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What’s That I Spell?

Want to make your Labor Day party the hit of the season? During a lull, pull out this spelling test and challenge your guests. Nothing endears you to your friends and neighbors quite like making them feel foolish in public.

You’ll find the answers directly below.

1. Maria looked sharp in those ___ pants.

A) kakhi
B) khakhi
C) khaki
D) kakki

2. The ___ blaze was too much for the firemen.

A) firey
B) firy
C) fierey
D) fiery

3. The speed ___ on my car is broken.

A) gauge
B) guage
C) gage
D) gayge

4. Why would anyone show up in such a ___ outfit?

A) garisch
B) garrisch
C) garrish
D) garish

5. The ___ made the proper call.

A) refferee
B) referee
C) referree
D) refferree

6. The ___ was behind the old church.

A) cemetary
B) cemetery
C) cematery
D) cematary

7. We try to ___ all the different needs of our clients.

A) accomodate
B) accomadate
C) accommadate
D) accommodate

8. I prefer mustard, never ___.

A) mayonnaise
B) mayonaise
C) mayonaisse
D) mayonnaisse

9. Bobby was an ___ who thought of himself as an artist.

A) entrepeneur
B) entrepaneur
C) entrepreneur
D) entrapreneur

10. Javon and KoKo just got back from the ___.

A) Philipines
B) Phillippines
C) Philippines
D) Phillipines



1: C) khaki

2: D) fiery

3: A) gauge

4: D) garish

5: B) referee

6: B) cemetery

7: D) accommodate

8: A) mayonnaise

9: C) entrepreneur

10: C) Philippines

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Posted on Monday, August 31, 2015, at 7:46 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

Say It Again, Sam

It has been a while since our last pronunciation column, so here’s another group of familiar words whose traditional pronunciations may surprise you. (Note: capital letters denote a stressed syllable.)

Antarctica  Like the elusive first r in February, the first c in this word is often carelessly dropped: it’s ant-ARC-tica, not ant-AR-tica.

Err  Since to err is to make an error, it seems logical to say “air”—but who said English is logical? The correct way to say err is to rhyme it with her.

Inherent  Properly, in-HEER-ent. Most people say in-HAIR-ent, but that’s wrong and we can prove it: How do you say adherent?

Covert  Most say CO-vert, rhymes with overt. But it’s traditionally pronounced CUV-ert, as in “cover” plus a t. You may not hear CUV-ert much these days, but it is still listed in the 2011 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

Nuptial  It’s two syllables: NUP-shul. A lot of people, including many in the media, say NUP-shu-ul. How do they get “shu-ul” from tial?

Naiveté  Should be nah-eve-TAY. More and more broadcasters are polluting the airwaves by pronouncing this as a four-syllable word: ny-EVE-it-tay, ny-EVE-itty, or ny-EV-itty. The 1999 Webster’s New World dictionary lists only the three-syllable pronunciation, but the 2014 Webster’s New World has caved, giving the four-syllable alternatives unwarranted legitimacy. Charles Harrington Elster, in his Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, calls the four-syllable variants “illogical.” Elster’s point: naive is two syllables, and is one syllable. Since when does two plus one equal four?

Margarine  Relax, you’re saying it right. But when it was coined by the French in the 1870s, margarine had the same first two syllables as Margaret and the third syllable rhymed with clean. Yes, believe it or not, people used to say MARG-a-reen—hard g, plus “een” on the end.

Our 1941 Webster’s New International Dictionary lists but two possible pronunciations for margarine, preferring MARJ-a-reen over MARG-a-reen. So seventy-four years ago, it was not usual for the third syllable to be pronounced “in” rather than “een.”

Twenty-seven years later, the 1968 edition of Random House’s American College Dictionary listed “marj” and “marg,” and said the final syllable could be pronounced either “in” or “een.” And as recently as 1980, the American Heritage Dictionary listed “marj” and “marg,” but by then “een” was gone.

Standard pronunciations evolve, and margarine has done more than its share of evolving over the last 140 years. But today “MARJ-a-rin” has won out.

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Posted on Monday, June 15, 2015, at 12:23 pm

Spell Check

You may recall that our inaugural spelling challenge last winter included all right, which has managed to ward off alright for decades now. As we noted at the time, the usage of alright “remains unacceptable across the board in serious writing.”

Since then we’ve discovered yet another adversary gunning for all right: films with subtitles. For whatever reason, subtitled films invariably insist on alright. We don’t know where films go to be subtitled, but apparently Subtitle Central has decided that alright’s time has arrived. We’ll see about that.

Meanwhile, here is the next in our occasional series of spelling tests. You’ll find the answers below—after you take the quiz, if you don’t mind.

