Word Maven Patricia T. O'Conner

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

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 Website.


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [90]

drora kemp from North NJ

Proposal for additional words that should be banned:

I cringe whenever I hear any of these - pompous, inflated.

Jan. 21 2010 06:09 PM
John from Bklyn


Ha ha! Haven't heard "yins" since I hung with my P-Burgh friends at Penn State many years ago!

Jan. 20 2010 02:04 PM
John from Bklyn

No worries

UGH!!! Enough! Toss it!

Jan. 20 2010 02:02 PM
bruce glaser from fairfield, ct

The western calendar began in the year 1 not the year zero so that the first decade was from 1 to 10. The first millennium: 1 to 1000, the second, from 1001 to 2000. Thus the first decade of our millennium is from 2001 to 2010.

Jan. 20 2010 01:59 PM
Peter from Central New Jersey


Just substitute the phrase "in and of itself" for per se. That is when it should be used.

Jan. 20 2010 01:58 PM
jon h from new york

Why is thirty often pronounced 'thirdy'?

Jan. 20 2010 01:57 PM
Mihailo from UES

I like to write "alright," when I want to say that things went fairly well, but I think I once saw that the dictionary says "all right" is the proper way to write it... but it doesn't feel right, that way.

Jan. 20 2010 01:57 PM
Ross Biddulph from Harlem


I rarely travel by plane these days as I refuse to use an airline where I have to "deplane" at the end of a flight. Where do they "get off" constructing a word like that!


Jan. 20 2010 01:57 PM
Michelle from Jersey city

I remember practicing for my high school graduation and the vice principal telling us to line up in RAW alphabetical order. That's silly....

Jan. 20 2010 01:57 PM

The term "...but at the end of the day..." is truly over-used.

What, race through life because " the end of the day, those small details really don't matter..." ?

Jan. 20 2010 01:56 PM
Annie from NJ

Heroin in addictive; a-maaaaazing buttercream cupcakes are addicting.

Then there's the word "actually" that peppers speech (even mine, actually). I think it is the grown up version of "like." It's funny because we went from saying something that was "like" what we were trying say to saying something that is "actually" what we're saying. From one verbal vice to another, I guess!

Jan. 20 2010 01:56 PM
Thomas from Jersey City

I think I can put the disagreement of when the decade/millennium begins once and for all. To answer the question of when the millennium began - was it 2000 or 2001 - ask yourself when the first millennium began. It was year 1 - there was no year zero! Same with the first decade, etc.

Same with months. There's no January 0 -- the month begins on the first, and so does the decade, millennium, etc.

Jan. 20 2010 01:56 PM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

I think "they" and "them" (and "people") are often used even when the gender (sorry Patricia!) is specific and intended, and I believe it is due to the tendency to go overboard in political correctness.

The example I am thinking of is when a woman who is clearly referring to meeting men on a dating site will say she joined the site to meet "people" instead of to meet "men." Or referring to a date, she will refer to him as "them". Men do the complementary thing with the sex (satisfied?) reversed.

Jan. 20 2010 01:56 PM
hjs from 11211

i will always hate historical, why not just historic

Jan. 20 2010 01:55 PM
Sainted_Mother from Harlem, NY

In southern US, y'all is very common ... I've taken to using it. However ... "all of many people" becomes "all y'all" which I find weird.

In Pittsburgh, where I'm from, it's "yins" ... as in "Where yins goin'? Yins goin' donton?"

Jan. 20 2010 01:55 PM
Nell from Brooklyn

Does Patricia have any idea why we sometimes day "I'm ON the Upper West Side," verses "I'm IN the West Village?"

Jan. 20 2010 01:55 PM
Peter from Queens

Regarding addictive and addicting -- even while both would appear to refer to a thing's action on a subject, a sense of distinction here that might be made is that "addictive" could refer more to a thing's inherent qualities -- in themselves -- as opposed to, more explicitly, the thing's ability to affect the subject. How's that?

