A former student observed Australia Day and Indian Republic Day by saying on Facebook how “greatful” she is for life in her new country. It’s an easy mistake to make, even for native speaker writers and especially for second language speaker writers (the issue doesn’t occur in speech – who knows how a speaker is ‘spelling’ a word?). A well-known search engine reports about 7,750,000 results for greatful, most of which are dictionaries or usage guides saying “greatful is not a word”.

If greatful means anything, it mean “full of great[ness]”. She might say that her new country is full of greatness, but she can’t say that she is (well, some people may be full of greatness, but most of them probably wouldn’t say so themselves). So what are we full of when we are grateful? Basically, we are full of gratitude. There was an adjective grate, meaning “agreeable, pleasant” from Latin gratus, pleasing, first describing the favoured object or person. Then the thing or person was grateful, that is “full of agreeableness or pleasantness”, then we were grateful for the thing or person.

Meanwhile, great first referred to size, related to Dutch groot and German groß, from West Germanic *grauta, course, thick, then later referred to a subjective evaluation: a great idea doesn’t have to be a big one. A gross idea probably isn’t great idea.

Descriptive linguists have a problem here. Someone who would argue vehemently that irregardless is a word would probably have no hesitation in saying that greatful is simply a mistake. (The spell-checkers in Pages for Mac and WordPress accept irregardless but reject greatful.) I didn’t point this out to the former student. I wouldn’t even if if this was a Facebook post by a current student. But I would if a current student wrote it in class.

PS the opposite switch happened with pitiful, which changed from meaning the one being full of, or showing, pity to meaning the one in need of pity, or even deserving contempt.


preventive, preventative

A few days ago an article I was subediting had preventive and preventative in quick succession.’s main entry is preventive, but it adds “also preventative”. Its entry for preventative redirects to preventive. Google Ngrams shows that preventive is more common, but preventative is certainly an established alternative. So preventive it became.

I have been browsing through Jan Freeman’s discussion of Ambrose Bierce’s Write it right. He states: “No such word as preventative”. She adds: “There was and is such a word as preventative, of course; it arrived in English only a few decades after preventive, in the mid-17th century. Two hundred years later, Hurd 1847 [Seth Hurd, A Grammatical Corrector] decided that the longer spelling was “a common error”; it took another couple of decades for usage critics to declare it nonexistent. Preventative is longer and less common than preventive, and no doubt is a “needless variant,” but its enemies have not yet managed to drive it out of use, or out of our dictionaries.”

If you want to choose, or have to choose, use preventive: it’s (two letters) shorter and more common. Otherwise, be consistent.

So what is it about preventative which had usage commenters of earlier times foaming at the mouth? There is a long list of adjectives ending with –ive, –ative and –itive. Almost all words ending with –ative have corresponding noun ending with –ation. There is “no such word” as *preventation; it’s prevention. The most analogous word is invent > invention / *inventation > inventive /  *inventative.

So why did people start and continue to use preventative? I don’t know. But “no such word” or “not a word” is not an argument, certainly not by itself. If some people use a word, and everyone knows what it means (even as they are foaming at the mouth), then it’s a word.

“My name’s David and I like …”

Many years ago, in the first lesson of one class at high school, we did an ‘introduce yourself’ activity which consisted of saying “My name’s [name] and I like [food starting with that letter]”. The first D in the class (I can’t remember his name) said “I like duck”. The second (Debbie) said “I like dates”, which provoked a few light-hearted comments. When it was my term, I couldn’t think of any other food beginning with D. The teacher finally suggested dill pickles. Some of my classmates started calling me that as a nickname, but fortunately I changed class soon after, for unrelated reasons.

I am now teaching English again part-time, and the first lesson in the textbook was about food. In one lesson I did a similar activity in which students say “I went to the market and bought an apple, a banana etc …” through the alphabetic (vocabulary, pronunciation, countable and uncountable nouns etc). Duck was one of the items in the vocabulary list, so I was expecting the student whose turn it was to say that, but instead she said … Continue reading


My wife and I are in the process of selling one house, buying another and moving. While writing comments on Facebook, I noticed that its spell-checker was red-underlining removalist. (Pages for Mac and WordPress do, too.) lists removalist as “Australian”, which surprised me. I asked my North American friends on Facebook, and they said they would only use mover but would understand removalist in the context of moving house. (By the way, moving house or just moving are both reasonably strange things to say. One student once told me that she’d spent the weekend “moving my house”.)

