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When Idioms Become Monsters

Close but no cigar, fly off the handle, he is pulling your leg, I was beside myself—we see idioms like these all the time, even though the closer we look, the less sense many of them make.

Sometimes two familiar expressions get jumbled. When that happens, the result is what you might call a “Frankenstein formation,” a nod to the mad scientist who created a monster by conjoining parts that didn’t belong together.

One Frankenstein formation that may never go away is center around. You see and hear it everywhere. Two of the numerous examples found online: “The conflict centers around the atrocities of war.” “My research centers around the geometry of moduli spaces.”

The language scholar Wilson Follett calls center around a “geometrically senseless expression.” It results from mashing together center on and revolve around. Because those phrases are roughly synonymous, over time they merge in the mind.

Some otherwise intelligent language mavens now defend center around, apparently reasoning that if enough heedless people keep saying something, it becomes acceptable. Others are having none of it. As Paul Brians says in Common Errors in English Usage: “Two perfectly good expressions—‘center on’ and ‘revolve around’—get conflated in this nonsensical neologism. When a speaker says his address will ‘center around the topic of’ whatever, my interest level plummets.”

Another hardy Frankenstein formation is fall between the cracks: “News reports flash a daily barrage of stories about children who fall between the cracks.” “Every day this country’s health insurance situation lets people fall between the cracks.”

The original expression is fall through the cracks. People or things that “fall through the cracks” slip away unnoticed and are soon forgotten. If we take a close look at fall between the cracks, we find that it doesn’t convey the intended meaning.

Picture a road surface after an earthquake. Large cracks have opened up. If people fall between these cracks, they have fallen onto the hard surface of the roadway.

Such a fall would certainly do some damage, but when people fall between the cracks, at least they do not disappear through the cracks—we can see them lying on the ground, and maybe we can be of some assistance.

Fall through the cracks refers to a different kind of painful experience: the pain of suffering in isolation.

Fall between the cracks seems to have resulted from scrambling fall through the cracks and fall between two stools, an idiom roughly meaning “to fail,” which dates back to the late fourteenth century.

Although some idioms are revealed as absurd under close analysis, many of them made more sense before time or misuse undermined them. Even if they now strike us as a bit off, like a daft but well-meaning old friend, it is up to us to ensure that nobody addles them further.

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Posted on Tuesday, October 20, 2015, at 9:52 am

Slipshod Extension

Henry W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1926, is still the greatest of all English grammar guides. The first edition or the lightly revised second edition (1965) is highly recommended.

Sprinkled among Fowler’s entries are topics that typify the author’s innovative approach to the study of grammar. His titles for these entries are often sly, with a soupçon of snark. Some examples: Sturdy Indefensibles, Presumptuous Word-Formation, Unequal Yokefellows, Pairs and Snares, Slipshod Extension.

That last topic is today’s focus, because slipshod extension may be more widespread nowadays than it was ninety years ago. The phrase refers to the maddening tendency of careless or ignorant speakers and writers to debase a word by overextending it beyond its proper meaning.

Calling a spider an insect is slipshod extension of the word insect: a spider is an arachnid. Calling a whale a fish is slipshod extension of the word fish: a whale is a marine mammal.

Here are a few of the countless other words that are susceptible to this lamentable practice:

Alibi  Be careful when you use alibi, originally a Latin word meaning “somewhere else.” When you say, “I have an alibi,” it means that you can prove you were elsewhere when the crime occurred. Fowler said of alibi: “That it should have come to be used as a pretentious synonym for excuse is a striking example of the harm that can be done by SLIPSHOD EXTENSION.”

Dilemma  The di in dilemma (like dichotomy or dioxide) indicates two: if you have a dilemma, it means you’re facing two tough choices. Do not use dilemma when all you mean is predicament. Fowler: “The word is a term of logic, meaning an argument that forces an opponent to choose between two alternatives both unfavourable to him: he is … on the horns of a dilemma, either of which will impale him.”

Literally  As all nitpickers know well and grow weary of saying, literally should be used only with the bare facts—no exaggerations, no analogies. Yet statements like They literally threw him under the bus show no sign of abating. What could be more slipshod than applying literally to an incident that literally never happened? Fowler: “Such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible.”

Two revised editions of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage have been published in the last twenty years, but those in charge of editing these later versions have overruled many of Fowler’s traditionalist views and insights. In the process they have stifled one of the most distinctive and delightful voices in the field of linguistics.

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Posted on Tuesday, October 13, 2015, at 2:01 pm

Why Irregular Verbs Are Strong

When the authorities labeled certain verbs “irregular,” it was never intended as a putdown. Quite the opposite: another term for irregular verbs is “strong verbs.”

In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage Bryan A. Garner explains: “Irregular verbs are sometimes called ‘strong’ verbs because they seem to form the past tense from their own resources, without calling an ending to their assistance. The regular verbs are sometimes called ‘weak’ verbs because they cannot form the past tense without the aid of the ending (most often –ed).”

For those of you still unclear on regular and irregular verbs, there is a concise overview in our recent post “Irregular Verbs Can Be a Regular Pain” (July 7). You can find this article in the “Grammar Blog” section of our website,

See how you do on the irregular-verb quiz that follows. The answers are directly below the test.

