Guide to Grammar and Style — N


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From the Guide to Grammar and Style by Jack Lynch.
Comments are welcome.


No offense to the ecologists, but nature is often useless. Decisions of a delicate nature would be better if they were just plain old delicate decisions.


Ask an old-timer, and he'll tell you that nauseous means causing nausea, not suffering from it. The word for the latter is nauseated. A decaying carcass is nauseous, and (unless you go for such things) will probably make you nauseated. [Entry added 14 August 1999]


Ugly business jargon. If you mean require, say require or rework the sentence so that necessitate is not necessitated. [Entry revised 14 August 1999]


Greek neo, “new,” and logos, “word”: new words. (The accent is on the second syllable: “nee-AH-lo-jiz-ms.”)

They come about by different means. A list, by no means comprehensive, of the ways new words enter a language:

  • Some are imported from other languages: when English-speakers encountered a round breadroll with a hole in it popular among Jews, they simply borrowed the Yiddish word beygel (changing the spelling to bagel); a Muslim holy war against infidels is a jihad, from the Arabic. (Paying attention to the words we borrow from different languages at different times can tell us a lot about our attitudes toward their cultures.) Note, though, that their meanings in English may be different from their meanings in their original languages: Latin video means “I see,” whereas it's come to be a noun related to certain technologies used to reproduce moving images. The prefix cyber comes from Greek kybernan, “to steer, to govern,” and has a long and complicated history before it comes to mean “vaguely related to computers.”
  • Some phrases are translated, piece by piece, from another language. These are called calques: examples are marriage of convenience, translated literally from the French mariage de convenance, and superman, from the German Übermensch. (Sometimes the loans go the other way: English hotdog shows up in Québécois French as le chien chaud.)
  • Some come about when an old word gets a new prefix or suffix. Horace Walpole made up heaps of words: he took an old name for Sri Lanka, Serendip, and added a suffix to get serendipity, “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident,” because a fairy-tale called The Three Princes of Serendip included many such discoveries. He turned a put-down aimed at a person into a general term for stupidity with nincompoophood. Many of Walpole's neologisms were similarly facetious: for “greenness” and “blueness” he coined greenth and blueth. When he wanted a word meaning “intermediateness,” he made up betweenity.
  • Many are made by combining familiar words or roots to make new combinations. When in the early twentieth century inventors created a new doohickey that let them transmit moving pictures over long distances, they had no word for it. So they took the Greek word tele, meaning “at a distance,” and the Latin word visio, “sight,” and came up with television. (They had to pair Greek and Latin — usually a no-no — because the combination of the two Greek words — tele, “far,” and skopeo, “see” — was already used for a different kind of “far-seeing” technology, the telescope.) In 1990, a writer for the Village Voice coined an adjective to describe a straight person “experimenting” with homosexuality, and made up bi-curious.
  • A special kind of combination of familiar words is the portmanteau word — a term made up by Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass. Carroll himself made up a bundle of them in “Jabberwocky”: slithy, for instance, combines slimy with lithe. Others are more familiar: a motel is a “motor-hotel”; smog is a combination of smoke and fog. Snoop Dogg made up bootylicious in 1992.
  • Some words began life as acronyms or other abbreviations: laser is an abbreviation of “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”; AIDS is “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome”; a nimby is someone who doesn't want development in his or her neighborhood, from “not in my back yard.” (New acronyms tend to get all caps; if they stick around, they often get demoted to lowercase letters.) Note, though, that the habit of forming words from initial letters didn't get going in earnest until the twentieth century, and many stories that derive familiar words from abbreviated phrases are bogus.
  • Other kinds of abbreviation occasionally make new words: the noun weblog (itself a neologism in 1997) got clipped to blog in 1999, and quickly turned into a verb and an adjective as well.
  • Some come from back-formations, when a root word is abbreviated under the mistaken impression that it's a compound word.
  • A very small number of new words are just pulled out of thin air. Computerfolk borrowed the word grok — “to understand profoundly” — from Robert A. Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land: it's not from Latin, Greek, or German, but from the Martian language. The problem with these is that outsiders can rarely guess the meaning, so they rarely flourish.

