Adumbrate is a formal word for giving a general idea or description of something without any details.

ShadowIt has the following meanings:

  • to outline
  • to give a faint indication
  • to foreshadow
  • to overshadow or obscure

Adumbrate is a verb but there are other forms available to you: the noun is adumbration, the adjective is adumbrative and the adverb is adumbratively.

The OED lists the first recorded usage of adumbrate as occurring in 1537:

“You as fore runners, dydde adumbrate Christis passion.” Erasmus’ Comparation Vyrgin & Martyr, Thomas Paynell (translator).

I picked it as this week’s interesting word primarily because of its Latin origins. The Latin adumbrat- means ‘shaded’, and is from the verb adumbrare. Ad- means ‘to’ and umbrare means ‘cast a shadow’.


I have previously covered how to use an en dash (–) and an em dash (—). Now to turn to the thing they are not: a hyphen.

A hyphen (-) shows that the matter it is attached to is not a complete word by itself. It should not be used with a space at both ends, although sometimes it is appropriate for it to have a space at one end.

The use of hyphens is often a matter of style. But they are used to do the following things:

  • join compound words
  • join compound modifiers
  • attach prefixes
  • indicate a piece of a word
  • indicate a word break at the end of a line

You might have heard of soft hyphens and hard hyphens. Soft hyphens are those that indicate word division at the end of a line. Hard hyphens are those that indicate words or parts of words are joined together to form compounds. There’s no difference in size or shape.

Hyphens are also used to indicate stammering or paused speech:

'W-w-what are we to do?'

And they indicate the omission of the second part of a hyphenated expression or solid compound:

three- and five-door cars
over- and underpaid employees

If you would like to find out more about when to use a hyphen, I can recommend the Penguin Guide to Punctuation for a thorough and simple explanation.

‘Mincemeat’ or ‘minced meat’?

Mince piesWe are progressing rapidly through December, and that means it is now acceptable to eat lots of mince pies.

Mince pies contain mincemeat, and you probably wouldn’t want to put brandy cream on a pie containing minced meat.

Minced meat: Meat that has been cut up into very small pieces (usually by a machine).

Mincemeat: A mixture of dried fruit, sugar and spices. It may also contain alcohol (often brandy) and suet.

Mincemeat did once contain actual meat, and there is an interesting article on the history of the filling of mince pies here. Some dictionaries do give mincemeat as another word for minced meat, so be sure to check the context it is being used in.

‘Team’ and ‘teem’


  • a group of players forming one of the sides in a sporting contest or competitive game
  • a real or notional group which supports or favours a thing or person
  • two or more people working together
  • or more animals working together
  • harness together (animals, typically horses) to pull a vehicle
  • ‘team up’ – to join with someone in order to work together to achieve a common goal
  • ‘team with’ – to match or coordinate something with something else (typically clothes)


  • ‘teem with’ – to have a great number of, to be full of, or swarming with
  • (of water, typically rain) to pour down or fall heavily

Thank you to Jeff Curry for suggesting this post.

‘Fewer’ or ‘less’?

It is common for less to be used when fewer would be appropriate.* The correct usage basically boils down to whether you’re referring to something that can or cannot be counted.

Use fewer with countables and less with uncountables.

If you mean smaller in number, use fewer. This applies when you are referring to people or things in the plural. You can count them, e.g. books, students.

If you mean smaller in quantity, use less. This applies when you are referring to something that doesn’t (normally) have a plural. You cannot count it, e.g. music, mud.

You should also use less when referring to a number on its own and expressions of measurement and time. Less is also correct when referring to age and sums of money. This is because you are referring to the total amount rather than individual units. (This is usually expressed as less than. For example, less than sixty miles, less than £80, less than four years.)

* The use of less in front of nouns that can be counted (count nouns) is not a new phenomenon. King Alfred the Great did it in c.888. The rule against using less in front of plural count nouns is usually traced back to one grammarian writing in 1770 (and it was not intended to be as strict as it has become in modern usage). It will be interesting to see if using less with count nouns becomes acceptable once more.

‘Defuse’ and ‘diffuse’


  • to remove the fuse from (an explosive device)
  • to reduce the tension or danger in (a difficult situation).


  • spread over a wide area (or between a large number of people)
  • to mix (a gas or liquid) through or into a surrounding substance
  • to cause light to spread evenly
  • spread out over a wide area; not concentrated or localised
  • lacking conciseness or clarity.