Jan. 20 2010 01:55 PM
Katherine from manhattan

Also, what a lot of people confuse:





Jan. 20 2010 01:54 PM
Marielle from Brooklyn

I LOVE to use "one" instead of "you," though I think many people say it sounds affected.

Jan. 20 2010 01:54 PM
John from Bklyn

I've heard "optics" used instead of "visuals".

Hated phrase: "Scrub it clean"

As in, proof read or check for errors.

Jan. 20 2010 01:54 PM
John W. Lowell from NYC

I hate: "What are your future plans?"

As opposed to your past plans?

Jan. 20 2010 01:53 PM

what about nonplussed! people use it incorrectly so much that it is becoming the definition for it!

Jan. 20 2010 01:53 PM
Stanley from Manhattan

absolutely ready for the bin : perfect storm

Jan. 20 2010 01:53 PM
Daniel from Beacon, NY

How about the word "niggard," or "niggardly?" Just writing it seems offensive. Does this derive from our discriminatory "negro?" Or does it have earlier roots?

Jan. 20 2010 01:53 PM
Anne from Brooklyn

Another business word question - should the word "incent" be used in this way at all?

"Money INCENTIVIZES me to work harder" or
"Money INCENTS me to work harder" or
"Money gives me an INCENTIVE to work harder"

I would appreciate any clarification!


Jan. 20 2010 01:52 PM
Beth from Dutchess County

Ca n you speak to the current political use of the word existential as in existential threat- seems to be used as actual- while I relate it to Camus and Sartre as theoretical?

Jan. 20 2010 01:52 PM
Dorothy from Chelsea

"Awesome" is MUCH more uh-may-zing than amazing.

The which/that thing in MS Word can be fixed in AutoCorrect.

Jan. 20 2010 01:52 PM
Raphael Benabou from Manhasset NY

Patricia's cavalier comment about the French Academy and giving it ( the word hommage) to the French is truly surprising as she knows that English is 1 /3 French and 1/3 Latin.

More to the point, isn't Patricia herself acting as a reference of sort as to how to pronounce words whicg befuddle American.

Did Shakespeare write his plays in a democratic fashion or he showed how to use the language in beautiful and powerful ways.

Wouldn't be better off ifour kids were taught how to spell and pronounce words in a rational way and predictible way?

Jan. 20 2010 01:52 PM
Arch Currie

Isn't the phrase 'friend of mine' redundant?

Jan. 20 2010 01:51 PM
tony from manhattan

and another redundancy: "whether or not." i only need to know "whether" something happened, not "whether or not"!

Jan. 20 2010 01:51 PM
Marielle from Brooklyn

I just heard a politician earlier today on NPR say that an issue needed to be "dialogued" - aaaahhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!

Jan. 20 2010 01:51 PM
Gary from Upper Left Side

Please discuss American English vs. British English, whereby Brits (like the BBC) refer to the third-person singular as third-person plural, such as saying "they" when referring to "the government" rather than "it".

Jan. 20 2010 01:51 PM
james littlehales from Stamford CT

Can you please comment on the use of "PER SE"?Im not sure exactly what it means or when it should be used?

Jan. 20 2010 01:50 PM
Dave Lewis from NYC

All the political pundits are using "optics" to denote visual images. This seems quite new.

Jan. 20 2010 01:50 PM
Rob from Highland Park, NJ

Please strike the word "like". This insipid word has slowly moved from the vocabulary of my niece into my wife's vocabulary. I'm always tempted to ask "Was it like that? or really that?"

Jan. 20 2010 01:50 PM
Daniel from Manhattan

One of your last callers used one of MY pet peeves. "Quick question." What does that mean, really? Are you saying you don't want to take up too much of my time? I will still have to answer you, and who is to say how long the answer will take?

Jan. 20 2010 01:49 PM
Abby from Riverdale

Stamp out "ginourmous"!
We already have so many great words for things that are very large.

Jan. 20 2010 01:49 PM
Sainted_Mother from Harlem, NY

I have been hearing "bespoke" more and more ... and I don't really know what it means.

