to be demoted to "continually occupied."  The way I remember which is which is that "continuous" has the consecutive letters OUS, which to my mind stand for "One Unbroken Sequence."

Farther v. Further

Use farther only for physical distance, and use further for everything else.

Proper uses of farther (and what would be improper uses of further):

"It's only ten miles farther."

"Move that wall one inch farther south."

"The farther away we get from that tribe of Prank Penguins, the better I like it."

Proper uses of further (and what would be improper uses of farther):

"The more Trump talks, the further away from the truth he gets."

"The further we get to our goal of a million dollars in donations, the more I want to embezzle it all and run off to Bora Bora."

Home in v. Hone in

This one's simple.  Despite the fact so may people get it wrong for no reason I can figure out, it's always "home in."  If you think about it, "hone in" doesn't make sense.

Amoral v. Immoral

These two words are not synonyms, yet from too-common use you'd think they are.  Let's start with the base word, "moral."  That is moral which is ethical, which is right and just.  That is immoral which is the opposite, as you would expect.  That is immoral which is unethical, which is wrong and unjust.

But the word amoral is not at all equivalent to the word immoral.  "Amoral" means that which is unrelated to morals or a lack thereof.  The question whether 1 + 2 = 4 is amoral.  The answer depends on how we humans have defined one and plus and two and equals and four, and it turns out 1 + 2 is not equal to 4, but that decision is made without regard to morality, i.e., it is purely amoral.

The question whether Joseph Stalin should have murdered 20 million people -- people of his own country, no less -- is entirely a moral one.  Stalin's murder of even one person was not amoral, it was immoral.

Nauseous v. other "nause-" terms

Nauseous does not mean "I feel like vomiting," so it's only under the rarest circumstances you'd say, "I'm feeling nauseous."   Nauseous means that which makes you feel like vomiting, that which nauseates you, that which causes you to feel nausea.

Depending on what nauseates you you might rightly say, "I regard gaping, bloody wounds as nauseous," or "I find the smell of vomit to be nauseous," but you would almost never declare that you yourself are nauseous, because if you did you be saying you make other people feel nauseated.

Let's not give up the useful meaning of nauseous.

Excessive Equivocation

I don't know why -- maybe some sort of subconscious fear of being proven wrong -- but too many people engage too often in excessive equivocation, which is using an equivocal term and then, for no reason, using an additional term of equivocation.

It's wishy-washy wussiness.  It's wimpy weasel words.

A term of equivocation is one that lightens the burden of proof or the degree of certainty, such as "might" and "probably" and "could."

Compare "The universe is 15 billion years old" to "The universe might be 15 billion years old."  The second version shows a proper use of equivocation.

Now compare

    There's only a 10% chance it will rain on Thursday.


    There's only a 10% chance it could rain on Thursday.

The statement that there's only a 10% chance it could rain on Thursday is inaccurate, regardless of what the weather forecast says.  Surely there's always a 100% chance that it could rain.

The 10% figure refers to the chance it will rain, not that it could.  Once you've said "10%," you don't need to equivocate further by saying "could."

Here's another example.  "It's probable that as many as half the students at the school might be clinically undernourished."  Wrong.  It's not merely probable, it's certain that as many as half might be undernourished.  As far as that goes, it's certain, not merely probable, that as many as all of them might be undernourished.

Here's a different type of excessive equivocation.  This one doesn't involve statistics, and it has only one term of equivocation, but even that is excessive.

From a report on NPR one afternoon in 2000: "As a result of the infestation of plump ox disease in the trees in Halifax, throughout the entire region we're going to keep an eye out for any other outbreaks that might occur."  No, you're looking for outbreaks that do occur.  How can you look for ones that might occur?

I say, "Say what you mean and nothing less."

Another two: "It's possible you might find your golf score dropping if you buy this putter."  It's not merely possible you might find it dropping, it's 100% certain.  Or, said the other way, it's possible you will, not merely might, find it dropping.  "Ideally, your computer should boot up fine from now on."  No, ideally your computer will boot up fine.  That's what ideally means.

Another two: "We came within inches of almost being hit by that meteorite!"  No, you came within inches of actually being hit, not almost.  "Sometimes when there are too many trees the helicopter can't land."  No, if there are too many trees then the helicopter can't ever land, not just sometimes but never.  That's what "too many trees" means.

Another one: "I can't predict what the consequences might be."  Well, of course you can.  Any idiot can predict what the consequences might be, because the idea of the word "might" means you've got miles of latitude.  You can be 100% certain that any of two or three or a thousand consequences might ensue.  The U.S. Army general who spoke these words (in June 2007 regarding whether to pull out of Iraq) not only didn't want to predict what the consequences would be, he didn't even want to predict what the consequences might be.

I say, "Once you've covered your ass once, if you do it again in the same sentence, 'taint nothin' but you bein' a puss."

"It might take up to two weeks for help to arrive."  Nope; if you're going to say "up to," then there's no reason to equivocate further by saying "might."  You mean it will take up to two weeks.  This one, regarding an airplane crash on an inaccessible mountaintop during bad weather, is egregious because, taken literally, it means help might not arrive in two weeks.  What the speaker said was that help might arrive in two weeks, which necessarily implies it might not.  If you're one of the survivors, don't you want to know whether to plan for two weeks or three?

Regarding the controversial April 22, 2004, death of professional football player and U.S. Army Cpl. Pat Tillman in fighting in Iraq: "Until then we never suspected he might have died from friendly fire."  Once you've said "suspected," you don't need to say "might."  The idea of might is contained in the idea of suspected.

"I think we might expect . . . . "  No, once you've said, "I think," you don't need to say "might"; just say, "I think we can expect."  Similar to that is "I can imagine it might."  Once you've said, "I can imagine," you should finish with "it will," not "it might."  After all, you're just imagining, so you will be imagining what will happen.  The idea of imagining already includes all the equivocation that's necessary.

An NPR interviewer asking about whether Idaho Republican senator Larry Craig would seek to retract his guilty plea in the public bathroom gay sex scandal: "Is there any indication he might show up on Tuesday?"  No, no, you don't want to be asking about whether there's an indication he might show up, you want to be asking whether there's an indication he will show up.  An indication is not the same as the outright fact of his showing up, it's merely a suggestion, a clue, so once you've said "indication," the "might" is unnecessary.

