Readability tips, literacy news, and English writing advice

Christmas Day Cryptic

Christmas food for a king in church (4)

Answer: CAKE

Thanksgiving (USA) Cryptic

Persistently question family that supplies fruit (7)


International Men's Day Cryptic

That man Patrick in charge of livery (7)


Bonfire Night Cryptic

Helpful to have the real reason for Fawkes's failure? (2,3)

Answer: OFUSE

World Students Day Cryptic

Relieved concerning student freed from anxiety (8)


The Em Dash

In high school your teacher probably wasn't too picky about whether you used parentheses or commas to set apart ideas within a sentence. However, if you're in college and you want to impress your professor or you're in the real world trying to get something published, a well-used pair of em dashes can really set you apart.

An em dash used in place of a comma can make things easier on your reader. This is especially true if there are already a few commas in the sentence. An em dash will draw the reader's attention, so make sure to use it only when you want to really want to put emphasis on an idea.

An em dash used in place of parentheses will make the set apart information really pop. Also remember, if you are replacing a parenthetical with an em dash at the end of a sentence, you only need the one em dash at the beginning of the parenthetical idea.

Make sure to use the em dash sparingly. Rarely should it be used more than twice in a sentence. If you have more than two em dashes your reader will probably just end up confused rather than impressed. It is also important to note that em dashes are considered less formal, so keep your audience in mind (i.e. if this is a research paper, maybe you don't need to be so flashy).

Word will automatically make an em dash for you if you type a normal dash with spaces before and after it. In most cases, it is proper grammar to have no spaces between the em dash and the words it separates, so after word automatically creates the em dash you should delete those spaces.

You should also check out Slate's article against em dashes to get a perspective from the other side of the aisle.

Talk Like a Pirate Day Cryptic

Covering article smuggled aboard by pirate (6)

Answer: CANOPY

Four English Words with Spanish Origins

Hola, buckaroos! Give your dulcinea an avocado before the cockroaches get it! Those two phrases used four English words with a Spanish etymology and one word of straight Spanish. Here's la historia of those words.


The delicioso guacamole is ubiquitous in Mexican cuisine, so it only makes sense that the avocado has Spanish roots. Actually, like many Mexican Spanish words it originates in Aztec with the word ahuacatl. Spanish explorers converted the nearly unpronounceable word to aguacate, possibly because the meat of this fruit is very moist. ("Agua" being Spanish for "water") Somehow, that got changed to "avocado", similar to "abogado", the Spanish word for "lawyer. Insert your own lawyer joke here.


In the bittersweet Disney/Pixar film Toy Story 3, Buzz Lightyear is reprogrammed to speak only Spanish and starts to refer to Woody as "vaquero". Vaquero is the Spanish word for "cowboy", stemming from the word "vaca" meaning "cow". As the Spanish v is pronounced similar to b and the q like a hard c, the word was altered to "buckaroo". The word is seldom used anymore, save by members of this rugged profession to refer to a cowboy nonpareil. Occasionally, the word is humorously used to refer to an American dollar, casually known as a "buck".


Many a Speedy Gonzales fan is familiar with a Mexican folk song called "La Cucaracha". They may be unfamiliar with the fact that the song is about imbibing in a certain illegal substance. The grand Spanish galleons that came to the New World returned to Europe laden with gold, exotic fruits, and a disgusting pest that wouldn't stop breeding. (No, I don't mean the conquistadors!) They were at first called cacarucha, either because of their foul odor or stemming from "cuco" a word for a type of caterpillar.


"To each his dulcinea, though she be but flame and air." go to lyrics from a song written by Joe Darion for the musical Man of la Mancha, based on the Cervantes novel Don Quixote. The character who would coin the word quixotic decides that in order to be a knight, he must have a ladylove to dedicate his noble deeds to. He invents a lady named Dulcinea del Toboso, an ideal based on the object of chivalric romance. The name comes from the Spanish word for "sweet", making it the proper word to describe someone loved dearly.

Four Mandarin Chinese Words That English Really Needs

Chinese is a very complex and diverse language. There are several different dialects of Chinese used all across China, as well as thousands of different written characters. There are also several different words found in Mandarin Chinese that have no real equivalent in the English language. However, the following words would definitely make great additions if they were added to English!

Ma la

Ma la is a combination of the characters that mean "numbing" and "spicy". This word is meant to describe the disorientation that can come over people when they eat a particular dish. Traditional Chinese cuisine has an intense spiciness not often found in the foods native to most English-speaking countries, so it makes sense they would have their own word for this sensation!

Huanying guanglin

Huanying guanglin is interpreted by English speakers as simply meaning "welcome," but it actually goes deeper than that. The first part of the word literally translates to "I meet you with joy." The second half combines characters that mean "light" and "to arrive." More than a greeting, the term is meant to convey that the arrival of the person being greeted is a special event. Talk about a warm welcome!

Ti tie

Ti tie is a word used specifically for family members. It is a word that conveys a sense of the deep respect the members of a healthy family have for one another as they take care of each other and support each other throughout life. It's a unique word for the unique consideration that family members tend to have for one another.

Wei wu wei

Wei wu wei is a phrase that conveys a concept found in Taoist philosophy. We wu wei, or "the action of non-action," describes acting in accord with nature or particular circumstances. At first it appears as if the person acting is actually not doing anything at all, when really, they are acting with the flow of things and behaving in harmony with whatever is around them.

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