Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

Which speaker is more likely to be a magician?:

a. She embellished her talk with a number of allusions.

b. She embellished her talk with a number of illusions.

The answer is b. Allusions are references; illusions are deceptive images.

The abundance of words that our English language yields many twins that are similar in structure, sound and meaning and are, therefore, frequently confused. A great number (not amount) of my readers wing me inquiries about sorting out confusable words.

graduate / graduate from

Dear Mr. Lederer: I always feel like a dinosaur when I insist on the correct use of language. As an 80-year-old, I believe I learned correctly. A common phrase I detest these days is “he graduated high school” or “she graduated college.” Back in the day, we were taught to say, “he or she graduated from high school.” Is this dinosaur still living in the 1940s, or has there actually been a change?

— Bob Johnston

Because the school, college or university does the graduating, “he or she was graduated from” used to be the logical and standard construction, but it is now seen as outdated and a tad stuffy, confined largely to wedding announcements (“the groom was graduated from SDSU”).

Nowadays, graduated from is the preferred idiom, but it is gradually being usurped by just graduated. That’s the influence of youthspeak, in which prepositions and particle verbs are often vaporized: “Let’s hang.” “Don’t cave.” “Can you deal?” Graduate, without the from, may one day prevail, but not yet. For now, graduate from is the way to describe the joyous occasion.

oral / verbal

Dear Mr. Lederer: A U-T sports writer wrote that an athlete had committed “orally” to San Diego State. My question: isn’t medicine taken orally and a commitment made verbally?

— Tom Tomaselle

I applaud the precision of the word oral in the context of the U-T sports report. Oral refers to the mouth, and oral communication is speech. The athlete apparently spoke, but did not write, his or her commitment to SDSU.

Verbal refers to words. Thus, verbal communication employs words, whether the words are written or spoken. In common usage, however, verbal has come to mean oral. When people tell you that they have “a verbal contract,” rather than asking, “Is that oral or written?” you can bet they have nothing in writing.

home in / hone in

Dear Mr. Lederer: My friend used the verb hone in to describe the ongoing efforts to find the location of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 plane. I corrected her saying what she meant was that the searchers were trying to home in on the exact location of the aircraft. After looking both phrases up in an online dictionary, I find their usage as interchangeable. Is the verb hone in correct?

— Hugh Winters

I’m with you, Hugh. The verb hone means “to sharpen,” while the verb home means “to move toward a target or destination,” as in a homing device or pigeon. Readers can hone their verbal skills by homing in on confusing word pairs.

principal / principle

Dear Mr. Lederer: A recent letter to the editor was titled “GOP should not just abandon its principals.” I’d hate see all our school principals abandoned by the GOP. Should not principals have been principles?

— Mary Nixon

Right you are, Mary. Despite the existence of the mnemonic “the principal is your pal,” these two words are often confused. Principal can be used as a noun or as an adjective, both meaning “chief.” Principle is a noun meaning “fundamental law or truth”: “The principal belief of the high school principal is the principle that every student is capable of achieving success.”

toward / towards

Dear Mr. Lederer: Is it toward or towards? I was taught toward.

— Maux Duvall

While towards is prevalent in British English, we Yanks prefer toward. But in some American dialects, towards predominates, with the same meaning.