Category Archives: Spelling

Small Businessman? Small Business Man? Small-Business Man? How Do You Write This Term?

In my last post, I talked about compound words and inserting hyphens to clarify meaning, using the example of the novelty song “The Purple People Eater.” Although I spent a truly ridiculous amount of time researching that one, and I hope you will read and enjoy it, I do recognize that it’s unlikely to be directly applicable in your everyday writing. So I thought I would follow up on that idea with an example that gets used (and misused) frequently in business writing: what to call a man who runs a small business.

Many people incorrectly write this term as small businessman. It’s easy to see why this error is so common: a man who works in business is a businessman, one word. But businessman is actually a compound noun that lost its hyphen along the way. In its earliest days, going back to 1798, the term was written as business-man, with a hyphen, or business man, two words. It first got squished into one word in 1860, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and that spelling eventually became standard.

If you call someone a small businessman, you’re implying that he is a businessman who is small. While some men may technically fit into this category (e.g., the three-foot-six actor of Return of the Jedi and Harry Potter fame, who also owns a talent agency for actors under five feet tall, Willow Management), I doubt any of them prefer to identify as such.

Sure, he’s technically a small businessman but, more importantly, he’s a small-business man.

If you write the term as three separate words, small business man, you’re no longer actively suggesting that the man is small, but people may read it that way. It’s hard to tell what’s modifying what, and that results in confusion.

The proper way to write the term is small-business man. The compound adjective small-business modifies the noun man, implying a man who is involved in a small business.

The AP Stylebook uses this term as the example for using a hyphen to avoid ambiguity:

The president will speak to small-business men. (Businessmen normally is one word. But the president will speak to small businessmen is unclear.)

Next time you start to write this term, stop and remind yourself that what’s small is the business, not the man. And even if both are small, err on the side of modifying the business—the company wouldn’t feel belittled by being called small, but the man probably would.

Uncommon Words, Commonly Confused—Part II

I promised that I have a long list of homonyms (words that sound or look like other words) wherein one of the words in the pair is used rarely, so it’s easily mistaken for the word that’s used frequently. Let’s examine some more!

The definitions below are from my dictionary of choice, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Words between brackets are mine.

And be sure to peruse the original post on these uncommon words that are commonly confused with common ones.

Uncommon Word Common Homonym
Aweigh: Raised just clear of the bottom—used of an anchor. [Anchors aweigh!] Away: From this or that place. In another direction. Absent from a place. Distant in space or time. [And many others.]
Eke: To get with great difficulty. [Eke out a living.] Eek: Used to express surprise or dismay. [Eek! A mouse.]
Forebear: Ancestor, forefather; also precursor—usu. used in pl. Forbear: To hold oneself back from esp. with an effort.
Gage: A token of defiance; a glove or cap cast on the ground to be taken up by an opponent as a pledge of combat. Gauge: A measurement (as of linear dimension) according to some standard or system. [Railroad gauge or shotgun gauge.]
Mantle: A loose sleeveless garment worn over other clothes: cloak. A figurative cloak symbolizing preeminence or authority (accepted the mantle of leadership). Something that covers, enfolds, or envelops. Mantel: A beam, stone, or arch serving as a lintel to support the masonry above a fireplace. The finish around a fireplace. A shelf above a fireplace.

Can you think of any other words that belong on this list? Post them in the comments.

OK, Let’s Talk About How to Spell “Okay,” O.K.?

O.K., you know what’s weird? OK is one of the most commonly used words in English (—which is pretty darn high when you realize that ). But there’s no definitive way to spell okay! Why is it that we don’t know how to spell a word that we use every day? Because it started as an abbreviation and has become a full word over time.

The word dates back to 1839, when there was a fad in New York and Boston slang to misspell a saying and then abbreviate it. , an excellent guide to etymology, lists a few others that didn’t stand the test of time:

  • K.G. for no go, as if spelled know go
  • N.C. for ’nuff ced
  • K.Y. for know yuse

O.K. is an abbreviation for oll korrect. It probably would have disappeared along with the other abbreviations if not for the 1840 presidential election. Martin Van Buren was nicknamed Old Kinderhook (after the village in upstate New York where he was born), and his supporters formed the O.K. Club.

You can buy this 1840 wood-block engraving showing the origin of O.K. for just $2,295 on eBay.

