Patricia T. O'Conner

Wednesday, October 28, 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.


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [54]

Joan Rubenstein from somers, ny

For the third time I'veseen asentence like this (in the NY Times) "And its fate could depend on how a couple dozen Democratic congressmen answer the questions Mr. McConnell and Mr. Obama raised." I always thought it should be "a couple of dozen....". Which one is correct? Thank you.

Mar. 14 2010 11:15 PM
Arnold from Midwood

One origin of "cop" is from England, short for Constable on Patrol.

Oct. 29 2009 09:46 AM
Mike from Teaneck

> pushing the envelope

Tom from Westfield and John from NYC are right. My sources showed that the aircraft performance graph (at least one of the main ones) was basically rectangular with a vee in the middle. It reminded the pilots and engineers of the shape of a paper envelope. The plane operates normally within the envelope, but the test pilots were pushing at the edges of the envelope, trying to exceed the plane's limits.

Oct. 28 2009 02:19 PM
Mike from Inwood

Gus & Tom's Luncheonette on the corner of 207 and Cooper in Manhattan still has egg creams, even though a Mexican employee bought the place a couple of years ago when Gus finally retired. Empanadas and egg creams all at one convenient stop!

Oct. 28 2009 02:14 PM
Lucille Poleshuck from Manhattan

In statistics, an outlier is an observation that is numerically distant from the rest of the data.

Oct. 28 2009 02:01 PM
Becky from Manhattan

Ms. O'Conner,

Both "envelope" and "outlier" are mathmatical terms.

"Pushing the envelope" is explained very well here:

As for "outlier" - I learned that term in a college statistics class over 20 years ago. Gladwell merely popularized it.

Oct. 28 2009 02:00 PM
Marielle from Brooklyn

To #33 - "dickens" was an old (can't tell you exactly which era) euphemism for "devil" - no sexual connotation at all

Oct. 28 2009 01:59 PM
Mike from Inwood

Istead of thinking about what the fans are customarily called, (the are "The New York Yankees" so the fans are "Yankees fans", perhaps think of the players. Jeter is a Yankee, not a Yankees.

Oct. 28 2009 01:58 PM
EB from Plainsboro, NJ

outliar is a math term for statistics.

Oct. 28 2009 01:57 PM
yourgo from Astoria

Is there a word for a person who is a real lover of music in the way we have words for French lovers,.. ex. francophile.. Would it be musicphile.?

In the Greek language it would be musico-philo.

Oct. 28 2009 01:57 PM
Ken from Soho

One of the callers today commented that no one sends letters anymore, they all sends texts. I don't send letters or "texts", but have been using Email for years.

Oct. 28 2009 01:57 PM
Robert Marcus from Brooklyn NY Bensonhurst

Is Post-Poned a compact wort. Or, is Post a prefeix.
what does Poned mean.

Oct. 28 2009 01:57 PM
EB from Plainsboro, NJ

genug = enough. genug is yiddish

Oct. 28 2009 01:57 PM
Laurie from Tribeca


In aviation and aeronautics the term 'flight envelope' had been in use since WWII, as here from the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society, 1944:

"...The ‘flight envelope’ covers all probable conditions of symmetrical maneuvering flight."

Oct. 28 2009 01:57 PM
Mike from Inwood

An outlier isa standard statistical term for someone who is non-typical. It hasa mathematical definition that is too arcane for here. It is this meaning that Malcolm Gladwell has in mind.

Oct. 28 2009 01:56 PM
jess from Brooklyn

I work at a clothing catalog and I really hate when people say "pant" when they are referring to a pair of pants. When people ask me to color-correct a pant, I'm so tempted to just do one leg...

Oct. 28 2009 01:55 PM
Dan from Fair Lawn NJ

Re "pain in the di-di": I'd guess "di-di" was a cutesy form of "diaper", which in turn was a euphemism for "backside", which in turn...

Oct. 28 2009 01:53 PM
Mary Bullock from Staten Island

Ms O'Conner positions herself as a word expert - not an expert on everything.

She owes an apology to that caller from CT who stated that the local post office was closing, due to lower volume of letters. She dismissed this statement as incorrect. I suggest she look at the post office's own statistics.

Oct. 28 2009 01:53 PM
Charlotte Cohen from Port Washington, NY

Please talk about the contrary meanings of "sanction" . What are the other examples of this phenomenon beyond "cleave?"

