Patricia T. O'Conner

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Word maven Patricia T. O'Conner answers your grammar questions. Her new book is Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [77]

james andrea from nj

Hinky -- please explain again the ALetterman use of word.

Jan. 31 2010 12:38 AM
Connie from Westchester

Re: ending a sentence with a preposition,Winston Churchill, when criticized for doing just that, responded "That is a form of pedantry up with which I shall not put."

May. 31 2009 01:14 PM
steve t. from manhattan

Can anyone explain the origin of the phrase "stands the gaff"?

May. 20 2009 03:17 PM
jim c from brooklyn

"The whole nine yards" refers to a typical size of a dump truck's capacity in cubic yards. So if you dump everything you dump the whole nine yards!

May. 20 2009 02:48 PM
June from Westchester, NY

The whole nine yards: It is the amount of fabric needed to make a proper Scottish kilt. When my son was 5 he wanted one when he learned he was part Scottish. I set about making one and learned that it takes 9 yards of plaid wool to properly make all the folds for the average man's waist. The folds have to line up with the pattern of the plaid, it consumes so much fabric. My son's 20" waist took 4 yards, even though I scrimped as much as I could.

May. 20 2009 02:43 PM
peter mallon from new jersey

when did the word "so" come to mean "very". especially when used by women on talk shows.
>>> HOST: "i am 'SO' happy to see you"
>>> GUEST: "i am 'SO' happy to be here"
>>> HOST: "your new book is "SO" good"

there should be the word "that" somewhere after the word "so" to compare. such as:

"it was "SO" cold yesterday "THAT" i saw a chicken walking with a capon. (you need to read this sentance out loud.

May. 20 2009 02:07 PM
Baby Nancy from Metuchen

I wonder if in the book, Ms. O'Connor uses the tried and true expression "folk etymology" for what she is calling "specious myths?"

May. 20 2009 02:05 PM
Steven Rudin from Nassau County,New York

I once heard that the expression "the whole nine yards" is from World War 2. The machine guns in the US bombers used in that war had nine yards of ammunition. If this explanation is correct, the statement "give them the whole nine yards" would mean fire everything you've got at the enemy.
A few years ago the hosts of the show "Car Talk" they were asking about origins of this expression also.

May. 20 2009 02:05 PM

"Founder" and "flounder" are not interchangeable.
"Founder" means "to sink"; "flounder" means to act or move ineffectually.

May. 20 2009 02:02 PM
meera from brooklyn

I just returned from visiting family in India and we were wondering about the whole nine yards expression. My mom proposed that it came from the length of the formal saris worn in South India. Most saris are six yards, but all the weddings, etc. require a nine-yard sari. Maybe the Brits brought it into the English language?

May. 20 2009 02:01 PM
Sherril Smoger-Kessous from Morris Plains, NJ

I have a question, not a comment. Patricia mentions that she is hesitant to correct certain commonly used idioms,because they often become acceptable at some point. Who exactly makes that decision that a previously unaccepted word or idiom is now "official" accepted?

May. 20 2009 02:01 PM

I can't believe you repeated the caller's misconception of the origin of 'rule of thumb' but never explained the use of 'fathom' to measure depth, even though multiple people commented on it. Huh?

May. 20 2009 02:01 PM
jawbone from Parsippany, NJ

What? Refer the a decades as "the 1980"? Did she misspeak?

Did she mean to say "the 1980s" as opposed to "the 1980's"?

I still wonder what we should call the current decade, these 2000's. Not a huge problem now and for the next decade, but then it will be awkward with a term for it. I somehow don't see the "Double Oughts" (ought's?) coming into common use.

So, what term? What name?

May. 20 2009 02:01 PM
Keir Moulton from Brooklyn

A quick google search reveals that "graduated + noun phrase" is clearly available, although less so than "graduated from + noun phrase". I googled:
"I graduated high school in" and got about 162,000
"I graduated from high school in" got about 291,000.
Facts are useful - even rough ones like these...

May. 20 2009 02:00 PM
Lance Brofman from NYC

The term "whole nine yards" refers to the fact that a box of 50 caliber amunition used on US WWII Bombers B-17 and B-24 has 9 yards of belt fed bullets. To give the enemy fighters the who nine yards was to fire the gun for as long as you could before having to reload a new amunition box

May. 20 2009 01:59 PM
Anna Walker from Westchester County, NY

In this season of graduation processions, could you comment on the verb "process" (accent on the second syllable)? This has always driven me crazy, as it sounds like a particularly boneheaded back-formation.

Why do we not say, for example, "during the ceremony, the graduates will PROCEED from their seats to the stage"?

