Word Maven Patricia T. O'Conner

Wednesday, April 21, 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 [54]

Ann Moore from New York

On whether the period or comma falls inside or outside the closing quotation marks, this is what I used to tell my sixth grade students:

If the punctuation is tall, like a question mark or exclamation point, you decide whether it falls in or out of the closing quotation mark depending on the meaning of what is being quoted. If the quoted words themselves are emphatic or interrogative, the punctuation is part of the meaning of the quote and falls inside the quotation marks. If the punctuation mark is small, like a period or a comma, it is so little that it doesn't bump into the closing quotes overhead, and can slide right in underneath and cosy up to the last word, regardless of the meaning.

Mar. 21 2012 01:47 PM
Joel from Westchester

"You're a real brick!"
Where does that come from?

Apr. 20 2011 01:48 PM
Joel from Westchester

Speaking of puns:
Years ago, when I worked at a small ad agency, my art director proudly announced to the staff (one of us was eating peanuts) that the color of a peanut kernel's thin wrapping was "puce."

I immediately replied, "John, that's a pigment of your imagination!"

Apr. 20 2011 01:13 PM
Tom Graves from Stamford

Why do some folks say, “Doctor will see you …”. Vs The Doctor? Same goes for University. “She goes to University” Vs “The University”?



May. 12 2010 01:49 PM
Bina from New Jersey

Is there a term other than "ma'am" that we can use for unmarried women? Especially women in their 20's and 30's? Miss seems too young, and ma'am seems too old.

I assume ma'am used to be used for married women, and now that many of us aren't getting married, it seems like there should be another term...

May. 11 2010 01:29 PM
Joe Adams from Bergen County, New Jersey

While PARAMOUR is not perfect as a word meaning the male partner of a MISTRESS, it will do.

Apr. 21 2010 06:58 PM
Rick from Manhattan

i heart P.T.O'Connor!

Apr. 21 2010 03:04 PM
Connie from Westchester

Forgot to mention....a male friend is called "Terry" by everyone he knows. He is the third member of his family to be named after his grandfather who taught Latin. He was "tertius" and hence became Terry".

Apr. 21 2010 02:18 PM
Connie from Westchester

I, too, get a laugh when Leonard makes some witticism such as "Did you graduate college?" when the listener asked him and Patricia about "disenfranchised". He is so quick on the rebound!

Apr. 21 2010 02:12 PM
Robert Derene from Somers, NY

Why do scientists and other technical people answer questions by starting with "So, ....."

For example: Q. What preceeded the Big Bang? A. So, etc., etc.

Apr. 21 2010 02:02 PM
S Block

your guest suggested that we say Paris rather than than Paree because over the years the word in English evolves along with the rest of English. While that's true, she is leaving out the other half, that the foreign languages changes too. So, for example, I have read that the British pronounce the name Beauchamp as "beecham" because that's how it was pronounced in French when it was adopted into English. That is in fact why Paris has an S on the end in French, that's how it was pronounced.

Apr. 21 2010 02:00 PM
Pliny from nyc

a lady who after years of marriage decides she prefers to live with a female partner is not allowed to remarry - she is de-franchised.

Apr. 21 2010 01:58 PM
Bob from Manhattan

Why has for example been replaced with for instance???


Apr. 21 2010 01:57 PM
tom from uws

RE: place names
Remember that the Italians say "Parigi" for Paris and the French say "Londre" for London.

Apr. 21 2010 01:56 PM
David from Nassau

Why are titles being dropped in the media such as "President" Obama or "Prime Minister" Brown? Notice this a lot on NPR and BBC. It used to be "President Obama did this...", etc. Seems to be relatively new.

Apr. 21 2010 01:56 PM

Isn't it correct to say, "try TO do something," rather than "try AND do something?" It drives me crazy when I hear, "try AND...."

Apr. 21 2010 01:56 PM

You just said onomatopoeic. I would say onomatopoetic. Which?

Inflammable means both flammable and not. Argh!!

Apr. 21 2010 01:54 PM
anne from harlem

Why is everyone saying "going forward" now instead of "in the future" ???

"Going forward, we hope to increase our retention of students."


Why are people using GROW in a weird way??
"we need to grow our economy."

I noticed Sarah Palin using the word in this way and suddenly everyone was saying it. It sounds ODD!!

Apr. 21 2010 01:54 PM
Linda Pleven from Manhattan

Just wondering, Leonard, whether the Bruce you once knew was Bruce Wasley. She was the only Bruce I ever heard of.


Apr. 21 2010 01:53 PM

thank you for mentioning Laurence/Laurie! my uncle was named after that character in "little women", and has resorted to calling himself Larry because he finds Laurie too feminine.

my mother (larry's sister) married a man whose last name is "Laurie", and I am always asked if "that is your first or last name"!

Apr. 21 2010 01:53 PM
steve wislocki from Valhalla, NY

Re: "Hole in Ones". I disagree w/ Leonard and Patricia. A "hole-in-one" represents one act, getting a golf ball into the hole in one shot/stroke. If someone says they achieved 3 holes in one, they are incorrect because I'm sure they didn't get a ball into 3 different holes in one stroke. I think it is correct to pluralize the entire act or "entity", namely the hole-in-one. Therefore, it is proper to say "I shot 3 hole-in-ones last season".

Apr. 21 2010 01:52 PM
Hal from Crown Heights

Michael, I believe he said 'graduated college'. deliberately omitting 'from'.

Apr. 21 2010 01:52 PM
Meg from Fairfield, CT

When do you use Historic versus Historical?

Apr. 21 2010 01:52 PM
JG from central Jersey

at the hospital last week - a tech said "come on in so I can vitalize you..."
I realized she was referring to taking my vital signs....

