Word Maven Patricia T. O’Conner

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Our Word Maven, Patricia T. O’Conner, answers questions about the English language and grammar. An updated and expanded third edition of her book Woe is I has just been published. Call us at 212-433-9692 or leave a question below.

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

Event: Patricia T. O'Conner will be speaking and signing books at the Author @ the Library program "It Ain't Necessarily So: Setting the Record Straight About English"
Wednesday, September 30, at 6:30 pm
The Mid-Manhattan Library
455 Fifth Avenue at 40th Street
More information here.


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [47]

JOHN H DEXTER from Westchester County

Is the word 'pair' ever plural or should the word always be pairs when referring to more than one pair.
While searching for the men's room in a fancy restaurant I asked the host why the doors were unmarked. He explained that the rest rooms are unisex. I've seen this term on barbershops before but shouldn't the term be bisexual?

Jun. 05 2010 11:32 AM
Tamas Lerner from Budapest

The "got" of "have got" IS in fact the participle, and not the past form of "get": "gotten" is no longer used in British English, and so today "got" serves both as a past form AND as a participle. (In other words, the British have somewhat regularized the verb).

The phrase "I've got" can therefore have two distinct meanings in British English:

1. "I have" - as others have mentioned this is the more common form used in American English, but of course the "I've got" form is also used in America with the exact same meaning - it is colloquial, and therefore avoided in formal speech and writing. Although "I've got" is formally a present perfect, with this meaning it lacks any sense of the perfective, and is used as if it was a present simple: "I have."

2. "I have gotten" - i.e. "I acquired," etc. With this meaning it is a present perfect not only in form, but in meaning as well.

So where an American says "I've gotten a new pair of shoes", a Brit says "I've got a new pair of shoes", this time meaning not "owning", but "acquiring."

The forms of "get" in British English are therefore:


and in America English:

GET, GOT, GOTTEN and -- in this only one phrase -- GOT.

The reason the "have got" form is pushed so hard in English teaching all over in Europe is because everyone is learning from British books. And this is I think simply because British publishers are more aggressive in their marketing.

An excellent source for corpus research findings - i.e. how English is actually used in Britain and in America, as well as in different registers is:

Dougles Biber [et al]: Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. ISBN 0-582-23725-4

Sep. 28 2009 02:59 PM
SUE from Bronx, NY

Connie, a person from Brazil is not a Latino, since it has now become another way of saying Hispanic, which is defined by the US government, as I pointed out before, as someone with origins in an American Spanish-speaking country. I came from Argentina and I checked with them. I also worked on the last census, where that became significant.

Sep. 16 2009 02:08 PM
Mary Royce from Clifton,NJ

Hamish is pronounced with a long A. Related to the Irish Seamus. I believe it is Scottish for
James. I have a West Highland Terrier named Hamish. Love when you have Ms. O'Conner on.

Sep. 16 2009 02:04 PM
Lasorci Siuvejas from Brooklyn

To my understanding, Hispanic and Latino are in fact interchangeable, with 'Latino' being used by those who wish to emphasize their indigenous roots (I am thinking mostly of the Taino in the Caribbean) while 'Hispanic' emphasizes one's connection to Spain. That said ; ), I'm with those who prefer to be desrcibed by nationality rather than such catch-all labels.

Sep. 16 2009 01:59 PM
Laura from Manhattan


In the USA....I'm guessing we picked it up from 1940s-50s radio announcers.....

"We will be back momentarily.....after this word from our sponsor"

Sep. 16 2009 01:58 PM
tim gibson from United States

For Lennie

It is Hay-mish. Old Scottish name.

Sep. 16 2009 01:57 PM
Brian from Inwood

Your guest is slightly wrong with her "hispanic" and "Latino" definition. For example, Brazilians are not hispanic nor latino.

Sep. 16 2009 01:55 PM
karen stepien from colonia nj

my son's 6th grade teacher called the roll in math class and when she called his name, he answered yeah. She immediately corrected him by pointing out that "yeah" is not in the dictionary and "yes" is the correct response. What is the status of "yeah" since it is so common and pervasive throughout our language. (Don't get me started on the Math teacher...).
Karen Stepien

Sep. 16 2009 01:53 PM
Andrew Gitzy from Brooklyn

I'm an editor who works on grammar books for ESL students. I was recently working on the point regarding have vs. have got. There has been a good deal of Corpus research done regarding frequency of usage. The latest research I have access to indicates that have with got used for possession is more than twice as frequent in spoken British English as in AmE.

My source is the Cambridge Grammar of English.