The first instance of spelling out okay was in 1895, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but this spelling wasn’t popularized until the 1930s; President Woodrow Wilson (who served from 1913 to 1921) apparently approved government papers by writing okeh.

But over the second half of the twentieth century, the new spelling really took off. shows the skyrocketing popularity of okay over O.K. and OK in published books.

Does this mean you should use okay? Not necessarily. The major style guides actually lean toward OK.

The AP Stylebook—favored by newspapers—puts it succinctly: “OK, OK’d, OK’ing, OKs. Do not use okay.”

The MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing—the guide for academic writing—doesn’t directly address the question, but it recommends turning to a reliable dictionary such as Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary for spelling questions and notes, “Where entries show variant spellings, use the form given first.” Webster’s lists OK first, so that is the preferred spelling for academic work.

The Chicago Manual of Style—used by book publishers—is silent on the issue, too, but in a Q&A on the website, the editors responded:

CMOS doesn’t specify, but as it happens, the manual uses ‘OK’ twice … and does not use ‘okay’ at all. … We follow Webster’s 11th Collegiate, which puts ‘OK’ as the first spelling—but that does not mean it is preferred. Rather, ‘okay’ is an equal variant (also standard).”

If you like periods with your abbreviations, it’s not incorrect to use them in this case, but it is a bit outdated. At this point, the only major publications that favor O.K. with periods are and .

So how should you spell it? If you’re not bound to a particular style guide, choose whichever spelling you like best. As always with questions of style, though, pick one and be consistent.

Presidents Day? President’s Day? Presidents’ Day? How Do You Spell the Upcoming Holiday?

We’re all counting down to the upcoming three-day weekend, but many of us don’t know how to write the name of the holiday on Monday correctly. Is it Presidents Day? How about President’s Day? Presidents’ Day? Well, it all depends on whom you ask.

Most dictionaries and The Chicago Manual of Style favor Presidents’ Day. The apostrophe at the end of the word indicates a plural possessive: It’s a day that belongs to multiple presidents. But the AP Stylebook—perhaps taking its cue from Veterans Day—favors Presidents Day, as in a day of more than one president. You could maybe make an argument for President’s Day, but no official reference book will back you up on that. Why are there two “correct” ways to spell the holiday? Believe it or not, Presidents’ Day (which, as a Chicago Manual enthusiast, I will choose to spell with an apostrophe at the end) is not an official holiday.

The federal holiday is called Washington’s Birthday; the term Presidents’ Day was popularized by marketers seizing on an occasion for a sale. The presidents it refers to are George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who both had birthdays in February.

Washington was born on either February 11, 1731, or February 22, 1732, depending on whether you use the Julian calendar or the Gregorian calendar (both were in use at the time; we use the Gregorian calendar now). Many states started celebrating his birthday on February 22, 1832, in honor of the centennial of his birth. It was made a federal holiday in 1879.

Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. Since 1922, it’s been a tradition to lay a ceremonial wreath at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial on his birthday, and many states celebrate it as an official holiday. But it has never been a federal holiday.

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act, enacted in 1971, moved several holidays to designated Mondays to give citizens fixed three-day weekends. Washington’s Birthday was moved to the third Monday in February, ironically ensuring that it would never fall on his actual birthday. Since it was now within a week or so of Lincoln’s birthday, many businesses squashed the holidays together. And that’s why we’ll be enjoying Presidents’ Day, plural possessive, or Presidents Day, with no apostrophe, on Monday.

Uncommon Words, Commonly Confused

There are commonly confused words—let’s and lets, for example, or it’s and its. Everyone uses these words in everyday writing, and learning to distinguish them is a worthwhile pursuit. But today, let’s talk about a different kind of commonly confused words: words we use rarely that sound like words we use often.

Maybe you’ve only ever heard these words in conversation or in a movie. Maybe you’ve seen them in print but haven’t noticed the spelling. So when you pull one of these words out of the back of your memory, you automatically go with the spelling of the word’s homonym (the word it sounds and looks like). Totally natural; happens all the time.

