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Note: Because of a change mandated by my website manager (the Authors Guild), as of July 2018 visitors to this page will no longer be able to post questions and comments. My apologies for that.


But you may still contact me by email either through the CONTACT page on the menu bar or by clicking on WRITE TO CHARLIE (under QUICK LINKS in the sidebar on the right).


I reserve the right to post your emailed questions, with my answers, on this page. I will publish only your first name unless you instruct me otherwise, and I will not publish your email address.



This nice note was sent to Mandy Connell, host of the show on KOA Denver on which I'm a guest once a month, by a listener named Linda:


My college-age daughter is prepping for a student tutoring position at her university in the fall by studying [Mr. Elster's] book The Accidents of Style. She is enjoying the book and is fixing some problematic word usage habits in her own vocabulary and writing. She said she feels like this fills in some of the Phonics holes in her education that she missed due to surgeries/missed school in her early elementary years.


Hello Charles,
My wife and I have a standing debate about the word bury. She pronounces it bary and I pronounce it bury. We appreciate your response!


Harrison: Thanks for writing — and for listening.


Is your wife perhaps a midwesterner or westerner, and you perhaps originally from somewhere east? Although it's not hard-and-fast, your speech background — east vs. west — could go a long way toward explaining your difference in pronunciation in this case.


Have you ever heard of the "marry, merry, Mary" pronunciation test? In a very general way it identifies whether your speech background is eastern or midwestern/western. If you pronounce the vowels in these words distinctly — "marry" with the /a/ of "hat," "merry" with the /e/ of "met," and "Mary" with the /a/ to /r/ glide of "pair" — you have an eastern pronunciation, while if you pronounce those words indistinguishably — with all three rhyming with "hairy" and "fairy" — you have a midwestern/western pronunciation.


Ask your wife how she pronounces the name "Barry." Does it sound just like the way she says "bury"? Then ask her how she pronounces "berry." Do the vowels in all three sound the same? Do you say these words differently? It's the same sort of test, but with /b/ instead of /m/.


If this diagnostic aid works, then you are dealing with a regional difference based on ingrained speech habits, and you'll just have to live and let live because you're both right. But if it's something else, give me more details and I'll give you a second opinion.


I hope that's helpful. Good words to you!  — CHE

My question is about in- and de- as indications of positive and negative: i.e. incline/decline or increase/decrease. If de-indicates "not", are we indicating that someone who is deceased is not-ceased? Thank you,
Diann L. Denver


Interesting question, Diann. The meanings of the prefixes in- and de- are more complicated than simply indicating "positive and negative." In- may be privative (depriving or negating what follows of its sense, essentially denoting "not"), as in "incapable," but it very often means "in or into" or is an intensifier or a verb-creator based on Latin roots. De- is not usually privative, although it may denote "extraction or removal of something," as in "decaffeinate" and "deaccelerate." It's most common senses are "down, from, away, or off," as in "descend," "delete," "decapitate," and "deliquesce," or "thoroughness, completeness," as in "despoil" and "deflower." In "deceased," the de- means "away," from the Latin "decedere," to go away. — CHE


Thank you for your expertise, insight, and wit in writing and narrating Verbal Advantage.

Recently, I had the pleasure of a vacation with my 86 year old mother. We had lots of windshield time between attractions, so I suggested we listen to VA while driving. She had never heard of it, and knew nothing about it.

My mother (now retired) had a long career in library science. She earned a BA Degree from a major university in that specialty. She was one of the top reference and cataloging librarians in the State of Wisconsin during her many working years. She has an excellent vocabulary, and (as one can imagine) knows far more about spelling, pronunciation, grammar, and usage than most people. Also, despite her age, she is still quite sharp mentally.

She absolutely loved it! In fact, she wouldn't let me play anything else on our car audio system for the duration of the trip. And, despite her education and life experience, she learned a great deal from it. She especially enjoyed your regularly interspersed clever vignettes regarding grammar, pronunciation, and usage.

She doesn't know it yet, but I've just ordered your VA Book, and will surprise her with it as a gift. I'm certain she'll really enjoy it. She lives in a retirement community with other seniors, and her passion is her weekly game of high-level Scrabble with peers. I'm sure VA will help her play even better...which will make her really happy.

Thanks again, and keep up your good work!

Ken R.
Machesney Park, Illinois

Wow, Ken, you made my day. Thanks! For many years I've been a library advocate in San Diego, and I love librarians, so your mom's endorsement means a lot to me.

If you click on "Write to Charlie" in the sidebar on the right and give me a mailing address, I'd like to add a lagniappe to your gift for her by sending the first two levels of the audiobook version of my companion volume to Verbal Advantage, WORD WORKOUT. That book, along with THE ACCIDENTS OF STYLE and WHAT IN THE WORD? may also interest your mom. And, because she's a librarian, she may also be interested in my vocabulary-building novels for highschoolers, TOOTH AND NAIL and TEST OF TIME.

And, of course, for your mom's 87th birthday you'll have to get her a copy of my forthcoming book HOW TO TELL FATE FROM DESTINY.

Many good words to you! Cheers! — CHE

On the Mandy Connell show on KOA Denver radio today (April 19, 2018) I was asked about the various meanings of the prefix be-. Here is what I wrote about it in my book Word Workout:

The prefix be- has several meanings. It may mean to deprive of, as in behead. It may mean all around, on all sides, as in beset and besiege. It may mean all over, as in besmear, besprinkle, and beslobber. And it may mean completely, thoroughly, as in besotted, completely drunk. Other words in which the prefix be- means completely, thoroughly, include becalm, to calm completely, and benumb, to numb thoroughly.


The first step in a recovery program is:
We admitted we were powerless - that our lives had become unmanageable.

My question is the dash between powerless and that. Why not a comma or a period to end the sentence and start a new one with That ? I have been told a dash signifies end of thought, start of new thought. Could you please clarify.

Thank you, Roland

Dashes (or "em dashes" as they are technically called in publishing, which you can create by holding down control and alt on your keyboard and pressing the hyphen key on the righthand keypad) can signify many things: an interjection in thought, a diversion of thought, a clarification of thought. It is a versatile punctuation mark, sometimes interchangeable with the comma, semicolon, or colon, depending on the writer's intention. In the example you cite, it functions like a strong comma or a colon, showing that there should be a significant pause between the two parts of the sentence. This helps the reader to both hear and recognize the two thoughts and their connection. Certain writers favor dashes over commas for emphasis, and that's probably what's happening here. There's nothing wrong with that unless it becomes a stylistic tic. And, by the way, a period instead of the dash (or something else) here would make the "that" clause seem like a fragment, even though it's a sentence in its own right, because the "that" connects it to what precedes. Omit "that" and you have two sentences that should be connected by a period rather than (acceptably) by an em dash. — CHE

Dear Charles,
I love your love of language.