Bernstein, alas, does not comment.

May. 20 2009 01:59 PM
Stephanie from Brooklyn

In reference to Stephen's question about compound nouns: In the first instance, it is because we are pluralizing the noun portion of the phrase (which Patricia said), but in the second instance, we make the last word possessive because the object of a possessive must appear next to it.

May. 20 2009 01:58 PM
Robert Plautz from New York City

Good show. But more in reference to the use of "Attorney General", would you please debunk the nonesense about giving the title of "General" to the person who holds the office of "Attorney General." All "Attorney General" means is that the person is an attorney and gives "general" advice about matters of law. It's like the title "General Counsel" in a corporation. You would hardly address that person "General."

May. 20 2009 01:57 PM
jawbone from Parsippany, NJ

Ben @ 36 -- British English tends to put the emphasis on the first syllable, in lieu of the word being an outlier.

In "The Jewel in the Crown," much was made of whether Harry Kumar was pronounced "HARi KUmar," indicating Englishness, or "HaRI KuMAR," indicating his Indianness. At his public school, he was called "KUmar," but when he came to India, the English referred to him as "KuMAR," to mark him as the Other.

Just rewatched and the torture interrogation scenes seemed very relevant to out times.

May. 20 2009 01:57 PM
Katherine Sheppard from Rockaway, NJ

I have this feeling that "the whole 9 yards" is
a military expression... perhaps something to
do with the amount of fabric in a parachute?

May. 20 2009 01:56 PM
Geoff from West Orange, NJ

How about 9 yards referring to the amount of fabric used in a Scottish kilt? Technically, it would be 9 "ells" which is just a little more than 9 yards...

May. 20 2009 01:56 PM
Caitlin from Jersey City

What I've heard for "whole nine yards": the length of fabric needed to make a kilt (that's a lot of pleating)!

May. 20 2009 01:56 PM
Alicia from NYC

"The whole nine yards" does have something to do with measuring fabric, although I don't know about men's suits. It is somehow related to the expression "a stich in time saves nine."

May. 20 2009 01:56 PM
Roger Anderson from Westchester

Ruthless has been used for years.

What is the opposite, a person with Ruth?

What is Ruth?

May. 20 2009 01:56 PM
J Reilly from Bellmore, LI

My father had no doubt about the whole nine yards; he said it was the full capacity of early dump trucks. He was a contractor and former footballer.

May. 20 2009 01:56 PM
keith burton from inwood

I had a discussion with someone about whether the plural of CD or DVD could be written with an apostrophe. It seems to be correct not to use it, but the New York Times style is to write CD's and DVD's. Why is this?

May. 20 2009 01:55 PM
bill from brooklyn

Affect and effect have always made me crazy. I understand that they each have a noun and a verb form and that the (verb) affect causes a (noun) effect. I just don't understand why.

May. 20 2009 01:55 PM

I was told that "whole nine yards" has some derivation related to fabric lengths used in Scottish kilt-making.

May. 20 2009 01:54 PM
John from NJ

I was told whole 9 yards refers to a truck full of wet cement. Thoughts?

May. 20 2009 01:54 PM
Natasha from Brooklyn

When if ever is it correct to use an apostrophe with plurals of numbers? I attended a parent dinner at my son's school last night and I, normally quite grammar-conscious,automatically wrote "3's" instead of "3s" to describe my son's class.

May. 20 2009 01:54 PM
Gustav Rech from manhattan

aggression vs. aggressiveness?

May. 20 2009 01:54 PM
Scott from Manhattan

I beleive the phrase "the whole 9 yards" refers to the 9 yards of ammunition fed to machine guns in either WWI or WWII. Whereas the ammunition came in 9 yard lenghts and giving them "the whole 9 yards" would most likely be devistating.

But I could be wrong.

May. 20 2009 01:53 PM
CH from Staten Island

Did you know...

a website for everything!

May. 20 2009 01:52 PM
ted from manhattan

etymology of in- which can be greek or latin or old english. depends on with which root the prefix is used.


May. 20 2009 01:51 PM
jawbone from Parsippany, NJ

On blogs, people who write comments usually are referred to as "commenters." IMHO.

"Commentators" connotes someone with greater expertise or standing (status?); perhaps someone paid to make knowledgeable comments.

Anyone can comment; only those with a particular position can be a commentator. I think. However, when some bloggers write so well, they certainly do become commentators for many.

Now, blogs have hierarchies with the person or persons who run the blogs referred to as "bloggers," and the items they write, which readers comment on, are called, most often, "posts." So, they are also "posters," but readers do post comments. Some blogs allow commenter to register and publish "diaries," which sometimes make it to the main blog; such writers are referred to as "diarists" when giving credit for ideas or linking.