Jan. 20 2010 01:49 PM
tony from manhattan

don't know if this has come up before, but the correct pronunciation of "flaccid" is somewhat surprising, considering common use (well, hopefully not too common in any of our experience!).

reference "succeed", however.

Jan. 20 2010 01:49 PM
Morgan Grayson from NYC

Thanks for a great show!

I keep seeing "refer back" in the Times and NYer magazine. I was taught that this was redundant. Can you clarify?

Also, "nauseated" and "nauseous" seem to be misused.

And of course, "impacted" makes me grind my teeth, although EVERYONE uses it these days.

Again, thank you for such an informative program.

M. Grayson

Jan. 20 2010 01:49 PM
Jay F. from manhattan

Please explain the British usage of the word "Hospital".

Jan. 20 2010 01:49 PM
Patricia from Sunset Park, Brooklyn

Am I the only one who has noticed Obama's overuse of the term "make no mistake" in his speeches? Make no mistake! I am getting tired of it and the term is definitely losing the forceful seriousness he intends to convey by it.

Jan. 20 2010 01:48 PM
Rob Dwyer from NJ

Why do people often say, "heighth," when referring to height? Is it a valid word or are they just used to saying width?

Jan. 20 2010 01:48 PM
Aloysius from Midtown Manhattan

I have heard (more than twice) "uncomfortability" used in place of the more succinct and elegant "discomfort". Is this ever acceptable?

Jan. 20 2010 01:47 PM
Katherine from manhattan

What about the use of nouns as adjectives?

As in,

"That's so 90s"

"or that's so Kathy..."

Jan. 20 2010 01:47 PM
Morgan Grayson from NYC

I keep seeing "refer back" -- even in the Times and NYer. I was taught it was redundant, but it seems to have come back in force. Can you please clarify. Thanks!

Needless to say "impacted" makes me crazy.

Also, I think "nauseous" and "nauseated".....I think these are often misused.

I enjoy the show very much.
M. Grayson

Jan. 20 2010 01:47 PM
Mimi Erlich from Manhattan

What is the origin of the phrase "Shut Up". How old is it? American or British?

Jan. 20 2010 01:47 PM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

Amazing. Leonard, do you know how many of your theater/Hollywood guests use this word when describing other people in "the business"?

Almost every interview with a showbiz personality.

"He's an AMAZING actor." Ad nauseum.

Jan. 20 2010 01:46 PM
Ken Levy from Brooklyn

Can Patricia comment about the current overuse of the word 'so' to begin a sentence?

Also the the 'under 30' proclivity to use many words that end in 'ie' like hoodie, hottie.

Jan. 20 2010 01:45 PM
Morris from Nj

Now which well versed radio host uses a phrase like "megabad"? Hmm!

Jan. 20 2010 01:44 PM
Ruth-Anne from CT

Please comment on "it is what it is" which seems to be used instead of truthful explanations or, to sound "cool".

Jan. 20 2010 01:43 PM
Zen from South Salem

Would you please explain the use of the word An before Historic, as in an historic event.

Jan. 20 2010 01:43 PM
Susan from Manhattan

I often hear people using the expression, "a tad bit" to convey the idea of little or small. Is it proper to use "tad" to modify "bit"?



Jan. 20 2010 01:43 PM
Neil from Manhattan

Most hated words this year:

I nominate "going forward," which is used by almost all business and political speakers, including our President.

Jan. 20 2010 01:42 PM
Daniel from Manhattan

I am driven nuts when I say something to someone who was not listening, and I am asked, "What happened?"

Jan. 20 2010 01:42 PM

What aboput Quixote?

Jan. 20 2010 01:42 PM
Richard Lohr from NYC

Oops. Typo. I meant For what reason is it not redundant.

Jan. 20 2010 01:42 PM
Jeanmarie Toth from Red Bank, NJ

Would you kindly comment on politicians' inaccurate use of the pronoun, "I" in placing that pronoun before others. Ex." "I and moy opponent...."

Thanks for your comment. We enjoy your show, Mr. Lopate.

