Three Rhetorical Curiosities

When it comes to English usage, informed writers are watchful about special cases. They can be traps for the unwary, or opportunities to enhance expression. Or they can be simply fun with words. This page gives you an example of each:

  • The pleonasm (also tautology), which should be avoided;
  • The oxymoron, which, if used creatively and correctly, can help a writer enrich the way he or she makes a point;
  • The palindrome, which is almost always just a plaything, not a serious tool for expressive writing; however, it is interesting, and something all good writers should know about.

You may never study these phenomena in school, but they illustrate the rich variability of language and thought, at least to someone who speaks his or her language with the brain engaged.

Pleonasms and Tautologies

Examples of pleonasmsA pleonasm is a word or phrase that uses more words than necessary. It is a special kind of verbosity. In serious writing, it is important to avoid them, as they reflect poorly on the writer, casting him or her as someone trying to add ballast to weak or shifty prose. Spotting them is an enjoyable sport for many. Here are several examples. The redundancies in these pleonasms should be obvious:

sudden impulseall impulses are sudden
free giftall gifts are free
boat marinamarinas by definition moor boats
fellow colleaguea colleague is on the same side as you are
exact replicareplicas are exact copies
necessary essentialsif not essential, not necessary
mass exodusan exodus is a departure of a great number
completely destroyeddestruction is always complete
foreign importsall imports come from foreign places
temper tantruma tantrum is a fit of temper
coequalsequals need no "co-" designation
honest truthif not honest, it isn't truth
warn you in advancecan't warn anyone after the fact
future plansplans are always for the future
over-exaggerateexaggeration implies excessive description
common bondbonds only apply to two or more in common
new innovation or initiativeall innovations and initiatives are new
sum totaltotals are sums
extra bonusbonuses are extra
nape of the neckonly necks have napes
false pretenseall pretenses are false
frozen tundraall tundra is frozen
gnashing of teethgnashing means grinding of teeth
head honchoa honcho is the head, the leader
veer off courseveering, by definition, runs you off course
safe havenhavens, by definition, are safe
tuna fishall tuna are fish
evening sunsetall sunsets come in the evening
close proximityproximity means closeness

Bar not open because it is closed
A tautology and a pleonasm: do you see them?

Related to the pleonasm is the rhetorical tautology. Text is tautological if a concept is repeated in it, using different words. For example, in “Take a Pew,” one of the routines in Beyond the Fringe, Alan Bennett says: “Perhaps I can paraphrase that; that is, say the same thing in a different way” (from The Complete Beyond the Fringe (1993) edited by Roger Wilmut). His very utterance is not only an example of a tautology, it is the definition of one. (Distinguish the rhetorical tautology from the logical tautology, useful in mathematics: a statement which, by virtue of its logical form or the words employed, must be true, as in “x = x”.)

Here are some more examples of rhetorical tautologies:

He’s a beginner who has just started.
I will attend personally.
Joe made it for his mom with his own hands.
I saw it with my own eyes
I will give your suggestion top priority.
Let us visit the dilapidated (or destroyed) ruins.
The building was totally and completely uninhabitable.
Let me give you an abbreviated summary of the plan.
She made predictions about the future.
Arizona contains some dry desert.
In my opinion, I think it will rain today.
The hurricane made landfall at 5 a.m. in the morning.
Children, take turns, one after the other.
A college degree is a necessary requirement for graduate school.
His photo was taken at the summit on the top of Mount Lincoln.
James was the victim of bad misfortune.
Kimmy is a brown-haired brunette.
His Spanish was adequate enough for ordering tacos.
Mark Twain published an autobiography of his own life.
Please prepay in advance for the tickets.

Be careful, too, about acronyms (letter abbreviations). They can spawn tautologies, too. For example:
DVD diskthe second “d” stands for “disk”
GPS systemthe “s” stands for “system"
PIN numberthe “n” stands for “number”
Please R.S.V.P.the “svp” is French for “please” – “s’il vous plait”
RAM memorythe “m” stands for “memory”
UPC codethe "c" stands for code
VIN numberthe "n" stands for number


Oxymorons are seriously funnyUnlike pleonasms and tautologies, which add unneeded description or specification to a term, oxymorons provide detail that at first glance appears to conflict with the concept being mentioned. In short, an oxymoron is an expression that appears to contradict itself.

