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A Word, Please:

It’s easy to get mixed up

March 10, 2010|By June Casagrande

In this column, I sometimes answer reader e-mails to try to help people with their grammar problems. It’s a good gig. I get to play expert and hero all at once.

And through the magic of old-fashioned printing, my answers appear immediately after the questions. No one can tell how long it took me to produce them.

So the finished product makes me look like a bottomless font of instant answers who never has any questions or conundrums of my own.


If only that were true.

In real time, there are a lot of grammar and usage issues that trip me up. The good news is I’m armed with a whole lot of books to provide the answers. The bad news is that, no matter how many times I look them up, some of these answers just don’t stay in my head.

Here are just a few.

“Obtuse: 1. not sharp or pointed; blunt?.?.?.?3. slow to understand or perceive.” (Oh, the irony.) “Abstruse: hard to understand because of being extremely complex, intellectually demanding, highly abstract, etc.; deep; recondite.”

A lot of people mistakenly use “obtuse” to mean “hard to understand.” But the word they really want is “abstruse.” Still, just because you can’t understand an abstruse concept doesn’t mean you’re obtuse (I hope).

Here’s a word pair that doesn’t come up much, but when it does, stumps me every time: “fey” and “fell.” Looking them up, I see that fey’s main usage is now pretty much limited to Scotland. It is: “fated, doomed to death” or “in an unusually excited state, formerly believed to portend sudden death.”

In the U.S., it’s often used to mean fancy, frilly or effeminate, which doesn’t quite jibe with the dictionary definition: “strange or unusual in any of certain ways, as, variously, eccentric, whimsical, visionary, elfin, shy, otherworldly.”

“Fell,” as an adjective, is almost gone except for in the expression “one fell swoop.” My “Webster’s” says it means “fierce, terrible, cruel or deadly.”

Here’s an issue that comes up a lot in my day-to-day life: Do you or do you not put a comma after “stuffing” in “turkey, stuffing and macaroni and cheese”?

Of course, that opens up another fey can of fell worms about whether to use the serial comma. The serial comma is the one before “and” in “red, white, and blue.” Book publishers use it, news media usually don’t, opting for the form “red, white and blue.”

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