“Anyone nit-picking enough to write a letter of correction to an editor doubtless deserves the error that provoked it.” – Alvin Toffler

Recently, while looking for word facts on the internet (don’t judge me, everybody needs a hobby), I stumbled across the website of Dr. Paul Brians, an English professor at Washington State University.

This discovery made me happy not only because I could add it to my growing list of resources, but also because he’s done something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time: nitpick.

As much as I’ve recently come to accept that our wonderful language is constantly evolving, I continue to hold on to some deeply entrenched beliefs about words that I’m just not willing to relinquish, and fortunately Professor Brians seems to agree with me. Most of the time.

Let’s begin with acronyms, which I contend are abbreviations that are pronounced as a word, such as NASA or scuba (acronyms containing 5 or more letters are usually lowercase).

Although “acronym” is now generally applied to initialisms (in which each letter is pronounced individually, such as CIA and NAACP), “some people consider this extended definition of ‘acronym’ to be an error,” says professor Brians.

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Moving on. Time for a quick survey: Do you prefer your surroundings to be “aesthetic” or “ascetic,” or does it matter? It turns out that it does because the two words have meanings that are almost completely opposite of one another, with “aesthetic” (which is also spelled “esthetic”) having to do with beauty, and “acetic” having to do with avoiding pleasure.

And then there’s the age-old question, “Is it ‘a historic building’ or ‘an historic building?’” “You should use ‘an’ before a word beginning with an ‘H,’” says Brians, “only if the ‘H’ is not pronounced.” A couple examples of this rule are “an hour” and “an honor.”

On the other hand, he concedes that “many sophisticated speakers somehow prefer the sound of ‘an historic,’ so that version is not likely to get you into any real trouble.”

Do you cringe when you hear someone say “asterick” when they really mean “asterisk” (which comes from the Greek “asteriskos” or “little star”)? Professor Brians reminds us to remember the “-risk,” noting that “‘asterick’ is icky.”

And then, when it comes to the word “nuclear,” there are the folks who say “nuke yoo ler” when they’re actually going for “nuke lee er.” The fancy word for all this transposition of sounds, syllables, or letters in a word – specially in its pronunciation – is “metathesis.”

I’m hoping there’s no backlash when I report that the thing many people call a back slash is actually a forward slash. “This is a slash: /,” Professor Brians states unequivocally. “Because the top of it leans forward, it is sometimes called a “forward slash.”

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After showing us that “This is a back slash: ,” he goes on to explain that many people assume “back slash” is a technical term for a regular slash, but that “web addresses rarely contain back slashes.”

Remember the old days when all cars had a motor that ran on gasoline? Or did it? Many purists – and probably your mechanic – will argue that a motor (such as the little one that still starts most cars) needs electricity to run, and that the big thing it starts is an engine (an internal combustion engine, to be exact).

While most Tesla owners know that their vehicles have electric motors, the rest of us will probably continue to use “motor” and “engine” interchangeably. But if you’re a purist, be warned, you’ll be leaving the parts store empty handed if you go looking for a bottle of “engine oil” the next time your gas guzzler is a quart low.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at [email protected]


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