Patricia T. O’Conner

Wednesday, November 25, 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 recently 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 [47]

Amy Simms from Boston

To prepare for the GREs your caller can do no better than to first watch 'Akeelah and the Bee.' In this movie, he will learn both how to study and how to approach a high-stakes test. Akeelah is a spelling bee hopeful coached by a crusty, reluctant coach (Laurence Fishburne) and at first discouraged by her protective mother (Angela Bassett). When Akeelah does not know a word, she has been coached to hear the phonemes that signal whether it is derived from Latin or Greek. She next recalls the meaning of each sound alone and in combination and thus its likely meaning and likely spelling. It works.

Nov. 27 2009 04:10 PM
Steve from Hoboken, NJ

#41, I agree with you. Not only does she not come across as authoritative much of the time, but she frequently just looks words up live on the show and simply reads the definitions. Heck, I could do that I my own.

Nov. 25 2009 02:03 PM
SuzanneNYC from Upper West Side

Less and Few are confused daily everywhere I turn -- on NPR, WNYC, even learned radio hosts use less when they should use fewer. Ms. O'Conner is much too lenient. I will not give in here. Maintain the proper distinction between less and few.

Less is quantity
Fewer is numerical

Less income this month than last month
Fewer pennies in my pocket
Fewer people eating out
Less food left over

Less people are looking for work -- should be: fewer people are looking for work. Unless the people looking for work are smaller in size (less)

Nov. 25 2009 01:58 PM
Laurence from Brooklyn

Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms by the late Donald Borror (~$11.00 online)

I recommend it to all of my undergraduate Biology students

Nov. 25 2009 01:58 PM
Voter from Brooklyn

I’ve never heard of “two shakes of a jiffy” but I have heard “two shakes of a lamb’s tail” which can be rather fast.

Nov. 25 2009 01:55 PM
Martin from tuckahoe, ny

I studied English in college and have fought hard for the integrity of the language, however elitist this cause may be. The word ginormous is truly offensive to my ear. But as Patricia said, common usage is what counts. Language is living thing.

My real issue comes down to the naming of things. Language is the power to name things, to define a feeling, a thing, a viewpoint in a single word. There are words in every language that cannot easily be translated to other languages because it is so specifically defined. This ability to name things and adequately describe our experience is the power of language.

Nov. 25 2009 01:54 PM
Say what?? from fleetwood

I love anything about words and their origins but the WORD MAVEN needs to be replaced as I never hear her answer more than 40% of questions with much confidence. She seems to have problems finding the words herself... I pains me to hear the ummms and ohhhhhhs from this supposed expert. really wish she could actually talk turkey instead of jibberish.

Nov. 25 2009 01:54 PM
Lisa Gibson from Ossining NY

I'm new to this, so if it's been answered, I apologize. But when?--and worse, how?--did we start using "troops" to mean an individual person? My dictionary (and I) define it as a GROUP of people (soldiers, fighters, troopers, etc.). But what you hear now in the news is that we're sending X number of troops to war, and the figure apparently refers to individual people, not groups of people. Why? We have perfectly good words as mentioned above; why are we not using them instead of changing the meaning of "troops"?

Nov. 25 2009 01:53 PM
Frank from UES

Why do all the Starbucks people say, "May I help the following guest".

Wouldn't the following guest be the one behind the first person in line?

Nov. 25 2009 01:53 PM
Kate Steinberg from Park Slope

The one time I heard the phrase "cut of [his] jib" was on The Simpsons. Mr. Burns, by some estimations 150 years old, once said, "I don't like the cut of his jib!" most likely referring to Homer.

ALSO: what's the difference between NOSTALGIC and SENTIMENTAL?


Nov. 25 2009 01:53 PM
brenda from bronx

People don't use a long vowel before another vowel. For instance: Tha Opera as opposed to
Thee Opera
(I didn't have the underline app. sorry)

Nov. 25 2009 01:51 PM
Steve Bloch

On the history of "Trivium":

I've never heard of "trivial" meaning "something one could encounter at the crossroads", as Ms. O'Conner says. Here's a more plausible (IMHO) explanation.

During the Middle Ages, the Seven Liberal Arts were divided into the "Trivium" and the "Quadrivium", of which the former were more elementary, and were a prerequisite to the higher studies of the latter; hence, "trivial" means the beginning or elementary stages of study.

(The Trivium comprised Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, while the Quadrivium comprised Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy.)

Nov. 25 2009 01:51 PM
Frank from UES

Another repetitive misuse that bugs me.

"Harbinger of things to come"

Unfortunately, spoken by Brooke on last week's On The Media.