From an NPR broadcast on December 14, 2007: "Potentially as many as 200,000 might be affected."  Double no.  Once you've said "potentially," the "as many as" is unnecessary, or vice versa.  And the "might" is, of course, unnecessary either way.  "As many as 200,000 will be affected" communicates the same idea but with no excessive equivocation at all, so it's better.

"If you think you aren't sure, then don't climb the ladder."  Nope.  Once you aren't sure, then you already think you aren't sure, so leave out the "you think" altogether.

"Sometimes you don't always get what you want."  Here the "sometimes" or the "always" is not only excessive, it seems positively contradictory.

This excerpt is from an AP article that ran on September 22, 2009, in The Kansas City Star.  Briefly, Najibullah Zazi was suspected of plotting to murder many innocent people in the United States in an act of terrorism.  First, the task force didn't fear that Zazi may have been involved, it was concerned that he was involved.  Second, they weren't concerned about a potential plot, they were concerned about a real plot.  Once you've said "feared," the rest of the equivocation is unnecessary and confusing.

The headline at right is from the July 21, 2010, edition of The Kansas City Star.  The storm did knock out our power for a couple hours, but the point is that the entirety of the idea of "up to" is already completely contained in the idea of "reach."

Here's one of the most embarrassing examples ever.  "An insurer is not obliged to pay any punitive damages that a jury might award."  The term "any" obviates the need for the term "might."  The statement is about any damages the jury does award.  This is such an egregious example because it appears here.

Here's a more subtle but no less egregious example:

" . . . and jurors are expected to follow that order, although it is certain that in some cases they do not always do so."


"He was a mean, conniving skunk."  "She was always scheming and conniving to get her way."  "Even though he had no contact with the outside world, the con-man connived the lonely widow out of thousands of dollars."

What's wrong with these sentences is that "conniving" has a special meaning, and it isn't any of the above.

To connive is to choose not to be a ratfink, to choose not to tell.  If your friends Tom and Ray tell you they're going to rob a bank and you don't report it to anyone, you have connived in their scheme.  It doesn't matter whether you are part of the scheme, what matters is that you didn't tell, that you "winked" at it.  What matters is that you didn't report your intelligence to someone who would have cared, such as the police or the bank manager.

As a somewhat less dramatic but more didactic example, here's a proper use: "Although he suddenly realized Tom and Ray were preparing to dump a cooler full of Gatorade on the coach, he decided to connive in their plan, so he continued to look Coach Bob in the eye and speak to him in a normal voice until the last moment."

Conniving shouldn't mean any more than that, and if it comes to mean "low-down and sneaky and scheming and underhanded and untrustworthy," then we have lost a useful word for which there are few synonyms, whereas there are plenty of synonyms for "low-down and sneaky and scheming and underhanded and untrustworthy."  At least I think there are.

That's Thats

"To all you voters out there, I hereby declare that because I am in favor of God and the flag and family values and all our boys overseas and freedom that I will never let you down."

That is an interesting word in English.  It is used in so many ways, and often enough it can be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence that it's in, such as this one.  For that matter, although it's a quite common word I defy you to define it for me.  I swear, I don't understand how anyone learns English as a second language.  Or as a first language, for that matter.

Anyway, sometimes that is used to excess, by which I mean that people will use a that where they may and then, because they get distracted by something they themselves are saying, they use it again where they may not, for no reason.

If the candidate's declaration that opens this section is written right you should be able to delete the clause that starts "because" and ends in "freedom" without altering the grammaticality of what's left.  But if you do that with this sentence you get "To all you voters out there, I hereby declare that that I will never let you down."

That's Who

Speaking of that, there's a difference between that and who.   Who is reserved for people, and that is used for everything else.

It's rare for who to be used where that should be; it's almost always the other way around.  For example, few people would say, "That's the mosquito who bit me," and even fewer people would say, "That's the coconut who fell on my head."

Improper uses of that for who:

  • "The victims over there in the gallery, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, are the ones that deserve your sympathy."
  • "She was the researcher that traded a perfectly good giraffe for a hundred shares of Microsoft back in 1990."
  • "Our candidate, a self-professed feng shui expert, is the only one in the entire field that espouses mandatory monthly drug screening for people whose names start with D."

Proper uses: In each case above, simply replace that with who, because the victims and the researcher and the candidate are all people.  See here and here for other examples.

There are circumstances in which I myself am not sure which term to use until I think about it.  For example, "The god who (that?) best represents the sun is Apollo."  Apollo is not a person per se, but I think of him more as a person than as an object, which is why I would use who.


Seven Words that Don't Mean a Lot

1. Incredible

Incredible doesn't mean "a lot," as in "Bhopal suffered incredible devastation."

And incredible doesn't mean "really good," as in "We guarantee you'll get incredible results in four weeks" or "That was an incredible concert."

Incredible means "that which you do not believe," i.e., that which is not credible.

Here's one of my favorite misuses, about Dee Dee Myers, Clinton's outgoing press secretary:

"During her tenure here she did an incredible job."

Update of August 2, 2007: According to NPR reporter David Folkenflik this morning, "Murdoch wants [his recent purchase of] The Wall Street Journal to give incredible credibility to his other media holdings."

And from a breathless fan of some "Star Trek" movie or other:

"The plot line was incredible!"

And from a religious radio broadcast (92.3 FM, Kansas City, Missouri):

"The proof in favor of [the existence of] God is just incredible."

Now, here are some proper uses:

"She didn't know about the videotape of the robbery.  The detectives found her alibi about being at home surfing the Web incredible."

"It wasn't until he got to the part about an elephant flying over the house and landing on his car that his story became incredible."

"At the 297th annual Liar's Contest, held every three years in Plampton, East Virginia, many of the stories were dull, drab and boring but they were all incredible."

FYI, with respect to a pair of related terms, he is incredulous who doesn't believe it, so you would certainly never say, "The crowd agreed the acrobats gave an incredulous performance."

And he is credulous who believes it too easily.

For example, if you tell me that it's best for public safety if all green cars run all red lights, I will be incredulous, i.e., I will not believe you.  If for some reason I did believe you, I would be credulous, i.e., I would be too eager to believe that which is incredible.

2. Literally

In the same way incredibly doesn't mean "a lot," neither does literally.