Jan. 20 2010 01:41 PM
JK from Midtown

how about miss-chi-vous versus miss-chee-vee-ous.

and i hate when people say lacksadaisacal when they mean lackadaisical.

Jan. 20 2010 01:41 PM
Zen from South Salem

Could you please explain the use of the word "An " prior to the word "Historic". I thought an was only used prior to a word beggining with a vowel.

Jan. 20 2010 01:41 PM
Bryan from Ithaca, NY

I'm wondering which is correct: "The cake came out good." or "The cake came out well." I've gotten into debates with friends over this. My thinking is that even though "good" doesn't sound correct and "well" does, the phrase "came out" could be replaced with "tastes" or "smells" or "looks", where you'd use "good". Please help. Thanks!

Jan. 20 2010 01:40 PM
Richard Lohr from NYC

I'm still reeling from Ms. O'Connor's statement on your show several months ago that "the reason why" is not redundant. For what reason is not redundant? Or, altenatively, why is it not redundant?

I know it's in common use, but it can't be right, surely.

Great show, by the way. Thanks.

Jan. 20 2010 01:40 PM
Paul from Queens

Re: The discussion of whether the decade and century begins in the year ending in '0', or in '1' -

There is no year 0 on our calendar - we begin numbering from year 1 CE (or AD). Hence, the first decade was 1 CE - 10 CE (inclusive), and the second decade began on January 1, 11 CE. Thus our current millennium began on Jan 1, 2001, and the current, 2010, is the last year of the first decade of the 21st century.

This may be outside of the scope of the segment, but touches on semantics, which I think the two of you enjoy discussing.

Jan. 20 2010 01:40 PM
Stephen J. Herschkorn from Highland Park, NJ

Two questions:

1) How does one pronounce the word, "short-lived"?

2) I am often confused by the appropriate case of personal pronouns in comparatives. I know the follow three sentences are correct:

She loves him more than me.
He is taller than I am.
He swims faster than I do.

But is it
"He is taller than me" or "He is taller than I"?
"He swims fater than me" or "He swims faster than I"?

Jan. 20 2010 01:39 PM
Laura from Manhattan

Right now people are saying "Really" in the form of a question, again and again, to express sarcastic disbelief.



It was annoying from the beginning. Why has it become such a fad?

Jan. 20 2010 01:39 PM
Ed from New York City

Our number system is 0 thru 9, not 1 thru 10.
So the start of the first decade is, for example, 2000 and the end of that decade was the end of 2009, which accounts for 10 years. We are now in the first year of the second decade of this century.

Jan. 20 2010 01:38 PM
John Massengale

"Decade," like many words, has more than one meaning. When one says, for example, "the 1990s," there is no question that you mean the year 1990 through the end of the year 1999. On New Year's Day 1990 you believe you are in a new decade. On New Year's Eve 1999 you say goodbye to the old decade.

Jan. 20 2010 01:38 PM
Joe from East islip

Shouldn't we say, "one and other" rather than "one another"?
How about "someone's else business" rather than "someone else's business"?

Jan. 20 2010 01:38 PM
Estelle from Austin

Adding "ing" to create an adjective, especially when an adjective already exists: Addict-ING instead of "addictive"; concern-ing instead of "of concern"

Jan. 20 2010 01:38 PM
nat from Brooklyn

Here is a word everyone should know that comes from computer programming that really helps when thinking about decades, "zeroeth"

"The zeroth item is the initial item of a zero-based sequence (that is, a sequence which is numbered beginning from zero rather than one)." (from wikipeia)

We think of time this way. The twenty-four hour clock starts 00:00. Its also in the way we count age. The Zeroeth year is commonly counted as months, but the baby is definitely alive for a year before it turns one, by definition.

Jan. 20 2010 01:38 PM
David Bolton from Staten Island

The best way to understand the "decades" problem as it relates to calendar time, is that there was no year zero. The first decade AD begins with year 1 and ends in year 10. The first century is year 1 to year 100, the second is year 101 to year 200. The first millenium is from year 1 to year 1000 and the second is from year 1001 to year 2000. The third millenium began in year 2001.

