The Greeks Had a Word For It

Forbears of EnglishAs described in more detail elsewhere, English has three main ancestors: Old German (including Saxon, Angle, and old Danish from Jutland), Old Norman French (including influences of the Norsemen) and Church Latin.

Our vocabulary for ideas, thoughts and abstractions comes mainly from Latin. Though it gave us directly only about 20% of the words we use day-to-day, Latin was the only written language in use before the renaissance, and it was the language of both faith and scholarship.

The story does not end there, however. Latin, in turn, was an evolution from a mixture of other dialects and languages, including a large helping from ancient Greece.

Coverage map of Hellenistic GreekFrom around 600 BC until 100 AD (from the era of Alexander the Great through the events of the New Testament) Greek was a common tongue for much of the Mediterranean. It was used in Egypt and the Holy Land, and had been exported to Italy and farther west to Southern France.

Why does this matter? It matters because a large budget of words in English are made up of Greek words, especially those terms used to describe ideas and concepts. People in most jobs may never need to use (or understand) the word “anthropomorphism,” for example. But if you go to college, rest assured that it will come up. If you know a little Greek, the word is not mysterious at all. “Anthropos” means “man” — as in mankind — and then “–morph” is a combining term meaning “having the shape of.” The “–ism” particle is, as you probably know, a flag for a belief system, practice or method of thinking. So this word means the practice of attributing human-like qualities to non-human entities, whether gods, animals or inanimate objects.

It’s fair to assume that you will not be learning Greek, especially ancient or New Testament Greek, any time soon. So the second best solution is to learn the meanings of these Greek-origin combination forms found so often in educated English writing. These are word particles that the Romans found useful to incorporate into Latin, and now, a couple of millennia later, they appear in English. They are called “morphemes,” and the study of them is one of the three areas embraced within the general heading of “grammar.” Here I’ve included them under “Vocabulary.”

What follows is a table of 95 morphemes that come to us from Greek, together with their meanings and examples of English words that contain them. The Greek word is also given, in the Greek alphabet (which you would do well to learn) and in our alphabet (called the Latin alphabet). If you master these morphemes, you will have the key to thousands of English terms. The table is paginated in groups of 20.

