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Grammar, Vocabulary Go Hand in Hand

A solid vocabulary gives you a hammer rather than a rock when you need to drive a nail.

Today we introduce the first in a periodic series of vocabulary tests. We want to keep the focus on words that would be worthy of inclusion in any serious person’s vocabulary. We feel tests like these are most valuable when they stick to practical words that are effective in relaying the message without exalting the brilliance of the messenger.

So let’s get started. Answers are directly below.

1. charisma

A) beauty
B) prosperity
C) confidence
D) magnetism

2. esoteric

A) obscure
B) pompous
C) unnecessary
D) smart

3. incredulous

A) wonderful
B) unbelieving
C) unbelievable
D) significant

4. blithe

A) carefree
B) excitable
C) shining
D) simple

5. nonplussed

A) untroubled
B) fearless
C) thrilled
D) perplexed

6. anomaly

A) likeness
B) irregularity
C) barrier
D) substitution

7. erudite

A) pushy
B) self-assured
C) well-read
D) affected

8. capricious

A) roomy
B) enticing
C) unpredictable
D) disapproving

9. ebullient

A) obedient
B) deceptive
C) aggressive
D) high-spirited

10. intractable

A) undetectable
B) unacceptable
C) unmanageable
D) unbelievable


1: D) magnetism. Nina has the talent and charisma required for the role.

2: A) obscure. Because of its esoteric storyline, the film failed at the box office.

3: B) unbelieving. She was incredulous when she heard my lame excuse.

4: A) carefree. Chombley marveled at the waif’s blithe, graceful manner.

5: D) perplexed. Ralph was nonplussed by the stranger’s thick accent.

6: B) irregularity. There is no greater anomaly in nature than a fish that can’t swim.

7: C) well-read. After years of rigorous study, LaMar has become erudite in the field of prehistoric African art.

8: C) unpredictable. Dana’s capricious demands and disgraceful conduct outraged the staff.

9: D) high-spirited. The pianist’s ebullient interpretation of the sonata enthralled the audience.

10: C) unmanageable. At first the pain was controllable—then it became intractable.

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Posted on Monday, July 27, 2015, at 7:50 pm

Numbers: Words or Numerals?

The topic of when to write numbers out and when to use numerals concerns and confounds a lot of people.

America’s two most influential style and usage guides have different approaches: The Associated Press Stylebook recommends spelling out the numbers zero through nine and using numerals thereafter—until one million is reached. Here are four examples of how to write numbers above 999,999 in AP style: 1 million; 20 million; 20,040,086; 2.7 trillion.

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends spelling out the numbers zero through one hundred and using figures thereafter—except for whole numbers used in combination with hundred, thousand, hundred thousand, million, billion, and beyond (e.g., two hundred; twenty-eight thousand; three hundred thousand; one million). In Chicago style, as opposed to AP style, we would write four hundred, eight thousand, and twenty million with no numerals—but like AP, Chicago style would require numerals for 401; 8,012; and 20,040,086.

There are only a handful of rules for writing numbers that virtually everyone agrees on. Two major ones: Numbers beginning sentences must be written out (Eight thousand twelve people attended the concert). Years (8 B.C., 2015) are expressed in numerals. But spelling out numbers vs. using numerals mostly comes down to policies and preferences that vary from publisher to publisher.

The topic causes further confusion because exceptions to just about every rule or practice crop up constantly. For instance, She walked 3 miles; Add 4 teaspoons of salt; Timmy is 5 years old; and The car is 6 feet wide are all correct in AP style, despite contradicting AP’s own rule of spelling out numbers between zero and nine.

Chicago endorses the following sentence “for the sake of consistency”: A mixture of buildings—one of 103 stories, five of more than 50, and a dozen of only 3 or 4—has been suggested for the area. Chicago explains why it does not spell out 50, 3, and 4: “If according to rule you must use numerals for one of the numbers [103] in a given category, use them for all in that category.” But why, then, are one, five, and a dozen written out? Because “items in one category may be given as numerals and items in another spelled out.”

AP’s approach to numbers is far less nuanced than Chicago’s. This may be because the Associated Press Stylebook is targeted to newspapers and magazines, which toil in a world of deadlines. There simply isn’t time to get sidetracked by numerical niceties when your article is due in three hours.

