August 14, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: flout or flaunt, feel or believe

Posted in feel or believe, flout or flaunt? at 10:13 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: If you’ve got it, flout it?

Someone recently asked me if there was a difference between flout and flaunt. The answer is decidedly yes. The two words are often, and more and more commonly, confused, but, in truth, the only similarity between the two is in their pronunciation–not in their meanings.

Flout means to disregard in a smug manner, defy, show disdain for, mock.

This so-called writer flouts all the rules of grammar.

Flaunt means to show off, to parade or display ostentatiously.

That investigator flaunts his success in getting NIH grants in front of the whole faculty.

If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

The problem is that people often use “flaunt” when they mean “flout,” although you don’t often see “flout” used as “flaunt.” But “flaunt” should be used as “flaunt,” and “flout should be used as “flout.” I think part of the problem may be that both “flaunt” and “flout” imply some arrogance (flouting the law, flaunting her wealth), but the meanings are actually distinct, and one word should not be used as the other.


I know that I’m on very thin ice with Tip 2 but it’s been a pet peeve of mine for ever, and I have to get it out there once, even if I’m castigated for it later. (And if there’s anyone out there who agrees with me, let me know so I don’t feel quite so alone in this uphill battle.) Yikes, you know it has to be thin ice when I’m hoping that someone, anyone sees it my way.

Tip 2: Feeling is believing: feel or believe

Okay, Ill get this out fast. Feel and believe: they don’t mean the same thing. They shouldn’t be used, in formal writing, synonymously. There, I’ve said it.

And I feel much better for having done so. Let me explain my reasoning.

They DON’T mean the same thing!

I guess I can expand on that. If you look “believe” up in any dictionary, you will never see as a definition, “feel.” If you look “feel” up in any dictionary, you will never see as a definition, “believe.” Okay, in one dictionary “believe” was one of the definitions but it was the ninth definition for heaven’s sake, and it was only one dictionary. And also of note, it was the American Heritage Dictionary which also erroneously accepted “an history.” (See Bill Walsh, below.) Okay, and I just found it in, but it was the eighth definition. I told you I was on thin ice, here, but remember, I am talking about formal writing.

“Feel” means a lot of things, for example, just a few examples from Wordnet ( WordNet® 3.0. Princeton University) include:

1. undergo an emotional sensation or be in a particular state of mind; “She felt resentful”; “He felt regret”
2. come to believe on the basis of emotion, intuitions, or indefinite grounds; “I feel that he doesn’t like me”; “I find him to be obnoxious”; “I found the movie rather entertaining” [syn: find]
3. perceive by a physical sensation, e.g., coming from the skin or muscles; “He felt the wind”; “She felt an object brushing her arm”; “He felt his flesh crawl”; “She felt the heat when she got out of the car”
4. be conscious of a physical, mental, or emotional state; “My cold is gone–I feel fine today”; “She felt tired after the long hike”; “She felt sad after her loss”

The reason I chose this group of definitions is that I wanted to point out definition #2: come to believe on the basis of emotion, intuitions, or indefinite grounds.

Yes, “feel” can mean “believe,” but it is “on the basis of emotion, intuitions, or indefinite grounds.” When we are writing about a study, for example, in a Background and Significance section of a proposal, and we say something like this: “On the basis of the findings from this study, the authors feel that additional study of mouse models is necessary,” I get a little crazy because the belief that the study of mouse models is necessary is based on fact (findings of the study) and not emotion, intuitions, or indefinite grounds.

“Feel” is about a belief that is arrived at by emotion or intuition. Usually in our formal writing, we come to a belief by way of data and findings. This is why I hate the use of “feel” in a proposal or manuscript when referring to a data-driven belief.

So, that’s what I mean when I say that they don’t mean the same thing: “feel” is always associated with emotion or instinct, and “believe,” while it can be associated with emotion or instinct, can also be related to reasoned logic or data, and in the context of our formal writing, “believe” is the appropriate word choice.