Greek Morphemes

 MeaningExampleIn English Usage
acr-height, summit, tipἄκρος (ákros) "high", "extreme"acrobatics, acrophobia, acropolis
aero-air, atmosphereἀήρ, ἀέρος (āḗr, āéros) "air"aerobic, aerodynamic, aeronautics, aerosol
aesth-feeling, sensationαἰσθάνεσθαι ( aisthánesthai ) "to perceive"aesthetics, anaesthetic
aether-, ether-upper pure, bright airαἴθειν ( aíthein ), αἰθήρ ( aithḗr )ether, ethereal
alg- painἄλγος ( álgos ), ἀλγεινός, ἀλγεῖν ( algeîn ), ἄλγησις ( álgēsis )analgesic, neuralgia, nostalgia
amph-, amphi-both, on both sides of, both kindsἀμφί (amphí) "on both sides"amphibious, amphitheatre
an-, a-, am-, ar-not, withoutἀν-/ἀ- "not"ambrosia, anaerobic, anhydrous, atheism, atypical
anem-windἄνεμος (ánemos)anemometer, anemone
ant-, anti- against, opposed to, preventiveἀντί (antí) "against"antagonize, antibiotic, antipodes
anthrop-humanἄνθρωπος (ánthrōpos) "man"anthropology, misanthrope, philanthropy
archae-, arche-ancientἀρχαῖος ( arkhaîos ) "ancient" from ἀρχή ( arkhḗ ) "rule"archaeology, archaic
arct-Relating to the North Poleἄρκτος (árktos) "bear" (Ursa Major), ἀρκτικός (arktikós)Antarctica, Arctic Ocean
aster-, astr-star, star-shapedἄστρον ( ástron ) "star"aster, asterisk, asteroid, astrology, astronomy, astronaut
aut-, auto-self; directed from withinαὐτός (autós) "self", "same"autarchy, authentic, autism, autocracy, autograph, automatic, autonomy
bapt- dipβάπτειν (báptein)baptism, baptize
bio-, bi-lifeβίος ( bíos ) "life"biography, biohazard, biology
botan-plantβοτάνη, βότανον (botánē, bótanon)botanist, botany
cardi-heartκαρδιά (kardía)cardiac, cardiology, electrocardiogram
caust-, caut-burnκαυστός/καυτός (kaustós)calm, caustic, cauterize, holocaust
chore-relating to danceχορεία ( khoreia ) "dancing in unison"choreography, chorus
chrom-colorχρῶμα (chrōma)chromatic, chrome, chromosome, monochrome
chron-timeχρόνος (chronos)anachronism, chronic, chronicle, chronology, chronometer, synchronize
-cracy, -cratgovernment, rule, authorityκράτος (krάtos), κρατία (kratía)aristocracy, autocrat, bureaucracy, democrat, plutocracy, technocrat, theocracy
crypt-hiddenκρύπτειν ( kruptein ) "to hide"apocryphal, cryptic, cryptography
dec-tenδέκα ( déka ) "ten"decade, Decalogue, decathlon
dem-peopleδῆμος (dēmos)demagogue, democracy, demography, epidemic
di-twoδι- ( di- )diode, dipole
dia-apart, throughδιά (diá)diagram, dialysis, diameter
dyna-powerδύναμις (dúnamai)dynamic, dynamite, dynamo, dynasty
ec-outἐκ (ek)eccentric, ecstasy, ecstatic
eco-houseοἶκος (oikos)ecology, economics, ecumenism
ep-, epi-above, upon, outerἐπί (epi)epicenter, epidemic, epitaph, epiphany
ethn-people, race, tribe, nationἔθνος (ethnos)ethnic, ethnicity
eu-well, goodεὖ (eu)euphoria, euthanasia, eulogy
ger-oldγέρων, γέροντος (gérōn, gérontos)geriatric, gerontocracy
gloss-, glot-tongueγλῶσσα (glóssa), γλωττίς (glōttís)epiglottis, gloss, glossary, polyglot
glyph-carveγλύφειν (glúphein)glyph, glyptograph, petroglyph
graph-draw, writeγράφειν ( gráphein )autograph, graph, graphic, graphite, holograph, monograph, orthography, paragraph, photograph, telegraphy
gymn-nudeγυμνός (gumnós)gymnasium, gymnastics
hemi-halfἥμισυς (hēmisus)hemicycle, hemisphere
heter-different, otherἕτερος (heteros)heterodoxy, heterogeneous, heterosexual
hol-wholeὅλος (holos)holistic, holography
hom-sameὁμός (homos)homogeneous, homophone, homonym, homosexual
hydr-waterὕδωρ (hudōr)dehydrate, hydrant, hydraulic, hydrogen, hydrolysis, hydrophily, hydrophobia, hydrous
hyp-underὑπό (hupo)hypoallergenic, hypodermic, hypothermia
hyper-above, overὑπέρ (huper)hyperactive, hyperbole
hypn-sleepὕπνος (hupnos)hypnosis, hypnotize
idi-own, peculiarityἴδιος (ídios), "private, personal, one's own"idiom, idiosyncrasy, idiot
is-, iso-equal, sameἴσος (ísos)isometric, isomorphic, isosceles
kine-, cine-movement, motionκινεῖν ( kineîn ), κίνησις ( kínēsis ), κίνημα ( kínēma )cinema, kinesthetic, kinetic, telekinesis
klept-stealκλέπτειν ( kléptein)kleptomania, kleptocracy
lith-stoneλίθος (lithos)megalith, Mesolithic, monolith, Neolithic
log-, -logyword, reason, speech, thoughtλόγος ( logos ), λογία ( logia )apology, dialogue, etymology, eulogy, logic, monologue, neologism, prologue, terminology, theology
macro-longμακρός (makrós)macrobiotic, macroeconomics, macron
maniamental illness, crazinessμανία (manίā)kleptomania, mania, maniac, pyromania
meta-above, among, beyondμετά (metá)metabolism, metamorphosis, metaphor, metaphysics, meteor, method
meter-, metr-measureμέτρον (métron)barometer, diameter, isometric, meter, metronome, parameter, perimeter, symmetric, telemetry, thermometer
micro-smallμικρός (mikrós)microcosm, microeconomics, micrometer, microphone, microscope
mim-repeatμιμεῖσθαι ( mīmeîsthai ), μίμος ( mimos )mime, mimeograph, mimic, pantomime
mis-hateμισεῖν ( miseîn )misanthrope, misogynist, misotheism
mne-memoryμνήμη (mnēmē)amnesia, amnesty, mnemonic
mon-alone, oneμόνος (mónos)monarchy, monastery, monolith, monopoly, monotone
mor-foolish, dullμωρός (mōrós)moron, oxymoron, sophomore
morph-form, shapeμορφή (morphē)amorphous, anthropomorphism, endomorph, metamorphosis, morpheme, morphology, polymorphic
myth-storyμῦθος (mûthos)myth, mythic, mythology
narc-numbνάρκη (narkē)narcolepsy, narcosis, narcotic
naut-shipναύτης ( nautes )astronaut, nautical
ne-, neo-newνέος (neos)Neolithic, neologism, neonate, neophyte
necr-deadνεκρός (nekros)necrophobia, necrotic
nom-arrangement, law, orderνόμος (nomos)astronomy, autonomous, gastronomy, metronome, numismatic, polynomial, taxonomy
-oidlike-οειδής (-oeidēs)asteroid, humanoid, organoid
olig-fewὀλίγος ( oligos )oligarchy, oligopoly
pan-allπᾶς, παντός (pas, pantos)Pan-American, panacea, pandemic, pandemonium, panoply
path-feeling, diseaseπάθος (pathos)antipathy, apathy, empathy, pathetic, pathology, sociopath, sympathy
peri-aroundπερί (perí)perimeter, period, periphery, periscope
pher-, phor-bear, carryφέρω ( pherō ), φόρος ( phoros )metaphor, pheromone
phil-, -philelove, friendshipφιλέω (phileō)bibliophile, philanthropy, philharmonic, philosophy
phob-fearφόβος (phobos)acrophobia, claustrophobia, homophobia, hydrophobia
phos-, phot-lightφῶς, φωτός ( phōs , phōtos )phosphor, phosphorus, photic, photo, photoelectric, photogenic, photograph, photosynthesis
physi-natureφύσις (phusis)physics
plut-wealthπλοῦτος (ploutos)plutocracy
pneu-air, breath, lungpnein, πνεῦμα (pneuma)apnoea, pneumatic, pneumonia
pod-footπούς, ποδός ( pous , podos )antipode, podiatry, tripod
pole-, poli-cityπόλις (polis)acropolis, cosmopolitan, metropolis, police, policy, politics
polem-warπόλεμος (polemos)polemic, polemology
poly-manyπολύς (polus)polyandry, polygamy, polygon, polytheistic
pro-before, in front ofπρό (pro)prologue, prominent
prot-firstπρῶτος (prōtos)protagonist, protocol, protoplasm, prototype, protozoan
pseud-falseψευδής (pseudēs)pseudonym
psych-mindψυχή (psuchē)psyche, psychiatry, psychology, psychosis
scop-, scept-look at, examine, view, observeσκέπτομαι, σκοπός (skeptomai, skopos)horoscope, microscope, periscope, skeptic, stethoscope, telescope
soma-bodyσῶμα, σώματος (sōma, sōmatos)psychosomatic, somatotype
soph-wiseσοφός (sophos)philosophy, sophistry, sophistication, sophomoric
syn-, sy-, syl-, sym-withσύν (sun)symbol, symmetry, sympathy, synchronous, synonym
tele-far, endτῆλε (tēle)telegram, telemetry, telepathy, telephone, telescope, television
xen-foreignξένος (xenos)xenogamy, xenophobia, xenon