Aftereffect vs. After-effect

"Aftereffect" camps:
- Merriam-Webster (
- Cambridge (

"After-effect" camp:
- English Oxford (
- chambers (

Which do you consider correct/preferred, and what is your 'go to' dictionary for answering this?

Thank you,
John Dee

Thanks for asking an easy question, John! The quick answer is that in American English there is no hyphen: aftereffect. The word came into the language in the mid-1600s as two words; by the early 1800s it had acquired a hyphen; and since at least the 1940s American dictionaries have listed it as closed (hyphenless). (The earliest source I found it in was the American College Dictionary, predecessor of the Random House line of dictionaries.)

This is the typical, natural, inevitable, and usually desirable process that we see with so many compound words in English: they start out open (as two words), then become hyphenated, then become closed. For example,
horseshoe began as horse shoe, then became horse-shoe, and finally horseshoe. Modern examples of this process include Web site becoming website and E-mail becoming email (whose closure I hope I have helped along by insisting on it in my books since the 1990s).

When considering whether a compound should be open, hyphenated, or closed you should consult what the dictionaries say but make your own decision based on how long the compound has been in the language and whether it is crying out for closure. Technological compounds, because they are so prevalent, will close much faster than compounds such as "backyard" and "lightbulb," which dictionaries, until quite recently, if you can believe it, listed as "back yard" and "light bulb."

For a quick ruling on what's hyphenated in current English and what's not, I usually consult
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate. But I have written books for Random House and for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which rely on their own house dictionaries (in the latter case the American Heritage), and I defer to house style unless I have a strenuous objection.

I hope that's helpful. Good words to you! — CHE

Thanks Charles.
I'll try to make the next one more challenging.
Best regards,
John Dee

Is syrup pronounced seer-up, or sir-up? Or is it based on your location? Thanks! Craig

Good question, Craig. My favorite dictionary, Webster 2 (1934), said that SIR-up "is nearly always pronounced SIR-up by makers of maple syrup." Growing up in New England, I can attest to that, and it has influenced my preference. But SEER-up also has dictionary cred and today both pronunciations are heard with almost equal frequency throughout the country. See the Harvard Dialect Survey here:

Thank you for your response to the syrup question. To add on to that, if we were getting technical, wouldn't SYR be pronounced seer, much like pyramid or myriad? I'm not familiar with words that start with a letter, then YR, and are pronounced sir. Is it simply because the manufacturers call it sir-up? And if so, if someone was getting technical could they argue that it is incorrect? I understand that it can go either way, since they can call it whatever they want, but I'm hoping you can settle this long-standing funny debate. And no east-coast bias. Thanks!

Because I'm from the east coast I pronounce the first syllable of "pyramid" and "myriad" with the short /i/ of "pit" or "mitt," not rhyming with "here." That said, SYR isn't a helpful transliteration because it could be construed as sounding like "sear" or like "sir." For the former, I prefer the transliteration SEER, and for the latter, SUR (but I used SIR in my response because you did and it isn't really ambiguous). Finally, offhand I can think of two words that begin with a YR that sounds like UR as in "sir": myrrh and Myrmidon. Also, there's the first name "Myrna" and the last name "Byrne." Good words to you! — CHE

I wish you were on Facebook and regularly post your teachings there!!! I loved today's Mandy Connell radio show in Denver.
Thank you! Marika Ujvari, Windsor

Thank you, Marika. I tried Facebook but didn't like it, so please revisit this website and feel free to communicate with me here anytime. — CHE

Although "Charles H Elster @ElsterWords" appears on your homepage and looks incorrect, it actually works. Thought I had won a book.

Sorry, pal. Keep looking. For those who didn't hear my offer on KOA Denver yesterday (11/15/17), if you can find a typo on my website I will send you a copy of my book The Accidents of Style. (Typos have to be mine; the comments of visitors to this site don't count.) — CHE

Hi Charles

Sounds like you are about to release a new book, mind sharing when it will be release and what we can expect. In addition what you recommend for someone who wants to improve their writing. Your writing is certainly at another level and would love to get there in the near future. Jorge G

I have just submitted my next book, How to Tell Fate from Destiny, and Other Skillful Distinctions, to my publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH). Print publishing is slow, so it will come out in October 2018. When we get closer to that date, I will post some selections on this website. If you want a reminder about the release, send me an email (click on WRITE TO CHARLIE in the sidebar to the right) requesting one. The bibliographies in my books list a considerable number of sources (besides my own) that will help you improve your writing. — CHE

Is there a word that describes a parent who has lost a child? For example, a woman who loses a spouse is a Widow. A child who loses both parents is an Orphan.

My apologies for taking so long to answer this question; I've been feverishly finishing a book on deadline. It's an excellent question (though terribly sad), and pertinent to so many people's lives, mine included: my parents lost two of their four children, and in just the past two years my wife's sister lost a son and her parents lost a daughter, my wife's other sister.

Because losing a child is not an expected event, like the death of one's parents or a spouse, English has unfortunately resisted embracing a word for "a parent who has lost a child." (English also doesn't have a word for a child who has lost one parent.) So we speak of a "bereaved parent" to indicate this loss, and recently we have begun referring to a parent who has lost a child in military conflict as "a Gold Star parent." But don't despair. Where there's a will there's a word.

At this website ( you will find the word "vilomah," adapted from a Sanskrit word meaning "against the natural order," proposed by a professor at Duke some years ago for this definition.

And here ( you will find some heartfelt commentary about "vilomah" in an article from
The New York Times.

I think this is a good coinage, and we certainly need it. So let's embrace "vilomah" and see if it flies. Thanks again for your great question. Good words to you. — CHE

Hi Charles:
Thank you for your dedication!! In VA the definition of Sanction is " approve, allow or permit". However online, in the media and in many other places they also use it as penalties for disobeying the law. Can you elaborate on the proper diction for this word.
Thank you, Jorge

You're right, Jorge, that "sanction" may also mean "to penalize or discipline," and we often hear it used in that sense in the news because that sense is common in international law, as "the U.S. will impose further sanctions on Iran." I probably should have included that sense in my entry in VA, but for reasons I don't recall now I chose to focus only on the broader meaning of the word. — CHE

Big fan of Verbal Advantage, but I wish there was an index to all the words within. It's hard to go back and find a particular word when I need to review it. Any chance you have this separately?

