Stop! Grammar Time! Flapjacks vs. Pancakes

I’m sitting in a hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana (long story as to why) at the moment, and I noticed that the room service menu uses a term I haven’t seen in quite some time:



Where I’m from, we call them pancakes. Just about everywhere I’ve ever been, and everywhere everyone I’ve ever known is from or has been, they are known as pancakes. Is there actually a difference between a flapjack and a pancake? Continue reading


Stop! Grammar Time! “Finish” vs. “Complete”

I have no idea if there’s a rule. My friend Nacole shared this take on it:


Here’s my hypothesis:

If you “finish” something, it sort of ceases to exist in your reality – you finish your dinner, or you finish a race.

“Completing” something results in a product of some sort that you keep – you complete a painting. You can also complete a marathon, which is an accomplishment that stays with you forever (maybe that’s a stretch.)

If you “finish” a book, I take that to mean that you read the whole thing, and probably won’t read it again.

If you “complete” a book, it sounds to me like you have reached the end of the writing process, so for the rest of your life you can say “Hey! I wrote a book!”

Of course, this is the English language, so there are exceptions. In fact, there are probably more exceptions than examples of the rule. Also, we haven’t discussed “I’m finished” versus “I’m done,” but that might just be a regional Texas thing.

I have now finished thinking about this issue, and I’d say this post is complete.


Stop! Grammar Time! The Case of the Missing Holiday Apostrophe

If you’re at all like me (and for the sake of your mental health, I sincerely hope you are not), you often wonder things like “Why does ‘Halloween’ sometimes have an apostrophe between the two e’s?” or “Why didn’t I just wear some dang sunscreen on Sunday?” For the sake of brevity, I will limit myself to addressing the former question today.


Image courtesy of Susan Morrow

The word “Halloween,” as it turns out, has its origins in a Christian appropriation of a pagan festival. This is similar to, you know, nearly every major Christian holiday celebrated today. According to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s blog:

Despite the “pagan” origins and traditions of the holiday, it eventually was transformed into a Christian observance, closely linked to All Hallows Day or All Saints Day, November 1. All-Hallows-Even (that is, evening) is the night before All Hallows Day. The apostrophe in the earlier spelling of Hallowe’en denotes the missing “v” of “even.” You’ll find many “e’ens” in nineteenth-century and earlier poetry.

Leaving out the apostrophe, it would seem, is a shortcut around a shortcut. The laziness in omitting the apostrophe is not a new phenomenon, though, so don’t give me any grief about the younger generation not respecting their elders’ apostrophes. This goes back at least to the era of the Founding Fathers (who were presumably too busy revolutionizing to worry about excess punctuation.) Via Katherine Barber, a/k/a the Wordlady:

Halloween has been written without an apostrophe since at least 1773, according to the OED, and among the people using that spelling were Robbie Burns and Queen Victoria. There is no more reason to spell it with an apostrophe than there is to write “fan’cy” (contracted from “fantasy”), “gam’ut” (contracted from “gamma ut”), “lau’nder” (contracted from “lavender”), or “goodb’ye” (contracted from “God be with ye”). I think you can let it go!

Now you know. If you own a black cat, keep it safe.

Photo credit: Image by Susan Morrow, used with permission.


Stop! Grammar Time! “Decimate”

Face Me! - Doctor Who, From the episode "A Town Called Mercy"A recent Doctor Who episode, “A Town Called Mercy,” featured a character who described a war that “decimated” more than half his planet. Something about that seemed mathematically problematic, so I thought I might investigate what “decimate” actually means. As it turns out, the Doctor Who character had it both right and wrong.

“Decimate” can mean “to reduce drastically especially in number” or “to cause great destruction or harm to.” That would be the Doctor Who meaning.

If you look at the word etymologically, though, you get the sense that the number 10 ought to be involved somehow. That’s where some older definitions come in: “to select by lot and kill every tenth man of” or “to exact a tax of 10 percent from.”

So using the original meaning, the character was super-mega-wrong. But no one cares anymore, so go nuts.


Stop! Grammar Time! “A” versus “An”

500px-EgyptianA-01.svgA discussion on Facebook not too long ago addressed how to use indefinite articles with abbreviations. Specifically, the question involved the abbreviation “FB” in place of “Facebook.” Should one write “a FB friend” or “an FB friend”?

It depends entirely on whether you would actually say the letters “FB” out loud or if you instantly translate that to “Facebook.” The use of “a” or “an” depends on whether the word that follows begins with a vowel sound or not. Even if you don’t move your lips when you read, you probably still hear the words as they are spoken in your head as you read (unless you are hearing impaired, in which case please accept my apologies.)

To provide an example:

“Don’t worry if the dominatrix breaks the skin. She’s an M.D., after all.”


“Don’t worry if the dominatrix breaks the skin. She’s a medical doctor, after all.”

Things get a bit confusing where the letter “h” is concerned, but the same rule applies. I have long been confused by terms like “an historic event,” because they seem to violate the “vowel sound” rule.

The use of “an” before some “h” words, such as “historic” or “habitual,” is apparently more a British and Canadian thing, arising from accents that do not do much with the “h” sound. If you have an accent that would cause you to say “‘Enry ‘Iggins” instead of “Henry Higgins,” then you would certainly say “an ‘istoric event.” Otherwise, stick to “a historic event.” Do it for the sake of people like me, please.

Photo credit: “EgyptianA-01” by Unicode script proposal for Basic Egyptian Hieroglyphs, en:User:Nohat . Vectorization: Chabacano [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


Stop! Grammar Time! Affect vs. Effect


“Your attempts to effect a change in my demeanor will have no effect! You cannot affect my affect.”