Here is a sentence from a profile that appeared in a big-city newspaper: “He has delivered a tutorial about the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth and 10th amendments to the Constitution.” Note the glorious inconsistency of “10th,” which would make Chicago Manual of Style disciples apoplectic.

But AP style stipulates “10th,” not “Tenth,” and that’s that. It may look odd, but is the sentence not clear and unambiguous? When it comes to the arcane, convoluted subject of writing numbers, there’s something refreshing about AP’s streamlined approach.

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Posted on Tuesday, July 21, 2015, at 4:29 pm

Don’t Put It in Writing

Today we’ll discuss a word and a phrase, either of which would sound fine in a casual exchange but could attract unwanted attention if used in formal writing.

Ahold  Although few people would notice anything amiss in a sentence like I wish I could get ahold of a good grammar book, many editors would change get ahold of to either get hold of or get a hold of.

Dictionaries differ on ahold. Back in 1966, Random House’s Dictionary of the English Language listed ahold, but called it “informal”—and the American College Dictionary (1968), also from Random House, refused to list the word at all. (Maybe Random House wanted to discourage college kids from using it.)

Nor can ahold be found in the American Heritage dictionary’s 1980 edition. However, American Heritage’s 2004 and 2011 editions include the word without comment.

Our most recent dictionary, Webster’s New World (2014), lists ahold but, like Random House half a century ago, labels the word “informal.”

Most of the language websites we checked did not recommend ahold. Here are some examples: “Ahold does not exist as a word in standard English.” “Ahold poses no problem in informal speech and writing, but it might be considered out of place in more formal contexts.”In standard English you just ‘get hold’ of something or somebody.”

We found only one website that endorsed this word with any enthusiasm: “Don’t hold back on your use of ahold … a word recognized by Merriam-Webster, Garner’s Modern American Usage and most other writing authorities.”

We confirmed that the Merriam-Webster online dictionary does recognize ahold, but the statement about “most other writing authorities” conflicted with our own findings. And as for Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, all it says about ahold is that “it verges on being standard”—hardly a resounding endorsement.

In close proximity  Proximity does not mean “distance”; it means “nearness,” so close proximity means “close nearness.” Besides its redundancy, in close proximity takes three times as many words and three times as many syllables as are needed to express an elementary concept: nearby.

You see in close proximity all the time, and it always manages to sound ungainly and comically self-important. Here’s a small sampling of what we found on the Internet: “The hotel is in close proximity [close] to the corporate, financial and fashionable heart of the city.” “Investigators believe the aircraft went down after coming in close proximity [too close] to another plane.” “The car’s controls are in close proximity [within easy reach].”

Traditional usage guides advise against close proximity. Typical of these is Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage: “Say close to or near, according to the context.” John B. Bremner’s Words on Words finds the phrase too obviously silly to get worked up about. Bremner’s droll entry under close proximity: “The best kind.”

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Posted on Monday, July 13, 2015, at 3:42 pm

Irregular Verbs Can Be a Regular Pain

English verbs are either regular or irregular. We call a verb regular when we add ed (wanted, looked) or sometimes just d (created, loved) to form what are called the simple past tense and the past participle (see third and fourth paragraphs below). A regular verb’s simple past tense and past participle are always identical.

Not so with irregular verbs. They form the simple past tense and the past participle in any number of unpredictable ways. Some irregular verbs, like let, shut, and spread, never change, whether present or past. Others, like feel and teach, become modified versions of themselves (felt, taught) to form both the past tense and the past participle. Still others, like break and sing, change to form the past tense (broke, sang) and change again to form the past participle (broken, sung). And then there are a few really weird ones, like go: its past participle (gone) is recognizable enough, but its simple past tense is a strange new word (went).

Let’s get back to the irregular verb break. The simple past tense is broke, which we use in sentences like I broke your dish. We use the past participle, broken, to form compound verbs in sentences like I have broken your dish. The compound verb have broken is so called because we’ve added a helping verb (have) to the main verb’s past participle (broken). Be careful never to add a helping verb to the simple past form of an irregular verb—I have broke your dish is an embarrassing confession in more ways than one.

The past participle of an irregular verb can also function as an adjective: a broken dish. But the simple past form, if it differs from the participle, cannot function as an adjective: a broke dish is substandard English.

