Portmanteau: Blame it on Lewis Carroll

A reader requested the following explanation: “…Perhaps you can tell me what word is used when a part of one word is combined with part of another word to form a whole new word.”

Well, the short answer would have been neologism, which certainly would apply since a neologism can be a new word, a new meaning, or a new usage. Back in 2009, Paul and I did an article for Forbes magazine for a special series on neologisms; we mostly talked about words for which the meanings have shifted rather than new words.

Neologism would be an appropriate general answer, but there’s a more specific answer that I think might apply. It’s called portmanteau. While a portmanteau was originally——and still is——-a leather bag with two compartments for carrying clothing while traveling, it is also two words that have been combined to make a new word that combines the meanings of both original words. The use of portmanteau in this way can be attributed to Lewis Carroll, who first used it toward the end of the 19th century.


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No Exclusions!

I recently received a  flier in the mail from a department store whose goal it was to alert me to their latest sale offer. Their big news was that I could get 10 dollars off my sale or clearance purchases of at least 25 dollars.

In large, red letters, the ad proudly proclaimed NO EXCLUSIONS ON APPAREL! (Yes, that exclamation point was theirs, not mine.) Wow! No exclusions on apparel. I decided to take a look. That’s when it became apparent that their marketing staff was trying to use language as a way to be a little less than forthright.

Under the NO EXCLUSIONS! promise was smaller red print that read (except specials and super buys). On another part of the ad, it read TUESDAY OR WEDNESDAY ‘TIL 1 P.M. Tucked away on the bottom of the ad, I was informed that I couldn’t get the 10 dollars off on any morning specials.

So, I thought, let me get this straight: I need to spend at least 25 dollars—-on either Tuesday or Wednesday——–until 1 o’clock——but if it’s a special, a morning special, or a super buy, then I can forget the whole thing.

I opened the catalogue to get a closer look at my potential choices only to find an item of apparel that was neither a special nor a super buy but was, indeed, on sale on both Tuesday and Wednesday. It read underneath CANNOT USE 10-DOLLAR COUPON.

The moral of the story: If you’re going to say NO EXCLUSIONS ON APPAREL!, then that’s what it should be; otherwise, saying NO EXCLUSIONS is, quite frankly, a lie. This is a wonderful example of using language to mislead rather than to communicate honestly.


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Verb Moods: Indicative, Imperative, Subjunctive. What Mood Are You In?

Verbs can have one of three moods: indicative, imperative, or subjunctive.

The indicative mood only includes verbs in sentences that are either statements (declarative sentences) or questions (interrogative sentences).

  • It is unfortunate that more people do not live their lives in the spirit of The Golden Rule.
  • Why don’t more people live their lives in the spirit of The Golden Rule?

Sentences of either command or strong request are sentences in which the verb is in the imperative mood. Often, the subject of an imperative mood sentence is not written into the sentence but, rather, is an implied “you.”

  • Stop interrupting me!
  • Be careful up there.

The subjunctive mood is used for several things:

1) When saying something that is contrary to fact; that is, when using verbs of wishing or wanting, use the subjunctive.

  • I wish I were 18 again.

2) When one part of the sentence holds true only if the first part of the sentence occurs, use the subjunctive.

  • If he were taller, then he’d be president.

3) When the sentence is a recommendation, use the subjunctive.

  • The committee recommends that you be dismissed immediately.


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Leave and Let: Either Leave It Alone or Let It Go

Do not mistakenly use let for leave. As is true for most words, there are other meanings and nuanced meanings (I’m just going to stick to what is needed for our purposes), but generally, to let means to allow and is often used with the infinitive of a verb; it does not use the -ing form of the verb. To leave means to depart or to allow to remain and is often used with the -ing form of the verb.


  • Incorrect: Let it sitting on the stove.
  • Correct: Leave it sitting on the stove.
  • Incorrect: Leave it sit on the stove.
  • Correct: Let it sit on the stove.
  • Incorrect: Leave it be.
  • Correct: Let it be (just like the old Beatles song).


