Word Maven Patricia T. O’Conner

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Our word maven Patricia T. O’Conner answers questions about the English language and grammar. Call us at 212-433-9692, or leave a comment below. Her latest book is Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.

Visit Patricia T. O'Conner’s Grammarphobia website.


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [66]

Frank from NJ

Patricia, at least you knew you were screwing it up, but you messed up the second person pronouns. It helps to know some German. Nom> du, Gen> dein, Acc>dich. In English Nom> thou, Gen> thine, Acc> thee.

Plural familiar, Nom> ye, Gen> your, Acc>you.

So I have heard Episcopal Priests mess up when they tried to say "the Lord bless thee and keep thee" -- why would you say that in the singular? The original is indeed "the Lord bless you and keep you."

Aug. 19 2009 02:03 PM
Soundlanguage from West Village/Jersey City

FYI: "My bad" expression, while now experiencing wider social acceptance outside youth culture, seems to have evolved from 'youth street talk' via the West Coast in the mid 1980's... when i hear it i know it's nothing new.

Teens hate saying they're wrong, so if you must apologize this is a "tough" way of saying it. It was then a new expression to simply replace "sorry, my mistake".

I grew up in South & Northern California at the time and we all used it, found it a funny slang expression, esp when said with attitude- but not sarcastically. Note it's relatively "black" in it's roots too, but like many things ("24-7", my "ride", my "crib", et c) gets quickly absorbed into the local, and eventually national vernacular.

Aug. 19 2009 02:02 PM
Raphael Benabou from Plandome NY

I may be a little late about the discussionb on chess, but for what it is worth:

Checkmate is said to come from sheik mat (or th eking is dead in Arabic).

In French "checkboard" is echiquier, chess is echecs (also means failures) and bank checks are "cheques", hence Exchequer and cheques (British English)

Aug. 19 2009 02:00 PM
Barbara Salop from Riverside CT

One can use "incredible" and "unbelievable" if wanting to be ambiguous or ironic about whether or not the thing described has been a positive or negative experience, if articulated with the appropriate tone. "Hmm.. incredible!"

Aug. 19 2009 02:00 PM
Margaret from Brooklyn

You're just talking about well vs. good. What makes me cringe is the following: 'How are you today?' 'I'm good.' When I reply 'I'm well, thank you' I get that look.

Aug. 19 2009 01:59 PM
Jaime from Queens

Empathic is knowing without being told. Empathic is understanding after being told

Aug. 19 2009 01:58 PM

What is correct?

On accident
by accident

Aug. 19 2009 01:58 PM
John from Jersey/Brooklyn

what about "I feel poorly"?

Aug. 19 2009 01:57 PM
Ryan from brooklyn

Going back to the conversation on "they" as a "number-neutral, gender-neutral pronoun" ...

What do you recommend, or what is in current usage, to meet the distinctly modern need for a gender-neutral singular pronoun to reference the transgendered?

When someone is not a "he" or "she", are they a "they"?

Similarly, if it's not "his" or "hers", is it "theirs"?

Aug. 19 2009 01:57 PM
Eric Miles from Bklyn

Within the world of extreme sports, sketchy certainly implies danger/fear. Being 'sketched' is that gut feeling one gets as the upper limits of ones capacity for risk are reached.

Aug. 19 2009 01:57 PM
Joel from Briarcliff, NY

"Does your guest know anything about the origin of the American accent? Is from Irish?"

I think it's from Hampshire, England.

Aug. 19 2009 01:57 PM
Masha from NJ

On the assumption of "two-ness", as in pants, spectacles, plyers, etc., what happened to the word bra (as in brazier)? :)

Aug. 19 2009 01:56 PM
maggie from morristown nj

Love this segment.
About language difficulty--I was involved in a study analyzing just that, in relation to second language acquisition. The most difficult is Korean, followed by Japanese. The easiest language to acquire is Spanish, followed by, guess what? English.

HOWEVER, although basic English is easy to acquire, it is extremely difficult to perfect.
I've taught ESL to transferees in international corporations for about 20 years. My students just cannot believe that they'll have any problems advancing in such an easy language, but invariably they hit the wall at the very advanced level. the problems:
-prepositions (wildly variable in English), -complicated tenses (future perfect continuous? Try explaining that one,)
-idioms (because the idioms of every language group, transliterated, seep into the language) -of course the huge perplexing vocabulary.
-And there's always the lawless spelling in English that does not at all help w/pronunciation)
and finally there's rhythm and intonation; even most native speakers don't know that they speak with rhythm and intonation.

Aug. 19 2009 01:55 PM
David Smith from Astoria

In the bookstore where I work more and more people ask me for a book "on" say, Stephen King, when they mean a book by Stephen King. When I ask if they mean a book written by Stephen King or one about him they seem puzzled by my lack of understanding, that I should know that "on" means "written by". Is this a new usage?

