Yesterday our editor suddenly exclaimed “Doesn’t anyone know how to use a semicolon?” (with regard to an article he was editing). Very soon after, he added “Or a colon?”.

I said “You’re obviously suffering from colonic irritation”.


A press released stated that one of the company’s products is a steel plate 600 m x 1 m (600 metres by 1 metre). I comfortably assumed that that was meant to be 600 mm (millimetres) x 1 m. A steel plate longer than the main span of the Sydney Harbour Bridge? I’d like to see them get that on the back of a truck.


lative and fluous

I often encounter the word superlative in my English language teaching, but it also cropped up recently in a business magazine article I was subediting. When I first encountered superlative, I reasoned that it was pronounced super-lative, just as superfluous was super-fluous. But they’re not: they are su-per-luh-tive and su-per-flu-ous respectively.  

 Even though super comes from Latin, most English words starting with that morpheme are modern, and are attached to real English words, whether nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs. Super retains its usual stress and so does the real English word following it. Lative and fluous aren’t English words, but many others based on Latin ferre/fero/latus and fluere/fluo/fluxus are. Note also that superlativus and superfluus were/are real Latin words. Wikitionary says that the pronunciation of superfluus was as in English, but that of superlativus was super-lativus. (By the way, the literal meanings in Latin and English are ‘carried over’ and ‘flowing over’.)

There are three other English words which are pronounced su-per rather than super: superb, superior and the rare supernal. –b, –ior and –nal are clearly not English words, and in fact represent the Latin suffixes –bus, –ior, and –nalis – the Latin words were superbus (not super-bus), superior and supernalis (not sure of pronunciation).

To sum up: don’t embarrass yourself in public by pronouncing these two words as super-lative and super-fluous.

photopic, biopic, photography

An article mentioned photopic vision, which I guessed was pho-topic, which turned out to be correct, but I commented to our editor that it might just be photo-pic. Photopic is photo, light + opic, relating to sight, or the vision of the human eye under well-lit conditions, compared to that in low light.

One word that is often mentioned in many discussions of ‘words which I though were pronounced somehow until I found out that they aren’t’ is biopic, which many people think is bi-opic, no doubt influenced by bionic, biology and biography. The common meaning is bios, life, but bio + pic is blend of biographical picture (movie), with the ‘pic’ representing a real word rather than simply being a suffix like -(o)nic, –logy and –graphy. Speaking of which, another article mentioned bionic design, that is, “the application of biological methods and systems found in nature to the study and design of engineering systems and modern technology”. I just had to have the headline “We have the technology”.

In my other job, I’m fighting a losing battle against photo-graphy. In the medium-to-long term, this word may develop two pronunciations, one by native speakers and the other by second language learners. 

dongas and dongers. This isn’t Sparta!

An article about recent and current developments in the mining industry in Australia mentioned dongas. I’ve never heard or read about dongas, but then I’ve never worked in the mining industry. But the meaning was very clear in context: basic and temporary accommodation for workers. Wiktionary’s definition is: “A transportable building with single rooms, often used on remote work sites or as tourist accommodation.” These are now better quality than they used to be. The origin of the word is obscure. Also, it’s pronounced ‘dong-ga’, as opposed to ‘dong-a’, which is something completely different. Donger appears most often in the phrase “dry as a dead dingo’s donger” (that is, very, very dry). Wiktionary reports that the spelling donger is also used for the basic and temporary accommodation. Hmmm … “My donger’s a bit smaller than I’d like”. The ABC article switches the pronunciation. Maybe they’re both used – pronunciation and spelling of slang words often varies. Speak and write carefully. If in doubt, speak or write something else. 

The article also referred to “spartan accommodation”. The spell-checker on Word for Mac red-underlined that, suggesting “Spartan”. I think there’s a difference between facilities for guests in Lacedaemon (which are “Spartan”, but may be “spartan” as well) and those for workers in the remote areas of Australia (which are “spartan”). The line between retaining upper-case and changing to lower-case is sometimes hazy, but I’m quite prepared to decide that “spartan” in the general sense is lower-case.

the icon du jour

Our editor has a list of words which he thinks are overused and which he wants us to reword if possible. One of these is iconic. An article I was subediting today had it, and I mentioned it to him. He said something to the effect of “Oh, ‘iconic’ is the cliché du jour”. 

du jour is French for ‘of the day’, especially soup du jour, the soup of the day. It is perfectly good French, but may be overused in French restaurants in English-speaking and is a cliché anywhere else. In fact, Google Ngram Viewer shows that the most common noun du jour is the plat, plate. Other nouns are the point (daybreak), plats, mode (the fashion of the day), ordre (agenda), menu, compter (‘the count of the day’, Google Translate couldn’t translate in its entirety but a French-speaking friend informed me it means ‘as of the date’, ie ‘as from the date that the goods were purchased’) and naissance (birth, daybreak again). All of which shows that the French phrase really hasn’t penetrated into English.

Also de jour, either ‘by day’, but also ‘of the day’, as in the 1967 movie starring Catherine Deneuve, the blog, book and tv series Secret Diary of a Call Girl starring Billie Piper.

damp airs

Our editor wrote and posted an article including that some circumstance was ‘putting a damper on’ some company’s activities. While he was at lunch, a colleague asked me if that should be ‘putting a dampener’. After some thought and no research, I said that both were correct, and that I wouldn’t change anything our editor wrote unless is was clearly incorrect.

I asked my Facebook friends what they would say/write, and their answers were basically split down the middle. I did some research and found that damper is used far more than dampener, including in the phrase ‘put a damper on’. 

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put on, take off and phrasal verbs in general

An article about safety work boots described their major features in complete sentences and some minor ones in a bullet point list. My editor doesn’t like bullet point lists, so I either rewrite them as complete sentences if they are interesting or delete them if they’re not. One feature in the bullet point list was that the boots, in addition to laces, had a side zip for ‘easy on and off’. 

Standard English uses ‘put on’ and ‘take off’ or remove’. There is no standard synonym for ‘put on’. If there was, I could have written ‘for easy ____ and removal’. Instead, I had to write ‘for easy putting on and taking off’, which is not completely elegant.

‘put on’ and ‘take off’ are both phrasal verbs. Many phrasal verbs have a single-word synonym which is usually longer and usually more formal. One feature of phrasal verbs is that the opposite is not formed simply by changing its second element to its opposite. ‘Put off’ and ‘take on’ both mean something completely different.

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An article mentioned a joint project between a private science/engineering company in Adelaide, a  government agency and “Flinders University, the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia” (Adelaide’s three universities). I changed that to “the University of Adelaide, Flinders University and the University of South Australia”. Objectively, it’s because that’s the order of each university’s foundation (1874, 1966 and 1991, respectively). Subjectively, it’s because I’m a graduate of the University of Adelaide. I can justify almost anything if I try hard enough.

(It might be that Flinders University has a bigger role in this project, but the article didn’t say that!)