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American English versus British English

There are some variations in American and British English spellings which sometimes confuse readers who are not aware of this fact. The British (and those of the Commonwealth countries) spell words as they have always been spelling them. The Americans, on the other hand, tend to spell words as they sound… often by omitting some letters. The most common difference –

1. Nouns that end in –or in American English, end in –our in British English. Examples:

American English British English
color colour
neighbor neighbour
favor favour

2. Nouns that end in –er in American English, end in –re in British English. Examples:

American English British English
meter metre
center centre
theater theatre

3. Nouns that end in –g in American English, end in –gue in British English. Examples:

American English British English
catalog catalogue
dialog dialogue
analog analogue

4. Some other examples of nouns:

American English British English
program programme
draft draught
check cheque
jewelry jewellery
tire tyre

5. Verbs that end in –ze in American English, end in –se in British English. Examples:

American English British English
criticize criticise
memorize memorise
organize organise

6. –ll versus –l: In American English, verbs that end in –l preceded by a vowel, form their past by keeping the l singular when the suffixes –ed or –ing are added; but in British English the l is doubled. Examples:

American English British English
traveled/traveling travelled/travelling
quarreled/quarreling quarrelled/quarrelling

But – in American English, the l is doubled when the last syllable of a word that ends in –l is stressed; whereas, in British English it is not. Examples:

American English British English
fulfill fulfil
enrollment enrolment
skillful skilful

7. Some other differences when suffixes are added:

American English British English
aging ageing
kidnaping kidnapping
argument arguement
judgment judgement

These are just some of the differences in American and British English spellings. There are others, but it’s not possible to give them all here in one post. (We have already written about the differences in spellings when forming the past of some verbs :– those ending in –ed or –t.)

There is another thing that must be mentioned here. As a result of modern trends in the pop scene, scientific and technical advances, as well as the fast growth and reach of the media, American spellings are fast gaining ground. Their influence can also be seen in British English which is now slowly adopting American spellings as standard. This is why you will often see American spellings in British English.

Both the American and British spellings are correct and any may be used, but consistency is important.

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What Does ‘Re:’ Stand For?

Today one of my students asked me what “re:” stood for in the subject lines of e-mails (and letters).   I thought I’d write the answer here, too, since many people take it to mean something else.

“Re:” is what is written in the subject line of e-mails (and in letters) to tell the receiver what the topic of the message is. For example: ‘Re: Your article’. Most people take this “re:” to stand for ‘reference’ or ‘regarding’. The reason for this could be that both these words start with the letters ‘re’, and what follows these letters is actually referring to the topic of the message. However, this is a misconception. What “re” actually stands for is the Latin word “res”. “Re” is the ablative form of the noun “res”, which means ‘thing’ or ‘affair’. Therefore, “re” means ‘about the thing’ or ‘about the affair’.

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The Correct Word – Learned or Learnt

I have often been asked this question: Which is the correct past tense of learnlearned or learnt? Well, the answer is simple. Both are correct. Yes, both learned and learnt may be used as the past of learn depending on which form of English you’re using. Learned is used in American English, and learnt in British English. But these days, due to the influence of American English, learned is also being written in Britain.  So, in short, both the forms are correct. The only thing to remember is – whichever form you use, be consistent. Don’t use both learned and learnt together.

There’s just one case where only learned is used – whether British or American English. This is when used as an adjective meaning “possessing or demonstrating profound knowledge”. For example, ‘a learned person’ or ‘a learned response’. In this case, learned is pronounced with two syllables – “learn” and “ed”, unlike learned as a verb where it’s just one syllable.

There are some other verbs that have both ‘ed’ (American) and ‘t’ (British) endings for past tense:

Spell – spelled, spelt

Leap – leaped, leapt

Burn – burned, burnt

Spill – spilled, spilt

Spoil – spoiled, spoilt

Dream – dreamed, dreamt

Kneel – kneeled, knelt

Can you think of any more?

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Important Latin Words and Terms

Yesterday we talked about the value of the study of Latin. Today we give below some of the many Latin words and terms that all writers should know. These words and terms are seen written all around the world in almost all languages in all academic fields. Therefore, it’s important that all writers know them. They needn’t be learnt by heart, but it is a good idea to get familiarized with them as they are often seen written in different contexts in various media.

Most commonly used Latin words and expressions:

Ad hoc: to this. Something created for a specific purpose. Like an ad hoc committee.

Ad valorem: to the value. Something related to the value of another thing. For example, an ad valorem tax.

Affidavit: a sworn written statement. A legal statement.

Alibi: elsewhere. If a person has an alibi, it means he can prove he was elsewhere.

Bona fide: good faith. This mainly refers to contracts. To respect the contract, one must act in good faith.

De facto: common in practice. Something which is not established by law but is common in practice.  Like a de facto official language.

In toto: completely. Refers to something that is taken in its entirety. For example, taking a project in toto.

Modus operandi: a way of doing things. Mainly used when referring to a person’s way of doing things. Like  a thief’s modus operandi; that is, the way he goes about stealing.

Per se: by itself. When something is taken per se, it is taken by itself, without considering the external factors.

Prima facie: by first instance. This is used mainly in legal cases. If a case is prima facie, it means there is enough evidence to go forward with the indictment.