Tips on Usage

This is a catch-all place to note and record common errors in usage, together with the correct form. Such usage errors are legion. As time goes by, the listing will probably become much longer. To start off, here are a few, which I jotted down after listening to the casual speech of other persons.

fingerprint scanner
Fingerprint Scanner

“skim” and “scan” — These two words are opposites: To “skim” a passage is to read it quickly and superficially. To “scan” a passage means to read it carefully. For some perverse reason, otherwise informed people often think these words are synonyms. Get this straight: “scan” means to be careful, not superficial. If you have trouble with this, remember that a “scanner” captures every detail of the item scanned.
pebble skimmingPerhaps it is also helpful to recall that “to skim” means to touch just the surface of something, as in skimming a pebble across the water. Sadly, even authors and  editors occasionally commit this error, especially in using “scan” to mean a quick once-over.

“could potentially” — The “potentially” is redundant. Strictly speaking, “could” means “was able to” (as in “He could play the Moonlight Sonata when he was 13.“). As such, it is the past tense of “can.” In these times, however, it is also used as a synonym for “might,” when referring to something unknown or doubtful: “It could snow this afternoon.” In general, “might” is preferable because it is the correct word, and “could” is not; but if you use “could” to express uncertainty, don’t compound the sin by adding the gratuitous “potentially.”

“each” and “both” — Sometimes, when you’re mindlessly chatting in your native tongue without thinking very hard about it, you will come up against the “each vs. both” problem. Remember to stop and think it through. If you do, you are unlikely to get this wrong. For example, if you say, “They both have wives,” it means, literally, that they are polygamous, and possibly with the same women! If you mean that each one is married, and not to the same person, you say, “Each one has a wife.” Whether you use the singular or plural depends on the subject of the sentence (not on the word “each” or “both”). If the subject is “they,” or if it is a conjoint compound subject (more than one person mentioned in the subject, with “and” as the link), the verb must be plural. If the subject is “one” (as in the example above), the verb must be in the singular. By its very nature, “both” will be a modifier to a plural subject, so the sentence will take a plural verb.

dad shares car
Both own the car

Here is another example: “My Dad and I both own a car” means that it is one car, and it is jointly owned by the two of us. “My Dad and I each own a car” means that there are two cars, and one is owned exclusively by my Dad, and I own the other one by myself. And, as a final note, be sure that when you use “both,” that you refer to two actors, and two actors only. “Both” is binary; “all of them” or “all” is used for more than two.

Gateposts don’t talk.

“between” and “among” — Like “both,” “between” only works with two nouns or pronouns. (The “tween” part is an archaic reference to “two.”) If you are referring to more than two, then use “among.” For example, the common expression, “Between you and me and the gatepost . . . ” (also the title of a book by Pat Boone) is technically incorrect, as three entities are privy to the secret, not just two. (And note that the “you” should be in second position, not first; “me” should be in third position, not second.) Finally, when you use “between,” and you are one of the parties, please say “between you and me.” “Between” is a preposition; it takes the objective case. “Between you and I” is not only stuffy; it is wrong, too.

“borrow” vs. “loan” — First, the verb is “lend,” not “loan.” “Loan” is a noun. So “Loan me that book” is a barbarism. It should be “Lend me that book.” Secondly, “borrow” is what the person does who receives the item; “lend” is what the person does who hands it over. Incredibly, there are people in this country that say “Borrow me that book, will you?” That is probably a very “back woods” dialect in action.

Linus-nauseated“nauseated” vs. “nauseous” — To be sick at your stomach is to be “nauseated.” If you are “nauseous,” you are making other people sick to their stomachs! “Nausea” is the condition of digestive illness, of dyspepsia. Something that creates the problem is “nauseous” or “nauseating.”

“different than” vs. “different from” — “Different than” is wrong. The “than” sneaks in because it is almost always used in comparisons: “Kathy is shorter than Sally.” But “different” is not a comparative adjective (like “shorter” or “more”). It is an absolute. Distinct nouns “differ from” one another, not “differ than” one another. If you substituted “distinct” for “different,” you probably would not make the mistake. No one says, “This one is distinct than this other one”; so why would you say “different than this other one”? This is an example of how the “sounds OK” school of grammar can lead you astray. Some argue for an exception if “than” does not merely connect the “different” to a noun or pronoun, but rather introduces a clause as a subordinating conjunction: “This food tastes different than it used to.” This is a bogus exception: the syntax is correct for a comparative, but not an absolute adjective such as “different” or “distinct.”

decimate“decimate” — This word means to kill one out of ten of a vanquished enemy’s soldiers. This was the Roman practice, an effective act of terror to make the other prisoners of war compliant. It derives from “decem,” the Latin word for “ten.” So why would you use this term to mean “obliterate” or “wipe out”? The only answer is ignorance. Now you know. Say “obliterate” or “annihilate” when the slaughter is widespread.

kiss the bride
Kiss the bride only

“only” confusion — Consider three sentences: (1) “Only I kissed the bride”; (2) “I only kissed the bride”; (3) “I kissed the bride only.” Can you identify three different meanings, according to the placement of the “only”? In (1) no one else kissed the bride; in (2) I kissed her, but I didn’t do anything else to her; and in (3) I did not kiss anyone other than the bride. Keep your “only” as close as possible to the word you are trying to affect with it; otherwise, you could be conveying a much different message from the one you have in mind.