Just to be helpful, when you wish for something that doesn't exist you need to use the subjunctive: "I wish there were an index . . ." I too wish there were an index in VA, and I wish its companion, Word Workout, had one, but with both books the publisher refused my pleas to include one, citing the length of the book, the cost, etc. And compiling an index, even with the help of software, is no simple task. So the short answer to your question is no, sadly, there is no index for either book. — CHE

Thank you for addressing my comment [see below], however, you (and Mandy) misunderstand. I am the caller regarding the"eon" suffix. One has "lunch." One goes to a "luncheon." However, one is not on the receiving end of a "trunch," but can be on the receiving end of a "truncheon." Every time I ask this question of fellow "word nerds," I try to present it using the admittedly archaic words, "truncheon," "bludgeon," "dudgeon," "puncheon," and "dungeon." I try, as hard as I am able, to elicit a response based upon those words alone. Granted, they are, as I've previously stated, somewhat archaic. Also, every time I present this to my fellow aforementioned word nerds, I find myself having to fall back onto the more commonly (that is to say, currently) acceptable word, "luncheon," and it is THAT word that everyone fixates upon. If you were to take "luncheon" off the table, so to speak, does your definition and/or explanation still hold true?

Sorry to take so long to respond to your follow-up; I was in the throes of finishing a new book. The short answer this time is yes, my earlier explanation stands and you need to take "luncheon" off the table because it is an anomaly. Here's what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about the etymology of "luncheon": "In our quots. the earliest form is luncheon, and this appears in our quots. earlier than lunch; and there is no evidence of a derivative verb in the 16–17th cent. It is possible that luncheon might have been extended < lunch on the analogy of the relation between punch, puncheon, trunch, truncheon." — CHE

Hello Charles,
I thoroughly enjoy it when you are a guest on the Mandy Connell show on KOA. I was listening today and noticed Mandy referred listeners to your website several times. She said "you can go to Charles-uz-iz website @ ...." Is that the correct pronunciation? It was driving me nuts! Also, if I am having a sign made for newlyweds whose last name is "Johnson", should the sign say "The Johnsons" or "The Johnson's"? Thank you!

Good call. Mandy should have said "Charles-iz"," which would be printed as Charles's, not "Charles-uz-iz," which is not printable. Also, apostrophes should never be used to make simple plurals, only possessive ones. So you make a sign for the Johnsons and make friends with the Smiths; that's plural. But you watch an episode of "The Simpsons" at the Johnsons' house or the Smiths' house (note the apostrophe after the final "s," which indicates plural possession). — CHE

On the Mandy Connell show today (September 21, 2017) on 850 KOA Denver, I promised to look into two questions and address them here.

First, a caller wanted to know if "-eon" was a legitimate suffix in words like "luncheon," "dungeon," "dudgeon," and "truncheon," and, if so, what it meant. Could it be a diminutive suffix, indicating something smaller, like "-ette"? Sorry, but no. The peculiar spelling "-eon" in these words is not a suffix and is just one of many variant spellings from Middle English that we haphazardly settled on. Also, as I mentioned on the air, a luncheon is more formal than a lunch and is always associated with some special event.

Another caller wanted to know (seeing as this is Denver, the "mile-high city") whether there was any difference between "altitude" and "elevation." I said that the words were probably interchangeable, which they generally are, but I suspected there was a subtle distinction, and indeed there is.
Altitude refers to a vertical distance, usually calculated by instruments, above the surface of the earth. It often suggests a lofty height or a position in the air: "flying at an altitude of 35,000 feet." Elevation may also refer to a vertical distance above the land or sea, but it chiefly suggests the height to which something has been raised ("her elevation to sainthood") or the state of being raised above the surrounding country ("snow at the higher elevations changed to rain lower down"). So if you live in Denver, or in some similarly uplifted place, you can say that you enjoy living at that altitude (a vertical distance above the earth, calculated by instruments) because there are certain benefits to be had from living at a higher elevation (a vertical distance above the surrounding country). — CHE

Hello Charles,
I'm wondering whether I have to use "a" or "an" before a term like "Nash Equilibrium".
Sincerely, Philipp

If the following word begins with a consonant sound, use "a": a person, a thought. If the following word begins with a vowel sound, use "an": an opportunity, an idea. In your case it's a consonantal sound, so it's "a Nash Equilibrium." Without "Nash," it would be "an equilibrium." My forthcoming book, How to Tell Fate from Destiny, and Other Skillful Distinctions, due out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the fall of 2018, will have a full discussion of this distinction. — CHE

Dwight, a short answer to your responses: "Stumble" shouldn't be listed as a transitive verb in modern dictionaries, except perhaps in the "puzzle, bewilder" sense, which, even so, is archaic. The OED shows that transitive "stumble" stumbled in the 17th century. No one uses it to mean "to trip up" in American English today. — CHE

Charles, I checked out on "stumbled" and not one example was given of that word being used transitively. In fact 6 examples were given, all were in the intransitive form. Also, you mentioned Genesis. Well, the word "stumble" in one form or another is used 99 times in the Bible. Every single one of them is in the intransitive form. So I believe you are correct in your first response. Thanks again, Dwight

Charles, sorry, that last was too long. I just realized that. But that was another person's response to my passing on your info on "stumbled". So now I'm confused as to who is right. One thing I know: "I stumbled my brother" just sounds wrong.
Thanks again, Dwight

According to Merriam Webster, stumble, stumbled, and stumbling can all be used as either transitive or intransitive verbs. If you go to the site you will see that at the writer's discretion, those words can be used correctly either way...transitively or intransitively. Here's the link:

One could say, "My horse stumbled on the road" (intransitive) and be correct. Or, "That stone in the road stumbled my horse" (transitive) and be correct. One might even say, "Watch out! That stone will stumble your horse also (transitive) and be correct. Another might add, "If someone don't get that there stone outa the road, it'll be stumblin' horses all day!" (Incorrect spelling and grammar in that last sentence perhaps, but the use of stumbling is not incorrect.)

Also, according to Webster, the British Dictionary definition of stumble does not allow for a transitive use. Pity.

Therefore, in America it's okay to say, "...if a stone can stumble me, so can a brother." Using stumble transitively may sound odd to some, but I'm not going to let stumble stumble me.

A certain talk show host talks like this quite regularly and I find it quite odd:

"This has become my belief since I am a kid." Shouldn't it be "since I was a kid"?

