Tag Archives: language

Troublesome words – refusenik

Troublesome words – refusenik

I try not to be an over-prescriptive fuss-pot when it comes to language,* believing the important thing is clarity and accepting things change with them, while obviously, as I do here, trying to share examples where, say, there are two different words that mean subtly different things and thus should be retained and used. I know people get very cross about the use of words like “decimate”, and when I get a little bit cross about things, as with swathe or swath a while ago, I try to remember to make a point of looking them up and finding out whether our big dictionary sources back me up, or not!

Here is a (perhaps more obscure) case in point. I keep hearing the word refusenik being used to describe someone who is actively refusing to do something, usually to prove a point or in some form of protest. School uniform refuseniks and the like. I knew the term in its original meaning, which is the highly specific one describing Jewish people in the former Soviet Union who were refused to be allowed to emigrate to Israel. I kind of expanded this in my mind to incorporate all people whose exit from a place is refused. The emphasis here is on the fact that they are being refused exit – someone else is doing the refusing and they are the passive objects of the refusal (grammatically speaking).

But I checked my sources, and there we are: a refusenik is perfectly able to simultaneously be someone who refuses to do something out of principle and someone who is refused exit.

** Did you notice the at least three rules I have broken in this post to prove my point about not being fussy?



Posted by on August 31, 2017 in Be careful, Language use, Writing


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Possum or opossum?

DictionariesBecause possums are known for playing dead, I thought this would be a good post for April Fool’s Day. But I’m posting this after midday in the UK, so it’s only still appropriate in later timezones than ours. Ah, well.

So, what’s the difference between opossums and possums? Well … there is and there isn’t a difference.

An opossum is an North American marsupial which is from the family Didelphidae and is handily also sometimes known as a possum. The word opossum was borrowed from the Powhatan language in the 1600s.

When Americans or those who knew the opossum first went to Australia, they found there was a similar-looking BUT NOT THE SAME animal from the Phalangeriformes family, and promptly christened it the possum. Except that it’s sometimes called an opossum.

Here’s the North American type, the opossum (or possum) (both pictures used from Wikipedia  on creatives commons licences):

North American opossum

and here’s the Australasian variant, the possum (or opossum):

Australasian possum

You’re welcome!

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


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Undulate or ungulate?

My husband, Mr Libro, likes these words, he suggested last week’s too. I have to say I agree with him, too, even if any confusion between them in likely to be more of a typo than an error in meaning.

To undulate means to move smoothly in a wave-like manner.

An ungulate is a hoofed mammal, such as a cow. I thought it only meant hoofed animals that chew the cud, so you really do learn a new thing every day!

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

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Posted by on March 15, 2017 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs, Writing


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Undulant or unguent?

This is a Troublesome Pair suggested by Mr Libro, my dear husband. I’m not sure anyone will get these mixed up, but they are fun words, aren’t they? A bit of a tongue-twister, too …

Undulant is a second adjective that originates from undulate (the more common adjective is undulating, but why have one adjective when you can have two lovely unusual ones?). So it means something that is undulating, or moving with a smooth, wave-like action.

An unguent, which is a noun, is a soft and viscous or greasy substance which is used either for lubrication or as an ointment.

So now you know.

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


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Mucus or mucous?

I haven’t posted a Troublesome Pair for ages but I’ve had this one up my sleeve (erm, no, I haven’t, that would be disgusting!) for ages and hadn’t got round to posting it. With a Birmingham Cough going the rounds still, this seemed a seasonal post; my apologies to the more sensitive reader. It is a valid and troublesome pair, though!

Mucus is the noun, i.e. the thing itself: slimy stuff that gets secreted by animals and even plants (it’s more commonly known as mucilage in plants, though mucilage is also, in general a viscous bodily fluid or secretion).

Mucous is the adjective – so mucous membranes secrete mucus, for example.

Bonus word: mucilaginous is the adjective that goes with mucilage. I bet you’re glad you asked, aren’t you!

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


Posted by on February 22, 2017 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs, Writing


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Warn or worn?

DictionariesThis one was suggested by my friend Linda quite a long time ago; I have revived these Troublesome Pairs posts yet again, so watch out for some good ones coming up over the next few weeks.

This is a tricky one for those who get vowels mixed up; often people coming to English from a language that doesn’t mark vowels in the same way, such as Arabic, can get caught out by all our very similar words, especially when they sound almost the same.

To warn, a verb, means to alert someone about something which is about to happen, usually bad. You can issue a warning (the noun) or be warning (verb) someone about the problem.

Worn is the past tense of wear OR an adjective arising from it, and both words have two meanings: to have on the body, as in clothes (I will wear a hat today) or to do with erosion and damage through constant use or friction, etc. (the water of the river has worn through the rock to make a valley; I have an old, worn book that has been damaged by years of use).

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


Posted by on February 11, 2017 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs, Writing


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How do I include quotations in my document? Should I change their language and spelling?

How do I include quotations in my document? Should I change their language and spelling?

Thank you to Vedrana Vojkvić for suggesting this topic to me via Twitter. She asked me for my input on a question she was discussing: what do we do if we are following UK spelling conventions and there’s a direct quotation that follows US spelling conventions? She also introduced the idea of [sic], asking to clarify that that is used only for actual errors in quotations, not just to highlight use of a different variety of English.

How do I include quotations in American English in my British English document?

This, of course, works both ways. If you are following US spelling and grammar conventions in your document and you need to quote something from a British English source, or you’re writing UK English and want to quote from an American source, should you change the spelling in your quotation to match the standard you are using in your main text?

Short answer: no.

Quotations are quotations from the original text. They should be quoted as they are, in the original.

When can I change a quotation?

There are a few occasions when you can and should change a quotation.

Note: every change you make to a quotation should be placed in [square brackets] to make sure it is clear that you have made the change.

  1. To make the grammar match the sentence in which the quotation is included. For example, you might write this: “Smith (2013) instructs the runner to ‘[go] with the flow, not setting off too fast’ (33), which is good advice,” where the original quotation ran, “A good runner goes with the flow, not setting off too fast”.
  2. When you need to explain something: “Smith (2013: 43) further states, ‘Those people [the running club members] can be very supportive’ in her seminal work.”
  3. When you need to cut text from the original quotation: “In this long passage, Smith (2012: 33) tells us to, ‘Watch out for your own over-excitement […] you must rein things in’.”
  4. If the quotations are in very archaic English and you have updated them into modern English OR the person you are quoting had a very individual use of punctuation or spelling and you have regularised it – in this case, you MUST state that you have done this in your introduction or a “Note about the quotations” at the beginning of your document. I would prefer to add modern English versions after the original in the first example and leave the quotations in the original in the second example.
  5. If you have translated the quotations out of their original language yourself – in this case, make sure to make a note of this in your introduction or a “Note about the quotations,” and if you have only translated some of the quotations, put a note [translated by the researcher] after those you have translated.

If you choose to emphasise something in the quotation that was not emphasised in the original, you must say that you have done this: “Smith says, ‘Everyone can run at their own speed and should not be pushed too far’ [emphasis added by the researcher].” (If the emphasis appears in the original, it’s good practice to add [emphasis in the original] after the quotation instead, to make that clear.)

When can I use [sic] in a quotation?

Almost never! I think that’s one for another article … However, to answer the original question, you would not need to use [sic] when quoting in one language (variety) in a text that is in another language (variety).

The golden rule of including quotations in your text

Always, always, always reference them fully so the reader can go and find them in the original!

This article has discussed how to insert quotations into a text, including what to do if they are in a different variety of English, whether you should change the spellings of quotations and when it is acceptable to change a quotation.

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