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crucifix / cross

A crucifix is a cross with an image of the crucified Christ affixed to it. Reporters often mistakenly refer to someone wearing a “crucifix” when the object involved is an empty cross. Crucifixes are most often associated with Catholics, empty crosses with Protestants.

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coffee clatch

“Coffee klatsch” comes from German Kaffeeklatsch meaning “coffee chat.” This is a compound word of which only one element has been translated, with the other being left in its original German spelling.

Many people anglicize the spelling further to “coffee klatch” or “coffee clatch.” Either one is less sophisticated than “coffee klatsch,” but not too likely to cause raised eyebrows.

“Coffee clutch” is just a mistake except when used as a deliberate pun to label certain brands of coffee-cup sleeves or to name a cafe.

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coat strings

A person deriving unearned benefits by being attached to another is riding on his or her coat tails. This expression derives from the long tails on men’s old-fashioned coats.

A person clinging to another’s apron strings is excessively dependent on him or her, like a smalll child hanging on to its mother’s clothing.

These two expressions are often mistakenly blended. The result is statements such as ”she hoped to succeed by clinging to her boss’s coat strings” and “he is still clinging to his mother’s coat strings.” Some coats have strings, but “coat strings” is not standard usage in either of these sorts of expressions.

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connote / denote

The literal meaning of a word is its denotation; the broader associations we have with a word are its connotations. People who depend on a thesaurus or a computer translation engine to find synonyms often choose a word with the right denotation but the wrong connotations.

“Determined” and “pig-headed” both denote stubbornness, but the first connotes a wise adherence to purpose and the second connotes foolish rigidity.

“Boss” and “Chief Executive Officer” (CEO) can refer to the same office, but the first is less admiring and likely to connote the view of employees lower down in the company—nobody wants to be thought of as “bossy.” Higher executives would be more likely to speak admiringly of a “CEO.”

I often write “insufficiently complex” at the bottom of student papers instead of “simple-minded.” Although they denote essentially the same quality, the connotations of the first are less insulting.

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click / clique

Students lamenting the division of their schools into snobbish factions often misspell “clique” as “click.” In the original French, “clique” was synonymous with “claque”—an organized group of supporters at a theatrical event who tried to prompt positive audience response by clapping enthusiastically.

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company names with apostrophes

Some company names which have a possessive form use an apostrophe before the S and some don’t: “McDonald’s” does and “Starbucks” doesn’t. “Macy’s” idiosyncratically uses a star for its apostrophe. Logo designers often feel omitting the apostrophe leads to a cleaner look, and there’s nothing you can do about it except to remember which is standard for a particular company. But people sometimes informally add an S to company names with which they are on familiar terms: “I work down at the Safeway’s now” (though in writing, the apostrophe is likely to be omitted). This is not standard usage.

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clench / clinch

“Clench” and “clinch” are related words, but they are not interchangeable.

You clench a fist or teeth.

You clinch a deal or a victory. A reliable person comes through in the clinch.

Bent-over nails are sometimes said to be clenched, but are more often clinched.

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