Accessibility links

Breaking News

October 21, 2001 - Grammar Lady: Listener Mail - 2002-01-30

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- we answer some listener mail, starting with this question sent by e-mail from Siva Kumar in Madras, in Tamil Nadu, India.

RS: "Dear Avi and Rosanne, I would like to know the opposite of postpone."


"In American English there isn't a direct opposite. We'd have to use a phrase like 'move up' or 'advance the date' or something like that."

AA: Linguist and author Mary Newton Bruder, at grammarlady-dot-com, speaking to us on her grammar advice hotline in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

RS: Sivakumar in India may be familiar with a local term for the opposite of "postpone." That is "prepone" -- but so far "prepone" has yet to advance its way into American English!

AA: The next question we put to Grammar Lady Mary Newton Bruder is from Radha, a high school student in Pune, India: "Here is a question regarding punctuation. What is the difference between these two sentences: 'kill him not, comma, leave him" and 'kill him, comma, not leave him."


BRUDER: "I've heard this explained as 'a comma can kill a man.'"

RS: "A comma can kill a man. OK, go on."

BRUDER: "So if you put it in after 'kill him,' that's exactly what the directive is, to kill someone. But if you put it after 'not,' it changes the meaning entirely to 'don't kill him' -- 'kill him not, leave him.' Don't kill him, leave him alone."

AA: Now, Rosanne, does "kill him not" even sound like Modern English?

RS: "Not" should come after an auxiliary or helping verb and not after the main verb in a sentence. So, for instance, "fear not" becomes "do not fear" ... unless you're going for style.

AA: Next for Grammar Lady -- a question from Manuela in Berlin. She would like to know if the sentence "I'll come round at six" is British English. She says, "I guess in American English it has to be 'around,' doesn't it?"

RS: Well, we talked about this with Mary Newton Bruder.


AA: "When I first saw this, I thought, OK, 'I'll come around at six' means I'll come around to your way of thinking, or ... "

RS: "... I'll wake up."

AA: "to come around means if you're unconscious, you come around, you wake up. It seems like a speaker of American English would be more likely to say 'I'll come around six,' meaning a few minutes before, a few minutes after."

BRUDER: "Yeah, right, meaning to stop by. It's not a common American phrase, to 'come around.'"

RS: Now a question from Meng Chun-Quan at Xi'an University of Science & Technology in Shaanxi, China. "Dear friends of the Wordmaster team: After the deadly terrorist attack in New York and Washington on September eleventh, I've heard VOA News Now refer many times to the site of the destroyed World Trade Center as the ground zero. Could you please tell me the meaning of [ground zero.]"

AA: For an explanation, we called Stephen Schwartz in Chicago. He's publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.


SCHWARTZ: "Ground zero in nuclear terminology refers to the point on the surface of land where either directly above or directly below which a nuclear weapon detonates."

AA: "How did that term come about?"

SCHWARTZ: "My guess is that during World War Two and probably before, people used 'zero' in the sense of like 'zero hour' to refer to when an operation might start, for example, and my supposition is that when the scientists were getting ready to test the first atomic bomb out in New Mexico in 1945, that after that test occurred, they had to figure out where they were going -- 'let's go out and visit the site where the test took place' -- and somebody obviously coined the term ground zero to refer to the point at which basically everything occurred."

RS: But, as Steve Schwartz notes the meaning of "ground zero" has grown over the years.


"The other definition which ground zero has sort of transformed into is the, one could say, the center or origin of rapid, intense or violent activity or change -- which obviously not only describes a nuclear explosion, but any sort of massive, cataclysmic event such as the attack and collapse of the World Trade Center."

AA: "And it also has a third meaning, doesn't it, some people use it in place of 'square one' -- 'we're going to start this project here at ground zero and move from there.'"

SCHWARTZ: "Right, and there it would have more of a positive connotation."

RS: Stephen Schwartz, publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

AA: If you have a question for us, send it to or VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237 USA. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.