Jan. 20 2010 01:38 PM
Martin from Brookly

The use of "you guys" shivers-me-timbers.

Jan. 20 2010 01:38 PM
Nancy from Westchester

Isn't the rule for "me" or "I" is how the sentence would sound with only you? e.g. "Mary and me are going to the store" vs. "Me am going to the store."

Also, I was taught that you should put yourself second - not "me and Mary" but "Mary and me"

Jan. 20 2010 01:37 PM
Nick from Flushing, NY

I'd been wondering for some time exactly what "RSVP" stood for, when recently I received an invitation to a big birthday party and, of course, there it was again. I finally looked for it, and, to my surprise, actually found the acronym in an old paperback Webster dictionary. Since we live in the U.S., an English speaking country, wouldn't it make more sense to simply say "please reply"? And would Patricia please explain why it is incorrect to say "please RSVP"? Thank you.

Jan. 20 2010 01:37 PM

"Awesome" is not nearly as bad as "amazing," usually pronounced amaaAAAAAaaazing. Are you really amazed by your new pair of shoes, or that lasagna you ate, or that song you just heard?

Jan. 20 2010 01:37 PM
Steve from Queens

Could "grow the economy" be incorrect? I'd like it to be. It sounds so coarse, like "grow your children up right."

Jan. 20 2010 01:37 PM
Gary from Upper Left Side

Leonard, please have Pat discuss the terrible Facebook term "friending" and "unfriending" A generation is growing up thinking they are correct verbs.

Jan. 20 2010 01:35 PM
el from long beach ny

Regarding the movie title - Me and Orson Welles -
It's a movie TITLE - Titles don't have to be grammatically correct>

Jan. 20 2010 01:35 PM
Tom from Upper West Side

It's easy...When is a baby one year-old? When he/she has completed its first year!

Jan. 20 2010 01:35 PM

we started counting in year zero, so we start counting decades at the zero, not the 1. The first decade of the common era was years 0-9. I don't see why there's a debate about that.

Jan. 20 2010 01:34 PM
RLewis from bowery

Words we hate (or how they're used): the finance folks at my job constantly use "spend" as a noun, such as, "Our admin' spend this year is 10% above cost." Hate it!

Jan. 20 2010 01:34 PM
Freddy Jenkins

lately I see "should of" or "would of"--I thought it was supposed to be "should've" and "would've", a contraction of "should have" and "would have"

Jan. 20 2010 01:34 PM
Gary from Upper Left Side

Leonard, please have Pat discuss the misuse of the ampersand, where "&" is incorrectly used as a replacement for "and".

Jan. 20 2010 01:33 PM
Amy Cartagena from Somerset, NJ

I've noticed a couple verbs my kids use now.
One is "verse," from versus, as in, "Which team are you versing?" This applies to sports teams and video game play.
The other is "snipe," which comes from video game play in which your character is a sniper. "Don't snipe me!" "I was sniping all over the place!"

Jan. 20 2010 01:31 PM
Junebug from Somerville,NJ

Please strike the word 'awesome' from the English language. Or, perhaps, we should charge a tax every time someone uses it. We could easily pay for health care reform if we did.

Jan. 20 2010 01:30 PM
farideh farhadi from Fort lee, NJ

Is there a difference between the two forms of nouns ending in "ence" and the same word when some attach a "y" to the form, i.e., exigence and exigency or relevance and relevancy? I often here this, especially in lawyer speak.

Jan. 20 2010 01:29 PM
Jane from New Jersey

I still hate disrespect as a verb.

Jan. 20 2010 01:29 PM
bob from huntington

someone please put to rest the word: "takeaway."

Jan. 20 2010 01:27 PM
Halley S from Boston, MA

I have been curious about the origins of the phrase "scott free" or "scotch free". Which is the correct way to say it, and where did it come from?

Jan. 20 2010 01:27 PM
Connie from NJ

I prefer 'shovelicious' to 'shovel-ready'.....

Jan. 20 2010 01:26 PM

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