Apr. 21 2010 01:52 PM
Delora from Queens, originally Tucson, Arizona

Since moving to the NY I hear the phrase "We're going to be there for 6:00 o'clock," instead of "We're going to be there at 6:00 o'clock.". Which is correct? Also, I drives me crazy when people misuse "your" and "you're" in writing.

Thank you,
Delora Pyritz

Apr. 21 2010 01:50 PM
Michael Dumas from NY

When you were talking about disenfranchised and asked, if the caller had graduated from college was the funniest line I have ever heard you say! You are always on a roll when Patricia T. O'Connor comes on. Thanks.

Apr. 21 2010 01:49 PM
peter from Brooklyn

As to men using girl's names, what about Leslie (Leslie Groves), Caroll (Caroll O'Connor)?

Apr. 21 2010 01:48 PM
Jill from manhattan

Why are there English versions of some European cities, ie Milan, Venice, Vienna, etc, but not others? In our globalizing world, do you have any idea why people haven't started using the names in the country's home language? Milano and Venezia aren't hard to pronounce after all.

Apr. 21 2010 01:48 PM
onegear from Sub. Urban CT

A male mistress is a "lucky dog".

Apr. 21 2010 01:44 PM
Lyle from downtown

"Silver Fox" would be the original male form of "Cougar"

Apr. 21 2010 01:40 PM
Mark from Manhattan

I listen to Brian's show before yours and
Brian often says: go to the web site and "click on Brian Lehrer show" instead of click on "the" Brian Lehrer show.
Which is correct?
(Not critiquing Brian's English)

Apr. 21 2010 01:40 PM
Anon from Staten Island

I've often heard a "kept man" referred to as a "stud"

Apr. 21 2010 01:39 PM
hjs from 11211

kept man = boy toy

Apr. 21 2010 01:38 PM
Jane from Manhattan

Any comments on the words incentivize (which already sounds wrong to my ears) and disincentivize (which sounds even worse)?

Apr. 21 2010 01:35 PM
nkbah from harlem

why do people use the word "itch" to replace "scratch"? I had a particularly dry scalp one day and I was scratching my head and someone said to me "you've been itching that for a while?" what the hell does that mean? you don't itch an itch, you scratch an itch, right?

Apr. 21 2010 01:35 PM
Hal from Crown Heights

mockingbirds these days imitate cell phones and car alarms.

Apr. 21 2010 01:34 PM
antonio from park slope

Oh my god, Leonard kills me sometimes! :)

Apr. 21 2010 01:34 PM
Troy from Carroll Gardens

Have ya'll ever addressed "in line" vs. "on line?" Being from the south originally (thus my legit use of "ya'll"), I had only ever heard that someone was standing "in line." But then, moving up to NYC so long ago, I got hit with "on line" almost exclusively. It took some time to get used to, but I still don't know what's up with the apparent anomaly.

Apr. 21 2010 01:33 PM
Brett from Williamsburg

Origin of Charley Horse?

Apr. 21 2010 01:33 PM
Hamish from midtown

What is up with NYers saying 'waiting ON line' when pretty well everyone else says 'waiting IN line' when waiting in a queue for something?

Apr. 21 2010 01:33 PM
Brian from Bushwick


Apr. 21 2010 01:31 PM
Rudy from Queens

Re RBIs. Problem solved: Say Ribbees.

Apr. 21 2010 01:31 PM
tom from uws

If a hole-in-one had an abbreviation such as "HIO", we would say HIOs as the plural. It seems appropriate to pluralize the abbreviation, not one of the letters.

Apr. 21 2010 01:30 PM
Brian from Bushwick

Otters are thing cubs/bears!

Apr. 21 2010 01:30 PM
Matthew from Manhattan

Cougar, I was told, is the name of the automobile used by the women who gained the monicker.

Apr. 21 2010 01:29 PM
Norman from Vancouver!

Cougars scoop up little children. That is the popular understanding of the term as applied to women with younger men.

Apr. 21 2010 01:29 PM
Brian from Bushwick

"Cub" is also a term for a young (twenty-something), big-boned, somewhat hairy and bearded gay man, the younger version of a bear, a heavy-set, hairy, gay man.

Apr. 21 2010 01:28 PM
tom from uws

PC- There could be a link to gay culture, where big, hairy men are called "bears", smaller or younger hairy men are "cubs" etc. There are otters and wolves and I don't know what half of them represent.

Apr. 21 2010 01:28 PM
Me and dat guy

Since you had an athlete (or as Jimmy the Greek might have said, athalete) on the show, let me ask if Pat ever listens to sports radio and has taken note of how sports journalists cannot seem to straighten out their use of "him and I were talking about the knicks" or "Joe and me were at the ball game."

Apr. 21 2010 01:27 PM
Ellen from NewLo, CT

Duh, the male equivalent is the Manther!!

Apr. 21 2010 01:26 PM
Zen from South Salem

An Historic ,or A historic

Apr. 21 2010 01:26 PM
Zen from South Salem

If someone was to AXE you a question would you correct them or just accept axe as the new pronounciation of ask ?

Apr. 21 2010 01:26 PM
Jim from Manhattan

Leonard's cyberwar guest in the first hour began almost every response with "So...".

Aside from the repetition, this sounds more like accessing a scripted data base than a spontaneous exchange between human beings.
On a previous grammar segment, Leonard has mentioned that he notices it most from guests under 35, but this guest sounded older.

Where does this come from and how can we stop it from spreading like a grammar virus!

Apr. 21 2010 12:56 PM
Pliny from nyc

agents from the FBI - descended - on the offices....

Apr. 21 2010 12:07 PM

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