On the Same Page: Subject and Verb Agreement

subject-verbEver since you were very little, you have known, or at least felt, that the subject of a sentence needs to agree with its predicate — with its verb, really — in person and number. This is not a very hard problem, since most English verbs change only in the third person singular. For example, “to have” is “have” for “I,” “you” (singular and plural), “we,” and “they.” It becomes “has” only for “he,” “she” and “it.” In the past tense, it’s all “had.” That is not very hard at all.

The verb “to be” takes it up a notch, as it changes more often: “are” for “you” (singular and plural) as well as “we” and “they“; “am” for “I,” and “is” for “he,” “she” and “it.” In the past, it is “was” in the singular and “were” in the plural. Every once in a while you will hear someone say something like “How you is?” or “I is the boss.” Even so, there’s no risk of mistaking this for correct English.

How would you evaluate this one? “Jimmy and I are leaving now.” Is “… I are …” correct? If so, why?

What about this? “Either Ruth or I am going to do the cooking.” Is “ … am … ” appropriate with “Ruth or I“? (Many would say, “Either me or Ruth are going to do the cooking,” and that is really wrong — so wrong that it makes you feel bad for the utterer.)

Here’s the story on verb agreement when you have more than one subject (technically, we call them “compound subjects“):

First: Remember that the order of persons in a series is (1) third person, then (2) second person, then (3) first person. Example: “Your brother, you and I will be riding together.” If you put the first person or the second person in the wrong place, it can mislead you to use the wrong form of the verb. Plus, it’s wrong.

Conjoint subjects are always plural

Second: When you have a conjoint compound subject — meaning that it’s inclusive (using “and“) rather than exclusive (using “or“), the subject must, obviously, be plural. Why? Because there’s more than one actor. Thus, you must use a plural verb form. In English, the plural forms are the same for first, second and third person, so there’s no agony of choice here. “Plural” is all you need to know. Examples: “Maggie, Millie, Molly and May went down to the sea to play one day” (all third person); “Maggie, Millie, Molly and I went down to the sea to play” (third and first); “Maggie, Millie, Molly and you went down to the sea to play” (third and second). It’s all the same, and it does not matter whether you are using the present tense, the past tense, the future tense, or a perfect tense. Conjoint compound subjects are easy: the verb is always in the plural.

Seashells on beach with one apart from the others.
Disjoint can be singular or plural, one or more than one.

Third: When you have a disjoint compound subject, that is, one that uses “or,” the verb must agree with the last subject mentioned. Therefore, “Either Ruth or I am going to do the cooking” is correct. So also is: “Green beans or spinach is what we will make.” Conversely, this is correct, too: “Spinach or green beans are what we will make.”

That’s all there is to this subject. Really, it is easy until you get to point three, and then you will have to do a little thinking. But that’s OK; thinking is good for you: It makes you smarter.



Using Gerunds Correctly

The title of this post gives an example of a gerund: It is a verb form ending in “-ing” and used as a noun. It is identical to the present participle, but its use as a noun makes it a gerund, not a participle.

Another post mentions the tendency in some regions of this Country to use the form of the past participle instead, as in “the floor needs washed.” The floor may need a scrubbing, but what the verb needs is a noun, a direct object. Past participles do not meet that requirement; however, gerunds and infinitives do.

Not every verb form ending in “-ing” is a gerund, but all gerunds end in “-ing.” Sometimes a present participle will be used as an adjective (as in “stalking horse” and “walking stick”). Present participles are used mainly as parts of the verb (with an auxiliary verb — “to be”). They form the progressive tense. (Examples: “They are talking” and “The queen was nodding off”) In all events, if the verb form ending in “-ing” is used as a noun, it is a gerund.

This post is not about when to use a gerund, but rather about an important rule to apply once you decide to put one to work: Gerunds require a possessive adjective and not a pronoun. What does that mean? Consider this sentence:

lucy complainingI’m tired of Lucy’s complaining.

Many people will say that correctly. A few might say, “I’m tired of Lucy complaining,” which is wrong. It simply makes good sense that what you are tired of is “complaining” and not “Lucy.” Whose complaining is it? Lucy’s. That is why the possessive is always used with a gerund. This possessive is an adjective, answering the question, “whose?”

Where things go astray, when they do, is the substitution of a pronoun for the noun in a sentence like the one above. Suppose it was Linus, not Lucy, who was complaining:

I’m tired of his complaining.

Many people say “I’m tired of him complaining.” That is just as much a mistake as the example above with the proper noun, “Lucy.” Just remember, “him complaining” is stringing a pronoun and a noun together, as if the verb had two direct objects, and the listener has to choose which one of them to accept: Are you tired of “him,” or are you tired of “complaining“? For the sake of clarity, what you need is a possessive adjective. Notice that, for females, there’s no problem, as the possessive adjective (“her”) is the same as the objective personal pronoun (“her”).

This situation becomes even worse when the pronoun in question is not in the third person, but rather in the first or second person: “I hope you are not tired of my complaining” or “I am not yet tired of your complaining.” It is so easy to slip into the wrong usage: “tired of me complaining” or “tired of you complaining.

Just remember: the gerund always takes the possessive. It’s that simple.

Problematic Verbs

Some of the irregular verbs in English give trouble to speakers who:

  • have learned English as a second language, or
  • grew up surrounded by English speakers who did not know how to speak correctly.

Most of the irregularities deal with the formation of the simple past tense or the past participle of strong verbs. (See “Strong Verbs and Weak Verbs” for a definition of these terms.)

  • sneak
    Sneaked or Snuck?