Paul’s book–Literally, the Best Language Book Ever;

Sherry’s Grammar List

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Past or Passed: When the Past Has Passed

Use past to refer to the time that came before now or to refer to beyond something in distance. His ten years of working for a corporation with a bad reputation is in the past (the time before now). Their past (the time before now) poor treatment of employees has come back to haunt them. She drove past (beyond something in the distance) the building.

Use passed as the past tense of the verb to pass. I passed the building. She passed on a job offer from the company because of its poor reputation. He passed judgment on the case. Because of her youthful looks, she passed for someone much younger.

Whenever you can use pass in the present tense, use passed for the past tense. For the above sentences, we’d have I pass the building, She passes on a job offer, He passes judgment, She can pass for someone younger.


Paul’s book–Literally, the Best Language Book Ever;

Sherry’s Grammar List

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Could Care Less or Couldn’t Care Less; Do You Care?

How many times have you heard someone say I could care less? For every time you’ve heard it, have you wondered why the person saying it COULD care less about something he seemingly doesn’t care about at all?

I could care less if you’re breaking up with me means that you’re admitting that you do care.  And while we all probably do care when that happens to us, we usually don’t want the other person to know, so we say I couldn’t care less, meaning, the amount I care is the lowest possible amount there could be; it could not go any lower.

I could care less means that you actually could care less than you do, which means that you do, in fact, care. I couldn’t care less means that you could not care any less than you do.

That’s the correct usage—in case you care.


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I’m not sure what overspoke is supposed to mean. When you overeat, it means that you’ve eaten too much. When you oversleep, it means that you’ve slept too much and missed, for example, an appointment. So does overspoke mean that you’ve said too much or you’ve used too many words?

This is yet another example of the disconnect that can occur between speaker and listener when the speaker makes up a word instead of using perfectly good veteran words that already exist; in this case, for example, verbose, loquacious, or long-winded.


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Plural of Mother-In-Law: It’s the Mothers, Not the Laws!

A faithful reader sent a comment about how hyphenated plural nouns such as mother-in-laws and sister-in-laws drives her crazy. She said that hearing this grammar error sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard, and since we all know how that can make us grind our teeth, I’m ready to jump in there and silence the scraping once and for all.

It’s understandable that making the singular noun mother-in-law into a plural noun would result in many of us making the grammar error mother-in-laws since plurals of nouns are usually made by adding the -s to the END of the word, for example, mothers, hurricanes, aardvarks, and molecules. In this case, however, the plural is made by adding the -s to the FIRST word, not the last. Think of it this way: It’s the mothers, not the laws, that are plural. The correct plural of mother-in-law, then, is mothers-in-law.

The same is true for other hyphenated nouns such as doctors-in-residence, attorneys-at-law, and fathers-in-law.


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Is It Have Gone or Have Went?

Don’t get the past tense of the verb to go confused with the past participle of the verb to go. The past tense is went, and the past participle is gone, and each one has a different place in a sentence.

Example: I should have went while I had the chance. (wrong)

When using have (or has), you need the past participle, not the past tense. In this example, the sentence should be I should have gone while I had the chance.

Here are other examples:

  • He could have went if he’d been ready. (wrong)
  • He could have gone if he’d been ready. (correct)
  • They’ve went to the office. (wrong)
  • They’ve gone to the office. (correct)
  • I might have went if I’d been asked. (wrong)
  • I might have gone if I’d been asked. (correct)


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Has Your Curiosity Been Peaked—or Piqued?

I understand why it’s tempting to use the word peak when describing an excited stage of interest in or curiosity about something. After all, a peak is the pointy top of something, so it’s natural to think of a peak when you think of your interest or curiosity swelling, but saying The story peaked my interest is wrong.

The correct word is pique, as in The story piqued my interest or My curiosity was piqued by his subtle innuendo.

Save the peaks for the mountain tops and lemon meringue pies.

For more common grammar errors, refer to Sherry’s Grammar List.


Paul’s book–Literally, the Best Language Book Ever;

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