Thanks, Dwight

Yes, it should be "since I was a kid." — CHE

Is it proper to say, "I stumbled my brother"? That is, as opposed to "I caused my brother to stumble." Thanks, Dwight

The verb to "stumble" is intransitive, meaning it does not act on an object, as opposed to a transitive verb, which needs an object to act on. In "She hit the ball," the verb to "hit" is transitive; it acts on the ball. But in "I can walk," the verb to "walk" is intransitive; it performs an action without having to perform it on something.

"Stumble" was once transitive, meaning "to trip, cause to fall," but that use faded in the mid 17th-century. Today "stumble" is only intransitive, meaning that you cannot "stumble your brother"; he must stumble on his own. Whether you flung an impediment in his path to cause him to stumble on his own is another matter. See the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis. — CHE

Today, August 16, 2017, on Mandy Connell's show on KOA Denver, I was asked about the phrases what in hell and what the hell and whether there was a difference. At first I surmised that there might be, but on further investigation it appears that they are just variations on the same theme. So you can say "what in hell," "what the hell," or "what in the hell," or substitute "why" for any of the previous examples. The only stipulation is that all variations must be preceded by the so-called interrogative: "what" or "why." All these variants date back to at least the early 19th century. — CHE


Is there such a word as "convorted?" I can't find such a word in my dictionary, but at 0:12 below it sure sounds like the witty Jeanne Moos says, "Donald Trump may once have convorted with women of ill repute in Moscow . . . ." Did she make a verbal error or is she using the correct word "consorted" and I just misheard it?
Big thanks, Eton

I listened to the clip and she says cavorted. To cavort is to prance about or make merry. Consorted would also fit. Convorted is not an attested word. — CHE

Dear Charles,

I am very happy with my experiences about your Verbal Advantage. That was the first one of my favorite books and the first that really made me optimistic in this way. It is impossible to tell you much this kindness on your part is appreciated for me. I would like to know your opinion about easy steps for grammar in English language.
Thank you, Amir

If you are a speaker of English as a second language, you should consult someone who is trained in that area for recommendations about grammar instruction (because I'm not an ESL specialist). But, in the meantime, I can recommend some accessible books that should complement Verbal Advantage and that I think you'll find helpful: Nitty-Gritty Grammar and More Nitty-Gritty Grammar by Edith H. Fine and Judith P. Josephson, and Grammar for Smart People by Barry Tarshis. Thanks for your kind words about VA, and good luck and good words to you. — CHE

Why is it some people do not know how to pronounce the T in words like strong or string or strange? They tend to use an SH sound. It just puzzles me. Also, I'm really impressed with all your work. Thank you, Mary

If I were a speech pathologist, I could give you a better answer. But I'm just a humble orthoepist (someone who opines on correct pronunciation), so I'll have to give you an educated guess. I'm not sure it's a question of knowing how, as you say, but rather a question of not being able to, or of not hearing the difference. It may be a kind of speech impediment related to a lisp, where, in this case, the palatal /sh/ gets substituted for the sibilant /s/ (mostly, as you noted, in words that begin with str-, including street). Missing teeth could contribute to this. Or it may be similar to the nucular for nuclear problem, where people just can't hear themselves saying it wrong. Or it may be both. But let's be clear on one thing: It's not that they can't pronounce the /t/; they say SHTRONG, SHTRING, SHTRANGE, and SHTREET. It's that they can't pronounce the /s/ as a pure sibilant before a /t/ and instead utter it with an intrusive /h/.

Sorry I can't give you a more definitive response, but I hope this is helpful. Thanks for your endorsement of my work, and good words to you! — CHE

On August 11, 2017, I was a guest on Ross Kaminsky's show on 630 KHOW in Denver, and I fielded two tricky questions that I promised I would post answers to here.

The first question was whether the proper form for a person from Colorado is
Coloradan or Coloradoan. In his excellent book on "demonyms" (names commonly given to residents of a place), Paul Dickson favors Coloradan and writes that "the variant Coloradoan shows up in print with some regularity, but it is unpopular with natives of the state. When one considers that the usual practice is to drop the -o when creating a demonym from a Spanish name (Colorado is Spanish for "colored"), the case for Coloradan becomes stronger." And Garner's Modern English Usage has this to say: "These two names vie closely for predominance. Coloradan has had the slight edge since the 1860s, but there have been periodic reversals in frequency of use in print sources. Coloradan is the safest editorial choice for now, even though Coloradoan has recently shown signs of resurgence."

The second question was about the words
supposedly and supposably. Here's what I had to say about them in my book What in the Word?: "Supposedly (suh-POH-zid-lee) is the proper adverb corresponding to the adjective supposed (suh-POHZD) in the usual sense we hear and read: 'as is supposed or assumed to be true, presumably.' The word supposably is much less common and means 'conceivably, imaginably.' It’s hard to imagine where you would have a need to use supposably outside of some narrow academic context, but supposedly is an everyday word. [The] confusion is probably the result of the regrettably common mispronunciation of supposedly as supposably. A similar mispronunciation is unequivocably — which is not a legitimate word, though you sometimes see it in print — for unequivocally. — CHE

Hi Charles

I am a non-native speaker of the english language. i have found your vocabulary books very useful. I am having a bit difficulty spelling words. Weak vowels are the problem. I pronounce the words correctly but i cannot differentiate between weak vowel sounds. For example, i sometimes ,often mistakenly, confuse an "uh" sound and cannot tell whether the sound is "o" or "a" in spelling. How to overcome this problem as it is causing a lot of spelling mistakes?

Alas, this is one of the hardest questions to answer about English because English is so dadblamed inconsistent and unpredictable in its spelling and pronunciation. What is a nonnative (no hyphen required) speaker supposed to make of "Wednesday" or "colonel," not to mention the multitude of words that employ what linguists call a "schwa" (SHWAH, another word that's difficult to pronounce), which is that "weak" sound you refer to for vowels, like the /a/ in "ago" and "final," the /e/ in "item" and "novel," the /i/ in "edible" and "imminent," the /o/ in "connect" and "gallop," and the /u/ in "lettuce" and "column." In Romance languages there are no "weak" vowels (I call them "unstressed," "obscure," or "variable"), but English is rife with them, and this, as you attest, causes much consternation for nonnative speakers.

I always hate having to say this because I wish I could offer more helpful advice, but you're just going to have to listen and study carefully, and memorize the trickiest ones. Learning the diacritical marks in English dictionaries, particularly the schwa, which is represented by an upside-down, backwards /e/, will help you. Creating lists of words with similar obscure vowels may also help. And remember: Even the pronunciation of native English speakers can vary with these unstressed vowels. For example, the /a/ in "sofa" is always /uh/, but the /o/ in "carrot" and the /i/ in "privilege" can be an /ih/ or an /uh/. You can also use a spellchecker, but be careful and double-check because they are notoriously unreliable.