    Past Tense: An example of incorrect formation of the past tense comes from the verb “sneak.” It is not unusual to hear someone say “snuck” rather than “sneaked.” “Snuck” is, and always has been, wrong; but its wide usage, especially in recent times by the uneducated, has led it to sound “normal” and even to verge on being accepted as having graduated from its long-standing status as a solecism. “Stick,” on the other hand, is properly formed in the past tense as “stuck,” and “sticked” would be wrong.

  • Past Participle: An example of incorrect formation of the past participle comes from the verb “lie.” (For more on this most problematic verb, go to Lay versus Lie.) The past participle is “lain,” but surely only a tiny minority of Americans would ask (correctly) “Have you lain in bed all day?” instead of (incorrectly) “Have you laid in bed all day?” (Hint: “laid” is the wrong verb. “Lay” must have a direct object, as in “Have you laid brick for the wall?“)

    Have you laid brick?

Wake” is another example. The long-standing past tense form is “woke,” and the participle is “woken.” But the wrong forms, “waked” (past) and “waked” (participle), have come into such wide use that they verge on acceptability. The verb “awaken” (meaning to wake up) suffers from the same problem: “She awoke at the sound of rain.“) and “awoken” as a past participle (“She has awoken.“) But “awaked” and “awaked” are increasingly accepted forms for the simple past and the past participle.

In fairness, English seems almost capricious in how some of these problematic verbs are formed. Some forms simply have to be memorized or repeated over and over until they come naturally. The past tense of “shrink,” for example, is “shrank,” and the past tense of “stink” is “stank,” but the past tense of “think” is “thought” and the past tense of “blink” is “blinked”!

At the end of this post is a list of 91 irregular verbs. Skim it and see if you find any surprises.

One other aspect of irregularities in verbs deserves mention, though you probably have never had a problem with it, nor even noticed it: Modal verbs (those which indicate likelihood, ability, permission, and obligation) do not add “-s” or “-es” in the third person singular, as do all (or maybe almost all) of the other verbs in English. These “modal verbs” are: “can/could,” “may/might,” “must,” “will/would,” “shall/should” and “ought” + an infinitive. This is a curious sort of exception, but an exception nonetheless.

StemSimple PastPast Participle
bewas, werebeen
getgotgot/ gotten


Strong Verbs and Weak Verbs

"I eated it all!"
“I eated it all!”

Ever see a toddler proudly show off her empty bowl? She might say, “I eated it all!” As a new learner of English, she is making a common, understandable and forgivable mistake:

The usual rule for creating a past tense in English is to add “-ed” or “-d” to the verb stem. (Linguists call this a “dental suffix” because the “d” sound is made with the tongue against the teeth; “-t” is another dental suffix that forms past tenses.) (Examples: flow/flowed/flowed; burn/burnt/burnt)

On the other hand, many verbs do not create the past tense by adding something; rather, they change a vowel sound in the verb stem itself (and sometimes a consonant with it). (Example: hang/hung/hung; stand/stood/stood) Sometimes, they make no changes at all (e.g., “put/put/put“).

weakWe use the term “weak verbs” to describe verbs that form their past tense (and their past participle) by adding to the stem. (Think of it this way: they are so weak that they need the help of one or more outside letters to form their past tense.)

strongWe use the term “strong verbs” to describe verbs that form their past tense by changing internally. (They do not need any outside help.) Past participles can vary: some add “-n” or “-en” to the past tense (as in “break/broke/broken“); some just use the past tense without change (as in “wind/wound/wound“); others pick up the original stem vowel again (as in “slay/slew/slain“); and still others go off in their own direction with a new vowel sound (as in “fly/flew/flown” and “ring/rang/rung“).

Germanic languages, of which English is one, often use strong verbs; that is, they form the simple past by making a change in the vowel of the stem. All our strong verbs in English come originally from Germanic roots, rather than from our Norman French ancestor.

Note: Not every authority uses the same definition for “weak” and “strong.” Consider the verb “bring.” The past tense is “brought,” which has a stem vowel change and the addition of a letter (in this case, “-t”). Under the definitions above, “bring” could be a strong verb; however, many consider it a weak verb because it needs the help of the final “-t.” Others use the term “mixed verb” because it has elements of each category. Whatever you decide to do, it will be all right; these categories are merely descriptive, and whether you put them in one group or another will have no consequences for speaking correct English. The fundamental point is that strong verbs tend to be trickier (that is, less predictable) than weak verbs.

Here is a selection of common strong verbs. Certainly you will be able to think of many others:

Strong Verbs

StemSimple PastPast Participle
Bear (give birth)BoreBorn
Bear (carry)BoreBorne
BindBoundBound (or Bounden)
GiveGave Given
ShineShone Shone

Some teachers call these “irregular verbs,” meaning that only weak verbs that form the past tense with “-ed” and form the past participle in the same way are “regular verbs.” For them, all the other verbs are “irregular” because they fail to follow this rule (which is what “irregular” means, technically). It is probably better to hold onto the “strong verb” category, as these verbs are (in the main) regular in other respects, once the changes for the simple past and the past participle have been acknowledged. This leaves the “irregular” category for truly maverick verbs, like “be/was/been” and “go/went/gone.”

Here is a smattering of weak verbs. Most verbs in English are weak, so it is not hard to think of them.

Weak Verbs

StemSimple PastPast Participle

Tip: Every once in a while you will hear someone counsel you to use “strong verbs,” meaning that you should select precise, communicative verbs, rather than weak, vague, boring, wordy and overused verbs. Surely, that is good advice. But it is not what “strong verb” means. We are also counseled from time-to-time not to use “strong language,” and that is also good advice. But “strong language” also has nothing to do with “strong verbs.”