Irregular Verb Pop Quiz

1. Storm clouds ___ unnoticed over the distant mountains.

A) creeped
B) crept
C) A and B are both correct

2. You have really ___ a lot taller since last year.

A) grew
B) growed
C) grown
D) groan

3. Someone kept banging on the door as she ___ there trying to sleep.

A) lay
B) laid
C) lain
D) lied

4. Oliver ___ next to his younger brother’s bed.

A) kneeled
B) knelt
C) A and B are both correct

5. By the time we arrived, they had already ___ back east.

A) flied
B) flue
C) flew
D) flown

6. We ___ back to shore as the sun set.

A) swum
B) swam
C) swimmed

7. Alf had ___ down and couldn’t get up.

A) fell
B) fallen
C) falling
D) felled

8. Have you ever ___ off a high cliff?

A) dived
B) dove
C) A and B are both correct

9. She had long ago ___ away her high school yearbooks.

A) threw
B) through
C) throwed
D) thrown

10. Luckily, the guide found them and ___ them to safety.

A) led
B) lead
C) A and B are both correct



1: B) crept

2: C) grown

3: A) lay

4: C) A and B are both correct

5: D) flown

6: B) swam

7: B) fallen

8: A) dived

9: D) thrown

10: A) led

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Posted on Wednesday, October 7, 2015, at 11:05 am

Each Other vs. One Another

There are still sticklers among us who see a distinct difference between each other and one another. They use each other when discussing two people or things, and one another when discussing more than two people or things.

According to this system, the following sentences would both be correct: The twins told each other everything and The triplets told one another everything. But The twins told one another everything and The triplets told each other everything would both be incorrect.

This rule has been around since the eighteenth century. Yet it is routinely ignored by just about everyone, including our finest writers. Nowadays, virtually no one even knows it exists.

Taken literally, the phrase each other does seem limited to two entities only, represented by the singular pronoun each and the singular pronoun other.

The twins told each other everything means that each twin told the other twin everything. So far, so good. But The triplets told each other everything means that each triplet told the “other” triplet everything—which makes no sense because there are two other triplets.

So instead the sticklers demand The triplets told one another everything. To them, other means “one of two” and another means “one of more than two.” By this reasoning, one another refers to a group of three or more whose members include one and another.

The sticklers reject The twins told one another everything because it means that one twin told “another twin” everything. To the sticklers, “another twin” means the impossible: three (or more) twins.

The trouble with the rule is that each other and one another were already long-established idioms in the eighteenth century, and many idioms fall apart under this sort of tortured scrutiny—try analyzing as it were or by and large sometime.

Whether some people like it or not, each other and one another are synonyms. So let’s move on.

The possessive of each other is each other’s, never each others’. Although a lot of neophytes write each others’, the authorities agree unanimously that each other’s is the only acceptable option. Same with one another’s.

A thorny problem with each other’s and one another’s is illustrated in the sentence that follows. Should we say The lawyer and the banker admired each other’s car or admired each other’s cars?

The traditionalists are at odds here. In The Careful Writer Theodore M. Bernstein claims that each other’s is equivalent to their. So Bernstein would say admired each other’s cars. But Bryan A. Garner leans toward the singular car. In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage Garner says “the noun that follows is often plural <each other’s cars>, but the more logical construction is singular <each other’s car>.”

Did he say “logical”? When it comes to each other and one another, logic is beside the point.

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Posted on Thursday, October 1, 2015, at 9:31 pm

You Can Say That Again

Because English is so unpredictable, it’s often impossible to infer a word’s pronunciation from its spelling. Dictionaries help, to a point. But dictionaries often seem all too willing to penalize time-honored pronunciations after a word gets mispronounced by a sufficient number of people.

So here is another in our series of pronunciation columns. The words are familiar, but their traditional pronunciations may surprise you. (Note: capital letters denote a stressed syllable.)

Hysteria  The er is pronounced like ear rather than air. Say hiss-TEER-ia, not hiss-TAIR-ia.

Jewelry  It’s hard to figure how anyone who can spell this word would mispronounce it, but the fact remains that many people say “jula-ree.” To them we say, please explain how j-e-w-e-l spells “jula.”

Consummate  When used as an adjective, as in “She is the consummate hostess,” the correct pronunciation is cun-SUM-it, although CON-sa-mit has all but taken over. You don’t hear many Americans say cun-SUM-it, but to its credit the latest edition (2011) of theAmerican Heritage Dictionary of the English Language still prefers it.

Memorabilia  It is often mispronounced memmer-a-BEE-lia. Say memmer-a-BILL-ia. (Few people use, or are even aware of, the singular form: memorabile.)

Repartee  This word for witty banter is pronounced rep-ur-TEE or rep-ar-TEE. Repartee came into English from the French repartie, meaning “a sharp answer.” Our 1968 Random House American College Dictionary lists rep-ur-TEE as the only allowable pronunciation. The 2014 Webster’s New World does not list rep-ur-TEE at all. It prefers rep-ar-TEE, but also accepts the pseudo-French rep-ar-TAY.

Incognito  Everyone pronounces this word the same: in-kahg-NEET-o, right? Not according to our ’68 American College Dictionary. A mere 47 years ago only one pronunciation of this word was acceptable to Random House: in-KAHG-nitto, stress on the second syllable, with the third syllable pronounced “nit” instead of “neet.” Quite a change. The aforementioned American Heritage dictionary, so meticulous that it has its own usage panel, now gives first preference to in-kahg-NEET-o, but in-KAHG-nitto gets second billing, so someone is still pronouncing it that way.

Blithe  The sticking point here is the th sound. It’s the difference between writhe and wreath, with the soft th the correct choice; blithe and writhe make an exact rhyme.

Elvis Presley  Those who grew up listening to him will verify that PREZ-lee is the wrong way to pronounce Elvis’s last name. PRESS-lee is how the singer himself pronounced it.

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Posted on Tuesday, September 22, 2015, at 7:35 pm