If I’ve convinced anyone to not use “feel” in formal writing (unless of course you mean touch), this has been a good day.


Last week’s WLUT stirred up a lot of strong feelings, especially in regard to “a historic.”

A number of people protested the use of “a” instead of “an” before a word starting in “h.” For example:


you’re going to have trouble with historians (and I happen to be one) on this one.

Do you really want the Today show saying “this is a historic moment” rather than “this is an historic moment?”

I know English majors always used to beat up on history students for their shoddy use of the language, so I don’t know what is correct, but I know what sounds good to “my ear”.

“” says both usages are sufficiently common to be considered correct in modern English.

They also point out that by your rule, you would say, “We can’t agree on a hypothesis”. (yuck)

DLS: My first reaction was, “Cool, we have a historian on the list.”

I have to admit that, until I researched it, I always said “an historic,” but I was finally convinced by the scores of language usage mavens who used the “a.” I think it’s a bit easier to swallow if you think about the “a” being pronounced as a long “a” as in “hay” and not a short “a” as in “what.”

This is an excerpt of what Bill Walsh, author of “Lapsing into a Comma,” and “The Elephants Of Style,” and a copy editor at the Washington Post, had to say on his website:

Is it “a historic” or “an historic”?

Do you live in an house? I didn’t think so. A historic.

Not the best example or the most complete answer, I admit. My books do a better job.

From “The Elephants of Style”:

For choosing a or an, spelling doesn’t matter; pronunciation does. A is for consonant sounds; an is for vowel sounds. The ever-popular an historic is incorrect, at least for American speakers, because historic does not begin with a vowel sound. Even those Americans who say “an istoric” will admit that they say “historic,” with the consonant h, when the word stands alone. I don’t care whether “an istoric” rolls off your tongue more easily than “a historic”; you don’t go altering your pronunciation of a word in order to change the article you use before it. Your comfort is none of the language’s concern…
There is a similar entry in “Lapsing Into a Comma.” The entries are absolutely correct, but they fail to address an alternative position that I did not realize was held by some published authorities.

One of my detractors cited “The Correct Word: How to Use It” by Josephine Turck Baker:

In the case of words beginning with h, an is always required when h is silent; as “an heir;” when h is aspirated, a is required, unless the accent is on the second syllable, when an is used; as “a history;” an historian.”…

NOTE FROM DLS: I like this compromise (using “an” when the emphasis is on the second syllable), and I think it resolves much of the conflict surrounding the use of “a” versus “an.” It feels more natural to me as well. What do you think of this rule?]

The stylebook of the London Times calls for an hotel, an historic and an heroic. But, remember, that’s British English.

H.W. Fowler (writing in British English and, near as I can tell, about the same time as Baker) says an was “formerly usual before an accented syllable beginning with h,” citing an historian, an hotel, an hysterical scene, an hereditary title and an habitual offender. He continues: “But now that the h in such words is pronounced the distinction has become anomalous and will no doubt disappear in time. Meantime speakers who like to say an should not try to have it both ways by aspirating the h.”…

I found one source that could be called sympathetic to “an historical” in modern written American English: The American Heritage Dictionary says “an historical” and the like are outdated but “acceptable in formal writing.”…

Among the authorities on my side:

# Garner’s Modern American Usage acerbically supports the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound position: “An humanitarian is, judged even by the most tolerant standards, a pretentious humanitarian.”
# Patricia T. O’Conner’s “Woe Is I,” in so many words, gives the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound explanation.
# The Chicago Manual of Style gives the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound explanation.
# The Associated Press Stylebook gives the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound explanation.
# The United Press International stylebook gives the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound explanation.
# The Washington Post stylebook gives the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound explanation.
# The New York Times stylebook gives the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound explanation.
# The USA Today stylebook gives the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound explanation.
# The U.S. News & World Report stylebook gives the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound explanation.
# Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words addresses a slightly different problem (“an FBI,” but “a NATO”) but Bryson explains himself in terms of vowel sounds and consonant sounds.