Who/Whom and Whoever

This Rule Should Be Easy

who-whomJust as the “I/me” confusion sometimes causes speakers to overcompensate and use “I” even when “me” is called for, so also do speakers, in an effort to sound knowledgeable, use “whom” at times when “who” is the right choice. This should be easy:

  • Who” is like “I.” It is the nominative form of a pronoun — a relative pronoun or an interrogative pronoun — used for subjects and predicate nouns/pronouns:

    Relative pronoun: The spy who came in from the cold wrote a book.
    Interrogative pronoun: Who was that masked man?

  • Whom” is like “me.” It is the accusative or objective form of a pronoun, used for objects of verbs and prepositions.

    Relative pronoun: The person whom I most admire is Ghandi.
    Interrogative pronoun: Whom do you most admire?

The only tricky part is correctly diagnosing a nominative use or an objective use.

  • First: “Who” and “Whom” introduce what are called “relative clauses.” That is why they are called “relative pronouns.” A relative clause is a subordinate clause: it cannot stand alone, but requires being linked to an independent clause in order to make sense. “Who” and “whomrelate the content of their clause to a specific person in the independent clause. They serve to identify persons in the same way that the relative pronoun “which” identifies things. But the nominative form of “which” is the same as the objective form, so there’s no problem of choice.
  • Second: “Who” and “whom” are also “interrogative pronouns” when used in questions. The rules are the same, whether they are used to relate clauses to nouns or pronouns, or whether they are used to form questions.
  • "Never send to know For whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." -- Donne
    “Never send to know
    For whom the bell tolls;
    It tolls for thee.” — Donne

    Third: If the person in the independent clause who is being described by the “who” or “whom” is the subject or a predicate noun, then “who” is correct. If it is an object (either of the clause or of a preposition), then “whom” is correct. Test this by answering the “who/whom” question (or completing the “who/whom” statement) with “he” or “she“: If “he” or “she” is correct, then “who” is your answer. If it turns out that “him” or “her” is correct, then “whom” is your answer. Example: “For who/whom the bell tolls.” Answer: It tolls for him. OK: Use “whom.”

  • Fourth: If the “who/whom” question arises as the object of a preposition, “whom” is always the right choice. But be careful: If the object of the preposition is some other noun or pronoun, and the “who/whom” element is the subject of a clause that describes that object, then “who” is the correct choice. That is because “who” (in that case) is not the object of the preposition (some other noun or pronoun is), but rather, it is the subject of its own clause. Examples: I gave the gifts to whom I wished; I gave the gifts to those who asked for them.
  • Fifth: The very same rules apply to “whoever” and “whomever.” Examples: “Invite whomever you wish.” (“whomever” is the object of the verb “invite“); “Whoever arrives first will win the door prize.”  (“whoever” is the subject of the verb “arrives”).

Relative clauses are either restrictive or non-restrictive:
corsageRestrictive clauses provide enough additional information so that the hearer or reader can know precisely to whom the speaker or writer is referring. (They “restrict” or “narrow down” the possibilities to the precise one.) They are not set off with commas. Example: Take a picture of the woman who is wearing a corsage. (No comma)

Non-restrictive clauses are not necessary to identify who it is that we are discussing. They just provide extra information. They are set off with commas. Example: Take a picture of Mrs. Maxwell, who is wearing a corsage. (Comma required)

Banish “As Per”

Incredibly, some dictionaries actually stoop to define “as per” as some sort of term or idiom.

Make no mistake: “As per” is a barbarism, an error, an ignorant gaffe. The error is committed by bureaucrats trying to sound official and by other self-important persons. These two words should never be written or spoken together.

Per” means “as” or “according to.” It is a Latin preposition that is often translated into English as “as.” So you are free to say “per the instructions” or “as instructed” or “according to the instructions,” but you should never say “as per the instructions.” It is redundant usage and banal jargon to boot.

I hope this post, however short, is clear: Don’t ever use “as per.”

Verbs Are Moody

Indo-European languages (of which English is one) use different forms of their verbs according to what is being expressed in the sentence. Specifically, the verb form will be different if:

  • You are making an affirmation, a flat statement;
  • You are making a demand, a suggestion, or issuing a command;
  • You are expressing a doubt, a wish, hope, something hypothetical, or something contrary to fact.

moods of verbsThe verb forms used for these three categories are called “moods” of the verbs. In grammar and logic, “mood” and “mode” are both used to refer to the state of mind of the speaker. Thus “mood” refers to the manner in which the thought is expressed.

  • Affirmations and statements are made in the “indicative mood.” This is the form most often used, and you do not even have to think about it — it’s just about automatic. For example, “Joe drives too fast.”
  • Commands, suggestions and demands are made in the “imperative mood.” Examples: “Do not drive too fast!” “I suggest/demand that Joe not drive too fast!
  • Uncertain or non-existent matters (doubts, wishes, hopes, hypothetical situations and anything contrary to fact) are expressed in the “subjunctive mood.” “If only Joe were a slower driver.
frank and ernest subjunctive
The subjunctive in action

Unlike the other Indo-European languages of Western Europe, English has not maintained a clear syntax for distinguishing these three moods. For example, if you were speaking French, there would be no doubt about your intention:

  1. to indicate something, or
  2. to command someone, or
  3. to express a desire.

The verb endings would tell the whole story. English, however, has abandoned most of its verb inflections, and with that, a clear way of telling another person which mood is being used. As an English speaker, you may not even be aware that you are expressing different syntactical moods as you move from affirmation to command to wish/desire/uncertainty/non-factual matter.

