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Solving those devil-dog, double-word problems

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Dolly Withrow Dolly Withrow

A retired English professor, Dolly Withrow is the author of four books, including a grammar-based college textbook, titled “The Confident Writer.” Contact Dolly at

Let’s play a word game. You will find the answers at the end, but if you cheat when playing Scrabble (as I do), you might cheat now. Of course, then, you would miss the fun of playing.

OK, it’s game time. In the following sentence, underline either “nauseous” or “nauseated” to indicate which word you would use: The discussion of grammar makes many people nauseous/nauseated.

If you underlined nauseous, you’re probably in the majority. I’ve heard celebrities, politicians, leaders of various entities and even teachers utter “nauseous” in a similar sentence.

Online research reveals that most linguists claim you can use either word. Linguists describe the way people speak the language, which is why they are called descriptive grammarians, and frankly, although I taught linguistics, I think linguists are sometimes a bit indecisive. All this descriptive grammar hoopla might be connected to our fear of hurting someone’s feelings, so whichever words they choose (if enough of them choose the same word), is all right with linguists. After all, that’s how people talk, they declare.

Prescriptive grammarians are the opposite. If they are also teachers, they don’t much care if they hurt students’ feelings, for they prescribe large doses of what’s good for the students — like it or not. They tell students what’s correct and what’s not. They are not at all timid; in fact, they get right down preachy. They say, “Listen, here’s the way it is. It can’t be any other way, or you’ll be making a mistake that could prove embarrassing and may even prevent you from getting a great job or promotion or salary increase. Who wants that kind of negative result?” Most students’ eyes will have glazed over by this time, but the alert, wide-awake students will be more likely to get the good jobs.

Let’s play the game a bit more: Underline the way you spell canceled/cancelled.

Each time flights are cancelled/canceled, we see the word spelled both ways, and you know what wishy-washy would say. That’s fine. What’s wrong with that? Well, this prescriptive grammarian learned how to spell the word in a linguistics class, of all places.

By the way, I expect my non-scholars have dropped out of the game by now, but if you’re still with me, you’re my kind of person. You want to learn or at least are pleased to see your knowledge repeated for those who don’t know. If I have bright, young readers, they might be saying, “This is so cool, man. It’s awesome.” We can tell a great deal about others by the words they choose.

Here are two more devil-dog words: toward/towards. Which do you use? I thought of these because I recently read an excellent essay by an American writer who wrote “towards.”

Sometimes during local weather forecasts on television, I see two spellings: grey and gray. Which do you use?

Here are the final two words to contemplate: imply/infer. If the following sentence is correct, smile. If it needs a correction, correct it: The speaker inferred we should invest our money wisely — that is, with his firm.

Here are the answers: The word “nauseated” means you are sick, sick, sick. The word “nauseous” means you make someone else sick, sick, sick. Grammar is a nauseous subject, for it makes many persons nauseated.

Here’s the lowdown on the spelling of canceled/cancelled. Because we stress or accent the first syllable of the word “canceled,” we use only one l. The correct spelling, then, is canceled. If we placed stress on the second syllable, it would be spelled with two l’s. Consider the word “admit.” The stress is on the second syllable, so we spell the past-tense form “admitted.” We double the consonant. Do you like this sort of discussion or are you nauseated?

Is it towards or toward? I asked the writer of that otherwise flawless essay if he knew “towards” was the British spelling. He did not. I told him “toward” is the American spelling. My dictionaries give the American spelling as a first entry, which we should always use (unless, of course, we’re in London).

Grey is the British spelling, and gray is the American spelling.

As for infer and imply, speakers do not infer. Speakers imply or suggest, and listeners infer or draw conclusions from what has been said. Writers imply and readers infer. To imply is to suggest, and to infer is to draw a conclusion.

Not a linguistic snob, I liked to listen to my mom talk. She mangled the language and coined her own words. One time she blended concerned and interested, saying “insterned.” I knew what she meant. She used fondled when she meant frisked, saying, “The polices fondled the young man (who stole money from the petty-cash drawer).” Here’s a point worth pondering. She was not ashamed of her dialect, although snobs surely ridiculed her. The more we learn about language, though, the less critical we become of those who follow other interests. We’re all different.


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