1. The differences between them are ___, so take your pick.

A) minuscule
B) miniscule
C) minascule
D) minniscule

2. Many nutritionists claim honey mixed with ___ can help with weight loss.

A) cinnaman
B) cinammon
C) cinnammon
D) cinnamon

3. Living in that place was like being in a ___.

A) straitjacket
B) straightjacket
C) strait jacket
D) straight-jacket

4. A backyard ___ is what summer is all about.

A) barbeque
B) bar-B-Q
C) barbecue
D) A, B, and C are all correct.

5. The fire ___ is investigating a suspicious blaze.

A) marshall
B) marshal
C) marchal
D) marshill

6. The ___ choir sang like a band of angels.

A) a capella
B) a cappella
C) a capela
D) a cappela

7. These chemicals will help ___ the solution to the required purity.

A) rarify
B) rarrify
C) rariffy
D) rarefy

8. He handed me a metal ___ with a loose lid.

A) canaster
B) cannister
C) canister
D) cannaster

9. Bobby strummed his ___ as if his hand were on fire.

A) ukulele
B) ukalele
C) ukulale
D) ukalale

10. There’s a lot more to do in ___ than many New Yorkers suspect.

A) Cinncinatti
B) Cincinnati
C) Cinncinati
D) Cincinatti



1: A) minuscule. Note that first u. A lot of people think the word is “miniscule.” And it makes sense that a word for tiny would have a mini in it. In this case, don’t think mini, think minus.

2: D) cinnamon

3: A) straitjacket. It’s commonly spelled with a straight, which is understandable. Wouldn’t a “straightjacket” be just the thing to straighten you up and straighten you out?

4: C) barbecue. People want to put a q where the c should be. The popular abbreviation, BBQ, doesn’t help matters.

5: B) marshal

6: B) a cappella. Most have no problem with the two l’s, but the double p’s are another matter.

7: D) rarefy

8: C) canister

9: A) ukulele. This word creates a lot of bother for such an elfin instrument.

10: B) Cincinnati

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Posted on Tuesday, May 26, 2015, at 6:09 pm

Proper Pronunciation: A Sound Policy

Pronouncing words correctly helps convince listeners that you know what you’re talking about.

By correct pronunciation, we mean words as you’d hear them enunciated at formal occasions: a lecture by an English scholar, say, or a first-rate production of a play by George Bernard Shaw or Eugene O’Neill.

To settle pronunciation disputes, we recommend an old dictionary. New ones are fine, but having access to an old one minimizes the intrusion of trendy (mis)pronunciations.

Also, those serious about their diction might want to pick up a copy of The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations by Charles Harrington Elster, who says in the book’s introduction: “I am not opposed to change. Such a position would be untenable. I am skeptical of ignorant, pompous, and faddish change. I am annoyed when people invent pronunciations for unfamiliar words. I am exasperated when they can’t be bothered to check the pronunciation of a word they look up in a dictionary.”

Here are ten familiar words whose traditional pronunciations may surprise you. Note: capital letters denote a stressed syllable.

Alleged  It must come as a shock to those in the media, but alleged is a two-syllable word. It is pronounced uh-LEJD, not uh-LEDGE-id.

Envelope  Though you’d never know it from what you hear over the airwaves, the preferred pronunciation of this word is ENN-va-lope, rather than the pseudo-French AHN-va-lope.

Controversial  Four syllables, not five. Say
contra-VER-shul, not contra-VER-see-ul.

Camaraderie  It’s a five-syllable word, but you usually hear only four. That letter a before the r should be a clue to say comma-ROD-ery, not com-RAD-ery.

Forte  When the word refers to a specialty or area of expertise (math is his forte), this is a one-syllable word pronounced fort. Most people mistakenly say for-tay. That pronunciation is only correct as a musical term. When forte is pronounced FOR-tay it means “loudly.”

Short-lived  This is not the lived of She lived well. The is long; short-lived rhymes with thrived.

Schism  It’s pronounced sizzum. The 1968 Random House American College Dictionary lists no alternative pronunciation. You rarely hear this word, but when you do, it’s generally pronounced skizzum, a pronunciation that, in Elster’s words, “arose out of ignorance.”

Integral  Why do so many people say in-tra-gul, despite the spelling? Make it IN-ta-grul.

Homage  A reviewer called a film “a homage to motherhood.” The critic wisely did not write “an homage,” knowing that the h is sounded. This word has spun out of control in the twenty-first century. Its traditional pronunciation is HOMM-ij. But then AHM-ij gained a foothold, and it went downhill from there. Now, just about all one hears is oh-MAHZH, an oh-so-precious pronunciation that was virtually nonexistent in English until late in the twentieth century.

Pronunciation  As the spelling indicates, it’s pronounced pra-nun-see-AY-shun. Too many careless speakers say pra-nown-see-AY-shun.

Most words have been around longer than any of us have. Pronouncing them properly is showing respect for our elders.

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Posted on Friday, March 27, 2015, at 7:18 am