The vocabulary is still in flux for web etiquette (wetiqutte? webiquitte?) and terms. I've probably left out terms.

May. 20 2009 01:49 PM
kbinps from park slope

Leonardo is referred to by his first name because he was an illegitimate child. What we think of as his last name is actually the name of his town- Vinci. He was Leonardo of Vinci.

May. 20 2009 01:49 PM

Yard-arms hold up the yards of canvas sails.

May. 20 2009 01:47 PM
Steve from Harlem

Why do some people who download things from the Internet say they got it "off line" rather than I got it online? Because there is the sense they took it "off" something? I hear this all the time. It sort of bothers me, especially since offline is the opposite of online. Have you heard this?

May. 20 2009 01:47 PM
jennifer from Belleville, NJ

here's one that always confuses me when I buy olives! If it says they are "pitted" does that mean they have pits or that the pits have been removed (ie, heave been "pitted")!! which is correct?

May. 20 2009 01:47 PM
Rob from The Bronx

When I was young I use to use "use" but now it seems that everyone is deriving utility from utilize, should I succumb and utilize "utilize" or simply use use?

May. 20 2009 01:46 PM
Jeanne from Hawthorne, NJ

I thought that "rule of thumb" came from a time when a husband could strike his wife with a switch no thicker than his thumb, thus "rule of thumb"

May. 20 2009 01:46 PM

I'd noticed that often on the BBC news service they say "Barack" the same way you mentioned having pronounced it, like "barracks".

May. 20 2009 01:46 PM
Elizabeth from Manhattan

What about saying the year 2009. I think it should be pronounced two-thousand nine. But almost everyone says two-thousand AND nine.

It drives me crazy. What is right?

May. 20 2009 01:44 PM
cnh from NYC

Why is it that people who once disappeared are now presumed to have somehow participated in their fate. Now I often hear that someone "went missing" as if they had a choice in the matter.

May. 20 2009 01:43 PM
mCgill from montreal canada

Singular Maple Leaf... The Toronto hockey team is not the Leaves but the Maple Leafs... yt

May. 20 2009 01:43 PM
Bridget Anderson from New York

For what its worth, I just looked at a picture of the new stadium in the bronx and the sign says "Yankee Stadium".

My question is about the use of the verbs
"to flounder" and "to founder". I hear people using them in the same contexts, are they interchangeable?

May. 20 2009 01:42 PM
Dan Hild from Manhattan

How about 'commentarian' as in 'grammarian.'

May. 20 2009 01:42 PM
Suda Ratan from NYC

Are you, Leonard, really "open" to suggestion by viewers. In my experience (email and listening) (and in some famous interviews), you do spew some venum around when ruffled--you seem to have "days".

We all do--but to characterize yourself as "open" to correction when we all listen to you every day and know you (lovingly, perhaps to some of your listeners) as someone who is definitely NOT--is a bit much--no?

May. 20 2009 01:42 PM
Shasta from Brooklyn

When I hear someone declare himself a "Met fan," I think (but don't ask) "Which Met are you a fan of?"

May. 20 2009 01:42 PM
Concetta from Budd Lake, NJ

Have you noticed how the word "so" is being used at the beginning of sentences?

May. 20 2009 01:42 PM
Stephanie from Brooklyn

The way to think about the Yankees issue is to rearrange the sentence, to wit: "I am a fan of the Yankees". You wouldn't use the singular there, so you shouldn't use in the phrase "I am a Yankees fan".

May. 20 2009 01:42 PM
Michele from Jersey

Re: Commenter vs. Commentator
How about arbitor vs. arbitrator?

May. 20 2009 01:42 PM
Steven from New York, NY

HELP! I've always been troubled by compound nouns such as attorney general, passer-by, court martial and the like. These words are made plural by adding "s" to the first word, such as "attorneys general" or "courts martial." However, the possessive is made by adding apostrophe-s to the second word, such as "the attorney general's office." Can you give any insight into this discrepancy?

May. 20 2009 01:41 PM
Geoff from West Orange, NJ

I don't know if you have ever discussed "infixes" in English, but I would be extremely interested in hearing Patricia's opinion of the up & coming phrase "a whole nother" used when talking something altogether different.

May. 20 2009 01:41 PM
Sarah from Manhattan

I grew up in Michigan. When I moved to NY when I was 24 I heard the expression for the first time in my life "not for nothing". What in the world does that mean?