There are far fewer irregular verbs than regular ones, but we use them all the time. “The ten commonest verbs in English (be, have, do, say, make, go, take, come, see, and get) are all irregular,” notes Steven Pinker, an American experimental psychologist and linguist, “and about 70% of the time we use a verb, it is an irregular verb.” Pinker acknowledges 180 irregular English verbs, but the website has an Extended Irregular Verb Dictionary which contains over 470 irregular verbs, including rare ones such as bestrew, enwind, and hagride.

Proper use of irregular verbs requires old-fashioned memorization—there are no secret formulas or shortcuts. This is why these words can create havoc for conscientious speakers of English. See how you do on the irregular verb quiz below—and please, no peeking at the answers till you complete the last question.

Irregular Verb Pop Quiz

1. He should have definitely ___ it before sunset.

A) did
B) done
C) have did
D) have done

2. This year has not necessarily ___ the way they hoped it would.

A) gone
B) went
C) going
D) go

3. He hopes he has finally ___ his last grammar test.

A) took
B) tooken
C) take
D) taken

4. The dry soil has ___ up every last raindrop.

A) drank
B) drunk
C) A and B are both correct.

5. She claims she ___ it happen before it occurred.

A) sees
B) seen
C) saw
D) had saw

6. It looks as if Tanya has actually ___ to visit Reggie.

A) come
B) came
C) coming

7. The Smiths were all ___ by a loud crashing noise.

A) awakened
B) awoken
C) A and B are both correct.

8. It had just ___ to snow when the plane took off.

A) began
B) begin
C) beginning
D) begun

9. Don’t they know I’m already ___ up?

A) shook
B) shaken
C) shooken
D) shaked

10. The wind has ___ like this for a week now.

A) blow
B) blowed
C) blown
D) blew


1: B) done

2: A) gone

3: D) taken

4: B) drunk

5: C) saw

6: A) come

7: C) awakened and awoken are both correct

8: D) begun

9: B) shaken

10: C) blown

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Posted on Tuesday, July 7, 2015, at 4:05 pm

Misbegotten Views on Gotten

A few of you were dismayed by our using gotten in last week’s article. We wrote: “In recent years we have debunked some of these baseless ‘rules,’ and gotten a lot of heat from frustrated readers.”

An exasperated gentleman from Australia was “shocked” by the appearance of “gotten,” which he denounced ex cathedra as a “non-word.” His email was generous with vitriol but stingy with evidence. That’s because no language scholar in any English-speaking country would question the legitimacy of gotten.

Gotten has been in continuous use for about seven hundred years, though it all but disappeared from England in the eighteenth century. “In Great Britain got is the only form of the participle used and the older form gotten is considered archaic,” says Bergen and Cornelia Evans’s Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage. “In the United States gotten is still the preferred form of the participle when it is used with have to express a completed action.”

The BBC’s website recently ranked gotten fifteenth on a list of the fifty most annoying “Americanisms.” The Grammarist website explains: “Many English speakers from outside North America resist the encroachment of so-called Americanisms (many of which, like gotten, are not actually American in origin) on their versions of English, and, for mysterious reasons, some feel especially strongly about gotten.”

In The Careful Writer, the American writer-editor Theodore M. Bernstein admits to some reservations about the use of gotten: “Have gotten might occasionally be useful in written language … In most instances, however, a more precise verb would be used: ‘He has gotten [received] his just deserts’; ‘He has gotten [obtained] what he was after’ …”

Roy H. Copperud’s Dictionary of Usage and Style has no such misgivings: “An uneasy idea persists that gotten is improper … Efforts to avoid got by substituting obtained or any other word the writer must strain after are misspent.”

The American linguists Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman offer a further vindication of gotten: “A Brit will tell you that ‘gotten’ is wrong. Not so! The truth is that at one time, English routinely had two past participles for the verb ‘get.’ … While American English retained both forms, British English dropped ‘gotten’ entirely. The result is that we have a nuance of meaning the poor Britons don’t.

“When we say, ‘Jack and Sue have got a dog,’ we mean they own a dog. When we say, ‘Jack and Sue have gotten a dog,’ we mean they have acquired one. There’s a distinct difference between the two statements.”

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Posted on Monday, June 29, 2015, at 6:11 pm