It's a knotty problem. I hope this answer is helpful. Good words to you! — CHE

Hello Charles

What are some of the best books on synonym discriminations other than Crabb's and Charles Smith's that you know of? Thanks

I usually have problems with Merriam-Webster's approach to lexicography, especially regarding pronunciation, but I've always liked the synonym discriminations in their dictionaries and I've just begun working with their paperback Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. I also like the discriminations in the Random House Dictionary (college or unabridged) and the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Handbook of Synonyms, Antonyms, and Prepositions by James C. Fernald, from 1947. But my all-time favorite and go-to reference for synonyms is J. I. Rodale's Synonym Finder. It doesn't have discriminations, but it's impressively comprehensive. My forthcoming book (fall of 2018) How to Tell Fate from Destiny, and Other Skillful Distinctions will also contain synonym discriminations along with commonly confused words. — CHE

Learning words is fun but those mysterious pronunciation symbols in dictionaries are killjoys. Why the heck don't modern dictionaries just use simple to understand phonetics and make everyone's life easier?
P.S. The Verbal Advantage cassettes and booklets are the bomb!
Thank you, Charles Harrington Elster!

I exhort you not to despair over "those mysterious pronunciation symbols in dictionaries" and instead make a sincere effort to learn them. They are called diacritics or diacritical marks and, if you spend a little time reading the dictionary's front matter, they are not hard to learn. Most dictionaries also have an easily accessible pronunciation key printed on the inside of the front cover or, in condensed form, on every recto (righthand) page. Dictionary editors avoid phonetic transcriptions because they are notoriously imprecise and also take up more space than diacritical transcriptions, and space is always at a premium in print dictionaries. Just be thankful you only have to learn diacritics and not IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet), which is truly arcane. — CHE

Mr. Elster,

What is your position on the pronunciation of "robot"? I've seen both ROH-bot and ROH-but listed in dictionaries, but whenever I use the pronunciation ROH-but I'm met with confused stares. Thank you, as always, for your incomparable insight.

I don't have a firm position, as my own pronunciation slips between -baht and -but (and I don't worry about it), but here's a little history you can digest: The word entered English in the 1920s. Webster 2 recorded it in the 1930s with the pronunciation ROH-but first and, surprisingly, RAHB-ut as an alternative. That one disappeared swiftly, as you can imagine. The -but pronunciation prevailed until roughly the 1970s or so, when -baht (a kind of self-conscious spelling pronunciation) began rising to dominance. Sources from the 1980s and 1990s are divided, some giving priority to -but and others to -baht. But Webster's New World, in 1997, saw the writing on the wall, favoring -baht and labeling -but with "also," which means "a lot less common." The entry in the online Oxford English Dictionary, last revised in 2010, shows that -baht prevails in both British and American speech, although -but survives in the latter. Hence, I suppose, the confused stares. But, unless those stares bother you overmuch, I'd say just stick with the one you're comfortable with or, like me, switch it up whenever you feel like it. (Postscript: The dominance of -baht today was no doubt bolstered by the recent word "bot" [BAHT], meaning "a computer program that works automatically, especially one that searches for and finds information on the internet.") — CHE

Hi Charles

is there a word for the phrase or word that a person keeps saying after every sentence. For example, do it, '''nicely. put the plates down,'' nicely. in this case nicely is being repeated at the end of the each sentence. what would it be called , a pet word or something else?

The best word I can offer for what you describe is "verbigeration" (vur-BIJ-uh-RAY-shin), which means "the continual repetition of certain words or phrases, often unconsciously." The repeated word or phrase may be meaningful, but often it is simply a meaningless filler or marker, as with the infamous "like" and "y'know [what I mean]?" Verbigeration may also involve pet words or phrases, as when people repeatedly begin sentences with "Well," or "Basically," or "At the end of the day . . ." This would apply to repetitions at the ends of sentences too, such as "you see?" or "God willing." I hope this is helpful. — CHE

I am a columnist for eight metro-Denver weekly newspapers, and recently wrote a column that stated the word "whom" no longer shall exist. Therefore "Who do you love?" will not only be acceptable - it will be correct. A man who just moved here from Australia had a lot to say about American English, and said that he has been chastised for using "acclimatised" and "acclimatized." (Spell Check doesn't seem to like "acclimatise.") I told him you would know if it was acceptable here in the states. Thoughts? Thanks.

"Whom" is indeed moribund. William Safire, who wrote the "On Language" column for The New York Times for thirty years, had some crafty and prescient advice about this word: "When 'whom' is correct," he wrote, "use some other formulation." That's sensible, if only to avoid embarrassing mistakes such as "Whom shall I say is calling?" Yet I think we still have an obligation to give "whom" the hospice care it needs and deserves while it's on its way out. (See the final entry, number 350, in my book The Accidents of Style.)

Regarding "acclimatize": It is indeed a word, and that's the standard spelling (although in British/Australian English it is sometimes spelled "acclimatise"). It is still often preferred in non-American English, but AmE has long shown a preference for "acclimate," which is actually the older form — hence, the chastisement of your Australian correspondent. — CHE

Hi, Charles,

Is the word ratio pronounced rā′shō or rā′shē-ō′? Regards, Jose Miura

Either way is acceptable. The two-syllable pronunciation appears to be an American innovation, documented since at least the 1930s, and now often listed first in American dictionaries. But the three-syllable pronunciation has a long pedigree and is unimpeachable. — CHE

Hi Charles,
I searched and searched, but I could not find a legitimate definition of the term "referenceable". Is it even a word? In my workplace, I hear lots of people refer to "customers that can be referenced" as "referenceable". It sounds needlessly long. If not a real word, is "referable" the term we ought to use instead?
As always, thanks for your attention,

I think you're looking at a bit of business jargon that may be making its way into the general vocabulary. "Referenceable" is not yet a mainstream word, but it appears once in a Google News search, in a job posting referring to "a database of referenceable clients," and it has plenty of regular Google hits, the first being an entry in Wiktionary (not my go-to authority, but an indicator of some currency). And as jargony and cumbersome as it seems, it also seems to fill a denotative hole that "referable" can't. I'm not sure how else you could say "capable of being referenced" in one word. Can you? — CHE

Love listening to you on Mike and now Mandy's show on KOA. A while back you covered the use of A / AN when it comes to HISTORIC. Of course this came up today during the US Open and my buddy and I disagree on correct use. The announcers used An Historic Event which I believe you stated was incorrect but I cannot remember why. Can you clarify. Thanks! Steve, Parker Colorado

Happy to clarify. "A" is used before words that begin with a consonant or consonant sound: "a word," "a lesson," "a U.S. Open contestant" (the "yoo" is consonantal). "An" is used before words that begin with a vowel or vowel sound: "an egg," "an idea," "an hour" (note the silent /h/). The problem with "historic(al)" is that some people think the /h/ is silent (which it most emphatically shouldn't be), so they use "an" before it. Properly, it's "a historic" and "a historical." You wouldn't say "an history," would you? — CHE

Regarding pronunciation of "often." Could the sounded /t/ be regional? I am originally midwestern but living in northern New England I find everyone-ish pronounces the /t/.