May. 20 2009 01:41 PM
Brian from Brooklyn, NY

Is a commentator someone who makes comments or commentary? If we go with the latter, the longer form makes sense...

May. 20 2009 01:41 PM
Burr from manhattan

Should the word "laundromat" be capitalized?

May. 20 2009 01:41 PM
mCgill from montreal canada

Why would have to meet the Mets? They have already been met. Anyway, I am and yam a Yankee Fan. I want to go to new Yankee (singulier) Stadium (Le Stade Yankee). But the great Canadian team of hockey is neither singular Maple Leaf nor pluriel Maple Leaves, but rather they are the Maple Leafs. But in French they are pluriel... Les Feiulles d'erable.

May. 20 2009 01:40 PM
CH from Staten Island


If the caller is a YANKEE fan, apparently he only likes *one* of the YANKEES. So I wonder which one it is?

May. 20 2009 01:40 PM
Johnny S from cranford, nj


May. 20 2009 01:40 PM
Dashiell from washington hts

how does one pronounce columnist?
nist or ist?

May. 20 2009 01:39 PM
marbles from manhattan

would the yankee fan say he's a Beatle fan? or a Bee-Gee fan? a Stone fan?

May. 20 2009 01:38 PM
Edward from NJ

Wouldn't commentator relate to commentary?

May. 20 2009 01:38 PM
jennifer from Belleville, NJ

I've heard that the origin of the slang term for money, "moolah" is unknown - any new insight to this?

May. 20 2009 01:37 PM
Michael Hnatov from Brooklyn

The whole 9 yards refers to the length of a belt of machine gun bullets in a WW2 fighter(about 15 seconds worth of shooting)
"yeah, I gave him the whole 9 yards"

May. 20 2009 01:36 PM
Tyler from Manhattan

some people refer to time as "a quarter of _____" and some say "a quarter to ______" which one is correct?

May. 20 2009 01:36 PM

I wonder if the use of 'fathom' as a measurement of depth has to do with measuring the length of rope used to drop anchor. When you are trying to measure a long rope, one of the handiest ways to measure the line would be your armspan.

May. 20 2009 01:35 PM

I often hear WNYC newsreaders and reporters include in their presentations the phrase, "it is not clear" when they obviously mean "it is not known" or "they didn't return my call yet."

For example: "It is not clear whether Mayor Bloomberg plans to close public schools in Queens because of the Swine Flu."

To me this is a misleading phrase. It implies that reporting was done and is still being interpreted, that the subject is being accused of deliberate obfuscated -- or that the reporter is simply very, very confused.

(I assume that everyone else, along with myself, simply interpret this flourish as the sole personal touch to a 3rd party news article sourced from AP, or somewhere else.)

Anyway, your take on this phrase, grammatically or stylistically?

May. 20 2009 01:35 PM
Christine from Brooklyn

I'm sorry, I should add that "pouce" is also the word for "inch". (Important detail!)

May. 20 2009 01:33 PM
Jim Ford from Brooklyn

When sailors were measure the depth of water, they would pull up the rope and measure it by the full length of their arms. So fathom is streeching one's arm full length to measure something like depth.

May. 20 2009 01:33 PM
Christine from Brooklyn

On "rule of thumb", the French word for "thumb" is "pouce"... I would imagine the expression originates from there.

May. 20 2009 01:31 PM
Johnny S from cranford, nj

BTW when I learned to be a butcher I learned that the first joint of a man's thumb is usually about 1 1/2". Helpful for cutting steaks and chops.

May. 20 2009 01:30 PM
Steve (the other one) from Manhattan

Would you please explain why the Brits spell words such as "organisation" with an "s" and we don't?

May. 20 2009 01:30 PM
Johnny S from cranford, nj

Why is someone who makes comments called a comment-ator? Does this predate Fox News?

May. 20 2009 01:29 PM
Joe from Englewood, nj

I've heard it said that one should say "I was graduated by Harvard" instead of "I graduated from Harvard"?

May. 20 2009 01:26 PM
just curious from Staten Island

Is there a short explanation as to how the prefix "im-" came to be used to create a sort of gerund in some cases (implant, imprison, import, impregnate) and create an opposite in other cases (improper, impossible, immodest, immortal)?

May. 20 2009 01:20 PM
sr from NJ

please explain the pronunciation of the word 'roof', 'room'. I was taught and still say the words with long o's, like in spook, brooks, but i have been corrected by many people to say it more like 'ruffe, and rumme.

which is the correct way, or is there a correct way and what is the origin of these various pronunciations. is there a north south divide. more people in midwest and south use the ruffe and rumme.

May. 20 2009 12:20 PM

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