This week, we’ll look at more nitpicks from the voluminous list of “Common Errors in English Usage” compiled by Professor Paul Brians of Washington State University, namely the ones with which I agree. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

First up are the words “enormousness” (hugeness) and “enormity” (monstrousness). While both often are used to mean “hugeness,” Brians opines that “Some of us wish you wouldn’t refer to the ‘enormity’ of the Palace of Versailles unless you wish to express horror at this embodiment of Louis XIV’s ego.” (Include me as one of “us.”)

After researching it, I’m now leaning toward accepting the spelling of “expresso” as the name of what you have after forcing very hot water through finely ground coffee beans. The beverage has traditionally been known as “espresso” but, according to Merriam-Webster, “‘espresso’ in Italian means ‘made at the customer’s request,’ while in America ‘expresso’ means ‘made expressly for me.’” (Expresso was also a trim package that was available on Plymouth and Dodge Neons during the late 1990s, as well as a character in the Donkey Kong Country series.)

Several words relating to gender are kind of tricky, such as the use of “fiancée” for the woman you plan to marry. Conversely, the man you plan to marry gives up a vowel and is your “fiancé.”

Similarly, “nee” is used when indicating a woman’s maiden name after her married name (Mrs. Miley Ray Hemsworth nee Cyrus), while “ne,” on the other hand, is used to indicate a man’s original name (Mark Twain ne Samuel Langhorne Clemens). (By the way, “bravo” is an exclamation to express approval for a male performer, while “brava” is used to express approval for a female performer. Boffo to both – but I digress.)

Next let’s look “further” into “farther.” According to Professor Brians, the Associated Press insists that “farther” refers to physical distance while the figurative “further” refers to an extent of time or degree. Merriam-Webster adds some context, noting, “Historically, these words have been interchangeable in regard to distance,” but it favors the use of “further” as an adverb (such as “moreover”), an adjective (“additional,” for example), or a verb (as in “to further one’s career”).


Let’s just say that misusing words is a gaff. Or is it “gaffe?” Yes, it’s “gaffe,” which is an embarrassing mistake. “Gaff” is a large hook, such as the ones used in vaudeville to remove bad performers from the stage. These performer-removing hooks have been variously known as: shepherd’s crooks, stage hooks, curtain hooks and vaudeville hooks. (A gaffer is the chief lighting technician on a television or movie set. But I digress again.)

Finally there are the often confusing  words “imply” (to suggest or insinuate), and “infer” (to deduce or conclude). The difference between the two words is made clear on an episode of “Law and Order SVU” in which detective John Munch (played by Richard Belzer), has the following exchange with a suspect, who tells the cop, “I don’t like what you’re inferring.”

Munch replies, “You mean implying. You did infer what (I) implied. But on the bright side, you did infer correctly.” Maybe the suspect should have chosen to remain silent.

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

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