To restate my position: First you must deal with the word. Repeat after me: “Historic, hotel, hysterical, Hispanic.” Did you pronounce those h’s? Then it’s a historic, a hotel, a hysterical, a Hispanic [NOTE FROM DLS: I LOVE IT – MY SPELLCHECKER WANTED TO CHANGE HISPANIC TO HIS PANIC]. If you truly said “Istoric, otel, ysterical, ispanic,” go ahead and say “an.” But you are in the minority. The standard pronunciations include the h, and so you must write “a.”

Looking for feedback

DLS: After reading and considering all of this, here is my proposed rule: When the “h” is silent, you must use “an” (e.g., an honor). When the “h” is sounded, you must use “a” (e.g., a hornet’s nest) UNLESS the emphasis of the word is on the second syllable. In that case, either “a” or “an” is correct (e.g., a historic or an historic)-it’s a matter of personal preference. I’d be interested in hearing about how you feel about this and your thoughts on whether the rules should be the same for both the written and spoken word?

I’ll leave it at that for now.



  1. kelly said,

    As a psychologist, the distinction between feel and believe is crucial. So, I’m completely with you!

  2. howard said,

    e.g., “Ms. Seltzer flaunts her knowledge of grammar, while pointing out the egregious errors of those who flout the same.”

  3. bryna said,

    Only a lowly former linguist. But I agree with feel and believe completely. I would add though that I sometimes write that “we feel the following…” when we are inferring something that is not fact driven….(so only in the discussion section and not when we can believe it based upon the facts/evidence/findings). Also I staunchly agree with a historic and can think of many many h beginning words that would sound so strange with an before them no matter where the stress syllable falls. That said, I do feel strongly (and can believe it based upon my prior linguistic studies) that rules for writing and speaking should be different. And they are. You write differently in email than in a manuscript for the same reason, email communication is more similar to telephone communication (spoken) than written….with these distinctions, linguists won’t be out of a job. After all they describe peoples’ grammars (what sounds correct to the speaker) – what we call descriptive grammar, not prescriptive grammar which is what you discuss in your emails (which I enjoy so much) and allows us all to write in ways that are mutually understandable and intelligible!

  4. DLS to bryna said,

    Thanks for your insights, Bryna. Having a linguist on the list is certainly a bonus, and you have to promise that if you find me saying something that is boneheaded, you will let me know! As for written versus spoken language, I think these days, we have to parse it further: writing, phone or face-to-face, email or texting. With the advent of texting, email is becoming more terse and more of a shorthand (except for us, of course), and it will require its own language

  5. derek said,

    i almost agree with you. the key issue for me is the same one you point out – ‘feel’ can be used to mean ‘come to believe’. In your example, mouse studies are models one uses to make inferences or hypotheses about truths relating to biologic or clinical phenomena. If I think the mouse study is rock solid with regard to a certain point, I’ll ‘believe’ something. If, on the other hand, I take the mouse studies with appropriate caveats in hand, I might ‘almost believe’ – have a hunch, have a feeling something a little short of belief, about a potential inference.

    So, like you, I would cringe if someone writes a grant and communicates too much doubt about their central hypothesis, or the quality of their data justifying the need for the next study. If they aren’t sure, then they shouldn’t get the money. But, I don’t mind if they are helpfully quantifying some uncertainty – a sign of maturity, perhaps. Thus, the mouse study may lead the authors to ‘feel’ that pathway x is very likely implicated in disease y, and to ‘believe’ that the next step is to do a phase z study in such and such a model.

    I guess the crunch for me is that a belief is an absolute. Something one accepts as fact. In religion, proof wouldn’t be necessary for belief – faith is enough. In science, we’d want something material and solid. Thus, I would cringe if a scientist thinks he or she ‘believes’ something when the evidence upon which that belief is based is not determinate. It may be a set of concrete facts, but the set of concrete facts may not be the complete set necessary to remove all reasonable doubt and so on. Thus, the downside of ‘believing’ too much is that one could be accused of being too quick to make assumptions.

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