Literally is properly used in opposition to figuratively or proverbially or metaphorically.  When you use the adverb literally, you're telling the reader to take the term(s) it modifies at face value, i.e., that you don't mean to include any exaggeration or any idioms or any symbolism.  Figuratively and proverbially and metaphorically mean the opposite, that you do mean for at least one term in your sentence to be taken as a figure of speech or as a symbol of something.

Proper uses:

"After I realized I had mistaken hemorrhoid ointment for toothpaste I literally ran to the hospital down the street."

"On January 28, 1986, the rocket carrying the Space Shuttle Challenger literally blew a gasket."

Improper uses:

"That was literally a great concert."

"A standard stud is literally ninety-two and five-eighths inches long.  You have to literally move that handle to the right.  Always shingle literally from the bottom up, so the rainwater will literally drain down."  You probably think I made these up, but I didn't.  Steve, a Habitat for Humanity construction supervisor, said them.

"You've heard the detectives testify that the same brand of giraffe chow was found at both the defendant's house and on the carjacking victim's floorboard.  Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if you're looking for another reason to vote Guilty, that giraffe chow is literally a smoking gun."

"I hadn't eaten anything for the past twelve hours, and I was literally starving to death.  When I took that first bite of watermelon I was literally in heaven."

"The company I worked for was literally throwing millions of dollar out the window every year," spoken by yet another Habitat for Humanity site supervisor, John.  I tried for a minute or so to convince him he didn't understand what "literally" meant, and I failed.

January 28, 2021: Today while surfing the net I stumbled upon a good example of the unnecessary use of "literally."  Here you will find, if you scroll down a bit, the following sentence: "KF literally stands for 'Korean Filter.'"  No one would ever have thought KF stood for anything but literally Korean Filter, yet the author of this article and her editor thought the word literally was necessary, that a reader would wonder whether KF stood for Korean Filter literally or in some figurative or metaphorical way.

(In case you care, seeing as how the Covid-19 pandemic is still fully underway, despite what the failed president Trump said a year ago, and if you believe Salon, the designation of the coveted N95 mask means that NIOSH, which starts with an "N," has approved it and that it keeps out 95% of particulate matter, whereas viruses alone easily pass through.  The designation on the PM2.5 filter, two of which I use in my mask because I really don't want Covid-19, means that the filter keeps out Particulate Matter of size 2.5 microns or larger.  A micron is a millionth of a meter, whereas viruses are on the order of 0.12 microns.)

As I see it, if you're going to go out of your way to use the word literally, you should make sure you really mean it, because it's a powerful word.  To get it wrong is not only to make yourself look ignorant, it sometimes produces a humorous result, which just draws additional attention to your mistake.

"Because of the level of support I have in New Hampshire, I'm literally going to kill the other candidates."

3. Inconceivably

If you thought literally was a powerful word, and you should have, inconceivably is more powerful still.

Here are some examples of inconceivable:

  • "We saw the death camps, and the horror was inconceivable."
  • "Bill Gates is inconceivably rich."
  • "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that justice could be served by this murderer's escaping on a technicality is inconceivable."
  • "That God could (or could not, take your pick) exist is inconceivable."

To understand why these statements are patently false you need to understand what inconceivable means (which Vizzini from The Princess Bride famously didn't).  It certainly doesn't mean merely "a lot," as in the first two examples above; and it doesn't even mean "hard to accept" or "hard to believe" as in the latter two examples.

It means that you literally cannot conceive of the thing, the concept, the idea.  To say that a thing is inconceivable is a most powerful statement, because you can conceive of almost anything.  Conceiving an idea means merely thinking of it, merely imagining it, not necessarily explaining it in all its unlikely details or understanding all its precursors and consequences.

Let's say, just for fun, that in your average life you've jumped off a chair as often as once a year, and let's further say that it took you a total of one second to land.  That means you've spent one part in 31,557,600 (365.25 days X 24 hours X 60 minutes X 60 seconds) parts of your life jumping off chairs.

Now imagine that every human north of the Equator decided to jump off a chair all at the same given second for no particular reason.  Can you picture every single one of us perched on our chairs, getting ready to jump off, all at the same time?

Incidentally, what would the jumps and the landings do to the Earth?  Wouldn't the jumps push the Earth "down," i.e., south, by a detectable amount?  Wouldn't the subsequent landings push the Earth even farther south?  Couldn't we use this method to move us out of the way of huge Earth-crossing asteroids?  If we could, would we want to?

If the population of Earth north of the Equator is a nice round 3 billion then the likelihood all those people will jump off a chair at the same given second is one in 31,557,600 raised to the power of 3 billion.  The denominator of that extraordinary number is equal to roughly

1.8 times (10 raised to the power of 22,497,311,901).         

Thanks go to akprasad (and later Dave L. Renfrow for getting impressively if only slightly closer) for calculating for me the value of 31,557,600 raised to the power of 3 billion, as well as for his or her unsolicited follow-up comments:

"That number is so absurdly large that I have absolutely no way of putting it to you in any kind of terms.  I mean, let's say you can count to 1 million in 1 microsecond, and you count for the age of the universe.  Is our original number still bigger?  Yes, inconceivably [emphasis mine].  How about if you can count to 1 novemdecillion in 1 yoctosecond for 1 vigintillion years (and yes, those are real numbers)?  Still nowhere close.  In fact, insert your own numbers (other than a googolplex) and you still have nothing!"

Now, those are some long odds, dear reader, yet the idea of everyone north of the Equator jumping off a chair at the same time is not only conceivable, it's positively easy to conceive.  Indeed, you just conceived of it yet again.

jumping02.gif (3,476 bytes)

The Kansas City Star,
September 9, 2001

Update of June 2002: Apparently someone else conceived of a similar idea.

Jumping for science        

LONDON -- Seismologists said Saturday that an experiment in which more than 1 million children jumped up and down simultaneously in the hope of triggering an earthquake had produced scarcely a tremor.
     Children at London's Science Museum and at 5,000 schools around Britain jumped up and down for one minute at 11 a.m. Friday.
     Early reports indicated that the jumping had left "measurable traces" on seismometers at the jump sites, organizers said, while the British Geological Survey was investigating a "small trace" in Cornwall.

Contrariwise, it's inconceivable that you don't exist.  It's not inconceivable to me that you don't exist, mind you, but I believe you'll find that it's inconceivable to you that you don't exist.