Sep. 16 2009 01:51 PM

I am married to a man from Argentina, who takes offense to the use of "Latino" and "Hispanic." These words are used quite freely and interchangeably in North America, and yet, with regards to Latino, it is not particularly representative of people from Southern and Central America. Residents from these continents do not refer to themselves as such, and as Leonard pointed out, wonder why it would not be used in reference to the French or Greeks.

Sep. 16 2009 01:50 PM
SUE from Bronx, NY

I want to correct O'Connor's statement as to who is Hispanic. According to the US Government (State Dept.) Hispanics expressly exclude people born in Spain, so that is not a difference between Latina and Hispanic.

Sep. 16 2009 01:49 PM
Rob from The Bronx

@ #5 blogenfreude from Manhattan
I wonder if the British who use s instead of z or is it the Americans who use z instead of s, or would that be zed instead of s?

Sep. 16 2009 01:48 PM
faith Steinberg from Manhattan

Hispanic has connotations of colonization.

Sep. 16 2009 01:48 PM
Ragnar Johnsen from Bergen - Norway

F.Y.I, you do have a listener in Norway as well, and he is even contributor to WNYC.

Ragnar Johnsen

Sep. 16 2009 01:47 PM
frank from brooklyn

I think latino is distinct to Central Americans + Mexico: so PR, DR, Honduras...right?

Sep. 16 2009 01:46 PM
Pjbeee from Ridgewood NJ

Starting with "as well", I have heard and seen the construct, and I am sure that I have heard and seen the word "too" used to begin a sentence.

Sep. 16 2009 01:46 PM
Connie from nj

Would a man from Brazil be a Latino?--they speak Portuguese rather than Spanish but that's still a Latin language.

Sep. 16 2009 01:44 PM
eliza from midtown

I was recently visiting an American friend in Germany, and was drawing pictures with her half-German 5-year old. The child told me that a ship is not a boat because ships are big. This is apparently an ongoing discussion in their household, because in German a boat is only a small vessel.

Looking up "Boat" in an English dictionary did not help clarify this, however. I wonder if you can explain the meaning of "boat" and whether there are contexts in which it only applies to small vessels, or whether in English it applies to anything that floats (which is how I'd define it), or whether it really does only apply to small floating vessels.

Thank you!

Sep. 16 2009 01:44 PM
Moshe Feder from Flushing, NY

I think using "as well" instead of "too" is OK, but I wonder what Ms. O'Conner thinks of _starting_ a sentence with it.

For example, one could say, "WNYC broadcasts in AM and FM and offers its programming on the internet too." But some people might replace that second clause with a new sentence: "As well, the station offers its programming as an internet stream."

Personally, I find this usage irritating, but can I tell people it's wrong?

Sep. 16 2009 01:43 PM
Lasorci Siuvejas from Brooklyn

Was that THREE American cities with three "u"'s in their names that Leonard mentioned? I heard only Albuquerque and Dubuque.....

Sep. 16 2009 01:43 PM
Dorothy from Chelsea

It's driving me CRAZY! Terry Gross said it; the lady who does the local news during ATC said it; one of the NPR people said it.

"Repeat back." For example: "We're going to repeat back our interview with Mr. X who died yesterday." [Expletives deleted. ;-)]

And a little Chelsea thing: One of the dogwalkers told me that he "took a heart attack." The neighbor who was also a participant in the conversation commented on "took" and said that native Chelsea-ites usually (often?) use that wording for heart attacks.

Sep. 16 2009 01:43 PM
Pjbeee from Ridgewood NJ

Another city (in Iowa, at least) with three of the letter "u" in the name is "Columbus Junction". It's a very big city, with population of about 1,800.

Sep. 16 2009 01:42 PM
Tim from New York City

"Have got" is totally British. We use it here but not nearly as much as our cousins across the pond.

Sep. 16 2009 01:42 PM
bob from NYC

why people, including you guys, say "doing something all the time", which is not exactly correct logically, because they do some other things too, the same time. what is wrong with old, good, short "often"?

Sep. 16 2009 01:41 PM
Farideh from Fort Lee

Talking about increasing the number of syllables in a word, is there a difference between exigence and exigency? I often hear people add a y to a word that is a noun to make it a noun.

Sep. 16 2009 01:41 PM
Ron JerAyCee from Greenwich Village

Lately, I hear more and more people starting sentences with "So,..."

Especially people from the south. They use "So,..." to start a reply to a question-- Not in the usage that is familiar to me, which is "So I can have peace of mind," but rather, "So, you may decide that you want to use this function of the program..."

What is going on here? Why is this happening?


Sep. 16 2009 01:41 PM
Ken from Soho

You asked for cities with two U's in the name. How about Weehawken - that starts with a double-U.