Nov. 25 2009 01:51 PM
Sam from NYC

What about the baseball term, RBI, which stands for Runs Batted In or a Run Batted In. I constantly hear this pluralized as RBI's, which would be incorrect if the R stands for Runs. Any consensus on this?

Nov. 25 2009 01:50 PM
Peter from Queens

Please comment on the difference between "awfull and awesome".

Nov. 25 2009 01:50 PM
David from Nassau County

If there is no English substitute for "unique", would "sui generis" be a useful substitute?

Nov. 25 2009 01:49 PM
Rodger Friedman from Warwick, NY

"Meteoric rise" is surely a malapropism, based probably on the trail of light that meteors inscribe across the sky as they fall. Nevertheless, there is a basis for it. Ancient Greek "Meteoros" meant "off the ground," like a horse leaping, and, later, "things in the sky." The word evolved to denote wavering, thoughtless, inconstant behavior.

Nov. 25 2009 01:49 PM

Can you explain expressions that seem like space fillers, such as "As it were," or "If you will."

Nov. 25 2009 01:48 PM
Gene from Long Island

Where does the midwestern expression "two shakes of a jiffy" come from? I have traced the expression in google books to 1847. A jiffy, unknown origin, means something occurring extremely quickly. What does "two shakes" add to a "jiffy"?

Nov. 25 2009 01:48 PM
marc from tenafly nj

can you talk about the phrase:

"that's a whole nother thing..."

Nov. 25 2009 01:47 PM
Garrett from Brewster, NY

I had heard that "trivia" came from the "trivium" which was the basic course of study in a Medieval University.

The "quadrivium" the more advanced course of study.

Nov. 25 2009 01:47 PM
Peter White from Queens

Please comment on the difference between "awesome and awfull".


Nov. 25 2009 01:46 PM
Stan L from NYC

If words mean what people think they mean, the what of the "N"-word. Seems there are two camps of thought there...

Nov. 25 2009 01:45 PM
mark couer from brooklyn

could ms o'connor make a comment or two about the use of sentence fragments and other language shortcuts on resumes? i hear some employers recognize that sentence fragments are permitted, but i recently heard thru the grapevine that a screener of my resume trashed my chances because of sentence fragments.

Nov. 25 2009 01:43 PM
SuzanneNYC from Upper West Side

About those two phrases that seem "wrong" -- think less literally and more metaphorically.

Near Miss -- a more positive take than near hit; would you rather hear that two planes had a near hit or a near miss? That one's about PR.

Meteoric Rise -- meteors appear suddenly, out of the blue, without warning. Yes they fall but mostly they are unexpected. Same with overnight stardom -- a meteoric rise in that it's sudden not directional.

Nov. 25 2009 01:43 PM
Kirsten from Manhattan

Is it now universally acceptable to use "impact" as a verb when meaning "affected". I still cringe - thinking of catastrophic events such as car crashes or an impacted tooth - when I hear or read it being used instead of "affected".

#2 am not a native speaker and just can't get the usage of "lit" versus "lighted" right

Nov. 25 2009 01:40 PM
Ron from Asheville, NC

Maybe a "near miss" is because it describes a miss, not a hit -- and a miss in which the objects are very near.

Maybe a meteoric rise is described as such to imply the inevitability of a subsequent fall because of the extreme and sudden nature of the rise. In other words, to rise to the height of a meteor (before it falls), means to rise to a height that is almost infinite relative to the ground -- beyond the atmosphere -- from which there is nowhere to go but down.

Nov. 25 2009 01:39 PM
Steve from Hoboken, NJ

Near miss does in fact make sense. A miss can be near or far or anywhere in between, so it serves to qualify the proximity of the miss.

Nov. 25 2009 01:39 PM
Wesley from From Queens, living in Cleveland, OH

Like a previous caller, I'm always abhorred by sportscasters' usage of the phrase "He left his feet" meaning "He jumped". You don't leave your feet, you leave the ground. It drives me nuts when people who are paid to use language in a public manner actually set about destroying it. But, if my team wins, that helps...

Nov. 25 2009 01:38 PM
Garrett from Brewster, NY

What a "near miss" than a "near hit"?

A hit may be desired in baseball, but with airplanes a miss is the desired outcome.

As someone is concerned about getting a miss they would naturally say "how close was the miss" or "how near the miss"?

A hit is a hit, but a miss maybe one that is near or wide.

Nov. 25 2009 01:38 PM
Tonky from Brooklyn

RE: Cut of their jib. Yes jib is one of the sails.

But, basically the operative term here is "cut" Wind is meant to flow over the front of the sail just so.