The Greek roots are “oxy-“ meaning sharp, pointed or (by extension) smart; and “-moron” meaning soft, dull (and by extension) stupid. Thus, the word is autological – it is itself an illustration of the very situation that it defines. Incidentally, the correct plural of “oxymoron” is “oxymora,” but that has fallen so far out of use that we must concede that it is acceptable to give them their English “s” instead.

True Oxymorons.

examples of oxymoronsStrictly speaking, the contradiction in an oxymoron should be merely apparent, but not actual. This creates a sense of intellectual tension in the reader, who then must resolve the underlying meaning in the figure of speech. In this regard, it is much like a metaphor, which makes sense only once the reader can draw the parallel that the author had intended between two disparate thoughts.

A common example of a true oxymoron comes from one of George Carlin’s well-known comedic routines: jumbo shrimp. He asks, “Big shrimp, or little jumbo?” A more literary example is Hamlet’s plan to feign insanity: “I must be cruel only to be kind.” Recall the famous line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: In Act II, Scene 2, Juliet says to Romeo, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

Another classic collection of oxymorons is found in the first few lines of A Tale of Two Cities. This introduction uses these phrases as figures of speech, clearly for literary effect:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . .

In the poem, “My Heart Leaps Up,” William Wordsworth expressed his belief that we are born in harmony with nature, but then lose touch with it as we age. He said, “The child is the father of the man.”

Ash tray with no smoking sign in it
Can you resolve this one?

The essence of a true oxymoron is that there must be some resolution, some logic, behind the seeming conflict of terms. Thus, the oxymoron gives us a chance for an insight by calling upon us to solve what seems to be a contradiction. We are asked to discover the poetical or figurative sense of the statement that reconciles the conflict and reveals a truth.

For example, in the Wordsworth quote — “the child is the father of the man” — the resolution is this: He believed that we inherently know much of nature before we are born, but then we lose it as we age, as the world corrupts the purity of our natural state. This reverses the usual course of maturation. It is knowledge of nature that Wordsworth valued, not worldly know-how. (He wrote, “One impulse from a vernal wood may teach you more of man, Of moral evil and of good, than all the sages can.” (from “The Tables Turned”).)

Doré: Satan speaks with Sin and Death
Gustav Doré has illustrated “darkness visible.” Here, Satan speaks with Sin and Death

Another example comes from Paradise Lost, in which Milton describes the underworld, to which Lucifer fell. He called it “darkness visible.” There is no light in Hell (as light is synonymous with God, and Hell is defined by the absence of God), but (somehow) its occupants could find their way around. (This example is even more interesting when one considers that the poet himself was blind.)

Faux Oxymorons

Three categories of faux oxymorons or “almost-oxymorons” can be identified:

Real Contradictions

First, real contradictions are not oxymorons; they are nonsense. For example, being literal and describing the day as cold and hot creates a real contradiction. It is not a figure of speech; it is meaningless prose. Context will tell whether the contradiction is only apparent (and hence may carry an additional meaning in its resolution), or merely a meaningless combination of contradictory words.

Opinion Oxymorons
George Bush Center for Intelligence sign
Not a true oxymoron: just someone’s opinion or attitude

Second, some authorities use the term “opinion oxymoron” or “rhetorical oxymoron” to describe a contradiction not created by a clash of fact or definition, but rather by a person’s opinion or point of view. Thus, it is often reduced to being a snide remark or one-line joke and not a proper figure of speech. An example of an opinion oxymoron comes from George Carlin’s comedy routine mentioned above: “military intelligence.” This cannot be seen as an apparent contradiction unless one adopts a certain opinion about the military. “Legal ethics” is another such expression. An opinion oxymoron is more like a miniature editorial than figurative usage.