Let’s look at a few of these commonly confused, uncommonly used words. The definitions are from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

Uncommon Word Common Homonym
Censer: A covered incense burner swung on chains in a religious ritual. Censor: A person who supervises conduct and morals.
Gambol: To skip about in play. Gamble: To play a game for money or property.
Humus: A brown or black complex variable material resulting from partial decomposition of plant or animal matter and forming the organic portion of soil. Hummus: A paste of pureed chickpeas usu. mixed with sesame oil or sesame paste and eaten as a dip or sandwich spread.
Raze: To scrape, cut, or shave off. To destroy to the ground. Raise: To cause or help to rise to a standing position.
Whither: To what place. [“Whither goest thou?”] Wither: To shrivel from or as if from loss of bodily moisture.

Stay tuned for more of these rarely used but easily misused words; I have a long list of them. And if you have ideas for words that fit into this category, please share them in the comments.

How should you write a.m. and p.m.?

Bidding’s still going on eBay for this festive clock.

Being a night owl, I rarely go to bed before 1:00 AM. Or is that 1:00 A.M.? Or maybe 1:00 am? 1:00 a.m.? 1:00 am? Nope, it’s 1:00 a.m.:

The meeting was moved to 10:30 a.m. tomorrow.
My flight is at 8:10 p.m.

The abbreviations a.m. and p.m. come from the Latin phrases ante meridiem and post meridiem, meaning, respectively, “before noon” and “after noon.” As with many other Latin abbreviations that we use in English—e.g., i.e., et al., etc.—the preferred style is to use lowercase letters with periods.

The Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook, the MLA Style Manual, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary all recommend this style. But keep in mind that it is a question of style, so some people may disagree. If your company has an in-house preference for small caps with no periods, that’s what you should use.

Related fun fact: It’s not technically correct to say 12:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m.; noon cannot logically be after noon, and midnight could be either twelve hours before or twelve hours after noon. If you want to be a real stickler, say 12:00 noon or 12:00 midnight.

Of course, we could solve both of these problems by using the twenty-four-hour clock. British people are laughing at us for even needing to consider these questions. But Americans seem about as likely to convert to the twenty-four-hour clock as to the metric system, so we’re stuck with these debates for the foreseeable future.

Do you have a preference for one of the other styles of writing a.m. and p.m.? Do you cringe when other people use 12:00 p.m.? Or do you roll your eyes about that technicality? Do you use a twenty-four-hour clock? Share your thoughts below.

National Punctuation Day Celebration: Apostrophes

Today (September 24) is , the celebration of correct punctuation. In honor of the occasion, I penned an ode to the apostrophe—when to use it and, more importantly, when to leave it out. The post is over at Sin and Syntax, an excellent resource for writers. Here’s a taste:

The apostrophe has been giving writers trouble ever since it first appeared in English in the 16th century. In this century, stray apostrophes became so irksome in documents of the English town of Nottingham that its City Council instituted an “.” (Every time a staffer made an error with this curvy little mark, he or she had to put £1 into the box, with proceeds to go to charity.)

Let’s vs. Lets

Since the name of this blog is Let’s Just Be Clear, I figured I should start by highlighting a commonly confused pair of words: let’s and lets.

Let’s is a contraction of let us, an imperative phrase that people use to make or respond to suggestions. The apostrophe is there to indicate that some characters have been omitted (in this case, the space and the u).

Let’s go to the movies.
Let’s pretend we’re kangaroos.
Let’s eat breakfast food for dinner.

Lets is a verb that usually means allows or permits.

He lets his dog sit on the couch.
Jacob works hard all week, but on the weekends he lets it all hang out.
The judge lets criminals off easy.

I have a few tricks for figuring out whether to use let’s or lets. The first thing to check is where the word appears in the sentence. Let’s usually starts a sentence, and lets usually comes later, as in the examples above. This is not a foolproof test, though; there are exceptions both ways:

Don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves.
Lets his lawn grow for months without cutting it, does he? That’s not very neighborly.

Another test to try is to plug in let us and see if it works. I like to imagine it in my snobbiest accent:

Let us adjourn for the day.
Let us imagine we could start all over again.
X My roommate just let us the dishes pile up.

You can also try substituting allows [… to]:

✓ Some people handle rejection well, but Sophia allows it to get to her.
✓ Our boss allows us to leave early on most Fridays.
X “Should we get started?” “Yes, allows to.”

Whenever you are unsure of whether to use let’s or lets, try these tests, and you’ll probably quickly find the correct spelling.

Knowing when to throw in an apostrophe and when to leave it out is hard for many people, and I’ll address the broader issue and other examples in future blogs.

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