For a few more examples, it's inconceivable that one plus one doesn't equal two or that time isn't infinite or that actions in the future can affect the present.

For yet another example, it's inconceivable that . . .

Oh, wait, now that I think about it, I'm not sure anything else is inconceivable.  This is a powerful word -- arguably the most powerful, the most all-encompassing -- and it should not be used to mean merely "a lot."  Inconceivable should be used rarely, and only to mean that which is truly incapable of being conceived by the human mind.  We have lots of other words for "a lot."   At least I think we do.

4. Regularly (versus Frequently)

These words are rarely interchangeable, and more often than not the word regularly is the wrong choice.

Regular means "in equal increments."  It does not mean "a lot."

If you see your dentist once every six months, that's regularly.

But if you see her exactly once every ten years, that's no less regular.

And once every ten years is no less regular a schedule than every Tuesday.

Proper use:

"During routine cruising, at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour and at an altitude of around 225 miles, the Space Shuttle regularly passes over the Equator."

Improper uses:

"This car breaks down so regularly, I wish I'd never bought it."

"Post office employees go on shooting rampages so regularly that 'going postal' has become a well-known phrase."

"Indefinitely regularly substitutes for infinitely, and it almost never should."

We should not give up the useful word regularly in order to have yet another synonym for often.

Regularly has few synonyms.  Indeed, I dare you to think of even one.

5. Indefinitely

Indefinitely often substitutes for infinitely, and it almost never should.

Indefinitely means "for a period whose duration is not definite."  It should never mean "forever."  (Yes, I know the dictionary disagrees, but you should not agree with it.)

Infinitely means "a lot"; indefinitely doesn't.

If you declaim, "The nuclear waste will certainly last, for all practical purposes, indefinitely," you probably don't mean that.  You probably mean, "The nuclear waste will last forever."  If you meant what you said, you'd mean that the nuclear waste will last for some unknown period of time, which would include ten million years or ten seconds.

A proper use of indefinitely would be: "We don't know when we can find another used Space Shuttle on eBay, so the project will be put off indefinitely."  Here what is said is what is meant, that it's not yet definite when the project will be re-started, that the duration is indefinite.

As with so many other pairs of confusable words, the point is that if you have a choice of the better word or the worse one, you should always choose the better one.

Why wouldn't you?  If there's a chance of confusing your reader or listener, why take the risk?  Why make your reader guess?

More important, especially if you're trying to make a point, why would you allow your reader to guess?

Another reason to use the right word is that by not doing so, by spreading the legitimization of the wrong word, you encourage others to communicate less effectively to you.

You should always want to communicate effectively, and you should always want others to communicate effectively to you.  I literally cannot imagine when you wouldn't.  I cannot conceive of a situation where you wouldn't.  Can you?

Also, you should want to be able to recognize it when other people might be using the wrong word.  By recognizing that possibility you lessen the likelihood you'll be fooled by a politician or a pastor or a policeman or a prosecuting attorney, or anyone with whom you're debating a topic in order to get closer to the truth.

6. Enormity

As a noun enormity, no matter what any dictionary says, means "an act of extraordinary evil."  It doesn't, or at least shouldn't, mean "a lot."

Enormity should be reserved for its narrower use, because there are lots of synonyms for "a lot" but not many for enormity.

Proper use:

"In the 20th century the enormity of Hitler's murder of six million European Jews is surpassed only by Stalin's purge of twenty million of his fellow Russians."

Equally proper use:

"The enormity of the rape of the nun has stunned this small town."

Improper use:

"You will feel a certain sense of peace and well-being the first time you gaze at the enormity of the Montana sky."

7. Massive

Massive refers to mass, i.e., physical stuff that gravity can pull on.  Massive doesn't mean merely "a lot."

You can predict that a massive asteroid will crash into Earth next Wednesday, but you shouldn't say that there will be massive interest in the subject between now and then.  Interest in the subject is not quantifiable in terms of mass or even massiveness, and there are plenty of other, more accurate adjectives you can use.

Why deprive massive of its special meaning?  Why deprive us speakers of English of any word's special meaning, especially if a better word is available, and even more especially if many better words are available?

Equally improper uses: massive debt, massive psychological problems, massive political pressure, massive criminal enterprise, massive low-pressure weather system.

Speaking of the proper uses of mass, don't confuse weight and mass.  A physical object, whether it's an electron or a helium balloon or a diamond or a car, always has mass.  Whether it has weight depends on how much net gravity is pulling on it.  For example, an object that you toss into the air is weightless near the top of the arc.  As I believe Isaac Asimov said, and I will paraphrase him badly here because I don't have the quote in front of me, "The Space Station has no weight, but you'd know it had mass if it bumped up against an asteroid with your finger in between."

Experiment.  Speaking of which, here's an experiment you can perform if you have a car.  You know how when you make a right turn in your car your body moves left or how when you hit the brakes your body moves forward, relative to the car?  Sure you do.

Now, what about a helium balloon suspended in your car?

Here's how to find out.  Roll up all the windows in your car and turn off the air conditioning.  Then drive somewhere and buy a helium balloon on a string and get back in the car.

Drive straight and level for a while at more than, say, 20 mph, and then grab hold of the string and anchor your hand in such a way that the balloon is suspended in mid-car and not touching anything, and take a look at it.  If you've shut off all the wind currents and if the balloon isn't touching anything, it will behave as you expect, i.e., it will fly straight up.  So far so good.

But now make a sharp right turn.  If you do so without warning yourself, your own body, which is a massive object, will move left relative to the new direction of the car (unless you strive against the pull of inertia using your muscles), according to Newton's first law.  That law says that a massive object moving along a certain line at a certain speed (a vector) will continue moving along that vector unless some force acts on it.  In the case of your turning the steering wheel of the car, your body, which is not tied down tight to the car, continues straight ahead while the car turns right.  As long as the car turns right, inertia will try to propel you yourself in the forward direction at that moment, while the tires of your car force the car itself to the right of the direction your body is moving.

You have become so used to this phenomenon that when you turn right you automatically lean right as well, to counteract the forward push of momentum on your body.

Similarly, when you hit the accelerator you automatically lean forward to counteract the relative backward force of acceleration, and when you hit the brake you automatically lean backwards.  You might not know it, but you do.  For that matter, you already know how to do this automatic weight-shifting from riding a bicycle, where if you didn't react to the change in the vector of inertia you'd certainly crash.

