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Category: Idioms

Striking the Surplus from Tautologies

Posted on Monday, April 24, 2017, at 11:37 am

The English language includes the tools it needs to communicate with beauty, depth, and precision. Like any other healthy entity, it also moves most swiftly without extra weight. In the world of words, flabby noun phrases are known as tautologies. Merriam-Webster online defines a tautology as “1a: needless repetition of an idea, statement, or word.” …

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The G-Rated Truth

Posted on Monday, November 7, 2016, at 11:16 am

Euphemisms put a happy face on the world’s brutishness. When a player is laid out by a ferocious hit in a football game, announcers downplay it with a cheerful “He really got his bell rung.” We had a Department of War from the eighteenth century until the late 1940s. Then it was renamed the Department …

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Pop Gets It Wrong

Posted on Monday, October 3, 2016, at 8:15 pm

Misinformation spreads like bedbugs. For centuries, humans have clung to articles of faith gleaned from parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, authority figures, community leaders, and other notoriously unreliable sources. These rumors, superstitions, misinterpretations, urban legends, and baseless theories are often nothing more than quaint, harmless nonsense. Then again, try telling that to those who …

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You Can’t Coin What’s Already Coined

Posted on Tuesday, September 20, 2016, at 12:24 pm

Sometimes you hear statements like this: They threw him under the bus, to coin a phrase or To coin a phrase, he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Those who say such things do not understand coin a phrase. You cannot coin a phrase that other people have already used. When you use phrases …

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The Haves and the Have Gots

Posted on Tuesday, July 19, 2016, at 11:02 am

In a recent post we bemoaned the widespread overuse of surreal: “Why keep regurgitating surreal when something atypical happens—is that all you’ve got?” A reader found the sentence objectionable: “Really? ‘is that all you’ve got?’ How about ‘all you have’?” His email insinuated that “all you’ve got” is unacceptable English. Many grammar mavens down through …

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Small Dishes (2016)

Posted on Tuesday, July 5, 2016, at 1:07 pm

• Here is the type of sentence that makes grammar sticklers crazy: one of the students forgot to bring their lunch. You probably know this old tune: laissez-faire scholars and editors say the sentence is just fine, whereas nitpickers demand a rewrite because one is singular and their is plural. Things took a turn in …

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Autoantonyms Speak with a Forked Tongue

Posted on Thursday, March 31, 2016, at 7:29 am

An autoantonym (pronounced auto-ANTA-nim) is a word with two opposite meanings. A familiar example is the Hawaiian word aloha, which means both “hello” and “goodbye.” Autoantonyms (also known as contranyms, contronyms, and Janus words) are not rare. We see, hear, and use them all the time. Too often, miscommunication ensues. It’s awful when you think you said “purple” but the whole world …

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They Never Said That

Posted on Tuesday, November 24, 2015, at 2:09 pm

The popular culture has always had an uncanny ability to misuse, misinterpret, misrepresent, and misquote. Its adherents believe that Columbus discovered America and George Washington had wooden teeth and dog saliva cleanses flesh wounds. The other day I heard a goofy radio guy say, “Till death do we part.” He thought “do us part” was …

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When Idioms Become Monsters

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

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 …

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