A few vestiges still remain, however. In expressing a condition contrary to fact, you must use the subjunctive. The present subjunctive of “to be” is “were.” This is a different “were” from the plural past tense form. For example, Tevye’s song in Fiddler on the Roof: “If I were a rich man, all day long I’d biddy biddy bum, if I were a wealthy man. ” Notice that it is not “I was” or “I am.” It’s “I were.” That is the present subjunctive.

However plain you be, I’ll love you

In Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, Frederic (the hero) asks of a group of lovely maidens on the shore if perhaps one of them would rescue him from his fate as an apprentice to pirates. He sings, “I swear by heaven’s high arch above you, if you will cast your eyes on me, however plain you be, I’ll love you.” That is the future subjunctive: “You be.”

The reason that you, as an English-speaker, may find this business of “moods” rather astonishing is that English has gradually replaced the subjunctive and the imperative forms with what are called “modal verbs”: can/could, may/might, must, will/would, and shall/should. To express a command, demand or suggestion, for example, we use “must,” “ought to” or “should.” To express doubt or uncertainty, we use “may” or “might.” To express hypothetical actions or conditions, we use “would.” These are auxiliary verbs that do the work for the main verb, so that the special imperative and subjunctive forms become unnecessary. Note that the adjective “modal” is used in the same sense as the noun “mood” to describe the state of mind of the speaker.

This evolution away from subjunctive forms does not mean, however, that the subjunctive is extinct or vestigial. No, it is still wrong, that is, bad grammar, to say “If I was you . . . ” or “He reacted as if she has two heads.”(It should be: “If I were you . . . ” and “He reacted as if she had two heads.“)

As a general matter, remember that “were” is the correct form of “to be” to express the subjunctive in the present. (She looked as if she were ten feet tall.) In the past, use “had been.”  (“If only the Lone Ranger had been here!” — note that it is nothas been.“) For the future, use “be.” This will feel more natural if you use “may” or “might” with it. (“Who be you?“; “Who might you be?”)

For imperatives, “be” is also the correct form, as in “Be quiet!

That covers almost all of the “mood” issues that otherwise can be handled by the modal verbs.


New York Times ManualThis post must be a rapid summary of punctuation rules and practices; otherwise, we will both be here all day. If you need the full tour of all punctuation principles, use a “style manual” for reference. Newspapers, magazines and publishing houses have created such style manuals as the rules and regulations for anyone who writes copy for them. The most famous is The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook is also well-known and highly regarded. The Government Printing Office also prints one, blandly called The Government Printing Office Style Manual (usually abbreviated to “GPO”). Law journals mostly use the Uniform System of Citation published decades ago by the Harvard Law Review. While it addresses itself mainly to citation forms, it also touches on other aspects of correct usage. These authorities do not always agree with each other, but they do unanimously sanction most of the basic principles.

The Internet is an excellent source of guidance on punctuation; however, exercise caution: not everyone who uploads his opinion is uniformly correct (including yours truly, I suppose). A discerning researcher will note some inconsistencies among the various resources available. As in the case of dictionaries, some sites are more conservative, and advocate only orthodox usage; others are more liberal and will acknowledge and accept many usages even though they are mistakes, just because they are widespread. The more conservative ones should be looked to as normative: authorities; the more liberal ones should be deemed merely descriptive: catalogues of usage.

A free, online style manual that takes a traditional approach to Standard American English is the one produced by the National Geographic Society.

The Basic Concept
punctuation as decorative
Decorative Punctuation

The most basic principle, the bedrock fundamental, can be illustrated by the following anecdote: Once I was helping Manolo to study for his GED exam. Manolo was from Mexico, and his exam was to be administered in Spanish. Though fluent in his mother tongue, he needed considerable help with writing. His word choices were correct, more or less, but his spelling was, well, non-standard. Worse yet, his punctuation (including accent marks) seemed random. When asked, he confirmed that indeed it was random! He believed that accents and punctuation marks should be spread around one’s writing as decorations, in the same way that one scatters seeds in a garden plot. This is similar to the “sounds right” approach to grammar in general: It is lawless, unreliable and tragically ignorant. Fortunately, ignorance is curable, as proved true in Manolo’s case. (On the other hand, stupidity, sadly, is not.)

In short: Every punctuation mark exists for one or more reasons. Learn the reasons, and follow the rules. Do not fall into the fallacies of the “sounds good” method or the randomizing approach.

Here is a runner’s dash through the rules:


Use them for ending sentences. Use them after most abbreviations. An elipsis (…) is not a series of three periods. It is an elipsis and has its own function, which is to indicate omission.

Question Marks

question markUse them after direct questions; do not use them after indirect questions. Compare: “How old are you?” and “He asked me how old I was.

The question mark goes inside the closing quotation mark if it is part of the quotation; otherwise, it is outside the closing quotation mark: He asked, “How old are you?” versus Did you hear him say, “I am am 21 years old”?

Exclamation Points

Use them after exclamations (duh!) and all but mild interjections: “I’m lost!” “Wow!” “Sorry, I didn’t know.”

slow children
Commas matter

Commas are the most common form of punctuation (pun intended), and the most abused. This is a partial list, as commas come up in so many contexts. For a complete rundown, consult a manual of style. Use Commas:

  • To separate words in a series “(Porthos, Dartagnan, Aramis and Athos”). Note: the comma after the next to last item is usually omitted in modern texts, but it is not wrong to insert it, and it may occasionally avoid confusion (as in the following Sky News headlines summary from December 10, 2013: “Top Stories: World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and Same-sex marriage date set”). It is called “the Oxford comma.”
  • To separate phrases in apposition (“My uncle, the judge, was always sober.”)
  • To separate introductory clauses. (“Because you asked politely, I shall do it.”)
  • To separate many, but not all, subordinating conjunctions from the rest of the dependent clause in a complex sentence. (“It snowed; however, we went anyway.” But: “I shall do it because you asked politely.”)
  • To separate coordinating conjunctions from the preceding independent clause in a compound sentence. (“She likes country, and I like rock ‘n’ roll.”)
  • In a variety of specific contexts:
    • After the salutation in an informal (friendly) letter (“Dear John,”)
    • To separate repeated words (“I really, really want a puppy!”)
    • To introduce a quotation (W.C. Fields said, “Never give a sucker an even break.”)
    • Before of after directing a statement to a person or thing (“Houston, we have a problem”; “No, Perkins.”)
    • After mild interjections (“My goodness, that was a long speech.”)