If you don't believe me about how automatic this reaction is, just try to ride a bicycle at speed without leaning in the direction you turn the handlebars.  You'll find that you almost literally can't, no matter how much padding you're wearing, because you "know" it'll make you crash, even if you don't understand anything about Newton's First Law.

Anyway, hold that helium balloon by its string so that it's free to move about in your windless car interior and watch what happens when you turn right.  If it's a massive object like your own body, which it is, it should move left relative to the car, like everything else that's loose, shouldn't it?  If you hit the brakes, it should move forward, shouldn't it? 

Once you have seen what it does, think about why, then go here if you want.

Incidentally, did you know that every massive object in the universe exerts a gravitational pull on every other object?  You understand that our massive sun exerts a gravitational pull on satellites near it such as Earth and Pluto, of course, but did you know that each and every molecule of water in your body exerts a gravitational pull on atoms of, say, iron at the farthest edge of the universe, and that those atoms of iron pull on you?  It's true.  If it's got mass, it gravitationally pulls on anything else that's got mass, no matter how small and no matter how far away.  So, why doesn't everything collapse into a big ball?  Go ask the theoretical astrophysicists who believe in the Big Bang theory, which is this:

On January 1st awhile back -- a Monday, I think -- everything that would become the entire universe was about the size of an extremely small billiard ball, and it was almost inconceivably massive.  It began expanding at a moment called the Big Bang, and it's been doing so ever since, some 14 billion years ago now.  Everything is flying away from everything else through space.  I have a lot of questions about all that.  I believe it, but I still have a lot of questions.

Anyway, the seven words above -- incredibly, literally, inconceivably, regularly, indefinitely, enormity and massive -- don't mean a lot.


Relevant is a serious-sounding buzzword, so don't be fooled by anyone who uses it improperly.

-- Relevant doesn't mean anything unless it's followed by "to."

If you hear, "The points brought out were relevant," you have a right to wonder what the points were relevant to.  Unless relevant is eventually followed by a reference to what the points are relevant to, then the term has no extrinsic meaning.  Thus, not only should you ignore it but you should also question whether the speaker or writer is trying to fool you.

Here's a proper use: "Most of the members made arguments that weren't relevant to the proposed motion."

-- And relevant certainly doesn't mean "good."

If you hear, "We've studied all the candidates on your behalf, and we feel Bob's positions are the most relevant," watch out.  Not only is the speaker asking you to forgive him for using relevant without a reference to what it's relevant to, he's also hoping you'll be fooled into believing that relevant somehow means good as opposed to neutral or bad.

Proper use: "The acts of the KKK are relevant to the history of racism in this country."

Similarly, of course, irrelevant doesn't mean "bad."

Feel versus Think

I have two points to make about this pair of words.  First, you shouldn't use feel when you mean think.  Second, if you do mean feel, you should examine the circumstances to determine whether your feelings are of any use in making a decision.

To take the second point first, here are two improper uses of feelings.

  • "I know what my compass says, but I still feel that the cabin is that way." 

    If you're lost in the woods, it doesn't matter which way you feel the cabin is.  

  • "Fellow jurors, even after sifting through the evidence I still feel Bob is guilty of the crime."

    Whether Bob is found guilty should not be a matter of how a juror feels, it should be a matter of what he thinks.  If you're a juror, just because you have a gut feeling or a sense or an intuition that Bob's guilty should not mean a thing.  If your vote is based even in the smallest part on a feeling, you've violated your oath as a juror, you've violated the judge's specific instructions, and you might convict an innocent defendant.  Or you might set a guilty defendant free.  If you were an innocent defendant charged with a crime so serious that if convicted you would go to prison for many years, would you want even one juror who votes Guilty because that juror feels you did it?  For that matter, wouldn't you want that if you were a guilty defendant?

Proper uses:

  • "I feel that you are my soul-mate."
  • "I feel hatred toward all Martians."
  • "I feel contented in your presence."
  • "I feel your leg."

To take the first point second, here is an improper use:

"I disagree.  Since there's no way to wash our hands out here and we don't have any gloves, I feel we should eat our nachos first, then ted the fresh bat manure."

Clearly the speaker's decision is based on reasoning, on thinking, not any sort of feeling whatsoever.  He doesn't feel they should eat first, he thinks it.

If we use feel to mean think we lose the distinction between them.  If feel comes to mean nothing different from think, then what words are left to express the original meaning of feel?

Now, that's not to say there are no circumstances in which both feeling and thinking are useful in making a decision.  In deciding whether to pursue a potential soul-mate it is reasonable to assess the situation with respect to both emotion (I am deeply infatuated with her) and logic (she lives an hour away, and she's clinically insane).


Viable means "capable of sustaining life."  It doesn't mean "true" or "valuable" or "right."

Proper uses:

"Even after an hour of exposure to the X-rays, the viruses were still viable."

"The nests were decimated by the storm, but most of the condor eggs are viable."

You can even say:

"According to a majority of people surveyed, despite the revelations regarding the candidate's unusual perversion, his campaign is still viable."

But you can't say:

"According to a majority of people surveyed, the candidate's comments explaining his positions on abortion and stem-cell research were viable."

Not Whether or Not

Whether is a good, sturdy word, and it rarely needs any help from or not.

Improper uses: "I can't decide whether or not to go to the store."  "She didn't know whether to enter the monastery or not."   "They couldn't determine whether the bonobo left any fingerprints or not on the murder weapon."

You'll see that in each of the uses above the or not can be deleted without changing the meaning, and so should be.  Whether already includes the idea of "or not."

It must be noted that certain constructions, much rarer than the type above, do require that whether be followed by or not in order to sound idiomatic.  For example, you'd say, "Twelve people declared O.J. Simpson not guilty, whether he really did it or not."

Whether Not If

Whether is a good sturdy word, and if isn't.

Improper uses: "I can't decide if I should go to the store." "She didn't know if she should enter the monastery."  "They couldn't determine if the bonobo left any fingerprints."

In each case above the word if should be replaced by whether, because if has a separate, special meaning that should be preserved.

Any time whether sounds at least as right as if, use whetherWhether refers to the existence or non-existence of a condition; it's binary.