A few things to note about neologisms. Remember, all words were once necessarily neologisms; they all had to be new to English at one time or another. Bear this in mind before you make any sweeping pronouncements about them. Individual neologisms might be good or bad, useful or useless, clever or dimwitted, appealing or ugly as sin — but there's nothing “improper” about them in principle, whatever you think of particular examples.

Coining your own neologisms requires caution. First, you have to be certain your audience will understand their meaning; second, you have to be sure readers won't be distracted — that is, annoyed — by the novelty or informality. Too often neologisms are ugly and graceless: things like rearchitecturing, foundherentism, and to repristinate. It's therefore wise to ask yourself whether there's already a good word in the language that does the job.

It's hard to offer a prognosis on the lifespan of a neologism. Some stick around and become part of the standard language; others blossom, flourish, and die in a few years; others still are meant to be used only once (they're called nonce words). It's a safe bet Walpole didn't expect greenth would be widespread; he was simply playing with the language. (James Joyce's Finnegans Wake is filled to bursting with nonce words.) [Entry added 21 Dec. 2004; revised 9 May 2007.]


Network was very happy when it was just a noun; when you're outside the computer lab, don't force it to serve double duty as a verb. Networking summons up images of yuppies in power ties.

"Never” and “Always.”

Any grammatical or stylistic rule beginning with “Never” or “Always” should be suspect, and that includes the ones in this guide. No word or construction in the language is completely valueless (even if some come pretty damn close). Apply all guidelines intelligently and sensitively, and forsake pedantic bugbears in favor of grace. See Audience and read it twice.


Although there are other possibilities, you can't go wrong if you use nor only after the word neither: instead of “Keats did not write novels nor essays,” use either “Keats did not write novels or essays” or “Keats wrote neither novels nor essays.” (You can, however, say “Keats did not write novels, nor did he write essays.”)


The traditional word is normality. Warren G. Harding famously used normalcy in a speech in 1920, calling for “a return to normalcy” after the Great War. (Harding didn't make it up; it first showed up in English in 1857. But it was never common, and Harding seems to have coined it anew. He certainly gave it new currency.)

Now, Harding was no inspiring speaker; William McAdoo commented, “His speeches left the impression of an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea.” H. L. Mencken was even more forceful:

He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

Some people have therefore been knocking normalcy as a semiliterate barbarism ever since.

The masses, though, don't give a hoot about Mencken's concerns, and probably don't even remember we ever had a president called Harding. Normalcy has become ever more common since. Most usage guides now consider it Standard English; some even suggest it's preferable to normality.

My advice? There's no point in fulminating over the word; it's probably here to stay. On the other hand, enough people dislike the word that it's probably wise to avoid it in your own writing. [Entry added 21 Jan. 2005.]

Not un-.

This phrase, as in “The subtleties did not go unnoticed,” is often an affectation. Be more direct.


A noun, as the “Schoolhouse Rock” song would have it, is a person, a place, or a thing. Piece o' cake.

Well, a qualified piece o' cake. We have to define thing broadly enough to include things that aren't particularly thingy. Heat is a noun; January is a noun; innovation is a noun; asperity is a noun.

Linguists use the term noun phrase to refer to any word or group of words that's used as a noun: his far-seeing eye, for instance, is a single noun phrase, even though it's made up of a possessive pronoun (his), an adverb (far), a participial verb (seeing), and a noun (eye). I've disavowed any intention of using the terms of contemporary linguistics in this guide (not because they're bad, but because they're likely to be unfamiliar to my readers), but this one is worth knowing.

See also Pronoun. [Revised 11 June 2001; revised 1 June 2004.]


Many people use the word novel to refer to any book — a sloppy habit you should break. A full, proper definition of the word won't be easy; literary critics wrangle over whether many books deserve to be called novels. But virtually every definition of the term includes these four elements:

  • A novel is long (it's not a short story);
  • A novel is fictional (most of the events didn't happen, or at least didn't happen in the way they're described);
  • A novel is in prose (epic poems don't count); and
  • A novel is a narrative (the writer describes a series of events happening over time).

