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Category: vocabulary (Page 1 of 5)

About brothers-in-law and runners-up

In an earlier blog post we looked at compounds and and noted that some are written with one or two hyphens. Here are a few examples:

Brother-in-law (your sister’s husband or your wife’s or husband’s brother)
Runner-up (one who finishes in second place)
Cul-de-sac (a street that is closed at one end)
Editor-in-chief (the manager of an editorial staff)

How should you write the plural form of such compounds? The answer is fairly logical: add the plural -s to the main part of the compound, the significant part.

Brothers-in-law
Runners-up
Editors-in-chief

Cul-de-sac has two plural forms: culs-de-sac or cul-de-sacs

When we write the genitive form, the -s comes at the end when we talk about people: 

My brother-in-law’s new car
The editor-in-chief’s wife

However, you can also write

The wife of the editor-in-chief

When we talk about things, we use the genitive form with of:

The end of the cul-de-sac

Email or e-mail? Or perhaps E-mail?

This word is a combination of electronic and mail.

Should you write it with a hyphen or not?

Some compunds have started as two words, then they have been hyphenated and finally combined into one word. Here are a couple of examples:

Proof reader – proof-reader – proofreader
Living room – living-room – livingroom

(You can read more about compounds here.)

If we follow that trend, we should write email. This form was more common in American English but is now also used in British English.

A young girl on a balcony is writing on a laptop. The image illustrates the concept of emails.
Writing an email

However, we write e-commerce and e-business, so there is a reason to use the form with a hyphen, e-mail.

Of course, if the word begins a sentence, we should write E-mail.

Other compunds with a single letter as the first part start with an uppercase letter also in the middle of a sentence:

T-shirt
U-turn
X-ray

Read more about how to write compounds here.

Re: re

Re: (with a colon) means regarding, on the subject of. Often we can find it in the subject line of an email.

Re: Your enquiry for USB cables

With the same meaning, re can be used in informal language:

We need to have a meeting re the latest sales report.

You can read more about regarding here.

In many words the prefix re means again:

Two years later he remarried.
The votes had to be recounted.
After the installation you have to restart your computer.
All components are reusable.

Since re here means again, you must avoid writing He remarried again or The votes had to be recounted again (that would mean that he married at least three times or that the votes were counted three times). You can read more about unnecessary words here.

Re can also mean a change in the position or state of something:

relocate = locate in a new place
rearrange = arrange in a different way

The image shows a room with bookshelves. There are many book on the floor, on a desk and on a step-ladder. The purpose is to illustrate the verb rearrange in a post about the prefix re..
He decided it was time to rearrange his book collection

Some words with re have two versions, one with a hyphen and one without, and there is a difference in meaning.

recollectrememberre-collectcollect again
recoverget back health, ability,
possession, etc.
re-covercover again
reformchange or improve somethingre-formcreate again
represssubdue, not allow feelings,
etc., to be expressed
re-pressmake a new copy of a recording
resentdislike or be annoyed at
someone or something
re-sentas in 'He re-sent the parcel'
reservearrange for something to be
kept for your future use
re-serveserve again

Use a hyphen if re means again and if omitting the hyphen would cause confusion with another word.

You can read more about using a hyphen here and about the difference between a hyphen and a dash here.

Farther or further?

What is the difference between farther and further?

Not a very big one, I’d say. Except in certain cases.

Both words can be used regarding distance. There are language purists who maintain that farther refers to physical distance and further to imaginative distance, but common usage does not seem to make that distinction. (If you want to stick to the distinction, it may help to remember that farther has far in it.)

The café is at the farther end of the street.
I can’t walk any farther.
Can you see her at the further end of the corridor?
We can’t get any further – there is a tree across the road.

The music room is on the left further down the corridor

Further can also mean more, in addition.

We need to look further into this.
Does it need further explanation?
Further (= Furthermore), recent research has shown this to be true.

In examples like the above, use further and not farther.

We can find further in some common sayings:

Nothing could be further from the truth.
We’ll deal with that further down the road (= later on, in the future).
He can’t see further than the end of his nose.
This will be in effect until further notice.
They left without further ado (= immediately, without delay).
Seek no further!
This can be seen as a further expression of her influence on the political development.
Further to our telephone conversation this morning, I am writing to confirm our order for ten ink cartridges.
I have nothing further to add.

Further can also be a verb, meaning promote, develop, help.

What can we do to further her studies?
He only  wants to further his own interests.

In sum, if you want to write farther, do so only when it is a matter of physical distance. You will never be wrong using further.

