Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Posts Tagged ‘spelling tips

In praise of flackery

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The New York Times building in New York, NY ac...

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I have just  read the After Deadline corrections column in The New York Times and, following some sound advice to be found in my last post, did so within easy reach of narrowed, glinty eyes and  big books with ‘Oxford’ in their title. 

Here’s what I read:  

Mr. Chaffetz said he took a fair amount of flack from other Republicans over his friendship with Mr. Weiner but found it easy to defend. 

If we indeed wanted to use a colloquialism here, the one we wanted was “flak.” 

Or, indeed, ‘flack’. ‘Flack’ being a variant spelling of ‘flak’ which means anti-aircraft fire, or, as used above, strong or annoying criticism or opposition. See Oxford Dictionaries. 

I wondered if maybe Americans are stricter about the flak/flack thing. However, although Garner’s Modern American Usage says ‘flak’ should not be spelt ‘flack’, Merriam-Webster does allow both spellings. 

In addition, I didn’t know that ‘flack’ is also a North American term for a ‘publicity agent’. It can be used as a verb, ‘flacking’, and the noun ‘flackery’ can also be derived from it. Hmm — could be more useful to use as a swear word when your mum is within earshot. 


Spelling tips and tricks.


A grisly error

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Grizzly Bear Anchorage Alaska

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Just bear with me and paws for a second to look at the following:  

It wasn’t just the horror-film plot and effects – the grizzly zombies busting out of graves were literally groundbreaking… (Guardian online)  

When we arrived a grizzly scene confronted us for the plane had blown up… (Telegraph online)  

In the past, there has been a grizzly voyeurism about coming before the physical reality of MacGowan. (Telegraph online)  

Guy Keleny explains the confusion in The Independent’s Errors & Omissions column:  

Bear necessities: Brian Clarke writes in from Kent to point out the following, from a travel piece in last Saturday’s Magazine, about San Diego, California: “It can trace the growth which turned it into America’s eighth-largest city to the Second World War, when a generation of young men passed through its port en route to the grizzly theatre of the Pacific.”  

That should be “grisly”. The words are pronounced the same, but their origins and meanings are different. Grisly means causing fear and horror. Grizzly means grey – as in grizzled hair. It is rarely encountered except as the name of the fierce bear of North America.  

Also, see Oxford Dictionaries on this.  

‘Grizzly’ can also be used to refer to a child who is crying fretfully: A grizzly baby.  

Commonly confused and just plain wrong

Avoiding a tiny spelling error

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Very British Mini

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Spot the very common spelling error in the following extracts:

The chances of those (i.e. poorer students) going to university are miniscule compared to those who are privately educated. (Telegraph online)

Ian McCartney, the miniscule, Scottish-born former chairman of the Labour Party, donned a kilt this week… (Independent online)

We can say this with confidence because aid to these countries is miniscule as a percentage of their GDP… (Guardian online)

Yes, isn’t it. (Tricky.)

The error is ‘miniscule’. And you’ll see it spelt wrongly but everywhere. The correct spelling is:


An easy mistake to make…

It’s an easy mistake to make because of the obvious analogy with the word ‘mini’. But ‘minuscule’  is not etymologically related to the word ‘mini’.

‘Mini’ derives from ‘miniature’. This is based on the Italian ‘miniatura’ via the earlier Latin ‘miniare’ and ‘minium’.

‘Minuscule’ derives from the Latin ‘minuscula’ meaning ‘somewhat smaller’.

Memory aid

I remember the spelling of minuscule by thinking of the word ‘minus’ rather than ‘mini’.

Spelling tips and tricks.


Millenium mistake

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Millennium Dome with Canada Tower. Millennium ...

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Here’s an apt headline in more ways than one:

The Artist of the Millenium Mistake

At the 2002 MTV Video Music awards, Britney Spears presented Jackson with a 44th birthday cake on stage. When Britney spoke of him as the ”artist of the millenium”, Jackson got confused and thought he was being awarded a nonexistant ”artist of the millenium award”. (Telegraph online.)

The wrongly spelt ‘millenium’ is then repeated in the copy. Might as well be consistent, I suppose.

In the writer’s defence, ‘millennium’ is commonly misspelt with only one ‘n’. The Oxford Dictionary of English explains that this is probably because the word is similar to other words spelt with one ‘n’, such as:

  • Millenarian (Not another word for a millionaire, but referring to the beliefs of a political or religious group. See Oxford Dictionaries.)
  • Millenary (Not related to making hats, but a word meaning a period of a thousand years, or a thousandth anniversary. See Oxford Dictionaries.)

‘Millennium’, on the other hand, is formed by analogy with words such as ‘biennium’, which means a specific period of two years.

The eagle-eyed among you will also have noticed that ‘nonexistant’ in the Telegraph copy quoted above should be spelt ‘non-existent’ (US: nonexistent).

Extra homework is being handed out as I speak.


Spelling tips and tricks

Commonly confused and just plain wrong

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