Aug. 19 2009 01:55 PM
Berit from NJ

I am constantly baffled by the annoying use of "her and I" or "him and I" in phrases such as "Leonard invited him and I". How hard is it to use these pronouns right?

Aug. 19 2009 01:55 PM
Barbara Hanson from NYC

I'm a fifth generation Brooklyn native, and have always said scissor not scissors, and tweezer not tweezers. To the best of my recollection, so did everyone else I knew when I was growing up. Regionalism?

Aug. 19 2009 01:54 PM
Margaret from Brooklyn

I've been noticing a shift in accent to the first syllable from a later syllable: The people are pro-TEST-ing the action. They are engaged in a PRO-test. So far so good. But now I hear the newscaster say that the people are PRO-testing. I hear this in a lot of words, which I can't think of right now. What do you think? Recency, or a real shift?

Aug. 19 2009 01:53 PM
John Kennedy from Brooklyn

It drives me crazy when I hear people turn nouns into verbs, such as the time at work when a colleague said to me "that's a great topic for a meeting. Do me a favor and calendar that." CALENDAR that? Is there not a culture of this linguistic meatgrinding in business language?

Aug. 19 2009 01:52 PM
patrick from brooklyn

Sorry... Two doctors, that word dissappeared!

Aug. 19 2009 01:52 PM

Is "primmer" a proper alternate pronunciation of "primer"? I hear this on NPR frequently.

Aug. 19 2009 01:52 PM
Leo Marcotte (Pronounced Marcott) from Massapequa NY

I dislike hearing of "amount" and "number" being misused.

Example: "The amount of people at the beach was greater than expected." Shouldn't it be: The number of people at the beach was greater than expected?"

Also I belive than one may speak of the amount of sand at the beach but of the number of grains of sand is large indeed.

Aug. 19 2009 01:51 PM
Peter in New York City from New York City

For "transparent" and "bad" for "good" I think that you guys are missing the French connection. "Transparent" is very good French for piercing ambiguity; they also say "C'est terrible" meaning "It's great," while "C'est horrible" for "It'sreally bad."

Aug. 19 2009 01:50 PM
Joel from Briarcliff, NY

My wife, as well as my mother-in-law, were from Canada. Both used "anyways."

Aug. 19 2009 01:50 PM
Dan from Brooklyn--Windsor Terrace

Just a correction to your guest's pronunciation of Old English:

OE WIFE is pronounced like weave-uh.

The F between two nouns become an intervocalic voiced syllable.

And, Huse-bonde is similar. The s is voiced, and it is pronounced 'hoozebonduh'. The final e on both these words is like a shwa.


Aug. 19 2009 01:50 PM
patrick from brooklyn

CAn Patricia comment on the proper way to address two ? For instance if they are married is it "Dear Drs. Lopate?"

Aug. 19 2009 01:49 PM
Marianne from Upper West Side

Can you recommend an alternate word to "literally" since the word seems to have lost its impact...

I always wind up saying "I literally ran out of there-- by which I mean I actually did get up from my table and rotated my legs in a manner that propelled me forward to the exit and left."

(I actually read an intro to a book wherein a model said about her hairdresser "My hair is literally putty in his hands." Gross, no?)

Aug. 19 2009 01:48 PM
Terry from NYC

Regarding the pluralization of words related to "twos," my 15-year old son has told me that the use of the word "pair" in the singular, except when playing cards, pegs you as old.

Aug. 19 2009 01:48 PM
Dan Marsiglio from Walton, NY

I've had the impression (perhaps i'm not alone) that the hybridization of words into "new" words was somehow a modern cool thing to do. i.e. "ginormous" - giant + enormous (or is it gigantic?)

Are there examples from the past that have been accepted into our official language?

Aug. 19 2009 01:47 PM
Tom from Williamsburg

Does your guest know anything about the origin of the American accent? Is from Irish?

Aug. 19 2009 01:47 PM
merrill from NYC

yeah right

Aug. 19 2009 01:46 PM
sequoia from Olympia, WA

pants follow up:
what about 'a crossroads' which is double in conception but still used in the singular, but also pluralized. always sounded weird to me.

Aug. 19 2009 01:46 PM
Sari from Montclair, New Jersey

Does a singular or plural verb follow the word "none"? Does it depend on what the "none" is referring to?

I would think that a singular verb follows since "none" is a 'contraction' for 'not one."

Aug. 19 2009 01:46 PM
Stephanie from Brooklyn

My teenage daughter and her friends have been using the word "sketchy" to mean illegitimate, scary, and, I guess, just plain bad, as in a "sketchy" neighborhood.
I have always thought that the word sketchy means vague or incomplete.
When did this other usage become common?