Read about the difference between furthermore and moreover here.

Briefly and shortly

Briefly and shortly are easily confused. While brief and short are often synonymous (as you can read here), briefly and shortly have very different meanings.

Briefly means for a short time.

She appeared briefly in an Italian film.
In Britain he worked briefly as a veterinarian.
We spoke briefly about the weather.

Shortly means soon and indicates a point in time.

Shortly after her exam, she moved to Paris.
I’ll be with you shortly.

The following message should not worry you too much:

The landlord will briefly cut off electricity in the building.
This means that you will be without electricity for a short time.

However, if you get the following message, you might worry:

The landlord will shortly cut off electricity in the building.
This implies that you may not have time to prepare for the power cut.

To sum up:

Briefly tells us that something lasts for a short time.
Shortly indicates a short time before or after something.

I’ll see you briefly means that I will see you for a short time.
I’ll see you shortly means that I will see you very soon.

A young couple is seen from above waving goodbye.
They said they’d be back shortly

As I mentioned above, you can read about the words brief and short here.

Brief and short

What’s the difference between brief and short?

Both brief and short are adjectives that are the opposite of long when we talk about time.

The lecturer gave a brief summary of previous research.
There was a brief moment of silence.

We had a short discussion.
It happened a short time ago.

Short can also be the opposite of tall as well as the opposite of long when we talk about distance.

The boy was short and chubby.
The bus stop is just a short distance from our house.

A small boy is taking a short walk with his grandfather.
A short walk with grandpa

Brief is sometimes used as a verb meaning inform and as a noun meaning short information, summary.

The press secretary briefed us about the decision.
Our boss gave us a first brief of the negotiations.

Brief can also mean instructions about duties, responsibilities, etc.

Part of the architect’s brief was to design a building that would comply with local environmental regulations.

A briefing is a meeting in which detailed information or instructions are given.

Debriefing has two meanings: A detailed report given by an agent or a soldier after a mission has been carried out or a meeting held after a traumatic event (such as a natural disaster, a hijacking, etc.) to let victims deal with their trauma.

Briefs is another word for underwear, while shorts are trousers (usually for sport or relaxing) that reach only to the thighs or the knees. Shorts can also refer to underwear for men.

Before this text gets too long, I had better remind myself to be brief or to keep it short.

My next blog post takes a look at briefly and shortly, two words with very different meanings.

Take or bring

These two words usually indicate direction in relation to the speaker or the listener.

Take implies moving something from where the speaker or listener is.
Bring implies moving something to where the speaker or listener is.

Can you take my dress to the dry cleaner’s?
You can bring it back when you come next week.
Should I take some flowers to Mary’s party?
Don’t take your car to work today. There’s an awful traffic jam in the centre.
Bring the salt, please!
Wait a second! I’ll bring you your towel.

In the last sentence we look at the situation from the listener’s point of view. In other words, we have changed the perspective as in the following examples:

I took your briefcase home with me by mistake.
Thanks for your kind invitation. I’ll be happy to come. Shall I bring some wine?

A woman is standing in front of a lot of wine bottles in a liquor store
Shall I bring some wine?

To sum up, think of movement to or from a position. You can compare with come and go. You come here and you go there. Bring it here and take it there.

That said, you may find that either take or bring is used when the direction is unclear or unimportant. It can also depend on whether you put the emphasis on here or there, if you think about where you are now or already imagine yourself at another location.

When you say ”Should I take some flowers to Mary’s party?”, you are still at home. When you say, ”Shall I bring some wine?”, you are already imagining yourself at the party.

That’s OK!

In a previous blog entry we looked at acronyms and initialisms. Probably the most common initialism is OK. Meaning acceptable, everything is in order, go ahead, I approve, etc., it is used in many languages.

Just as internet-savvy young people nowadays use fancy abbreviations such as 2Y2 (to you too), CU L8ER (see you later) and TNX (thanks), people in the 1830s also made up funny abbreviations, often based on intended misspellings. They could, for example, write KY for know yuse, meaning no use. All right was abbreviated OW (oll wright). OK was such a misspelling, supposed to mean oll korrect. It became popular when it first appeared in print in the Boston Morning Post in 1839.

In 1840, President Martin van Buren campaigned for reelection, and his supporters chose O.K. as the motto for the campaign. Van Buren’s nickname was Old Kinderhook, and supporters formed O.K. Clubs around the country. In the end, van Buren was not okayed by the voters; his opponent William Henry Harrison won the election.

OK became increasingly popular and is used all over the world in various versions such as okeh, okie, okej, okey, ookoo, owkej, hokay and others.