There are inevitably problematic cases. How long is “long”? What about the so-called “nonfiction novels” that became popular in the 1960s (like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood or Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test)? What about “verse novels” (like Aleksandr Pushkin's Yevgeny Onegin)? Some authors mix elements of the novel with other genres; they may include nonfictional elements in their fiction or fictional elements in their nonfiction. All of these borderline cases can be grounds for legitimate argument.

But don't use the word willy-nilly for any old book. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, for instance, is not a novel (it's a collection of verse narratives); Hamlet is not a novel (it's longish and fictional, but it's a play, not a narrative); A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is not a novel (it's a long prose narrative, but it's nonfiction). Plays, biographies, travel narratives, works of criticism, and so on are not novels.

The same goes for the word story: although the term is broader than novel, it still applies only to narratives. [Entry added 9 May 2007.]


Number — not numbers, for which see below — is a term in grammar. In English, nouns and verbs can take the singular number (for one thing) or the plural number (for more than one). Some languages have other possibilities: Homeric Greek, biblical Hebrew, and modern standard Arabic, for instance, have a dual number for things that come in pairs; I'm told there are languages with a trial number for three things, and some with a paucal number for “a few” things.

But modern English has just the two, singular and plural. We mark the plurals of most nouns with an s or es. The plurals of most pronouns take different forms: not I (first-person singular) but we (first-person plural); not he, she, or it (third-person singular) but they (third-person plural). Modern standard English doesn't distinguish singular and plural you, though forms like y'all, youse, and yuns show that many speakers would like them.

In verbs, at least most regular verbs, the plural tends to be the “uninflected” form, and we usually add s or es to the third-person singular: from the infinitive to look we get the third-person singular “he, she, it looks.”

But you know all this, or at least you do if you've been speaking English for more than a few months. Why should you care? There are a few occasions where even native speakers get tripped up; three come to mind:

  • One is noun-verb agreement: a singular subject needs a singular verb; a plural subject needs a plural verb. That's usually obvious, but sometimes gets confusing, especially when you have long and complicated noun phrases: in “one of my neighbors,” the subject is one and the verb should be singular; in “each of the hundreds of people who've worked with me for the last ten years,” the subject is each and the verb should be singular.
  • Another danger spot is the indefinite third person, when you want to refer to a single being but don't want to specify sex: “Like a painter mixing his/her/their/one's colors,” for instance. It's very common to substitute the third-person plural (they, their, them) in such contexts, but it's often frowned on in formal writing.
  • Finally, there are some irregular plurals — data, media, phenomena — that many people assume are singular, but old-timers prefer to pair with plural verb forms. Whether you choose to side with the old-timers or the young hipsters is up to you.

Follow the cross-references for more details. [Entry added 21 Dec. 2004.]


The high school rule about spelling out numbers less than one hundred (some say ten; it's a question of house style) and writing them as numerals above has enslaved too many people. It's a good start, but here are a few more guidelines.

Never begin a sentence with a numeral: either spell out the number, or rewrite the sentence to move the number from the beginning.

Very large round numbers should be spelled out: not 1,000,000,000, but one billion — an American billion, that is; the British used to use billion for a million million, though they're increasingly using the American standard. If ever you need real precision in expressing very large numbers, scientific notation might make sense.

In a series of numbers, either spell them out or use numerals for every member of the list: don't switch in the middle, as in “pages thirty-two, ninety-six, 107, and 235.”

Dates should always get numerals: “October 3, 1990.”

There's almost never any reason to use both numerals and words for the same number: unless a law firm is paying you enough money to butcher the language with impunity, steer clear of abominations like “two (2)” or “12 (twelve).”

The only time you should mix spelling and numerals is in very large numbers: not 8,600,000, but 8.6 million.

Use numerals for anything difficult to spell out: not four and sixteen seventeenths, thirteen thousand three hundred twenty six, or three point one four one five nine. You can spell out simple fractions like one-half or two-thirds. [Revised 1 June 2004.]


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From the Guide to Grammar and Style by Jack Lynch.
Comments are welcome.