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June 6, 2002 - Grammar Lady: Listener Mail - 2002-06-05

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": June 6, 2002
Re-broadcast on VOA News Now: June 9, 2002

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster, we call on our old friend Grammar Lady, Mary Newton Bruder, to help us answer some listener mail.

RS: We start with a question from Kim in Osaka, Japan. She would like to know the meaning of the expression "the devil is in the details."

BRUDER: "It means that it's very easy to make a broad plan and get a big idea about something, but carrying it out is much more difficult, and that's where the devil is -- the hard part is in the details of getting the plan done."

RS: "We have another question also about an idiom from Asako, also from Japan: 'I've wanted to ask someone for a long time. People say something like this: "When she goes on a picnic, she always wants to take everything but the kitchen sink." Why the kitchen sink?'"

BRUDER: "It refers to the excessive luggage that people take when they go traveling, as your example of going on a picnic. If you have to have everything at home when you go someplace, you even have to take the kitchen sink."

AA: "She goes on to say, but why kitchen sink? 'My guess is that there was a joke about an empty kitchen (no food, no furniture) or a joke about a debt collector. Wrong guess?' Says, 'The dictionaries I referred to only say this expression is a "jocular" one but don't explain the origin of it.'"

BRUDER: "My origin books didn't have it either."

RS: Now back to Kim for a grammar-related question for Grammar Lady.

AA: Actually it's from one of Kim's college students, who asked her about the difference between these two sentences: "We look forward to your reply" and "we're (that's w-e-apostrophe-r-e) looking forward to your reply."

RS: "Two ways of saying the same thing?"

BRUDER: "Yes."

RS: " The first -- 'we look forward to your reply' -- might be a little bit more formal."

BRUDER: "Yes, that's the distinction."

AA: "'We look forward to your reply' is what verb tense, that's just simple ... "

BRUDER: "Simple present."

RS: "Simple present."

BRUDER: "And the other one is progressive."

RS: "But it's also using a contraction, which is more informal speech, 'we're looking forward to your reply.'"

BRUDER: "Yes, right." AA: Now a question from Brazil about the verb "to regret." Carl Highsetland gave us these two sentences: "I regret lending him money. He never paid me back." Carl's wondering: "Shouldn't it be 'I regret having lent him money'?"

RS: Again, which one is correct: "I regret lending him money" or "I regret having lent him money."

BRUDER: "'They're both correct and they have practically the same meaning."

AA: "So I guess the simple past tense 'he never paid me back' would refer to an instance, a specific instance, rather than 'he never pays me back."

BRUDER: "Right."

AA: " 'I regret lending him money, he never pays me back' would be continually; you lend him money, he never pays you back."

BRUDER: "And then it's silly of you to keep on lending him the money."

RS: In other words, you wouldn't call it very smart. That's the cue for our next question for Grammar Lady. It's from Ivan Dolezal in the Czech Republic:

AA: He writes, "Recently I was trying to find out when to use 'smart' and when to use 'clever.' I wasn't able to distinguish between these words with my dictionary."

BRUDER: "Well, basically, 'smart' is an overall intelligence. He 's smart about everything, he has a lot of knowledge, and he is very good at doing things. 'Clever,' I think, refers to a quick, sharp intelligence. 'She gives clever answers to the questions.' You can be clever at doing crossword puzzles. You also have to be smart to do crossword puzzles, but I think it refers to a quickness, a sharp intelligence."

AA: "Ivan also says here, 'how would you explain the word "wise"?'"

BRUDER: "I think wise refers to age. Older people tend to have wisdom that has been learned over the years."

RS: "He also says, 'How about "cunning" and "sly"? Are these really used, or do I have a dictionary with words from the nineteenth century?'"

BRUDER: "Someone who does something in a cunning or sly manner is also smart to do it but in a deceiving way."

AA: "Although 'cunning' -- if you say, 'that was a cunning plot,' that does sound a little kind of dated, or 'boy you were really sly about that.'"

RS: "I think sly, we do -- 'sly guy.'"

AA: "Sly? 'Sly guy.' [Laughter] You know, 'on the sly,' meaning kind of secretly."

RS: "Sneaky."

AA: "Sneaky."

BRUDER: "Right, sneaky -- those two definitely have negative connotations."

RS: Linguist Mary Newton Bruder, speaking to us on the Grammar Hotline she operates in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She's also on the Internet, at, and she's author of the book "The Grammar Lady."

AA: Keep sending those questions about American English! Our address is or VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237 USA. And our Web site is With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "Sly Old Crow/Old Blair Store" [folk song]/John McCutcheon