Pro bono: for the public good. If, for example, a lawyer works on a case pro bono, he works for the public good. In other words, he works for free.

Sic: thus. Sic is usually placed within brackets in front of incorrect word or words indicating that the words are not the writer’s.

Terra firma: solid earth. Being on terra firma refers to be being on firm ground rather than on sea.

Vice versa: the other way around. For example, if you say “he likes her and vice versa”, it means that she too likes him.

Vox populi: voice of the people. Refers to the general public, or the voice of the common man.

Which other Latin word or term do you think should also have been included here?

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The Correct Word – Farther or Further

A common error is in the use of farther and further. We often see one word written for the other. This confusion between the two words is understandable since – one, they are both related to distance; and two, their spellings are similar. Care should be taken when using these words since there is a difference between the two.

First, the similarity – they are both the comparative form of “far”.

The difference?

Farther is the comparative form of “far” when referring to distance. For example:

His house is farther than John’s.

Which is farther – the school or the museum?

In both these examples, farther is referring to distance. That is, which place is at a greater distance.

Further is the comparative form of “far” when referring to advancement to a greater degree. For example:

He decided to go ahead with the plan without any further delay.

The boss wanted no further discussion on the topic.

Here further refers to a greater degree, or quantity.

So, the difference is this – whereas farther is used for physical distance, further is used for non-physical distance.

Do you know of any other difference (or similarity) between the two words?

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Difference between Colloquialism and Slang

People often use the word colloquialism for slang, and slang for colloquialism. The reason for this is that quite often people take them to mean the same thing. Colloquialism and slang do overlap to a certain extent, but they are actually two distinct forms of language.

How do colloquialism and slang overlap? In other words, how are they alike? The answer to this is – they are both informal, and they are both spoken forms of language. Now one may ask if they are both informal and both spoken forms of the language, then how can they be different? Well, the difference is this –

Colloquial language is the informal language used by people in every day speech. Its form is distinct to certain people and lends them their identity. Colloquialism may be words, phrases, or complete aphorisms. For example:

Word – gonna

Phrase – what’s up?

Aphorism – the rich get richer and the poor get poorer

Slang, on the other hand, is more informal than colloquialism. It is used only by certain groups – like teenagers or people of certain professions.  For example:

Stinks – for “is bad”

Buzz off – for “go away”

Salad dodger – an obese person

Other differences are:

* Colloquialism is considered standard language, but slang is not

* Colloquialism is geographically restricted, whereas slang may be used in any culture or class of society

* Colloquialism enriches a language, while slang waters it down.

Do you know of any other difference between colloquialism and slang?

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Rhetorical Devices

This post is a follow-up of my previous post on clichés. The reason? I received several requests from readers asking me to clarify, or explain, the rhetorical devices further. There is confusion in the minds of some as to what is what. It is not possible to write everything on the subject in one post, so I’ll just restrict myself to the queries that I received. The rest will follow in future posts.

First off:

What is a rhetorical device? Rhetoric is the study of effective speaking and writing. It is also described as the art of persuasion. Therefore, a rhetorical device is a means of, or a tool used to effectively speak or write. The main devices:

Figure of speech: This is a rhetorical device that uses words in distinctive ways to achieve special effects. Figures of speech are used to emphasize or bring freshness to expression. There are several different types of figures of speech – some being metaphor, simile, and personification.

Metaphor: A metaphor is a figure of speech, which compares two things without the use of ‘like’ or ‘as’. It is used to bring more force to the comparison. For example: a heart of stone, or food for thought.

Idiom: An idiom is a figure of speech – a phrase that means something other than its literal meaning. For example: get cold feet (meaning: become timid), or rat race (meaning= struggle for success).

Cliché: A cliché is a phrase that conveys a particular message, but has been so overused that it now sounds boring and irritating. For example: at the end of the day, or bottom line.

What are the similarities/differences between the above?

Difference between a metaphor and an idiom: A metaphor and an idiom are two different things. Whereas a metaphor compares a person or thing to something that possesses similar characteristics, an idiom is a phrase whose meaning as a unit differs from the meanings of words (of the phrase) taken separately. For example (taking the examples given above):

A heart of stone is comparing the heart with a stone – meaning the heart has no feeling, just like a stone doesn’t. (Meaning = the person has no feelings in his/her heart). Therefore, it is a metaphor.

Get cold feet – here there is no comparison. Instead, the whole phrase has an implied meaning, i.e. becoming timid. This implies meaning is very different from the literal meaning. Therefore, it is an idiom.

Difference between an idiom and a cliché: The idiom has been explained above. A cliché on the other hand, is a phrase that has become stale or boring due to its overuse. This phrase may be anything – a proverb, a metaphor, a simile (a comparison with the words like or as), an idiom, or even a single word. Hence, terms like metaphorical clichés (clichés that are metaphors).

So, what we see here is that an idiom can be a cliché, and a cliché can be an idiom… and yet, the two are different. Some ask – how can we tell whether a phrase is an idiom or a cliché? The deciding factor is its use – if the phrase is a common one and you hear it several times a day, then it’s a cliché, otherwise it’s an idiom.

There is so much that can be written on the topic, but I confined myself to the questions that were asked.

By the way, how would you tell the difference between an idiom and a cliché?

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