April 3, 2007


solecism (sol’-uh-siz-um) n.
1. A violation of grammatical rules or of the approved idiomatic usage of language
2. Any impropriety or incongruity. –sol’e-cist n. –sol’e-cis-tic or sol-e-sis-it-cal adj.
Webster Comprehensive Dictionary International Edition. Chicago: Ferguson, 2001.

solecism (“offense against grammar, blunder in the manner of speaking or writing” is a Greek word said to come from the corruption of the Attic dialect among the Athenian colonists of Soloi in Cilicia. The grammarians used to distinguish between barbarisms, incorrectness in the use of words, and solecism, incorrectness in the construction of sentences.”
—H.W. Fowler. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Second Edition. Revised and edited by Sir Ernest Gowers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.


"A solecism" is nothing more that a formal term for such classroom expressions as these: “usage mistake" • "mechanical error" • "bad grammar."

Here are the names of some typical solecisms, which many of us have seen before written by our English teachers in red ink in the margins of our returned papers:
run on sentence comma splice sentence fragment verb tense errormisplaced modifierfaulty parallelism dangling modifierwrong word mixed metaphorunidiomatic expressionpronoun antecedentincorrect spelling • and any number of scratched out or inserted punctuation marks : ; ? ' " " -- - ( ) . . . [ ] !

Seven Phrases You May Not Even Know You Write Wrong
--Judy Jones & William Wilson. An Incomplete Education
New York: Ballentine, 1987, p. 622.

What's next are seven puzzles to test your verbal skills. The idea is to determine the nature of the mistake that is sometimes made when using each phrase. The comments from Jones and Wilson following each term are designed to help you puzzle out the error (solecism) that people tend speak or write when using that term.

The answers to the puzzles follow.
Have fun!

Seven Phrases You May Not Even Know You Write Wrong

1. bated breath -- That is, shortened--as in abate. No entrapment here.

2. pore over – What you do to a manuscript. It’s not the same as what you do to a stack of pancakes.

3. straitjacket – Not “without any curves or twists,” but “narrow,
constricting,” as in Strait of Gibraltar. Likewise, “the strait and narrow” (a famous redundancy), “strait is the gate.”

4. harebrained – Ditto, harelip.

5. test your mettle – Unless you’re at the pig-iron auction.

6. Chaise longue – You still want one poolside, but it’s a “long chair,” not a lounge.

7. to the manner born– It’s all in the execution, not in the family real estate.



1. Correct: bated breath
: baited breath

2. Correct: pore over
Incorrect: pour over

3. Correct: straitjacket
Incorrect: straightjacket

4. Correct: harebrained
Incorrect: hairbrained

5. Correct: test your mettle
Incorrect: test your metal

6. Correct: Chaise longue See [1].
Incorrect: Chaise lounge

7. Correct: to the manner born See [2].
Incorrect: to the manor born


[1] Chaise longue
. There are two issues that haunt c
haise longue (a couchlike chair).
  • One involves spelling. The second word of chaise longue is frequently misspelled l-o-u-n-g-e, echoing the sound of “round”).
  • The second issue concerns pronunciation. Chaise longue, is pronounced "shayz long." That's right--the second word in the phrase is pronounced "long." Look carefully at the word's spelling: l-o-n-g-u-e. Note that if you drop the final letters,"ue," you will see "l-o-n-g," a bold clue to the word's correct pronunciation, "long."

[2] To the manner born This next piece, from the online "Mavens" at Random House, explains in thorough detail the reasons why using "manner" is standard, and "manor" is not.
  • The first thing to note is that this is not some random phrase which we have to puzzle out, but a Literary Allusion, from . . . Shakespeare. In Hamlet, when the prince is observing the drunkenness common at Elsinore, he complains, "But to my mind--though I am native here,/And to the manner born--it is a custom/More honor'd in the the breach than the observance" (Hamlet I.iv.14ff).
  • What Hamlet meant here is that he is destined or accustomed from birth to the practice of heavy drinking. The phrase is often used in a sense like this ('accustomed to (a specified practice) since birth', that is), or often somewhat more broadly meaning 'admirably well suited for (something specified)'.
  • The common variant to the manor born is found chiefly in the sense 'being a member of the upper class', that is, born on a landed estate. Since the "manor" variant is perfectly sensible (more sensible in this meaning than the "manner" version, in fact) and is phonetically identical to the Shakespearean original, it is no surprise that this has become widespread. An example: "Kay...should have got married quietly in City Hall, instead of making Harald, who was not to the manor born, try to carry off a wedding in J.P. Morgan's church" (Mary McCarthy, The Group). A more recent example: "I get tired of actors 'to the manor born' getting all the publicity at the expense of other players who put their heart and grueling hard work into creating an inspiring performance" (Entertainment Weekly, 1999).
  • One may regard this sort of thing in several ways. It could be considered a punning use, which is possible only if you think that the writer knows his or her Shakespeare and is being deliberate. It could be considered an error, if you think that the writer is ignorant of Shakespeare. Or, you could consider it a new use in a different sense from the original. Most commentators call it a mistake.--The Mavens' Word of the Day [http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19990721]


  1. Amazing. You really do your homework Bloggin'. Nice job.

  2. Sean,


    Having a cache of some 175 word books, which took several decades to collect, helps. It includes 15 or so standard dictionaries and thesauruses, plus over 150 specialty word books, including such texts as H. L. Mencken's "The American Language"; Francis Grose's "The Vulgar Tongue"; Partridge's "Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English";"Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk"; and "It's Raining Cats and Dogs and Other Beastly Expressions." I recently gained access to the online OED (Oxford English Dictionary) and now--wow!--I'm having more fun than ever! Each word I post proves to be an adventure. I never know how many books or Web sites will come to my aid in describing a word. Right now, I have so many interconnected strands of information on the word "prevaricate," that I'm finding it difficult to trim it all down to the size of a post. Given my daily time limits, It's taking me days to do it! I hope to post the word tomorrow.

    Again, thanks for the compliment!

    Bloggin' John

  3. You disable comments for your prevaricate post. I just wanted to say that it's very exhaustive! I'm feeling a bit under the weather (more than a bit actually) but when I come out of this funk, I intend to go over everything written. I teach ESL, actually, and might be able to include these words in my lessons (already used stultiloquent in the chapter on fraud). You're building a nifty little resource for me!! Thanks!

  4. Sean,

    I'm glad to know that this blog is proving helpful to you and your students.

    I'm working on the problem posting comments from the "prevaracate" post.

    I wish you good health.