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Why is this so hard?

I wind up fixing these at least once a week, often in articles about construction or home decor:

If it is a wall, ceiling, floor, pillar or other structure instead of powder in a bag, it’s concrete, not cement.

If it’s a shelf above a fireplace instead of a cloak around your shoulders, it’s a mantel, not a mantle.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:35 PM | | Comments (14)


I saw a praying mantil in our front yard today!

Thus, a cloak above a fireplace is a mantlel. Languages should strive for orthogonality.

I once had a writer tell me that he didn't bother to learn things like that because he knew I would fix them. Sigh.

Well, I have two words, meter and metre, but I think you don't. You're a young country: be courageous! Make all the "le" words "el", then you won't have to fly off the Handel.

Nevertheless, the idiom is "cement shoes" or "cement overcoat" when you're dumping a body in the drink.

And the difference is not whether the substance is part of a structure or dry in a bag: both can be both. The difference, surely, is that concrete is cement with sand and aggregate added.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage has a fascinating post on cement vs. concrete. "The use of 'cement' to refer to various building materials now known as 'concrete' has been around for some 600 years," it says. "Concrete" is gaining on "cement," but then, "concrete" (for the building material" has been with us only since the 19th century.

Yep, concrete has been cement with sand and aggregate added for more than a hundred years.

The wikipedia entry on cement is also instructive. Cement is of course a word with many meanings; the powdered stuff you buy in a bag is, properly speaking, Portland cement, which you mix with sand and water to make the cement (a semifluid goop that dries and hardens) that binds up the aggregate to create the cementitious material commonly known as concrete.

To add to the confusion, the dry stuff in a bag might be concrete -- you can buy it ready-mixed, just add water.

But you can only cement a relationship--not "concrete it," right?

That's because cement - particularly in the form called mortar - is used to join things together. Concrete is used to build things. Ugly things, usually.


But we can have a concrete (well worked out, fairly solid) plan forged between two cooperative parties that could be eventually cemented over time? Right?

But we'll have to cross that cement/ concrete block bridge when we come to it.

I say use stucco, plaster, drywall, or adobe to avoid getting all mired in building material 'cementics'.......... oops!...... semantics. (Groan)


My high school English teacher, in an oral quiz, asked one of my fellow students to name two types of nouns. The reply: "abstract nouns and cement nouns." (do they teach this stuff any more? I went to h.s. before the dawn of time.)

The former editor of one of my former papers learned the hard way as a young reporter the difference between cement and concrete as some local builders sent over bags of cement to illustrate the difference after he wrote about the company and misused cement to mean concrete,

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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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