Jibs have little strings that hang down on either side of the sail called "tell tales"

If the tell tales are blowing back parallel the sailor has the sail "perfectly cut."

If the sail is too far out or trimmed too far in the tell tales flop around.

So the complement to "I like the cut of your jib" suggests the recipient is well put together and sailing with style and grace.

Nov. 25 2009 01:38 PM
Ruth C Lewin from Hoboken, NJ

A product of the NYC schools, I was taught to spell dilemma, dilemna. I just found out that no only is it wrong, it's always been wrong.

Nov. 25 2009 01:37 PM
Peter C from Paramus

Ms Yost, I always thought that "less" referred to something that was not quantifiable while "fewer" referred to something that was. I always say "Less love, fewer kisses" to make that distinction.

Nov. 25 2009 01:37 PM
John Celardo from Fanwood, NJ

Can we start a campaign to convince restaurant servers that “you’re welcome” rather than “no problem” is the correct response to thank you?

Nov. 25 2009 01:36 PM
Robert Plautz from New York, N.Y.

Ms. O'Conner,

Would you know the origin of the phrase, "I'll get the hang of it..." or something like, "I had trouble with it until I got the hang of it..."

Hang what?

Thank you,


Nov. 25 2009 01:34 PM
mc from Brooklyn

Should one say that you are "deposing" a witness when taking a deposition? It always sounds like you are removing someone from a throne.

Nov. 25 2009 01:34 PM
Darrell from Astoria

Something that drives me absolutely bonkers: "The reason... is because..." - anytime I hear somebody phrase their words this way I can't help but cringe, and yet I seem to be one of two people on the entire planet who acknowledges that this is incorrect! It IS grammatically incorrect, isn't it?

Nov. 25 2009 01:32 PM
Voter from Brooklyn

I do know #1 that a backhoe literally has a hoe in the back and a shovel up front. A front end loader only has a shovel bucket in the front and no hoe in the back.

Nov. 25 2009 01:32 PM
Myrel Chernick from NYC

Two questions about bothersome grammar. Vicious circle or vicious cycle. I hear both but it seems that the first would be correct. Also, the plural of roof. I constantly hear rooves (even on NPR) but was taught roofs.

Nov. 25 2009 01:32 PM
Rebecca from Brooklyn

I've been reading a few older novels to my 7-year-old recently, including "The Five Little Peppers and How they Grew"(1881), and "The Secret Garden" (1911). Both used the word "ejaculated" repeatedly for "exclaimed". When did this word fall out of fashion?

Nov. 25 2009 01:31 PM

is fewer more?

Nov. 25 2009 01:30 PM
Voter from Brooklyn

My question to Ms. O’Conner isn’t a word but on how words are used to describe other words.
The Senate health bill is often described as the 2047 page Senate bill… longer than the King James bible, longer than War and Peace, but 2000+ double spaced with large fonts and gigantic margins doesn’t really seem like equals.
By extension, it’s the same with using quarter million instead of 250 thousand (no one calls 100 thousand a tenth of a million dollars).

Nov. 25 2009 01:29 PM
lori u. from brooklyn

what does the term "the cut of his jib/gib" mean (as in a definition) and where does it originate? can it only be used for men, or for women as well with the "his" = universal mankind?

ps: LOVE this part of the LL show!


oh, and ? #2: why are polish folks considered so stupid (as in all the polak jokes) (like the poor turkey?)

sorry for the sloppy writing--newborn crying and typing with one hand.

Nov. 25 2009 01:26 PM
Phyllis from nyc

So what's up with this new trend to use the useless phrase "going forward"? Hearing it makes me want to hurl something at the radio.

Nov. 25 2009 01:25 PM
Blythe Yost from Pearl River NY

I am constantly correcting my husband when he uses "less" instead of "fewer," but I wonder if his usage is really wrong. I have heard people on the radio use "less" when I feel like they should be using "fewer" and have cringed. How should the two words be used properly and are they at all interchangeable?


Nov. 25 2009 12:08 PM
Gabrielle from brooklyn

The one thing that always trips me up is the use of the possessive apostrophe when a last name ends in 's'.

using "its' as opposed to 'it's' tends to confuse me as well.


Nov. 25 2009 10:43 AM
Joe Adams from Bergen County, New Jersey

The utility company has been tearing up the streets locally to install new underground pipes. The machine most used is called a BULLDOZER. I've also heard it referred to as a back hoe and earthmover. What are the origins of these names? It is my understanding that the inventor of the bulldozer is unknown.

Nov. 25 2009 06:54 AM

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