I have a detailed entry on this in my BIG BOOK OF BEASTLY MISPRONUNCIATIONS; please read it for a full explanation. The sounding of the /t/ is not a regional pronunciation; it's a long-abandoned pronunciation that has made an unlikely comeback (probably because of what H. W. Fowler called, and I paraphrase, the aspirational need to show our neighbors that we can spell). Thirty years ago the sounding of the /t/ was mostly an under-30 phenomenon, but as those OFF-ten sayers grew up and raised children, we now have an epidemic of OFF-ten-ness. Although one of my best friends, a 60-year-old New Englander, pronounces the /t/, I think that's more of an affectation picked up from his Anglophilic father than a regional tendency. The /t/ does seem, though, to be even more on the rise with younger speakers. I hear it often (OFF-en) now from younger broadcast professionals. — CHE

Hi Charles,

Sean again. Years and years ago, I could have sworn you mentioned a word that described train enthusiasts. I had a boss who loved to photograph trains so much that he would get familiar with train schedules so he could be in the right place in the right time...around the DENVER area, if you can imagine that. I figured he would know the term, but all he came up with was "train-spotter." This is NOT the term I heard, but I can no longer recall what that term was. Searching online turns up ferroequinologist...could that be it? There is little online to support this term.
Thanks, Sean

I may have mentioned ferroequinologist way back when because it's in my book There's a Word for It on page 121. But, as with many of the entries in that book, which I wrote in the mid-1990s, I have no dadblamed idea where I found it. I just checked the OED, Webster 2, Random House 2, and all my go-to sources on unusual words and came up dry. However, my colleague Erin McKean, who runs the wordie-website (for which I was once pronunciation editor), offers this page that may be helpful to you: Scroll down to the one comment, which mentions Dow's Dictionary of Railway Quotations.

Trainspotter is documented in the OED but, although its definition accurately describes your former boss's obsession, it doesn't quite fit the definition of "train enthusiast" that you're looking for. Good words to you. — CHE

Hello Mr. Elster,
I heard you on the Mandy Connell show Thursday. I was zipping around the east side of Denver on E-470 headed for Colorado Springs. The trip was smooth and the educational radio enlightening.

My question to you sir, where in the world did the illness of stripping the t from not when asking a question come from? Example: Are we going out to eat or no?

A former boss was the first person I'd ever heard strip the t. I thought the diction was further proof of his IQ. My significant other has now been infected and it makes my proverbial skin crawl. It can't be a deal breaker after nearly 35 years but........

Hold your proverbial horses, friend. I know we all have pet peeves, which is fine, and I feel your pain that this one really bugs you. But you may want to reserve your linguistic ire for something certifiably egregious, especially when it comes to putting a longstanding relationship on the line. Why? Because the fact that you can't produce any evidence for your objection and have to consult me for a ruling is a tipoff that the objection may be a crotchet without any authoritative corroboration.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994) explains that "a few commentators around the end of the 19th century . . . objected to 'no' qualifying a verb and meaning 'not' — a matter chiefly of objecting to the phrase whether or no." But in 1906, one of my favorite early 20th-century commentators, Frank Vizetelly (who wrote extensively on pronunciation and usage and was editor in chief of Funk & Wagnalls dictionaries), declared that this expression "had literary sanction." And M-W confirms that, noting that they "have usually found or no (with or without whether) used in place of or not in literary contexts or by literary figures," and they offer citations for it from such luminaries as W. H. Auden, Alexander Woollcott, and E. B. White.

So there you have it: Though this variation may seem oddly informal, it has an unimpeachable literary pedigree and the endorsement of numerous high-IQ writers. — CHE

On KOA Denver today (April 20, 2017), on Mandy Connell's show, I was asked by a caller if it should be "me either" or "me neither." I had never been asked that before, and I had to pause and consult my idiomatic barometer. "It's 'me neither,'" I ruled, but I added that I would check it out and post the final ruling here. And in fact, a peek into the Oxford English Dictionary confirmed that "me neither" is the longstanding American locution, dating back to at least 1882. (Which makes sense because "either" is used in comparative constructions while "neither" is used in negative ones.) — CHE

Hi Charles,

Sean here again with another question, but first, I apologize for carelessly calling it the Beastly is definitely NOT a beastly publication given the quality knowledge within. In fact, I find myself using it a couple of times a week, and sometimes daily, so thank you for that. Anyway, in said book, you address the word schizophrenia, but I was hoping to also understand the word schizophrenic. It seems anywhere I look online, the pronunciation is "fre", not "free", and I am curious to know why. Thanks, Sean

I'm always happy to answer everybody's questions, Sean. You're seeing -FREN-ee-uh for "schizophrenia" online because that's probably the dominant pronunciation in the U.S. today, and dictionary editors, unlike authors of pronunciation guides, record the pronunciations people use the most, usually without comment, rather than the ones they might think are proper or best. Longstanding conventions of word division should inform the pronunciations of "schizophrenia" and "schizophrenic": The former is divided schiz-o-phre-ni-a and the latter schiz-o-phren-ic, with what is called an open syllable (ending in a vowel) for the antepenult in the former and a closed syllable (ending in a consonant) for the penult in the latter. The open syllable requires a long vowel sound while the closed syllable takes a short vowel sound. We see this alteration in other similar pairs, such as "neurasthenia" and "neurasthenic." — CHE

Do you think pronouncing the "o" in "Iowa" as -uh- instead of -oh- is sloppy?

