I'm Maeve Maddox.

I write about English usage, public education, and US popular culture. Welcome to my site.


Embers and Pleonasms

glowing embers

Embers don’t always glow, but they are always hot.

Someone on NPR reporting a fire said something about “the still-hot embers.”

A Google search brings up about 5,000 uses of the phrase “still-hot embers.”

The phrase is a pleonasm. Embers can’t be anything but hot.


ember noun: a small piece of live coal or wood in a half-extinguished fire.


i. the use of more words in a sentence than are necessary to express the meaning;

ii. redundancy of expression—either as a fault of style, or as a figure purposely used for special force or clarity;

iii. an instance of this, or the superfluous word or phrase itself.


Pleonastic idioms sprinkle conversation and advertising:

free gift
PIN number [Personal Identification Number number]
ATM machine [Automated Teller Machine machine]
unexpected surprise
regular routine

Comedians deliberately use pleonasms for humorous effect: “deja vu all over again.”

Careless writers and newscasters make an effort to avoid such jarring pleonasms as:

armed gunman
end result
red-colored areas on the map
advance planning
true fact
burning fire
cash money
two twins
small speck

And, of course, “still-hot embers.”

Epithet and Epitaph

There’s no excuse for anyone who graduated from high school and writes professionally to confuse the words “epitaph” and “epithet.” If at no other time, they would have learned the meaning of “epitaph” when they studied Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” in high school.

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“Mic” Rhymes with “Bic”

According to the way it’s pronounced, the shortened form of “microphone” belongs to the same category as words like “bike,” “hike,” “like,” and “pike” when it is written. That is to say, it should be spelled “mike,” not

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Questionable Past Tense of "Tread"

Use of “well-tread” in _Writer’s Digest_ article.
The use of the adjective “well-tread” in the November/December 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest had me puzzled. The context was an article on the topic of writing about subjects that have already been frequently written about:
The title of the article is “The Road Already Taken.” This tag appears under

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Raring To Go

A reader asked me, “How does a word like rare become idiomatically used to mean eager, as in ‘raring to go’?”
Answer: It didn’t.
The rare in “raring to go” has nothing to do with the adjective that means, “seldom found.” The rare in raring is an altered pronunciation of the verb to rear: “to make to

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10 Things I Didn't Know About Tarzan

Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan of the Apes.
When I heard that a new Tarzan movie was about to be released, I started thinking about the Tarzan of my childhood: Johnny Weissmuller.
I remember Weissmuller as a great swimmer—he usually had at least one scene in which he killed some creature in the water—and as a great screamer.

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Jeopardy Does It Again

The Jeopardy errors continue to accumulate. Here’s a clue from the June 8, 2016 Double Jeopardy category “The Book Book”:
Jeopardy clue, June 8, 2016
The “day” medieval English folk thought the world would end;
it comes before “Book” in the name of a tome that counted them.
Alex accepted the response “What is the Doomsday Book?” but

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Grammar Alert: "Me" and "I"

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette cartoonist John Deering’s political cartoon in the editorial section for April 27 has me puzzled.
I’m not entirely clear as to what the cartoonist’s chief message is, but the secondary message bothers me a lot.

Common Sense or Common Knowledge?

The Washington Times published a quiz with the title “Are You Common Sense Smart?” and the invitation “Take our ‘simple’ quiz to find out.”
I came across the link on Facebook. An inveterate Facebook test-taker, I took the quiz. 

Jeopardy Writers Misrepresent Poe

“Lay,” NOT “laid,” Jeopardy writers!
On the February 16, 2016 Jeopardy episode, one of the categories in Double Jeopardy was “Women in Poetry.” The $1200 clue references one of Poe’s poems:
Poe wrote that he laid “down by the side” of this maiden
“in her sepulchre there by the sea, in her tomb by the sounding sea.”
This is

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