Oct. 28 2009 01:53 PM
Jacques from NYC

When do we say whelmed? We're either overwhelmed or underwhelmed but are we ever whelmed?

Oct. 28 2009 01:53 PM
JP from The Garden State

You had said in a previous show that The British dialect sounded like American dialect before North America was settled and then had developed the British accent after America was settled. No body believes me when I tell them this. Could you elaborate a little more on the original British dialect?


Oct. 28 2009 01:52 PM
Sam from Brooklyn

I was annoyed today to see that Maureen Dowd used (incorrectly in my mind) the word "enormity" as follows:

"It was a bit surprising that the same dynamic recurred with the first black president. But it is the very enormity of the change Obama represents that makes him cautious at times about more change."

Webster says that enormity's usage has come to be acceptable to mean "enormousness." Am I just a stickler to the original definition implying "seriousness in something morally wrong" ?

Oct. 28 2009 01:52 PM
Kevan from NJ

I have heard since I was a child the expression,when someone would get scraped or cut that It hurts like the dickens.
This sounds like, well, rape. Could this possibly be the origin?

Oct. 28 2009 01:51 PM
Hazel from Hoboken

Patricia, can you talk a little about the word "distaff." I always thought it meant of the opposite sex but why and how did it become a meaning for women?

Oct. 28 2009 01:51 PM
Gary from USW

Here's a question on what's the appropriate verb for subjects that appear plural. For example, which sentence is correct:

"The Beatles ARE my favorite band" or "The Beatles IS my favorite band". Same for "The Yankees ARE my favorite team" or "The Yankees IS my favorite team".

Oct. 28 2009 01:50 PM
Joel from Briarcliff, NY

"Egg creams. To achieve a WHITE milky head (if you're a "soda jerk" behind the counter): 1. Pour a 3/4 ounce or so of milk in the glass 2. Jerk the handle on the seltzer dispenser away from you to achieve a forceful jet only long enough for the milk to foam and form a head 3. Add chocolate syrup by to the glass by allowing it to slide down its inside 4. Then, by jerking the seltzer handle toward you. finish by adding enough seltzer to fill glass 5. Mix from the bottom with a long spoon so as not to disturb the head.

Oct. 28 2009 01:50 PM
Jane Hurd from Brooklyn

Why has the verb "feel" become active instead of passive? e.g. "I feel badly." Drives me crazy!!!

Oct. 28 2009 01:49 PM
Michael West from Brooklyn

2009. Leonard, among others, often says two thousand and nine. Since it is a number, shouldn't the "and" come at the decimal, as in two thousand nine dollars and fifty cents?

Oct. 28 2009 01:49 PM
Dan Kulkosky

"Cop" comes from "copper." Police uniforms used to have large copper buttons.

Oct. 28 2009 01:48 PM
Rudy from New York

> 3-cent egg cream

Leonard, I know you like puns (you must, because you'll attempt anything!), so here's a classic, related todays discussion. It's an exchange from Stan Freberg's History of the United States of America, corrupted from America the Beautiful:

Narrator: "... across the 2-cents plain."
All: "That's FRUITED!"

The pun, unnoted by those of less than a certain age, is that soda fountains once sold selzer with or without flavoring. It was a penny more if "fruited," but just "2 cents, plain."

Oct. 28 2009 01:47 PM
Carlos from NY, NY

what do you think about adults who are over 25 actually speaking in this texting language???

Oct. 28 2009 01:47 PM
John from NYC

From the Jet Test Pilot era - the basis of design of the aircraft was represented by - performance profiles graphs - based on calculations. The pilot's were always trying to exceed these on paper limitations (ie actual vs theoretical limits).

They also had some other colorful term such as "screw the pooch" when you crashed the plane, hopefully you bailed out in time.

Oct. 28 2009 01:46 PM
mac from manhattan

why does patricia say 'as far as texting, i think ...'
instead of 'as far as texting GOES, i think...'?
i hear so many people do this these days.

Oct. 28 2009 01:46 PM
art525 from park slope

"Pushing the envelope" was a phrase used by military test pilots. It was popularized (as are so many catch phrases- Masters of the Universe, social x-rays) by Tom Wolfe in THe Right Stuff.