I do not. It is an unstressed vowel and therefore a schwa, as in "violet." A long /o/ (as in "bowl") would be overdoing it, and I'm not aware of any authorities that sanction that variant. — CHE

Hi Charles,

I'm Sean, the guy who chatted with you on Mandy Connell's show about George Bernard Shaw and GHOTI back in February! Since then, I have looked up dozens or maybe hundreds of words in The Beastly Book (last night I even learned I have been pronouncing species wrong). Anyway, a guy on my team always says the word resources "ruh-ZORs-uz". I say it "REE-sors-uz". I'm at work and the book's at home or I would check it when I got home. Thanks, Sean

Not to put too fine a point on it, but it's not The Beastly Book (although at times writing it I thought it might be). It's The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations. Now that we've got that out of the way, on to your question.

Pronouncing the /s/ in the middle of "resources" as a /z/ is indeed beastly. Is the guy on your team an engineer, perhaps? From the Midwest, perhaps? I have an old software engineer friend who grew up in Illinois who says it that way and it drives me nuts. There's nothing wrong, however, with putting the stress on the second syllable: ruh-SOR-siz. In fact, that's the traditional pronunciation and the one I prefer. Of course, your pronunciation, with the stress on the first syllable, is the dominant one today. For more on this topic, see "research" and its cross-references in that beastly book. — CHE

Hey Charles,

There is a word I hear people pronounce that makes it sound like the definition is something bad. It is "epitome." The emphasis is on the 'pit', rather than on the epi. It's made up of two words 'epi' & 'tome,' like another word of such makeup: 'epicenter.' You wouldn't say 'eh-pis-ehnter, now would you, emphasizing the 'pis.' Since epitome is the same makeup as epicenter, it should be pronounced ehpee-tohme, or ehpee-tohmee, reflecting what words are combined to make it. It just bugs be to no end when I hear it pronounced with the emphasis on 'pit', just as another word I hear pronounced badly: 'Tsunami,' without the 't' sound.

There is also a name I always pronounced a certain way, but the accepted pronunciation is different: 'Piers.' I pronounce it 'pie-ers,' rather than 'peer-s.' I've tried to find if my pronunciation is applicable, but nada. Can it be pronounced that way?

You're right about "tsunami": It should have a bit of an audible /t/ before the /s/. But I'm sorry, you're off track on "epitome." The traditional and only proper pronunciation is i-PIT-uh-mee. The word comes from the Greek "epi-," upon, and "temnein," to cut (the source of the combining form "-tomy," as in "anatomy," "lobotomy," "colostomy," etc.), and it was originally (and still is) a synonym of "abridgment."

You're also off track on "Piers." The only attested pronunciation is PEERZ, like "peers," as in the 14th-century alliterative poem
Piers Plowman. — CHE

During my appearance today (March 16, 2017) on the Mandy Connell Show on KOA Denver, a caller asked me about the difference between "garnish" and "garnishee." When referring to placing a lien on someone's wages or property, the caller thought it should be "garnishee," not "garnish," which usually means "to adorn or decorate." Because we had to go to a commercial break I never got to answer the question, so I promised to respond here.

First, there is considerable difference of opinion about this.
The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says that both words "are properly used as verbs in the sense of putting a lien on property or wages to satisfy a debt. But garnishee is more common (despite objections by lawyers), perhaps because the more usual meaning of garnish is to adorn or decorate." The stylebook of The Associated Press takes that a step further and says, "Garnish means to adorn or decorate. As a verb, garnishee . . . means to attach a debtor's property or wages to satisfy a debt. As a noun, it identifies the individual whose property was attached."

But wait a minute. Bryan A. Garner, a legal lexicographer — he is editor in chief of
Black's Law Dictionary and the author of Garner's Modern English Usage, for which I was a consultant — disagrees. "In American English," he writes in GMEU, "the usual verb form is garnish (= to take property, usually a portion of someone's wages, by legal authority). Garnishee is usually reserved for the noun sense "a person or institution, such as a bank, that is indebted to another whose property has been subjected to garnishment, especially to satisfy the debt." Garner notes that, contrary to what The New York Times manual claims, in current usage "garnished his wages" is five times more common than "garnisheed his wages." (My unofficial survey of both Google Search and Google News confirms this, with the latter showing over a million hits for "garnish wages" versus barely a hundred for "garnishee wages.") The verb to garnishee and the corresponding noun garnisheement, Garner concludes, "are historically unwarranted forms and therefore ill-advised."

My ruling? I'm with Garner (and not just because he's my colleague). As a verb,
garnish is clearly the more common form and garnishee is a needless variant; as a noun, however, garnishee is standard. And, seriously, no one is going to think you're talking about sprinkling parsley if you say you're going to garnish someone's wages. — CHE

O Mighty Wordsmith,

I haven't seen or heard anything about you for a long time. I thought that maybe you moved out of SD. Have you considered giving a presentation to the likes of OASIS, like your former cohort Lederer does? You're at least as entertaining as the bombastic Lederer, and much easier on the eyes.

My reason for bothering you today is this: I hope that you can help me find just the right word for what I am trying to describe. What would you call a person or WHEN a person deliberately leaves clues to a secret life that he wants the people that he has kept secrets from to find? He cannot be direct, coming clean about his deceit. Instead, hopes that the clues will broach the subject, allowing (forcing?) him to either explain or deny the clue or discovery of said clue. For instance: an adulterous husband deliberately leaving out a book, which was inscribed by a lover, for his unsuspecting wife to discover. Or, the same man, who has told his lover that he is divorced from his wife and now living only with his teenaged child, but has on his refrigerator one, solitary magnet, an obviously child-made one with the sentiment "To Mom" on it, which he intends for his lover to see because he takes her to his kitchen and to the 'frige, opening the door to show the contents of the 'frige - a ruse to get her to notice the magnet. I hope this makes sense.

Thanks in advance.
Mimi Labrucherie

Nice to hear from you, Mimi. Regarding your word question: Sorry to say, I have no idea; you got me there. I don't know of any word that might even approximate the complexity of that definition. And my attempts to coin one came to naught: I think to do so you'd need to string so many combining forms together the result would rival German in its bloated grandiloquence. So again, my apologies.