If, on the other hand, should be used only to assume a condition to be true.  In "I can't decide if I should vote," what you're literally saying is, "Assuming that I should vote, then it's true that I can't decide."  If refers to a hypothetical situation, e.g., "If I enter the monastery I'll have to give up my gravel-yaking" or "I'll get that job if only my stars are aligned right."

It's common to combine both whether errors: "I can't decide if I should bathe the tops of the giraffes today or not."

And every once in a while you'll hear a veritable shebang of errors at the same time: "I can't decide if or not I should vote for Bob, who represents exactly half of my fanatic views, or if I should or shouldn't, you know, vote against him or not."


"Last Tuesday 10,000 Latinos cast ballots in Springfield.  That represents 35% of total voter turnout."

"My stock portfolio rose 2 percent, which represents an increase in market value of ten dollars."

Nope.  The 10,000 Latinos didn't represent 35% of total voter turnout, they were 35% of it.  There was no representing going on as the 10,000 Latinos voted.

And the 2 percent increase doesn't represent ten dollars, it is ten dollars.

What's wrong with, "My stock portfolio rose 2 percent, which is an increase in market value of ten dollars"?

In this excerpt from an article in The Kansas City Star of April 15, 2003, the word represented is used correctly in the last sentence, and it is used incorrectly in the sentence before that.

represent.jpg (15,808 bytes) 04172003 The settlement amount, $100,000 for the loss of vision in the plaintiff's right eye, did not represent the defendant's insurance policy limits, it was the policy limits.

For a similar story go here.

I say, why use a big, wrong word when a small, right one will do?

Here's why: Because if you use a big word, even if you use it wrong, you might fool enough people into thinking you're smarter, wiser, and altogether abler than you really are.

So, when you're listening to talking heads or interviewees on TV and radio such as politicians and academics and pretend-experts and corporate spokesmen, watch out for people who use lots of big words for no apparent reason.  The stupid ones are merely parroting words and phrases they've become enamored of.

But the smart ones might be actively trying to fool you.  And they're the ones to watch out for.  George Orwell said it better:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.   When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.

Below I rant pedantically about few more peeves, ones I added starting in November of 2016.  I take it as given that you never want to add words that subtract from your meaning, and below is a list of words that do just that.  They are words that are used a lot, especially in speech as opposed to writing, and almost never should be.

The seven fff words below are different from "um" and "er," because "um" and "er" have no meaning.  They are mere placeholders speakers use to indicate they're thinking about just the right next word or phrase or idea.  We recognize that "er" and "uh" are not words per se whose only meaning is "Wait a sec."  They are more mere sounds than words.

Not so with "so" and "actually" and so on.  The word "so" has a meaning, and we shouldn't allow it to evanesce.


The word "so" has begun to begin a lot of people's speech, and 99% of the time for no reason.  Well, not for no reason, but for a bad reason.

My favorite example so far arose when I opened the door to a cable installer in maybe 2012 who had rung the bell at precisely 10:00.  I said, "I'm Johnny."  His response was as follows:

"So, I'm Chris."

The word "so" in Chris's answer simply makes no sense.  The word "so" specifically and always implies that what follows is a result of the foregoing.  In this case his initial "so" implied that he is named Chris because I am named Johnny.

Here are some examples of correct usage:

  --  "I am allergic to shellfish, so I'll order the chicken, not the shrimp."

  --  "Donald Trump really is the president-elect, so I am afraid for the future of the world."

  --  "There's no adequate evidence of any miracles, so I conclude God doesn't exist."

(Or maybe it would have been "So I'm Chris," without the comma.)

Some people start answers to questions with "so" so as to imply some sort of inside knowledge they hope you will respect them for, even if they never state why they know it and you don't.  "What is the CIA up to nowadays in Iran?"  "So, fff bad example


As with so many other of these words I care about and you should, if we allow "so" to get mooshed out to where it is merely an introductory noise such as um and er, we lose a valuable word that can be replaced only by a series of words such as "as a result" or "because of the foregoing."  That latter example is 21 letters long whereas "so" is two.  "So" is clearly more efficient, but not if it loses its original meaning through pointless and greedy overuse.

In 2018 and 2019 I volunteered some of my time to being a teacher's helper at various schools in the Olathe School District.  In one class was a darling child who clearly needed help because of some sort of learning disability.  Originally I was assigned to him but after a while he was assigned to a specialist because of his inability to keep up intellectually with the other kids in his class.  Anyway, one time when I had him and a few other kids he began each sentence with "So."  I finally pointed out to him that starting all his sentences with "So" made no sense, and I tried to explain why.  He said he agreed with my reasoning (although I don't think he understood it), and he said he would stop starting each sentence with "So."  But what he said was, "So, I'll stop using 'So.'"  I snickered at him, and so did a couple of the other kids, and he snickered at himself.  His very next sentence was, "So, I'll try harder."

Almost certainly this poor child has heard too many people start sentences pointlessly with "So," and now he finds it almost completely automatic to do so.  So do many, many other people, but now that you've read this you won't be among them..

Oh, and by the way, the use of "so" pointlessly is not ameliorated at all by the addition of the word and.  "And so, I'll try harder" is no different.


You hear the words actual and actually a lot more than you might think, and their use is almost never called for.

From a TV episode of Ask This Old House that aired July 15, 2009, spoken by Tommy Silva, who really likes the word: "Now the lazy susan actually mounts to the back of the cabinet and I actually have to mount half of this bracket right here, which is actually a hinge, to the back of the cabinet."  A few moments later he said, "This is actually stainless steel, and this is actually a lacquered finish."  Needless to say each and every use of "actually" was both unnecessary and confusing.  I mean, it's not like we had been led to believe that what turned out to be stainless steel was solid gold or Play-Doh.  The words "actual" and "actually" are for him an oral crutch, and I doubt he would use the term so often in any writing he does.

The host of this show, Kevin O'Connor, starts many sentences with "So" and often manages to work in an "actually" within a few words.  "So, I actually think it's time for the next segment."  Speaking these words "so" and "actually" makes him happier.  Speaking these words makes him more confident in the meaningful words he does speak.  They shouldn't.

In the form of a heavily edited letter I sent back in 2008 to Chris Kimball, head and star of a cooking show I enjoyed, I complain about his on-air use of these two words.

. . . returning to the television show, I wish to complain about something that bugs me.  It has to do with your overuse of the words “actually” and “actual.”  Those terms, unlike “um” and “er,” have meaning.

