Monday, February 7, 2011

It's All Just Words

There are many words in the English language that we take for granted when we were just plain readers, but once we turn to serious writing we find out nuances we were unaware of. I will just show a few of the ones I learned about.

Flammable, Inflammable -- All my life it never occurred to me to even think about these words. I always assumed that flammable meant something would burn while inflammable meant the opposite. Nope, they both mean the same thing. I really don't like having confusing pairs like this!

Further/Farther -- Farther seems to be relatively new compared to further. Many Brits still prefer to only use further; for instance, check out Lord of the Rings and you will never find farther in it. Modern English now prefers to use farther for instances of physical distance.

Gray/Grey -- It is again strange to have two such similar words mean exactly the same thing. My feeling was that it was simply a matter of taste, so I began to write my novel using grey. Later I ran into a longer word that incorporated gray into it, so for consistency I had to change all of my greys to grays.

Amid/Amidst, Among/Amongst -- I never thought about these prior to taking up writing. As far as I can tell, these are purely a matter of taste, no difference in meaning. As with Gray/Grey and Further/Farther, I believe in being consistent in usage. It constantly amazes me to see even famous authors having farther in some spots and further in others when they all referred to physical distances.


  1. Ref: further
    "farther" indicates physical distance, but according to my editor it is perfectly acceptable to use "further" in dialog.

    Ref: grey/gray
    Grey is Brit spelling for gray. In my first book set in the distant future and on American soil, I deliberately spelled the MC's name as Grey as a subtle way of showing cultural evolution.

  2. Flammable, Inflammable

    I've always hated this. I'm hoping it will be one of those words that's used incorrectly for so long that the meaning changes.


    A matter of degree versus a measure of distance


    American English vs. Queen's English

    Amid/Amidst, Among/Amongst

    Regionalisms based on immigration. You're more likely to find the "st" attachment in the Midwest and American north like Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Heavily Catholic/Lutheran areas where some prayers/bibles still used the "st" up until just a generation ago will use this most frequently.

  3. i think grey looks better than gray. that's why grey is one of my son's middle names- even though his teacher keeps trying to tell him it is gray. :D

  4. One of my favorite book quotes is from The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis:

    "Further up and further in!"

  5. I get the sense that many of these differences are based on American vs. British English. I recently had to look up further/farther; I had never realized there was a difference until then.

  6. Thanks, Ted! Now I need to go back and check my grey areas.