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You Can Look It Up
What happens when you come across a word you don’t know? Do you just keep reading? Most people do. They believe they can figure out a word’s
meaning by looking at the sentence and using common sense. Maybe they’re right … but what if they’re wrong?
Here is a passage from a profile of a historical figure: “The prince, once a redoubtable opponent, became enervated by constant warfare.”
Choose which of the following sentences is true of the prince:
• The prince was a mighty warrior at first, but constant warfare exhausted him.
• The prince was not much of a soldier at first, but constant warfare made him a mighty warrior.
Those who cannot be bothered to look up redoubtable and enervated risk going through the entire essay with a distorted impression of the
prince. Such readers are just wasting time—theirs and the author’s.
Serious readers look up every word they don’t know, even words they’ve seen before but are a bit fuzzy about. It is astonishing how few people
demand this of themselves. Looking up a word never enters their minds, even though doing so takes mere seconds nowadays.
According to the language scholar Charles Harrington Elster, the average educated adult American has a vocabulary of between twenty-five thousand and forty
thousand words. The Oxford English Dictionary contains more than six hundred thousand words—more words than exist in French and German
So even if you had three times the vocabulary of the average person, you still would only know one out of every six English words that have ever appeared
Last week’s article included a sentence that prompted a surprising reaction. We wrote: “Then there are those Wall Street peculators whose malfeasance still has the country reeling.” Some readers assumed we meant “speculators.” Their emails
ranged from civil to scornful. One correspondent simply sent us the offending sentence, with “peculators” blown up to three times the size of
the other words. This is the verbal equivalent of rubbing a naughty puppy’s nose in the mess he’s made.
It is beyond us why anyone would write a “gotcha” email before doing basic research. If you type peculate into a search engine
you’ll get the definition in a few seconds. It probably took longer for the puppy-shamer to enlarge “peculators” than it would have taken
him to look it up.
Speculating is legal; peculating is a crime. “Speculators” was too mild for our purposes. To us, “peculators” was le mot juste.
So exercise due diligence before you hit “send,” or the mistake you expose may be your own.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
Choose the best word. Answers are below.
1. Taking advantage of that nice woman is ___.
C. A and B are both correct
2. The ___ business of life is to enjoy it.
3. I am ___ to participate in this activity.
C. A and B are both correct
4. Boris felt no remorse, no ___ about what he had done.
5. Billie suffers from the ___ that she can sing.
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We are pleased to announce that we have added even more quizzes to help you challenge yourself, your students, and your staff. We added quizzes to existing categories and created some new categories such as “Confusing Verbs,” “Subjunctive Mood,” “Comprise,” “Sit vs. Set vs. Sat,” and “Spelling.”
We reviewed and strengthened every quiz on our website to ensure consistency with the rules and guidelines contained in our eleventh edition of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation.
If you think you have found an error in a quiz, please email us at email@example.com.
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Every year, English teachers from across the country can submit their collections of actual similes and metaphors found in high school essays. These excerpts are published each year to the amusement of teachers across the country. Here is a selection of one year's winners:
Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.
John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.
The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.
Pop Quiz Answers
1. A: Taking advantage of that nice woman is contemptible.
2. B: The principal business of life is to enjoy it.
3. A: I am reluctant to participate in this activity.
4. B: Boris felt no remorse, no compunction about what he had done.
5. C: Billie suffers from the delusion that she can sing.
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.