Oct. 28 2009 01:46 PM
Tom from Westfield from Westfield, NJ

Pushing the envelope, as I understand it, is an aeronautical term. An aircraft has a set of performance characteristics which is the “envelope.” Going outside of those characteristics is “Pushing the Envelope.”

Oct. 28 2009 01:44 PM
Dan Kulkosky

I recently saw a discussion on LinkedIn that suggested that "offen"/"off-ten" is a regional variation. If I can find it I'll post the link, but you'd have to be registered on LinkedIn.

Oct. 28 2009 01:44 PM
Kimberly from Norwalk, CT

Could you suggest a plain English alternative to the word "incentivize?" Thank you!

Oct. 28 2009 01:44 PM
Franzo Law II from Brooklyn

re: often, you wouldn't pronounce the "t" in soften, though we do pronounce the "t" in "soft."

Oct. 28 2009 01:44 PM
RLewis from bowery


In acting class we are taught both Standard American and General American Speech. One has what they call a "stopped T". We have many other words like that where your mouth shapes the T sound, but doesn't explode it. Neither is wrong.

Oct. 28 2009 01:43 PM
Ciesse from Manhattan

1) How to indicate simple possessives in a list? E.g., "James's, Jules's and Jim's girl was one and the same"? Or: "James, Jules, and Jim's girl was ~"?

2) Please speak about the degradation of the "of which" / "in which" / "during which" / etc. construction. I so often hear "which" used on its own in a maddeningly disjointed way -- even on NPR.

Oct. 28 2009 01:43 PM

What about the pronunciation of divisive, with the second i as a short i? Until the recent election I had always heard it with a long i.

Oct. 28 2009 01:43 PM
Rebecca from Brooklyn, NY

I was wondering why are police officers called "Cops"? Where did the word "Cop" come from?

Oct. 28 2009 01:43 PM
James from Brooklyn

Check this link out for an explanation of "push the envelope"

Oct. 28 2009 01:42 PM
christine krol from clinton hill

Pushing the envelope was first in print in Aviation Week & Space Technology, think it was writer Phil Klass.

Oct. 28 2009 01:42 PM
Rob Detagle from jersey city, nj

What can we do to stop the bad habit of using adjectives (rather than adverbs) with verbs?

From athletes ("I played good there" -should be 'well - mistaking the use of 'good' as in the proper "I felt good out there") to a White House spokesman last week, it's sadly too prevalent.


Oct. 28 2009 01:41 PM
Carlos from NY, NY

You can get a good egg cream at Ray's Candy Shop! It's a great 3am treat on your walk to the train.

Oct. 28 2009 01:41 PM
Marielle from Brooklyn

Tom's Restaurant in Prospect Heights has delicious egg creams!

Oct. 28 2009 01:39 PM
Joel from Briarcliff, NY

I am reading "Hamlet." Shakespeare often will use "A" as a sustitute for pronouns such as : he, she, etc. Please discuss the origons of this. Thank you.

Oct. 28 2009 01:38 PM

Do you know the origin of the word: Hankering ?

Oct. 28 2009 01:37 PM
Andy from Brooklyn

I've read that the polite way to correct someone's grammar mistake is to use the correct form soon (not immediately) after the other person has used the incorrect form. This allows them to hear the correct usage, and maybe realize their mistake, without embarrassment.

Oct. 28 2009 01:35 PM
Dan from Fair Lawn NJ

1) Is there a rule for when "actor" nouns end in -or vs. er?
Examples: adviser vs. predictor, terminator, etc.

2) When someone violates standard usage (epicenter, begging the question), how should one react: impulse to correct, or delight in the changing face of language?

Oct. 28 2009 01:21 PM
Daniel from Munich

Should plural possessives or possessives of words that end in 's' be pronounced differently than the nonpossessive?

That is, are all the following pronounced the same or different from each other:

(Joseph) Beuys
(Joseph) Beuys'

Oct. 28 2009 12:36 PM
Daniel from Munich

It's been used for a long time in statistical analysis in the sciences (where it means pretty much what you wrote). A quick search shows usage as early as 1948, but I'm sure it was used much earlier than that:

Oct. 28 2009 12:32 PM
Joe Adams from Bergen County, New Jersey

Occasionally I hear or see the word OUTLIER which I presume means an item isolated or separated from similar items. I don't recall ever coming across the word before the turn of this century. When did it enter the language and when did its use become as common as it is now?

Oct. 28 2009 06:59 AM

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