You can write OK in different ways, with and without full stops and in uppercase or lowercase letters. If you write for a journal, you should consult its style guide. OK is also written okay, and in student slang it became okey-dokey or okie-dokie.

Space people at NASA added a letter; AOK means All OK.

The initialism has its own sign: to signal OK, you form a circle with your thumb and first finger with the other fingers pointing upwards.

A hand showing the OK sign with thumb and index finger forming a circle and the other fingers pointing upwards.
That’s OK!

You should, however, be cautious about using this OK sign in certain countries, where it might be vulgar or offensive. In Brazil, for example, it is the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger (up yours!). The sign has also become linked to white supremacist groups in the USA.

There have been alternative suggestions about the origin of OK. One theory says that the abbreviation is from the Choctaw language (the Choctaws are a Native American people in the southeastern United States). An example of folk etymology is the belief that OK comes from the Scottish och aye, meaning oh yes. Another explanation points out that the letters OK were stamped on biscuits given to soldiers in the American Civil War. The biscuits came from Orrin Kendall’s bakery. But the most probable explanation is the one from the Boston Morning Post.

Acronyms and initialisms

Acronyms are a type of abbreviation. They are formed by the first letter of each word in a phrase and usually, but not always, written in capital letters. An acronym is pronounced as a word:

ASAPAs soon as possible
HIRCHuman–industrial robot collaboration
NASDAQNational Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations
NATONorth Atlantic Treaty Organization
PINPersonal identification number
POTUSPresident of the United States
SARSSevere acute respiratory syndrome
SWOTStrengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats
UNESCOUnited Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
WADAWorld Anti-Doping Agency

Some words created as acronyms have become so common that people do not know they are acronyms. Some examples:

laserlight amplification by stimulated emission of radiation
radarradio detection and ranging
scubaself-contained underwater breathing apparatus
sonarsound navigation and ranging
taserThomas A Swift's Electric Rifle

There are other abbreviations formed by the first letter of each word, but they are pronounced as individual letters. These abbreviations are called initialisms. Some examples:

B2BBusiness-to-business
BMXBicycle motocross
CEOChief executive officer
CIACentral Intelligence Agency
DIYDo-it-yourself
FAQFrequently asked questions
FBIFederal Bureau of Investigation
IPOInitial public offering
NHLNational Hockey League
RFIDRadio frequency identification
WWWWorld Wide Web
An RFID tag.
Detail of an RFID tag used on a garment

The most common initialism is probably OK. It is such a popular abbreviation that it deserves its own blog post.

Communicating on the internet has created many abbreviations:

2F4UToo fast for you
AFKAway from keyboard
BBSBe back soon
LOLLaughing out loud
KISSKeep it simple, stupid
ROFLRolling on the floor laughing
YOLOYou only live once

How the first letter in an abbreviation is pronounced determines whether the indefinite article should be written a or an. Compare the following:

A UNESCO spokespersonAn unknown person
An FBI agentA federal agent
An HR managerA human resources manager

In my next blog post you can read about backronyms.

Like or such as?

Some writers use like when they should have used such as instead.

When you suggest a category or give something as a type example, write like:

Uncle Bill often listens to crooners like Bing Crosby.

Here Bing Crosby represents a specific type of singers, crooners, who often perform in a sentimental way (think of Crosby’s version of White Christmas and you will understand!).

The sentence does not state that Uncle Bill actually listens to Bing Crosby, only that he listens to singers of that type.

When you specify singers that Uncle Bill listens to, use such as:

He collects vinyl records with singers such as Dean Martin, Fred Astaire, Perry Como, Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole.

These singers are generally known as crooners, and here we understand that Uncle Bill has their records.

A plate of squids.
Seafood such as octopus is healthy

Some more examples:

You should eat more fruits like oranges.
Citrus fruits such as tangerines, clementines and lemons are rich in C vitamin. 
Advanced tools like robots can reduce production costs.
Robots can take over more complicated tasks such as welding and grinding.
The course covers basic concepts of business administration such as accounting, finance, human resources and marketing.

A songwriter like Leonard Cohen will be remembered forever (Songwriters similar to Cohen will never be forgotten).
A songwriter such as Leonard Cohen will be remembered forever (Leonard Cohen will never be forgotten).

There should not be a comma or a colon after such as, but you can have a comma before such as. Leave out that comma if what comes after such as is additional and essential information.

To sum up:

Use like when you refer to a category (you imply comparison).

Use such as when you give actual examples (you imply inclusion).

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