If I may, here are three proper uses.

---- “The piece of lumber called a ‘2 by 4' is actually 1.5 by 3.5 inches.”  Here it comes as a surprise that the name is wrong, so the word “actually” makes sense; it confirms for the listeners that they should be surprised.

---- “The number of U.S. states at least partly north of Canada’s southernmost point is actually more than half of them.”  Here the word “actually” helps the listener to realize he heard right.

---- “The U.S. Constitution is on display at the Capitol Building, but the actual document is stored under the mattress in the Lincoln Bedroom.”  Here you can see that the sentence wouldn’t be as clear or as natural-sounding without the word “actual.”

Here’s one improper use from two days ago, elicited by me from a clerk in a grocery.  I said, “Hi, where can I find cocoa powder?”  She said, and I’m not kidding, “That’s actually in Aisle 4.”  Now, I ask you, Mr. Kimball, what did the word “actually” add to my understanding?  The answer is that it actually confused me a bit, because I thought maybe the cocoa powder recently changed aisles or that there was some other surprising explanation.

I think that some people who use “actually” in this way are somehow – maybe just a little and mostly subconsciously – generating in themselves the notion that they have special, secret knowledge that they’re letting you in on.

To repeat, the terms “actual” and “actually” have meaning.  Furthermore – and this is important – it is a meaning that rarely needs to be communicated.

Using more verbatim examples from the show, the loin of the cow and "the actual loin of the cow" are the same thing.  The heat of the pan and "the actual heat of the pan" are the same thing.  Simmering and "actually simmering" are the same thing.  Minced onions and "actual minced onions" are the same thing, Mr. Kimball, unless you’re somehow cooking with virtual or proverbial minced onions.  You should probably never again use the terms “actual” or “actually” until you’ve stopped to ask yourself in each case whether it’s necessary, whether what you’re saying is unexpected or surprising or hard to believe.

Here from your “Spaghetti House Favorites” episode are four examples.

“It crushes [the cell membranes] so you get more, actually more, flavor.  Actually this Zyliss [garlic] press you can actually leave some of that paper skin on.  You will actually leave the paper skin in the chamber.”

Here are another four in a row, from your “Shrimp Two Ways” episode.  “Some people would prefer that it [tuna fish] actually was never related to a fish that actually swam in the sea.  And other people who actually like the fact that it might taste like a fish.  We’re going to see if my tastes actually line up here in the tasting lab.”

More flavor is the same thing as actually more flavor.  Swimming in the sea is the same as actually swimming in the sea.

Try speaking the sentences above without any of the bold-faced words and ask yourself which are necessary.  I think you’ll find the answer is zero.

I’m pretty sure the overuse of “actual” and “actually” has become a verbal tic for you, Mr. Kimball, that you never stop to ask yourself whether they’re necessary, just like “um” and “er.”  Fortunately, you’re an intelligent human being who wants to get it right, so you can learn to do better now that you know.  Just for fun, start right now – the very next time you speak – checking yourself to see how often in your life, whether on-camera or off, you say, “actually.”

Despite my sincere attempt to improve Chris Kimball's on-air, and off-air, speech, I never heard a word in response.

I Mean

Here's a rule that always makes sense.  You can't start with "I mean."

I remember one time at a homeowners' association meeting when the chairman asked whether anyone had new business.  A board director named Jerry who hadn't spoken at all till then raised his hand and the chairman recognized him and Jerry said, and I quote, "I mean, there's a problem with . . . "

He started with "I mean," and I had to throttle a chortle.  You can't start with "I mean."  It makes no sense.  "I mean" plainly implies that you're explaining something you said or wrote before, that you're explaining what you meant by what you just said.

Here are three proper uses of "I mean."

  -- "The universe is curved.  I mean with respect to time, not distance."

  -- "Donald Trump is obviously unqualified to be a president.  I mean of the United States, not necessarily of his companies."

  -- "Miracles don't occur.  I mean not now and not ever in the past."

In each example above I started with a statement and then I explained that statement by adding information about what I meant.  You can argue that I should have included the additional information in the original statement ("The universe is curved with respect to time, not distance"), but you can't argue that the "I mean" phrase is nonsensical.

Here are some examples of nonsensical "I means" in response to the question "Why did you vote for Donald Trump?"

  -- "I mean, he is a bigoted moron just as I am."

  -- "I mean, he's a pathological liar but I believe him anyways."

  -- He is a world-class asshole.  I mean, I voted for him."

The list above could go on for many more items, but I will stop here.  You get my point that "I mean" must follow something you just said and that what follows your "I mean" must explain what it is you just said.

In Terms Of

The phrase "in terms of" is almost always used unnecessarily and incorrectly.  Here are a few correct usages.

-- From a friend (Hi, KJ) who for many years supplied Lenexa with water to repair repairs, when asked how many feet of hose he owned, "It's in terms of miles, not feet."

-- In terms of the age of the universe, homo sapiens has existed .0001% of that time.  In terms of the age of our planet Earth homo sapiens has existed 0.0005% of that time.

-- To win the presidency, the House, the Senate and the Supreme Court is, in baseball terms, a four-bagger.

Now here are some incorrect usages.

Rachel Maddow speaks extemporaneously remarkably well on her daily one-hour TV show, which I recommend you watch.  I mean she speaks in complete sentences that are grammatically correct even when they detour off into many clauses, and that is admirable.  That makes it easier to follow what she's saying.  But she does use "in terms of" a lot and almost never correctly.

-- "In terms of security breaches, is Trump trustworthy?"

-- "How will this change from the old uniforms to pink tutus for all females aboard submarines affect the U.S. Navy in terms of morale?"

-- "Are Trump's connections to Russia, in terms of his sprint toward impeachment, going to make a difference?"

The phrase "in terms of" is used almost exclusively as a substitute for a phrase that is better cast.

Here are the three poor uses of "in terms of" above cast in language that says what is presumably meant.

-- "When it comes to security breaches, is Trump trustworthy?"

-- "How will this change from the old uniforms to pink tutus for all females aboard submarines affect the U.S. Navy's morale?"

-- "Are Trump's connections to Russia going to make a difference to his sprint toward impeachment?"

Instead of thinking through what is really meant, the user of "in terms of" is just blather that the speaker hopes the listener will interpret not only correctly but well.  Using "in terms of" when a better way to express yourself is just laziness.