There may be no greater quandary in the recent history of both the English written and spoken word, than that of affect or effect. The thing is, this is actually quite a humdinger, so I am going to have to split this into two levels, depending on the level of hoity-toitiness you want to display when speaking.

Basic Level:

If the level of speech employed by any of the Real Housewives is all to which you aspire, this is the section for you.

Affect is a verb meaning “to influence,” e.g. “When you threw champagne in my face at the country club, it did not affect me at all.”

Effect is a noun meaning “a result,” e.g. “When you threw champagne in Tiffani’s face at the country club, it had a profound effect on her.”

Advanced Level:

Please do not read beyond this point unless you speak English higher than a Downton Abbey level.

Affect can be a noun, describing mood or expression, e.g. “Her affect changed when she went from smiling to crying.” If you want to get really advanced, you could say “She didn’t even react when you threw champagne in her face, so clearly you did not affect her flat affect.”

Effect can be a verb, meaning “to bring about” or “to cause.” The most common usage seems to be in the context of “to effect a change.” “Throwing champagne in her face really effected a change in her behavior. She’s much nicer now.” More advanced: “Your champagne-throwing stunt effected a change in her affect.”

Now go forth and effect changes in the affects of those around you!

Sources: 1, 2

Photo credit: “Cross” by bjearwicke on stock.xchng.


Stop! Grammar Time! Begging the Question…

begging-the-questionWhat does it mean to “beg the question?” The phrase often appears where something like “raise the question” would be more appropriate, e.g. “Her jittery movements and obvious lack of focus begs the question of just how much cotton candy she has eaten today.” Really, it would be better to say this “raises” a question, because “begging the question” has a specific meaning among people who enjoy discussing logic (not that I hang out with people like that…)

To “beg the question” is to make an argument in which you have already assumed the truth of what you are trying to prove (see also circular reasoning). To use Wikipedia’s definition (which may bring up all new fallacies, but shut up), “begging the question” is:

a type of logical fallacy in which a proposition relies on an implicit premise within itself to establish the truth of that same proposition. In other words, it is a statement that refers to its own assertion to prove the assertion. Such arguments are essentially of the form “a is true because a is true” though rarely is such an argument stated as such. Often the premise ‘a’ is only one of many premises that go into proving that ‘a’ is true as a conclusion.

To give a few examples, via The Skeptic’s Dictionary: Continue reading


Stop! Grammar Time! As-/En-/Insure

4174609626_67c0bd0b9fThis is my first post done by request. Clearly my power is growing…

The request specifically covered insure and ensure, but I am making an editorial decision to include assure as well, because it has been dragged into the eons-long feud between insure and ensure, and it deserves to have its pain acknowledged.

According to, all three words mean “to make certain or secure,” but they approach the concept in different ways.

Assure is used in reference to people, and generally refers to the act of putting a person’s mind at ease about an issue. E.g. “I assured him that the barricades will keep the zombies out tonight.”

Ensure refers to actions taken to guarantee an outcome, e.g. “I welded extra plates of steel over the barricades to ensure that they will keep the zombies out tonight.”

Insure specifically refers to a financial and contractual arrangement to cover assets or expenses in the event of an injury, accident, or other loss, e.g. “I insured the house in the event the zombies get in and destroy it.”

Paul Brians (who is way better at this than I am) makes an interesting observation about “insurance” in America versus “insurance” in Europe:

European “life assurance” companies take the position that all policy-holders are mortal and someone will definitely collect, thus assuring heirs of some income. American companies tend to go with “insurance” for coverage of life as well as of fire, theft, etc.

Photo credit: ‘sua ensure nuoc’ by sammyshop2009, on Flickr.


Stop! Grammar Time! Disinterested vs. Uninterested

uninterestedBelieve it or not, these two words are not supposed to be synonymous. They have begun to overlap in usage, and there is some discussion as to whether it is even worth fighting it anymore. “Disinterested” has a specific legal meaning, so for my part, it is important to distinguish the two.

Uninterested generally means “indifferent,” e.g. “We did not invite you to the oil wrestling match because you seemed uninterested.”

Disinterested means “impartial” or “without bias,” e.g. “Since you don’t know any of the contestants, would you serve as a disinterested referee at the oil wrestling match?”

More and more, though, people say “disinterested” when they mean “uninterested.”

Photo credit: ‘Uninterested cat,’ photo by: Arinn, capped and submitted by: Andy, via


Stop! Grammar Time! Capital vs. Capitol

This one is easy.


The building on the left is the Texas Capitol. The city surrounding it is the Texas capital.

A capitol is a building housing a seat of government. That’s all.

Any other meaning you might intend uses the word capital, which has many definitions:

  • The most important city or town of a country or region, usually its seat of government and administrative center
  • A place associated more than any other with a specified activity or product
    • – Milan is the fashion capital of the world
  • Wealth in the form of money or other assets owned by a person or organization or available or contributed for a particular purpose such as starting a company or investing
    • – the senior partner would provide the initial capital
    • – rates of return on invested capital were high
  • The excess of a company’s assets over its liabilities
  • People who possess wealth and use it to control a society’s economic activity, considered collectively
    • – a conflict of interest between capital and labor
  • A valuable resource of a particular kind
    • – there is insufficient investment in human capital
  • A letter of the size and form used to begin sentences and names
    • – he wrote the name in capitals

Photo credit: ‘Capitol in Austin Texas at Night’ by Eric Hunt (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.