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Category Archives: Language use

Prone or supine?

I have found these words being mixed up in all sorts of contexts, from instructions to posters, and in all sorts of texts. I’ve also needed to look up which is which when following exercise or yoga instructions! Do you know the difference between prone and supine and do you use them appropriately? Or are they in fact different in the end at all?

Here’s another in my series of Troublesome Pairs to help you (and remember: if you have one for me, check the index then do send it over!).

Prone and supine both mean lying flat. But which way up, that’s the question.

Prone means lying flat, especially face downwards (Oxford Dictionaries). Collins online goes straight to the face-down aspect. Merriam-Webster have it as lying prostrate (adjective) or flat, and a second definition of lying front-downwards. According to all three of them, prostrate means lying flat with the face downwards (you prostrate yourself in front of an emperor, an altar, etc., so that makes sense, and Merriam-Webster, which is bigger than my one-volume Oxford, adds the air of worship to its definition, while Collins adds it to a definition of “prostrating yourself”).

Supine is unequivocably defined as lying flat, face upwards.

So prone can mean lying flat OR lying flat, face downards, prostrate adds an air of worship or respect and supine only means lying flat, face upwards.

You can find more troublesome pairs here and the index to them all so far is here.

 
 

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Words I have looked up – conspectus

No one knows ALL the words, not editors, not professors of English, not writers. But I do pride myself on having a wide vocabulary, as befits an editor and wide reader with an honours degree in English language and literature.

As an aside, English vocabulary, with its pairs of words for so many things (bloom/flower, beef/cow, food/comestibles) makes learning other languages form the same broad family much easier. Learning Dutch, German or Icelandic? Reach for those Germanic terms to help find pairs of friends. Learning Spanish, as I am at the moment, and find Yo como means “I eat”? Aha – comestibles!

All this is working towards saying that I don’t hugely often encounter a word I don’t know, aside from technical terms I come across in texts I’m editing. When I meet on in my everyday reading, I’ve been noting it down, looking it up (of course) and then putting it aside to share.

On holiday recently, I was reading Alan Hollinghurst’s rather excellent “The Sparsholt Affair” (my review of it on my book review blog is here), which is a work of literary fiction about people studying and knowing about things, but is in the main clearly written without jargon, and I came across the following passage (the narrator is visiting the “facilities” at the back of an Oxford pub):

the foul-smelling gutter at the back, with its one light bulb and conspectus of venerable graffiti.

… and obviously the word I didn’t know there was “conspectus”.

So, what is a conspectus? Well, actually it’s an overview or summary of a topic, an overall view, an outline or a synopsis so I’m not sure that he had completely and exactly the right word here. What could he have meant? Palimpsest (layers of text, etc., overwritten again and again) seems a good bet. I’d have queried it were I his editor.

But anyway, I learned a new word and now maybe you have, too.

(Sources: OED Concise, Merriam-Webster online, Collins)

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2019 in Errors, Language use

 

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Words I have looked up – deuteragonist

Even editors (especially editors, who need to know what they don’t know more than most people) need to look things up sometimes. It could be a spelling you can never remember or the way a word is hyphenated in x style guide. Sometimes you just come across a word you don’t know at all, and this happened to me while working on a literary article.

So, what is a deuteragonist in a plot or play?

We know what a protagonist is – the main, central character. And an antagonist is the one who is against them. But the deuteragonist is the second most important person in a narrative – second to the protagonist. This could be the antagonist, but is more likely to be a secondary character, a sidekick, a faithful friend.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2019 in Errors, Language use

 

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Mandolin or Mandoline?

Thank you to my husband Matthew for suggesting this one (he’s quite the fount of troublesome pairs, so watch out for more of his ones as we go through this new set of them), after he discovered himself that these two are in fact two different things.

So what’s the difference between a mandolin and a mandoline?

A mandolin is a musical instrument which is like a lute, with pairs of metal strings that are played using a plectrum.

A mandoline (which can also be spelled mandolin, hooray!) is that vegetable slicer thing (a flat body with adjustable slicing blades) that always looks like it will take your finger off.

“She was playing the mandolin, being careful not to hurt her fingers on the metal strings, while he cut vegetables using the mandoline, bring careful not to slice his fingers on the metal blades.”

You can find more troublesome pairs here and the index to them all so far is here.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2019 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs, Writing

 

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Constantly or consistently?

What’s the difference between constantly and consistently? Find out below …

Constant means remaining the same but its primary meaning is happening continuously, and it also has a metaphorical meaning of dependable and faithful. So to do something constantly means to do it all the time, as well as remaining constant or the same (and also doing it dependably).

Consistent means done in the same way over a long period of time, including an attribute of fairness and accuracy. It also means being compatible with (as in x was consistent with y). So doing something consistently means doing it in the same way over a long period of time, which does echo the secondary sense of constantly, but constantly also includes a sense of doing it continuously, which consistently doesn’t.

For example, I am constantly taking photos that I put up on social media, every day if not more; I consistently post a books of the year round-up on the first of January every year.

You can find more troublesome pairs here and the index to them all so far is here.

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2019 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs, Writing

 

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Instant or instantaneous?

What’s the difference between instant and instantaneous? Is there in fact a difference?

There are lots of pairs of words that mean the same thing, but one has a precise meaning and the other has a range of meanings. Now, if there are two words with subtly different meanings, I’m all for keeping both of them and retaining the richness of our wonderful language, etc. But when one just covers a subset of the other’s meanings, I’m not, to be honest, quite sure. At least here there seems to be a technical term lurking around which will keep the smaller (yet longer!) word going.