For some reason I suspect I know, the word issue has come to replace the word problem, and it shouldn't.  Inventing examples of the improper use of "issue" is easy.

"I don't know whether the issue with my car is electrical."  "The issue with that code is that you're dividing by zero."  Or, as one customer at a concession stand said after a long pause when I told him I didn't have any beer and couldn't take cash, "You have issues."  Because he was a customer whose money was going to help the Kansas City affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, I snickered silently rather than out loud.

I have even heard more than one person say, "That's the issue or problem."  And I once heard a guy on a YouTube video say, I swear, "Keep trying so the issue doesn't become a problem."  Apparently he thinks an issue is a nascent problem.  He didn't, but he might as well have said, "Keep trying so the problem doesn't become an issue."

At left is a screen shot, in that I pointed the camera of my phone at my paused television screen, of a statement by a character in VEEP (Season 4, Episode 6) that proves the writers do (or don't) know the difference between the two words.

An op-ed writer once wrote an article on the misuse of the word issue, saying exactly what I've said about it but more scholarlily.  (If you can identify that column, please let me know, and I'll give you credit here if you want.)

An issue is a topic subject to debate.  Abortion, gun control and health coverage are issues.  An issue is a subject that's open to discussion among reasonable people of differing views.  Whether Donald Trump is a good president, whether the God of the Christian bible exists, and whether boxing should be permitted are issues.

I suspect the reason people so often use the word issue rather than the word problem is that "issue" seems somehow less offensive.  Like that guy who told me, "You have issues," he would have felt he was being too straightforward, too in-my-face, if he had said, "You have problems."


Just in the last year (as of June 2017) or so I've been hearing a lot more people using the word existential, and not one of those times was it used correctly.  It's hard to tell from the context, but my guess is that at least some of these people think "existential" means the same as "external."  An example: "Yes, we face threats from home-grown terrorists, but the existential threats are more damaging."  (Actually, if existential did mean external, the opposite is true.)

To use the term existential means, or at least should mean, that you can recite a reasonable definition for it.  That's an obvious result of my long-time rule that says, "Don't use words whose meanings you don't know."  The main purpose of that rule is to ensure that you communicate as well as possible, and another purpose is to avoid embarrassing yourself.

"You refer to existential threats.  What do you mean by existential?

"Well, I mean threats from outside the country."

"But that's not what existential means."


If too many people use "existential" for "external" we will to that extent lose the irreplaceable and occasionally useful word existential.  Subtracting from a language's inventory of useful distinctions is never good.

English is such a valuable language in part because it has so very many words, with so very many fine distinctions.  Pure synonyms are rare.  Users of English can communicate so efficiently and so precisely because we have such a cornucopia of words to choose from to say exactly what we want to say.  We should never throw away a perfectly good word by using it incorrectly, especially when it has few or no synonyms, and especially especially when better choices are available anyway.

As Far As

"As far as" is a useful phrase that we should not give up on through misuse.  The way to keep it alive and well is to finish it.

Here are several examples of its misuse.  "That bill sucks as far as middle-class citizens."  "The evidence in this triple-murder case is incontrovertible as far as the the second defendant."  "As far as Donald Trump, he's not only the worst president in this country's history, he locked in first place, forever one hopes, within his first year."

If you use "as far as," at some point you must finish the phrase, often with the moiety "is concerned."  The three mistaken sentences can be corrected by finishing the phrase.  "That bill sucks as far as middle-class citizens are concerned."  "The evidence in this triple-murder case is incontrovertible as far as the the second defendant is concerned."  "As far as Donald Trump is concerned, he's not only the worst president in this country's history, he locked in first place, forever one hopes, within his first year."

Listen to others speak and, as soon as you hear "as far as," listen for whether the phrase is finished.

Where and When

These are pretty simple concepts.  It's easy to distinguish between location and time.  I imagine even pre-literate children can do it. Yet you wouldn't think so based on the extraordinary number of mistakes adults make with respect the simple words where and when.

Let me give you an emailed example I received today, April 30, 2020, from a financial advisor I trust whose mastery of English is better than most:

"First, note the three downward bars in red which represent the three days where the markets experienced a mandatory intra-day stop due to significant price declines."

The author surely meant "the three days when," yet for some mistaken reason he said, "the three days where."

The difference between location (where) and time (when) in this case is plain because of the author's use of the term "three days."  "Three days" cannot shout out louder that "when" is called for, not "where," yet he got it wrong.  I don't understand this.  I don't understand how, when you know the distinction between time and place, which this author surely does, you would mix them up.

This sort of mistake -- using "where" when "when" is clearly right -- is sometimes forgivable.

Or should I have said, "This sort of mistake -- using "where" where "when" is clearly right -- is sometimes forgivable"?  I admit that in some cases it's not evident which word -- when or where -- is better.  But I'm not discussing those cases; I'm discussing those cases, such as the example above, where it is clear.  Or should I have said, ". . . when it is clear"?

With versus Against

What's wrong with these two statements?

-- "The United States went to war with the Nazis."

-- "The United States engaged in numerous battles with the Nazis."  

As the title of this section suggests, what's wrong is the use of "with" rather than the proper word "against."  The U.S. went to war with the British against the Nazis.  The U.S. engaged in numerous battles with Russia against the Nazis.  (Did you know Russia started World War II as a member of the Axis, not the Allies?)

This one is simple yet it's gotten wrong as often as not.  Now that you've read this section you will start to recognize, if you hadn't already, incorrect uses of "with" that should be "against."

And surely you will never make this mistake because, as I say, it's simple.  If you are engaged in some sort of contest, whether it's a World War or a pub quiz, you're battling with your teammates against your opponents.




Peeve: Emergency situation, Shower activity

Peeve: ???

DONE Delete "Words --- page 2" from html

DONE Regularize size of color bar (right now 400 by 9 pixels)

DONE Figure out sansserifsmall.  I simply deleted them all.

DONE Expand on "For a different take."  For instance, sentences ending in prepositions.  Contrast stupid rules versus useful ones.

Search out all references to words1.htm and words2.htm.


Other Web pages around here, in case you care, relate a few more of my rants about English:

Unnecessary quotes  |  Unnecessary apostrophes  |  Unnecessary ELLIPSES, etc.  |  Unnecessary slashes  |  Systems  |  

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