Aug. 19 2009 01:44 PM
chris from oklahoma city

Is is "recency phennomenon" that it seems to me nowadays it's so common to start a statement, particulary and explanatory one, with "So" I feel like I heard someone on another show discuss this the pervasiveness of "so" as a starter, but I can't remember what was said about it.

Aug. 19 2009 01:43 PM
Laura from Manhattan

CORRECTION: Trouser legs were originally made Ye Olde ladies' stockings, attached one at a time to the upper garment.

From Wikipedia, on trousers:
"Trousers trace their ancestry to the individual hose worn by men in the 15th century (which is why trousers are plural and not singular)."

Aug. 19 2009 01:43 PM
tom hayden from eastchester

is it AN historic event, AN historical event, or A historic event?

Aug. 19 2009 01:43 PM
Bernardo Pace from Brooklyn

In Pittsburgh, the 2nd person plural of "you" is "yins," short I think for "you'nes--you ones--and probably a coal belt import from West Virginia. Yins guys. Molto Pittsburgh.

Aug. 19 2009 01:42 PM
Doris Perlman from Manhattan

Regarding "pair of trousers," etc., have you heard "a pair of underwear"? Very annoying (along with a lot else!)

Aug. 19 2009 01:42 PM
Catherine Torpey from Rockville Centre

ye and you were the 2nd person plural

thee and thou were the 2nd person singular

Ye was the objective case, you the subjective

Thou was the objective, thee the subjective.

Aug. 19 2009 01:42 PM
Carole Ferleger from Manhattan

Not so much pronounciation but a phrase "gone missing."
It may refer to a person or a thing, instead of just missing or lost.

Aug. 19 2009 01:41 PM
P. Ma from NY

Pat: "If I'd have known that you'd be here, I'd have brought your gift." This is how some Romance languages require one to formulate the sentence. Although you've said that English should not be latinised, the use in English of Latin-derived grammar is a very great boost to Americans' being able to master Romance languages. As such, it should be promoted enthusiastically, not proscribed.

Aug. 19 2009 01:41 PM
Kelley from Greenpoint, Brooklyn

I am wondering the EXACT same thing as the above 2 comments explain...I too have lived all over the country and it wasn't until I moved to NYC that people say "on line" when referring to waiting in a line (uh..yep, I use "in line")

I've also had some debates about this topic with native New Yorkers vs non-native New Yorkers. The native New Yorkers all agree it is "on line" while the non-native New Yorkers say "in line".

So, is it a NY thing?

Aug. 19 2009 01:40 PM
Nancy from NYC

I've noticed that the President uses does not use the word "an" before words starting with a vowel, such as "an excellent opportunity". Rather, he might say "a excellent opportunity". I was taught that the former was correct, but...I didn't go to Columbia and Harvard!

Any explanation?

Aug. 19 2009 01:39 PM

I am not from New York, but I have heard a number of people in the NY area make statements like this: "I have had red hair since I'm twelve." Is this acceptable, or should it be "I have had red hair since I was twelve."

Aug. 19 2009 01:39 PM
Susan Goldstein from Westchester County

Lately, there have been several drownings in the Rockaways. I have heard it described as "drowndings" on tv. Is that correct? Does seem so.

Thank you.

Aug. 19 2009 01:39 PM

What about the "on line" versus "in line"? Whenever I leave New York City, I hear "in line," but when I'm in New York, I tend to hear "on line." I'm wondering why that is, because people often poke fun at me.

Aug. 19 2009 01:36 PM
Andrew Farrow from Long Island City, NY

I would love some sort of explanation for New Yorkers use of the words "on line" when they are not speaking of the internet. I'm not from NYC originally but have lived all over the country and have never heard anyone refer to standing "on line" (as opposed to standing "in line"). I know it's not correct, so why do people say it here and nowhere else?

Aug. 19 2009 01:36 PM
Shelly from Brooklyn

Following up on the discussion of the word check and its connection to chess... the americans call the game checkers and the English call it draughts. What's the distinction? Thanks.

Aug. 19 2009 01:35 PM

Here's one: I explain the Canadian "out" and about" as "route" (rowte) and "route" (route)

Do you know why they pronounce "out" the way they do? Scots?

Aug. 19 2009 01:35 PM
E. Hymowitz

Couldn't "presently" also mean "after a while," as in, "presently, he came into the room..."?


Aug. 19 2009 01:35 PM
Tony from San Jose, CA

"anyways" sounds like San Fernando Valley speech.

Aug. 19 2009 01:31 PM
J Reilly from Bellmore, NY


I was under the impression that 'Shah' was related to 'Ceaser' and 'Tzar'

Aug. 19 2009 01:31 PM
chris Van Dyke from washington heights

Pet peeve -- misusage of "literally." Once on a newscast I heard a commentary say that television was "literally turning the nation into zombies," which was a terrifying concept.