So, instantaneous, to cover the smaller meaning first, means being done or happening instantly. It does have a specific meaning in physics around being measured or existing at a particular time.

Instant means occurring immediately, as you would expect, as well as a precise moment in time or a very short time. It also means something that’s processed to allow it to be prepared quickly, in the case of food, mainly, Also, and I dimly remember this from when I learned to type in the Dark Ages, it means “of the current month” (your letter of the 16th instant) although surely no one uses that now?

Both of them come from the same original source, from Latin for “be at hand” (instare), but instantaneous came through medieval Latin, which added -aneus to the original instant (thank you, Oxford English Dictionary for that information). I would advise using instant unless you’re a physicist, just to save complication and make it easier to read.

You can find more troublesome pairs here and the index to them all so far is here.

 
 

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Complicated or complex?

DictionariesThis one was suggested by Neil Langley posting on my main Troublesome Pairs post.

So what is the difference between complex and complicated? Is there one?

The answer is that their meanings overlap. The main dictionaries in the US and UK (Oxford, Merriam-Webster, etc.) define complex using the word complicated, so the adjective complex means made up of many different parts, or complicated. Complicated means consisting of many interconnecting parts, or intricate. So very similar.

The noun complication moves on to describe something that makes something complicated, a complex state (there we go again) and in medical terminology, a disease or condition that is secondary to the main one but makes it worse.

Complex as a noun can mean a few more things – an interlinked system (the military-industrial complex), and then Oxford links but Merriam-Webster lists separately, a group of interlinked buildings. It also has a meaning in psychology of a group of emotionally significant but repressed ideas which cause an abnormal kind of behaviour or an abnormal state (a persecution complex), and by extension, a more pop-psych preoccupation or exaggerated reaction (I have a complex about spiders). There’s a chemical meaning to do with connections, too.

So the nouns vary, but if you’re describing something made up of lots of different things that might be a bit confusing or intricate, it can be complicated OR complex.

Having done some rooting about, I did discover this Washington Post resource claiming to delineate a difference.

You can find more troublesome pairs here and the index to them all so far is here.

 
 

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Hassock or cassock?

Hassock or cassock?

Inspired by a good friend sharing a photo of her husband and their son in matching church choir garb, in this article I’m covering a bit of an ecclesiastical theme. Now I’m wondering if everywhere around the world even has both of these things – maybe some non-UK people will let me know in the comments …

A cassock (a word which probably comes from Turkish, through Italian and French: thank you, Oxford Dictionaries) is a long article of clothing which is worn by some members of the Christian clergy and members of church choirs (not all wear them, but you’ll recognise it when you see it).

A hassock is a little cushion that you kneel on in church: you find them in the pews and choir stalls, often decorated in tapestry by church members. Interestingly, in America it also refers to a footstool – so does this indeed mean other countries don’t have the classic hassocks in their churches? The second meaning is a clump of grass or other plants found in marshy ground – I always thought that was a tussock and now I feel another Troublesome Pair coming on …

So, don’t get your hassocks and cassocks mixed up, or you might be insufficiently clad and kneeling on something far less comfortable than it should be.

You can find more troublesome pairs here, and here’s the index to them all!

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2018 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs

 

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Decor or decoration?

Well, it’s almost time to take our Christmas decorations down, for those who have them (and no, I’m not going to get into the argument about whether Twelfth Night is the 5th or 6th of January …) so I thought I’d do a seasonal post, talking about decor or decoration. And I hope you all had a good break, whatever and whenever you celebrate, and wish all my readers a Happy New Year as this blog goes into its seventh year …

A decoration is an ornament or less frequently an award or medal. Decoration is the act of decorating something (making it look nicer by adding or changing items such as wallpaper, paint, etc),

Decor is all of the decoration and furniture in a room, the whole thing. So decor is the larger category, into which decoration falls. Your Christmas tree, if you had one, as well as its decorations and any decorations hanging from the chandeliers and door frames, will all form part of the general decor of your house and rooms.

You can find more troublesome pairs here, and here’s the index to them all!

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2018 in Errors, Language use

 

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Fornication or formication? Bonus: vermiculation

Fornication or formication? Bonus: vermiculation

OK, hands up who’s actually got these two mixed up? I’m sharing this Troublesome Pair mainly because a) someone suggested it (who? I suspect it might have been Mr. Libro, who is a great source of inspiration for these) and b) isn’t the word formication excellent? There’s a bonus word in the works, too. I’d love to know which word you were looking up when you found this article – do share in the comments!

Fornication is officially the act of having sexual intercourse with someone to whom you are not married. The OED marks this as being “formal or humorous” which seems an amusing and odd pairing to me, but also quite true.

Formication is the sensation of having insects (it comes from the word for ant, also found supplying formic acid, which is emitted by some ants) crawling on your skin. It forms part of some medical conditions (or comes from having insects crawling on your skin).

And I’m always reminded of the word vermiculation by formication – it’s another word from the world of fauna, meaning marking with wavy or wiggly lines or, indeed, worm-eaten (the latter being “archaic” according to the OED. I’ve always come across the first meaning in relation to a particular type of decoration on stone, although if you have a look at this Wikipedia article, you’ll find it’s used in enamel work, too.

Don’t say you never learn anything here!

You can find more troublesome pairs here, and here’s the index to them all!

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2017 in Errors, Language use

 

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