Sep. 16 2009 01:40 PM
Ken from New Jersey

What else than "multiple choice" would you call the exam questions that require identifying the correct answer from among a number of possibilities? Several choice questions? Many choice questions? They don't work. "Multiple" is the best word in some cases.

Sep. 16 2009 01:39 PM
tim gibson from United States

Is there any hope of stamping out "reaching out" (in place of good old 'asking') and "sharing" (in place of 'telling' or 'informing').

All this p.c. speak is driving me CRAZY !!

Sep. 16 2009 01:39 PM
Peter from New York City

Where or howdid "so much" get added to "thank you?" It seems to have sneaked up from nowhere, and now amost everyone seems to use it.

Sep. 16 2009 01:39 PM
M. L. from Brooklyn

In regards to the question posed by commenter #3, could Ms. O'Conner recommend a reference that tells what preposition one uses in certain phrases? I've found that the dictionary is only occasionally useful in answering such questions.

Sep. 16 2009 01:39 PM
frank from brooklyn

PT & LL: what is the difference between exacerbate and exasperate. Merriam says the first means to make more violent, bitter, or severe and the second means to excite the anger of...isn't that the same? I had an argument with my boss about this.

Sep. 16 2009 01:38 PM
Rob from The Bronx

Is the multiple syllable tendency why people tend to over utilize utilize and under use use?

Sep. 16 2009 01:37 PM
Bob Kern from Avon-by-the-Sea, NJ

Is there any hope to bring back the differentiation between "fortunate" and "fortuitous"?

Also the proper use of an apostrophe before '09 (for example) rather than an opening single quote that computers put in automatically.

And tell Jeffrey there's also "abstemiously."

Sep. 16 2009 01:37 PM
Hamish from lower east side

I am from New Zealand, until I came to the US, I had never heard the word 'momentarily' before. But Americans seem to use it all the time. Why is that so prevalent here? what is wrong with 'soon' or 'in a moment' or something simpler than a long word like momentarily, and is that even really a word?

Sep. 16 2009 01:36 PM
Jill from New York

P. O'Conner just committed one of what I consider to be the Modern Offenses: She pronounced "Exactly" as "Exack-ly".
Pour Kwa? Would she address this?

Sep. 16 2009 01:36 PM
Steve Brennan from Dobbs Ferry

Could you comment on "missing words"? That is things that are universally observed, but have no names. An example: The thing a tree casts on the ground on a sunny day is a shadow. The bright shape a window casts on the floor on a sunny day is a ... what?

Sep. 16 2009 01:35 PM
Vanessa from Prospect Heights, BK

I think that woman heard people say
"I'm not very sanguine about......."
and didn't hear the "not"
at least I hope so!

Sep. 16 2009 01:35 PM
F.F. from Carlisle, PA

Leonard: love the show and PTO, but am I correct in thinking that she just pronounced the word "pronunciation" as "pronOUnciation"?!?

Sep. 16 2009 01:32 PM
Tony from San Jose, CA

I have a question about "Jack." Why do so many words have it in them?

Phone jack

Sep. 16 2009 01:29 PM
Tony from San Jose, CA

I have a question about "Jack." Why do so many words have it in them?

Phone jack
Jackass (the male donkey, of course).

This Jack was quite a character.

Sep. 16 2009 01:27 PM
blogenfreude from Manhattan

Patricia may have answered this (I always get called away from my desk, but can you please ask her to explain why the Brits use "s" instead of "z" (e.g. civilisation v. civilization).

Sep. 16 2009 01:26 PM
Joanna Carides from Brick, NJ

When or why did the use of "as well", meaning in addition, become more commonplace than saying "too"? I'm a proponent of shorter is better - "too" is one syllable.


Sep. 16 2009 12:48 PM
Rhonda from Upper East Side

This week I read that Jonathan Schwartzmann is "a cousin to Nicolas Cage and Sofia Coppola."

I would have said he is a cousin OF Nicolas and Sofia.

Which is correct?

Thank you.

Sep. 16 2009 12:26 PM
BrettG from Astoria NY

Dear Ms. O'Conner,

Congratulations on making a recent NYT puzzle w/ "Woe Is I" as a completion answer.

Sep. 16 2009 12:01 PM
Joel Samberg from Verona, NJ

Hi, Patricia. I'm the guy you helped out with what I call the most important line in a new book about my grandfather, a comic songwriter named Benny Bell. The book just came out and is getting good reactions--so thank you very much.

It seems as if almost everyone who is asked a question--on television, on radio, even in print--begins most answers with the word 'well.' Even people from other countries do it. It's almost a given--an accepted form of speech. Why is this? How did it begin, why does it continue, and how do you feel about it?

Thank you very much.

Sep. 16 2009 10:44 AM

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