Go Pro!

Ask Professor Puzzler

Do you have a question you would like to ask Professor Puzzler? Click here to ask your question!
Category results for 'language'.

Dear Professor Puzzler,

I think your "What is Wrong" game is obnoxious.  Who cares if someone gets their spelling wrong, or uses an apostrophe when they weren't supposed to?

Annoyed in Alaska

Hi Annoyed,

You're not alone in feeling that way. In fact, a few months ago, the Wall Street Journal website had an article in which the writer said (in essence), "Language is evolving. Yay! Everyone who gets in the way of language evolution is a pedantic grammar snob."

Frankly, it was a poorly thought out article, which left a giant hole in its logic. The hole is between "language is evolving" and "Yay!"

The author accepted it as a given that since language is evolving, that must be a good thing. There was no research, no exploration, no evaluation of the question, "Is language evolution a good thing?" And if you're going to be annoyed with the "What is Wrong" game, you need to answer that question.

What do I think?

I think that some language evolution is good. For example, what would we do without the word "computer" added to our vocabulary? New technology requires new vocabulary.

But there is a bad side to language evolution. I've been in a small country in Africa where from one end of the country to the other, even though they speak the same language, they can't understand each other. Why? Because in that country, language evolved unchecked in isolation, until the dialects defied mutual comprehension. It was a strange thing to realize that people who spoke the same language had to resort to using the trade language (French) to communicate with each other!

Fortunately, in our society, with written language and easy global communication, we're less likely to have isolated language evolution. But there are still concerns to be considered.

Pick up a King James Bible. Or the complete works of Shakespeare. How easy are they to understand? Not terribly. That's a result of language evolution over a few centuries. Someone once said that the English speaking world is the only part of the world that doesn't get to read Shakespeare in our own language, because the English of his day is not our language.

The more quickly language evolves, the more quickly the great works of literature become inaccessible without translation.

Is language evolving? Yes it is. Can we stop that evolution? Probably not. Should we try to stop that evolution? Maybe not. But I think that, at the very least, we should work to keep that evolution to a slow pace.

Ever seen a car on glare ice? Watch the way it slides around uncontrolled? Friction is needed to keep things running smoothly. And language evolution needs friction too, to prevent the sort of uncontrolled slippage that made linguistics such a nightmare in that African country I mentioned.

Every English teacher who says, "You need an apostrophe there," or "You should be using the word they're instead of their," or "Your subject and verb don't agree; please fix that!" is applying friction to linguistic evolution. And I say, "God bless them for it!"

So, that's why I am such an obnoxious, cranky old geezer when it comes to grammar, spelling, and word usage.

Professor Puzzler


Dear Professor Puzzler,

What is the difference between the words "compliment" and "complement"? Do they mean the same thing?

From, Lizzie in Sacramento


Dear Lizzie,

The word "compliment" is what you call it when someone says something nice about someone. The word "complement" is used to describle something that completes something else. In mathematics, "complementary" is used to describe angles that add up to a right angle when put together. You may also hear the term "complimentary" used to describe something, and that generally means it is something that is free, in other words, given "with our compliments."

  • Megan gave me a very nice compliment about the color of my earrings.
  • My spouse and I complement each other very well.
  • We greatly enjoyed the complimentary breakfast at the hotel this morning.


Professor Puzzler


What's the difference between an adjective and an adverb?



Hi Wallace,

First, let's talk about how adjectives and adverbs are alike, then we can talk about how they're different.  Adjectives and adverbs are parts of speech, and they are both words that are used to describe other words.  For example, if you say "That's a good question," good is a describing word, so it's either an adjective or an adverb.  Can you find the describing words in the following sentences?

  • I ran very slowly.
  • I saw a blue balloon.
  • The extraordinarily ugly monster ate the burnt toast.

How did you do?  In the first sentence, "slowly" is a describing word; it describes how you were running, and "very" is also a describing word, because it helps to explain just how slowly you were running.  In the second sentence, "blue" is a describing word, and it describes the balloon.  In the third sentence, there are three describing words: "extraordinarily," "ugly," and "burnt."

Now let's talk about how adjectives and adverbs are different.  The difference can be described quite easily as follows: if a word is describing a noun, it is an adjective.  If it's describing anything else (a verb, an adjective, or another adverb), then it's an adverb.

So, with that in mind, can you go back through those three sentences above and determine which are adjectives, and which are adverbs?

Here are the answers:

  • adjectives: blue, ugly, burnt
  • adverbs: very, slowly, extraordinarily

By the way, sometimes people will tell you that you can recognize adverbs because they end in "ly," but that's not always true.  For example, in this sentence, always is an adverb, but it definitely doesn't end in "ly!"

I hope that helps, and thanks for asking!
Professor Puzzler



Please explain the difference between the words "they're" and "their."

Andy K.
Grade 5


Hi Andy,

The answer isn't too complicated.  The word "their" is a possessive word.  That means that it shows that someone owns something.  In this case, it means that something belongs to a group of people (them). 

  • They brought their car to the repair shop.

"They're" is a contraction of "they" and "are".  

  • They're having car problems.

Here is a sentence that contains both words:

  • They're hoping that their car will be fixed soon.

Thanks for asking!
Professor Puzzler

The emails I get from my friends have all kinds of odd puncutation marks in them; a colon followed by a close-parenthesis, or a greater-than sign, followed by a colon, followed by an open-parenthesis. These obviously mean something to the people who sent them, but they don't mean anything to me. Can you help?

Your friends are using something we call "emoticons", or "emotional icons". They are symbols which represent a particular facial expression. The best way to interpret them is to imagine them as faces tipped sideways. So if you look at this one - :), and imagine it rotated 90 degrees, you've got a smiling face, with the colon as the eyes, and the parenthesis as the smile. Here's a quick "crash course" on internet emotion indicators:

:) = smile
:D = laughing smile
:( = frown
>:( = angry (the greater-than symbol is downturned eyebrows
::) = rolling of the eyes*
:P = tongue sticking out
:-/ = sad/uncertain/mixed emotions
B) or 8) = someone wearing sunglasses "cool"
:O = surprise
;) = wink
:-[ = sad

* The eye-rolling emoticon used to be very popular, but I hardly ever see it any more.

Older posts

Understanding Coronavirus Spread

A Question and Answer session with Professor Puzzler about the math behind infection spread.

Blogs on This Site

Reviews and book lists - books we love!
The site administrator fields questions from visitors.
Like us on Facebook to get updates about new resources
Pro Membership