Even editors get stumped by the rules of language. A word or expression that you’re sure you know how to use properly, or a grammar principle that was drilled into you at school, can turn out to be less cut-and-dried than you thought. As the English language develops over time, common usage can cause “correctness” to change. Here are a few examples.
Straitlaced or straight-laced?
Straitlaced is the original spelling of this phrasal adjective, meaning one who is excessively strict in manners, morals or opinion. Strait means narrow or tight fitting, so to be straitlaced or restrained in a straitjacket refers to being tightly laced or confined. Since strait has become an archaic word, people often use the more familiar word straight – so much so that straight-laced and straightjacket are now generally accepted in standard English.
Champing at the bit or chomping at the bit?
I prefer champing since it’s the original form of this idiom, but when I use it, someone always questions whether I’ve made a mistake. A bit is a metal mouthpiece used for controlling a horse, and to champ is to bite or gnash one’s teeth, so champing at the bit refers to a horse chewing on the bit when excited. In a figurative sense, it indicates extreme eagerness or impatience. But since the word champ isn’t used in modern English, the phrase is often written chomping at the bit. Some people still consider this incorrect.
Nauseated or nauseous?
Purists will insist that saying you feel nauseous when you feel sick is incorrect. Originally nauseous referred to something that would cause you to feel sickened or disgusted (such as a nauseous smell or taste) while nauseated meant to experience the feeling of sickness. But nauseous has been so frequently used to refer to feeling disgusted or needing to vomit that some dictionaries have updated their definitions to reflect contemporary usage.
Buck naked or butt naked?
I’ve always believed buck naked is correct, and butt naked is an error that came about as a result of phonic confusion. But most sources I’ve found indicate that both are correct, although butt appears to be a newer form of buck. You can get away with whichever one you prefer.
Your English teacher may have insisted you must never split an infinitive. An infinitive is the form of a verb that has to in front of it: to walk, to run, to play. Splitting an infinitive means to place a word between to and the verb root, as in “to slowly walk,” “to easily win,” or the most famous example, “to boldly go where no man has gone before” from Star Trek. Should this be “to go boldly”?
It turns out that there is no grammar rule against splitting infinitives. In fact, it’s sometimes the clearest way to express a thought. Disapproval of splitting infinitives came about in Victorian times, probably in an attempt to make English grammar function in the same way as Latin grammar, where the infinitive is a single word so it cannot be split.