Use them to separate:

  • Independent clauses from the subordinating conjunction in a complex sentence (but not in every case). (“It snowed; however, we went anyway.” But notI like you because you never complain.”)
  • Independent clauses in a compound sentence, if there is no coordinating conjunction. (“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”)
  • Items in a series, if the items are long phrases or clauses. (“I plan to get up early; put all of last night’s dishes in the dishwasher; go shopping; make dinner for everybody; and then spend some time on my own projects.”)
  • Items in a series, if one of the items is internally punctuated by commas. (“I will clean the pasture spring; rake the leaves away; and, if there’s time, wait to watch the water clear.”)
colon in letter
Salutation (Business Letter)

Use colons to separate the first part of a sentence from the rest, if it is an introduction to the next part, and the next part is really an explanation or more detail. (Here is my idea: we should go eat.) Colons are also used to separate hours and minutes when writing time (10:47 p.m.), and at the end of salutations in business letters (Dear Sir or Madam:).

Quotation Marks
Maybe fake?
Maybe fake?
  • Enclose direct quotes in quotation marks, but not indirect quotes. (He said, “You should go”; He said that I should go.)
  • Quotation marks are also used to signal words employed in a non-standard or ironic way. This usage gave rise to “air quotes” in spoken conversation. (W.C. fields kept a jug of “pineapple juice” on the movie set.)
  • When referring to a word or number as such (rather than to its meaning), you should italicize it and put it in quotation marks. (Is there an “a” in “perimeter”?)
  • A period or a comma should go inside the closing quotation mark, even if it is not part of the quote. Semicolons and colons reside outside the closing quotation mark, unless part of the quotation. This rule for semicolons and colons also applies to question marks and exclamation points. (The Wikipedia Style Manual applies the semicolon and colon rule to periods and commas as well, but that puts it in a small minority. Virtually all style manuals for journalists and authors apply the rule for periods and commas stated here.)
Yikes! A teacher, no less!
Yikes! A teacher, no less!

Apostrophes indicate:

  • Omissions, as in a contraction. (“Do not” becomes “Don’t.”)
  • Possession. (“John’s gospel”; “It is anyone’s game.”)
  • Plurals in the limited context of letters of the alphabet. (There are four s’s in “possess.”) Please don’t use apostrophes for normal pluralization!
  • Quotations internal to a quotation. (Actually, these are “single quotation marks,” not apostrophes.) (W.C. Fields famously said, “What rascal has been putting pineapple juice in my ‘pineapple juice!’”)
e.e. cummings could do this very well. Please don’t try this at home.
  • Of course, you know to use initial capitals at the beginning of a sentence (but not at the beginning of a clause internal to the sentence). (This clause starts with an initial capital; this clause does not.)
  • You also know that proper nouns (like “Texas”) and their derivatives (usually adjectives, like “Texan”) are capitalized. This includes the names of persons (including their titles, like “Monseigneur” or their roles, when used as a name or title, like “Mommy”), countries (“Rwanda”), geologic eras (“Paleozoic), historical periods and events (“the Middle Ages,” “World War I”), days (“Wednesday”), months (“October”), holidays (“Labor Day”), but not seasons (“spring”) or centuries (“the seventeenth century”). “God” and all pronouns referring to Him are capitalized. Most authorities capitalize abbreviations that are titles (“Mr.” or “Prof.”), but otherwise, not (“a.m.” and “etc.”).
  • The pronoun “I” is capitalized; “me,” “my” and “mine” are not.
  • The major words in titles also are capitalized. There are a few nuances to this: Verbs, even small ones like “is,” should be considered major words in a title (“Reading Is Fundamental”), while articles and prepositions are not (“Gone with the Wind”). The initial word in a title must be capitalized, even if it is not otherwise a “major” word (“On the Waterfront”).
A Note About Accent Marks

diacriticsDiacritical marks (loosely called “accent marks”) are as much part of spelling as are the letters in a word. Because English does not use many diacritical marks, it is easy to be blasé about them. Spell checkers do not like them. BUT: they are required if you wish to be technically correct. For example, the famous English playwright, Noël Coward, who was born on December 16, was named (apparently) after Christmas en français: (Noël). Almost everyone writes his name (and pronounces it) as if the two little dots — the diaeresis — were not there: “Noel Coward.” “Naïve” is another import word that seems to be gradually losing its diaeresis in English. We still seem to be hanging on to the accents in “canapé” and “touché,” however. The word “fête” (meaning party or festival) needs its circumflex accent, too. “Agape” means “wide open” in English. “Agapé” means love of men and mankind as brothers.

hotel eleganteYou may get through life with only the most sporadic need for accent marks in English. The greater risk is in thinking that by adding one where it does not belong, you will seem more sophisticated. For those who know better, it’s really rather pathetic. There is a hotel in Colorado Springs called “Hotel Eleganté.” The accent mark is a misfit in English; it is also an error in French, Spanish, and in every other romance language. Even the perpetrators of this barbarism fail to pronounce the accent, putting the emphasis instead on the next-to-last syllable (as it should be). So I guess they intend it to be a “non-accent” mark. Try not to commit this kind of ignorant mistake; it’s bush-league and completely avoidable.