Dead Oxymorons

Good grief!Third, there is a category generically called “dead figures of speech.” Their usage has become so commonplace that modern speakers no longer even see them as figurative language. In the metaphor department, “falling in love” is a good example, as is “kick the bucket.” Consider “awful good,” “good grief,” and “barely clothed.” They are not oxymorons because evolved usage has wiped out what might have been, years ago, a sense of contradiction. “Civil war” is not an oxymoron, as “civil” is a different lexical usage from the one that would produce a contradiction. In the same vein, the word “preposterous” means absurd. Its Latin origin is “prae-“ (before) and “-posterus” (coming after). It has been used in English for hundreds of years without any conscious appreciation that it is an oxymoron, with the result that the contradiction it contains has become invisible to moderns.

Thus, as a technical matter, we can exclude real contradictions, opinion oxymorons and dead oxymorons. Even so, we still have a large and rich bounty of this figure of speech in English.

Other Contradictions

Contradictions in terms other than oxymorons do exist. Consider these three types:

No pets allowed all pets must be on leash

Antinomy (an-TIN-oh-me). This one is tough. It can easily sweep you into college-level philosophy and mathematics if you’re not careful. Antinomy is the description of a contradiction between two statements or rules that seem equally plausible or equally proven. (Do not confuse it with “Antimony,” which is a metal element.)

A whimsical example is the apparent conflict between two Biblical statements: “Thou shalt not steal” and “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant provides three examples of real conflicts between sensible, acceptable rules or propositions. He states these rules and then provides proofs of both the thesis and the antithesis of each. That is what makes them antinomies. Here is one of them: Consider “Every phenomenon has at least one natural cause.” In other words, all things in nature are determined (that is, “caused”) by at least one natural law. This seems a reasonable concept. But Kant also demonstrates that there is freedom in nature. That also seems to make sense. But if there is freedom in the universe, how can all phenomena be determined by one or more natural causes? A phenomenon (including you) can’t be both determined and free.

Paradox. A paradox is an internally inconsistent statement or set of statements. The classic example comes from Epimenides (c. 600 BC) who wrote, “All Cretans are liars.” It becomes a paradox if you are told that Epimenides himself was a Cretan. Another classic illustration: Take a sheet of blank paper and write on it: “The statement on the other side of this paper is false.” Then do the same thing on the other side of the paper. Try to reconcile the two statements (without turning the paper over several times, if possible). It can’t be done. A more compact version of the same point: “This is a false statement.” This proposition cannot be true, or else it is false. And if it is false, it cannot be true, so it must be true. Thus, it can be neither true nor false.

Oscar Wilde famously said, “I can resist anything except temptation.” That is a paradox, too.

All animals are equal but some are more equal than othersA famous paradox can be found in Animal Farm. George Orwell created this statement for the farm: “All animals are equal; but some are more equal than others.”


War is Peace poster from 1984Falsehood. A falsehood is a contradiction or allegation that cannot be resolved, either literally or figuratively. It is not necessarily a lie: the verb “to lie” implies something about the intentions of the utterer. Three famous falsehoods come from George Orwell’s novel 1984: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”


As we have seen, oxymorons and other contradictions can be complex and stretch the intellect. This is not true of palindromes. Unlike the previous two, which deal with ideas and concepts, palindromes deal simply with the spelling of words. They are easy.
A palindrome is a word or phrase that reads the same, whether you read it from left to right or reversed, from right to left. (In Greek, “palin-” is a word fragment meaning “again”; “-drome” is a word fragment related to running. (“Palindromos” in Greek means “running back again.”) Examples are “radar” and “rotator,” as they read the same, whether forwards or backwards.

comic strip of Adam speaking to EveA famous palindrome is the mythical first utterance of Adam to Eve: “Madam, I’m Adam.”

Napoleon on shores of Elba
Napoleon at Elba

Another very popular one has been whimsically attributed to Napoleon: “Able was I ere I saw Elba. ” (The reader should know that Napoleon, defeated in 1814, abdicated and went into exile on the Isle of Elba in the Mediterranean. Eight months later he escaped and re-established his armies, which led to the denouement of the Napoleonic era, four months later, at Waterloo.)

King drinking lager
Regal lager

More modern, and somewhat less well-known palindromes include:

  • A slut nixes sex in Tulsa
  • Lager, sir, is regal.
  • Live, O Devil, revel ever! Live! Do evil!
  • Name not one man.
  • Nurse, I spy gypsies! Run!
  • Was it a bat I saw?

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.