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Crap, is it Monday already?

The word of the week is chthonic. Make it your own. And here is the gallery of the previous words of the week.

That’s words of the week, not word of the weeks. I mention this because I heard someone on the Today show this morning refer to mother-in-laws.

If you missed the post over the weekend, there’s still time for you to make suggestions for improvement—and there is room for plenty—to the Associated Press Stylebook. On Twitter, @GRAMMARHULK has already weighed in with “HULK HAVE TWO WORDS FOR @APStylebook: SERIAL COMMA.”

And if you find eye, mull, tout, tap, fete, and nab used as verbs in headlines as annoying as I do, and you should, Andy Bechtel has compiled a list that includes these and other offenders. Any headline writer who continues to use them as anything other than a guilty last resort in a single-column choker is displaying a poverty of imagination.

And there is no excuse whatever for using them on websites.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:12 AM | | Comments (26)


And yet you think the word limn in a headline is perfectly dandy... I don't want to start that whole argument again, but I have to say, Mr. M, that your likes and dislikes seem a tad arbitrary... (As are mine, of course, but I don't suggest that anyone else has to pay attention to them).

Again with the elitist words, eh, John? I have a plurailty of degrees from prestigious universities (well, state schools, anyway) and still I have to use two thesauruses to look this one up.


I'd say mothers-in-law myself - but surely you're not decrying mother-in-laws after all that anti-prescriptivist stuff you've been peddling? There's nowt wrong with m-I-ls in any non-formal context. Was it, I hope, a joke?

Perhaps I can assist David L in making distinctions. The words on Mr. Bechtel's list are mainly representative of headlinese: usages found in newspaper journalism rather than in ordinary speech or writing. I suspect that he added limn for fun, because of the kerfuffle at The Sun, because limn is not headlinese but a respectable common word seldom found in journalism.

As for Picky's complaint, I don' think that antis-presciptivism is what I've been peddling. I've always tried to maintain a reasonable and informed prescriptivism, which means abandoning superstitions and coming to terms with realities of usage.

Oh sad. I like irk and mull. But then again, I don't write headlines.

I too needed to look up chthonic to learn its meaning.
But I thought that was the point of Word of the Week.
I keep ink dictionaries within reach and know where to find online sources, so I consider this an easy opportunity to learn.
Thank you.

Thanks for the link to my post.

Several, but not all, of the words on that list are from me. Others are from Facebook friends and Twitter followers. I had solicited ideas for the list in those places.

"Limn" was one of those suggested by other people. I agree with John that it's outside the bounds of the intent of my post. But I included it anyway because several people suggested it, one quite adamantly.

I probably wouldn't use "limn" in a headline. I also wouldn't get so worked up about it that I would complain to the news organization that used it.

...limn is not headlinese but a respectable common word...

Well, on that we just have to disagree. On the other hand, I like tout and irk and use them all the time, i.e. once a year, maybe.

What is, principally, wrong with eye as verb?
the Oxford dictionary recognises it without approbation:

or is there some arcane rule of headline editing that rejects it?
or is it a BE/AE usage difference?

the same questions might be posed for nab:

or, indeed, mull:

is there some rule of (Baltimore Sun) style guidance that rejects words of such ancient and approved pedigree?

curioser and curioser, as a famous cat put it...

Mother-in-laws is a reality of usage. Fret not.

Mother-in-laws lives in the limbo between "Standard" and "spoken". It's a compound, and English marks compounds on the final word, not the first one. Eventually, mothers-in-law will be as quaint as to-day and "stamina are".

That day is not today. But it is coming. (And when it arrives, no one will actually notice.)

Please!! It's mothers-in-law, not unlike attorneys-general. What "laws" would you be describing anyway? I must away to lie down, now. The painkiller is beginning to take.

Here's a nice example I heard:
I have two brothers-in-law.
One of them has a motorcycle. I call it my brother-in-law's motorcycle.
But they both share a car. I call it my brothers-in-law's car.
I hope that's grammatically correct...

As soon as I finished reading this post I thought, "How many comments before someone invokes 'limn' as evidence of some dastardly double-standard?"



Well, I won't be spelling that phonetically.

I won't be writing it at all, phonetically or otherwise.

But then, Miss Terse but Toothless, what Wisps is Will o' the?

I think Will o' the Wisps is a proper appellation, and therefore the plural applies. And I think there is no singular form of "Wisp" in this case. It's difficult to lurk in a "Wisp.' Snagglepuss

And then there are the autochthones. No matter how they spin it, Europeans are not North American autochthones.

Well, PtT, there certainly is a singular will o' the wisp, or corpse candle, and the proper noun matters not.  In these cases where the s goes is down to euphony or ease of pronunciation (jack-in-the-boxes, jack o' lanterns, jacks-in-office, jacks-of-all-trades).

Otherwise it may be a case of whether the original allusion is still alive.  Governors-general are types of governor, that's obvious, but how many people know what law a mother-in-law is a mother in?

I would certainly correct governor-generals or mother-in-laws or court martials in copy (stylebook permitting) but I would not be horrified, or even at all surprised, to hear the "incorrect" forms in speech.  And as these expressions ossify I would expect the "incorrect" forms to become standard.  Or perhaps this is just BrE sloppiness?


Picky, old sock. I think it's time you had a nice cuppa.

Yes. Nurse will be round soon.

Picky - Is a "corpse candle" what I think it is? And if it has a more felicitous meaning, what is it? (Nurse: Nil by mouth for this patient.)

Not as bad as you think. It's the little flame that can flicker where marsh gas escapes from boggy ground. Sort of thing you might see if you stopped off at Dead Marshes on your way to Mordor.

Or on Dartmoor, stalking the Hound?

Indeed. Other names for corpse candle are jack o'lantern and will o' the wisp (hang on, haven't I been here before?). I've just looked it up to see if it the phenomenon has a pukka name and I find you Latinists call it ignis fatuus.

Please yourselves, I prefer corpse candle.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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