Some of my Facebook friends also mentioned packers. I have been doing most of the packing myself, and we won’t be paying specifically for packing (the removalists may do some incidental packing). Many years ago I attended a party for a friend whose company was relocating her to Melbourne. She said that the company was paying for the move, including the packing. Later in the evening, someone else commented on the lack of cardboard boxes around the apartment. I said “Kerry and Jamie are coming tomorrow morning”. She looked puzzled, and so were my North American friends when I told that story on Facebook. Anyone not from Australia is welcome to guess my meaning before I update with the answer. [edit: Kerry Packer was then Australia’s most powerful media owner. Jamie (now known as James) was being groomed as his successor; his interests are more broadly commercial]

One of my Australian friends mentioned a play (later a movie) by the Australian playwright David Williamson titled The Removalists. Given that there is only one actual removalist in the play/movie, it is possible that there is a double meaning in the title.


I am trying to sell some old furniture through a ‘Buy, Sell, Swap’ group on Facebook. Someone in the group has advertised “furnitures” for sale. In current-day standard English, this is a plain mistake, but it may gain some usage under the influence of second-language learners and speakers. It makes sense, and there’s no doubt what people mean when they say or write it.

The more I investigated, the murkier it got. There’s a group of uncountable nouns which represent a collection of items, or more accurately there’s two groups of uncountable nouns which represent a collection of items. A flock of sheep consists of sheep (rams, ewes and lambs, a limited list), but furniture consists of tables, chairs, couches etc (a potentially unlimited list). Google Ngrams shows that a furniture appears overwhelmingly as a noun modifier of store, factory, manufacturer etc (and that its usage skyrocketed before 1890 and 1910, so I don’t know what people called it before then) and that furnitures is used just often enough for it may not to be a plain mistake. Among other things, it is used with the verbs are and were. Two of the most common collocations are furnitures thereunto and furnitures whatsoever, which suggests that it has a legal usage. Continue reading


I try. I really try. I really really try not to notice mistakes in other people’s writing, and really really try not to blog about it here. If the blog in question was just anyone’s language-related blog, I’d say ‘ouch, then bite my tongue (or the digital (in both senses) equivalent), but it’s the blog of a Major Language-Related Website, so I’ll say ‘ouch’, then blog about it here.

One post referred to the A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones character Thormund Giantsbane and the British writer Road Dahl. Ouch  and double ouch.

In real life, the spelling Thormund exists, but Tormund is much more common. (Thormund more closely reflects the original Old Norse Þórmundr.) The ASoIaF/GoT character is Tormund, although the spelling Thormund is occasionally used, more often on websites less related to the books or tv series.

In real life, Roald is still used in Nordic countries and among Nordic emigrants (but less so than in the days of Roald Amundsen and Roald Dahl). Road isn’t a name anywhere, though there are several occurrences of Road Dahl on the internet, including goodreads and IMDb. (I have a vague memory of first thinking that his name was Ronald.)

I’ll be generous and say that both spellings are the result of momentary inattention and muscle-memory influence from the much more common words Thor and road. But please proofread, especially if you’re a blogger on a Major Language-Related Website.

(Before anyone points out any mis-spellings in this post (I have re-read very carefully!), please note that this is not a Major Language-Related Website.)


I just watched a video in another language, subtitled in English by someone who isn’t a native English speaker. S/he spelled beautiful as beautifle several times. The word is beauty  + full, so I could cope with beautyfull (with beautifull and beautyful as other possibilities). The subtitler obvious has access to technology and the correct spelling is only ever a few clicks away.

No English word ends –tifle and only three – rifle, stifle and trifle – end in -ifle, and all have the long sound. If we wanted the short i pronunciation, we’d have to write beautiffle.

Can I spell any better in that other language? No, but if I had to put something in that other language on the internet, I’d get someone who can, to check it.

PS As spelling mistakes go, it’s at the less serious end of the scale. It’s perfectly clear what it means, it doesn’t change the meaning and it’s not accidentally funny or rude.