‘Tact’, ‘tack’ and ‘task’

In my experience, it is common for people to get confused when using ‘tact’ and ‘tack’.


  • a sense of (and an ability or will to use) the best and most considerate way to deal with people (so as not to upset them)
  • skill in handling difficult situations or issues


  • a course of action or policy, or a way of dealing with a problem or situation
  • a small, short sharp-pointed nail with a large flat head; to fasten something or fix in place with a tack or tacks
  • to add something to an already existing whole – ‘to tack something on’
  • a drawing pin (in North American English)
  • a long loose temporary stitch used to fasten fabrics together; to sew something with long loose temporary stitches
  • the riding harness for horses, including saddles and bridles
  • the act of changing course by turning a boat’s head into and through the wind (creating a zigzag course to make progress against the wind); the boat’s course relative to the wind’s direction; the distance sailed between tacks
  • a rope for securing a certain type of sail; the corner a rope is fastened to
  • being sticky (as a quality or property)


  • a specific piece of work to be done or undertaken
  • an unpleasant or difficult job or duty
  • to assign or give a job or piece of work to
  • to make demands on someone’s resources or abilities
  • to criticize or rebuke – ‘take to task’

Thank you to Johanna Levene aka Afthead for suggesting this post.

Widows and orphans

If you are self-publishing your work, it is worth knowing about widows and orphans. They can be ugly, and removing them will help your finished publication look even more professional.


The first type of widow is a short last line of a paragraph at the top of the page. The definition of ‘short’ will vary. Generally, you can pick your preference out of the following:

  • less than a third of the line width
  • less than half of the line width
  • less than the full line width

I prefer to regard ‘short’ as less than the full line width. Whichever definition you wish to adopt, make sure that you are consistent throughout.

As the author, you are well placed to decide how to deal with any widows that occur: add or remove some text on the previous page so that the line can move up or another line can move down (or just make the line longer if that’s what you want).

Make sure you check any for any knock-on effects. Sometimes even small changes have repercussions for the surrounding pages.

Here is an example of a widow.

Here is an example of a widow.

The second type of widow is a very short last line of a paragraph. This is usually fewer than five characters (including punctuation). You should be able to deal with these by adding or removing a word or two earlier in the paragraph.

Paragraphs that are only one line do not count as widows.


Orphans are a single line of text under a new heading at the bottom of the page. If the first line of a paragraph falls at the bottom of the page, it is sometimes also regarded as an orphan.

Here is an example of an orphan.

Here is an example of an orphan.

As suggested above, you can add or remove words to fill or create space. It will depend on the capabilities of the formatting software you are using, but you might be able to amend the space above and below headings and illustrations.

If you can think of a sensible way to save or add space, it is probably worth doing when you are faced with a widow or orphan.

My definition of widows and orphans is based on that stated in Basic Proofreading by Distance Learning (Fourth Revision) by Gillian Clarke and Margaret Aherne.

‘Alternate’ and ‘alternative’


  • to occur in turn; to interchange regularly or in succession
  • occurring by turns; every other or every second something in a series


  • a possible choice between two or more things
  • the presenting of a choice between two or more possibilities
  • of two things that are mutually exclusive
  • activities (e.g. lifestyle) that are not considered conventional or traditional

In American English, alternate has come to be used in the sense of something being another possibility or choice. (The Chicago Manual of Style suggests this is appropriate when that something can be regarded as a substitute.) It is not common to see this in British English, and it is often regarded as incorrect.


Here’s a modern linguistic term that I really like. An eggcorn is a word or phrase created by mishearing or misinterpreting another. An element of the original is replaced by something that sounds very similar. To be an eggcorn, the word or phrase must sound similar (or identical) to the original and make some sort of sense.

An eggcorn that I have already posted about is on tenderhooks (for on tenterhooks).

The squirrel doesn’t care how it’s spelt.

If you say ‘acorn’ in a slow drawl (as in the southern US), you will probably find that it sounds a lot like ‘eggcorn’. The spelling eggcorn goes back as far as 1844. It makes sense when you think about it  – acorns look a bit like eggs, especially in their cups, and they are produced by a tree while an egg is produced by a chicken or other egg-laying animal (although not in the same way).

‘Egg corn’ was adopted in 2003 by the linguist Geoffrey Pullum as the term for misheard words/phrases of this type. Because it describes a category of words that it is a member of, it is autological.

Source: Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Jeremy Butterfield (editor).