Aug. 19 2009 01:31 PM
Shelley from Prairie du Chien, WI (via Jersey City/Manhattan, via McGregor, Iowa)

It is my understanding that the first person, past perfect form of "to go" is "had gone." If this is correct, why do sooo many people say, "...had went."


Aug. 19 2009 01:30 PM
chris Van Dyke from washington heights

1. Why does English not have a formal second person plural, despite growing out of languages (French, Old English) which do? We have "ya'll" but that is slang.

Aug. 19 2009 01:29 PM
Janet from Manhattan

Is the correct word "empathic" or "empathetic"? Or are they two separate words with different meanings or usages?


Aug. 19 2009 01:28 PM

I'm curious about the use of the word "pair" when talking about one thing, like a "pair of pants." I understand "pair of socks," because there's two socks, but there's only ONE pants. Why do we say "pair"?

Aug. 19 2009 01:27 PM
Steve (the other one) from Manhattan

Why do we use "z" in some words and the Brits use "s"? e.g. civilisation, modernise

Aug. 19 2009 01:27 PM
Harris from Harlem

Do you know if there is a difference in usage between the dollar sign with one vertical line through it and the dollar sign with two lines.

I once heard that, back in the day, one was used for amounts less than $100 and the other for more than $100.

Any idea?

Aug. 19 2009 01:25 PM
tom hayden from eastchester

is an historical fact, or a historical....

Aug. 19 2009 01:23 PM
Laura from Manhattan

A GREAT language tool I use = "Microsoft Bookshelf" CD-ROM. Cheap on Ebay. 1990s versions are fine, too, if you don't need current events feature. Wikipedia profiles it.
From Microsoft Bookshelf:

specious (spê´shes) adjective
1. Having the ring of truth or plausibility but actually fallacious: a specious argument.
2. Deceptively attractive.

[Middle English, attractive, from Latin speciosus, from speciês, appearance, from specere, to look at.]
- spe´ciously adverb
- spe´cios´ity (-shê-òs´î-tê) or spe´ciousness (-shes-nîs) noun

Usage Note: A specious argument is not simply a false one but one that has the ring of truth. Those aware of the specialized use of the word may therefore sense a certain contradiction in hearing an argument described as obviously specious or specious on the face of things; if the fallaciousness is apparent, the argument was probably not plausible-sounding to begin with.

species (spê´shêz, -sêz) noun
plural species

[Middle English, logical classification, from Latin speciês, a seeing, kind, form.]

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation. All rights reserved.
~ Adulthood

The distinction between children and adults, while probably useful for some purposes, is at bottom a specious one, I feel. There are only individual egos, crazy for love.
Don Barthelme (1931-89), U.S. author. The narrator (Joseph), in "Me And Miss Mandible" (first published in Come Back, Dr. Caligari, 1964; repr. in Sixty Stories, 1982).

The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations is licensed from Columbia University Press. Copyright © 1993, 1995 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

Aug. 19 2009 12:35 PM
Yvette from Neverland

Which is correct? Or are all correct: wiener versus weener, versus weiner. Urban dictionary uses any.

Aug. 19 2009 12:23 PM
Marielle from Brooklyn

Shouldn't "Can I help the following customer?" be "Can I help the next customer?" Are store managers instructing their employees to say "following" instead? Do they think it sounds smarter? More polite?

Aug. 19 2009 12:08 PM
Matt from Milwaukee

Stop me if you've heard this one. My pet peeve is people's consistent misuse of "myself". I noticed it a few years ago and it's gotten worse and worse. I think people just think it sounds formal and wise, but it makes them sound stupid. A.) Can you review the proper use of the word, and B.) Do you have any knowledge of the origin of its misuse? I have no documented reason to believe it was George Bush, but that's my theory. Similarly, I am starting to hear more and more people picking up Obama's favorite sentence starter: "LOOK". It's fine for him, but if anyone says it to me, I find it so incredibly rude. It implies that you're not looking, or rather, you don't understand an issue. Thanks!

Aug. 19 2009 11:59 AM
Rhoda from Manhattan

Lately announcers on radio and television always pronounce finance as FY-nance. A WNYC newscaster (Amy Eddings)said Bernie Madoff was a FY-nancier. Why don't they know when to use fih-NANCE and FY-nance?

Please remind Lenny the word is di-VY-sive.

Thanks :)

Aug. 19 2009 08:38 AM
Marc Naimark from Paris

In your latest book, Origins of the Specious, you make a play on words between "specious" and "species". That got me wondering: are these words related at all?

Aug. 19 2009 05:46 AM

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