Regarding my low profile of late: I'm still entrenched in San Diego and I'm still writing books — I've published five hefty ones since leaving "A Way with Words" in 2004, with two more on the way — but, for various personal reasons, I've cut way back on public appearances in the past five years. I still do them, but I'm more selective. For example, I've participated in Twainfest in Old Town, delivered speeches to kick off the NEA's Big Read program, performed my prose-poetic meditation "What Is a Book?" to celebrate the opening of the new main San Diego Public library downtown, and done various events with those wonderful folks from WriteOutLoud, Walter Ritter and Veronica Murphy. I also appear monthly on KOA Denver to field questions about language (see my events page for a schedule and info on how to tune in or access a podcast). It's not the same sort of public profile that I had before, I know, but I don't need attention for attention's sake and I'm happy with things as they are for now. — CHE

Hello Charles,
I hope you are in a good health.
I'm Preparing for GRE exam and I found your "Verbal Advantage book" very very helpful and valuable source for that tough exam. However, I'm in quandary whether to memorize all synonyms and antonyms for particular word or not? I can memorize the words with two or three synonyms or antonyms. However, when I faced with the challenging words with enormous synonyms and antonyms, it is difficult to memorize all of them together. For example:



I know the meaning of the mentioned words individually, but reminding all of them simultaneously seemed to be arduous for me. Am I fastidious about this? I was wondering if you give your advice.

Best wishes, Mir

If you know the meaning of the words individually, you're in great shape. Associating them with synonyms and antonyms is simply a bonus. But if you want to do some mental calisthenics, you could test yourself on synonym-synonym and synonym-antonym pairs. That way you won't have to worry about remembering the whole family of words at once. I hope that's helpful, and good luck on the GRE! — CHE

Hello Charles,

I love your work, especially The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations - my go to reference. How would you pronounce hydrogenated? Thanks - Allan B

Although it is acceptable to put the stress on the second syllable, hy-DRAH-ji-nay-tid, the preferred pronunciation, and the one I endorse, keeps the first-syllable stress of "hydrogen": HY-druh-ji-nay-tid. — CHE

Hello dear Dr. Charles Harrington Elster
I would like to commend you for the excellence you have demonstrated as a teacher in my lovely book verbal advantage. Actually, thanks a galaxy for helping us navigate the stormy sea of English words. In deed, as a non-native learner who read the Magoosh and Manhattan GRE book, when i am reading your book i don't feel that i am studying because it is so clear and your eloquence mesmerize us, doesn't get us tired.
best wishes, Dorna

Thanks, Dorna, for sharing your kind comments. After you finish VERBAL ADVANTAGE, may I suggest that you move on to the companion program, WORD WORKOUT? Good luck navigating the ocean of English, and good words to you! — CHE

Can you please tell me if it's correct to use "pairs" for plural? I was taught the plural of "pair" is "pair."

It also drives me a bit nuts that the media started using "troops" to describe one person in the military. For example, "One troop was killed in Iraq."

Is it also correct to use "terror" in this sentence: "It was an act of terror." I think it should be, "It was an act of terrorism."

Thank you!

Regarding "pair," you were taught incorrectly. "Pair" used as a plural ("three pair of socks") is nonstandard. Although you will often see and hear this usage, in careful speech and writing "pairs" is the preferred plural.

Regarding "troop(s)": It is standard to use "troops" to mean "soldiers," and it is acceptable to use "troops" to mean "individual soldiers" ("six troops were wounded"), but only when that reference is plural. To use the singular "troop" to mean "a soldier" is nonstandard, so that grating in your ears is justified.

Regarding "terror," the usage you cite is less common but not incorrect. The Oxford English Dictionary documents its use since 1800. (See quotation below.) The OED also lists related established phrases such as "terror alert," "terror attack," "terror threat," "terror group," "terror plot," and "terror campaign."

Here's the pertinent passage from the OED:

b. As a mass noun. The use of organized repression or extreme intimidation; terrorism.

[1800 J. Moore Mordaunt I. xx. 247 The directory, now, may..rely upon the power of the sword and terror only for spreading their system.]
1864 Bangor (Maine) Daily Whig & Courier 21 Jan. 1/5 (heading) State Terror in the South.
1937 A. Koestler Spanish Test. vi. 132 They had neither the inclination nor the need to..safeguard the territory behind the lines by the application of methods of Terror.
1977 P. Johnson Enemies of Society xviii. 241 Thanks to their use of terror, they [sc. the Assassins] often..forced governments into compliance or impotence.
2004 N.Y. Times Mag. 2 May 51/1 All the major countries on the front line of the war on terror are currently detaining such suspects, often for indefinite periods of time.

I hope that's helpful. — CHE

Question: In a book I recently published I use the term "landing zone," a place to land helicopters. I also sue the acronym "LZ". So, I might say: "we looked for a landing zone" or if I were to "say we looked for a LZ". Should it be "a LZ" or "an LZ"? thanks

It should be "an LZ." When a word (or, in this case, an initialism) begins with a vowel or a vowel sound, you must use "an." When a word begins with a consonant or consonant sound, you must use "a." Because "L" begins with a vowel sound — the /e/ of "ell" in "bell" — "an" is the proper choice. — CHE

Charles, I've been wondering why you dislike the word "unique?" Doesn't "sui generis" mean the same thing? Also, I recently watched a bit done by George Carlin in which he says that a "near-miss" is actually a NEAR HIT! If you think about it, it's true. Have we all been misusing "near-miss" this whole time? I've also been wondering about the use of "fewer" and "less." I know fewer refers to count nouns--number rather than amount, but am I right that it's LESS THAN x% (say 15%, for example) because LESS modifies a percentage rather than a numerical quantity? Thank you.

P.S. To correct my own punctuation: I should've left the "?" off the end of the first sentence. I know, I know, it wasn't a question!

I'll address the punctuation matter first: Yes, that first sentence wasn't a question and didn't need a question mark; it needed a period inside the close quotation mark. However, if it had been a question, the question mark would have to go outside the close quotation mark because it pertains to the whole sentence, not just to the material quoted.

Now on to the usage questions. I boycott "unique" because it is almost universally misused and I don't want to abet that. One example of the misuse, from the American Heritage Dictionary, should suffice: "Omaha's most unique restaurant is now even more unique." No one would say "That was somewhat sui generis" or say that something was more sui generis than something else because, I'm confident in assuming, the people who use "sui generis" know that, like "unique," it's an absolute and shouldn't be modified. So that's why I eschew (es-CHOO) "unique" and, when appropriate, use "sui generis" instead.

I love George Carlin and adore his riffs on words. The near-miss routine is one of his classics, and of course he's right: the locution seems to imply a failed intention to collide. But you don't mention his turn on "unique" and some of the other bugbears we language mavens love to kvetch about. If you haven't checked those out, I exhort you to do so.

For "fewer" and "less," I also exhort you to read the discussion in my book
The Accidents of Style. You are right that "less" is the better choice for percentages because they don't refer to a number of things tallied but rather to an amount taken as a chunk of the whole: "Less than 35 percent of voters support the measure." For more info, see pages 40-43 in the book.

I hope that's helpful. Good words to you. — CHE