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Cumulative versus Accumulative

My friend, who works on a college campus, cringes when students talk about cramming for their accumulative exams. It’s not the cramming that annoys her. It’s their use of accumulative rather than cumulative.

The transitive verbs cumulate and accumulate both mean to pile up or amass. But accumulate, or the noun accumulation, are more common than cumulate or cumulation.

  • The accumulation of great wealth contributed to King Solomon’s downfall.

The adjectives cumulative and accumulative have more distinct meanings and usage, and here, cumulative is more common.

Cumulative refers to amassing or building up over time; growing by successive additions. Accumulative refers to the result of accumulating. It also implies an acquisitiveness or penchant for acquiring or accumulating things.

  • Warren Buffet’s accumulative instincts and ability to pick winners and losers are factors in his being one of the wealthiest Americans.

Those exams that cover all the material that’s accumulated in the course of a semester are cumulative. The accumulative effect of not keeping up on the notes and assignments all semester may well necessitate a night of cramming.

More Messy Plurals

Creating plurals would be a snap if it were always as simple as adding s or es to a noun. But we all know the English language isn’t that simple.

What’s a person to do with compound nouns? Is it daughter-in-laws or daughters-in-law? Attorneys general or attorney generals? Passerbys or passersby?

The general rule—regardless of whether the compound noun is hyphenated, two words, or closed up—is to make the principal word plural. Another way to think of it is to pluralize the element that is subject to change in number.

Thus daughters-in-law, attorneys general, and passersby are the appropriate plurals.

In the case of two-word compounds, look for the most significant word regardless of placement. Continue Reading…

Using Hyphens to Avoid Confusion

If I called you a short story editor, would I be remarking on your height? I would be, if I didn’t hyphenate the phrase “short story editor.” To avoid misunderstanding, I would write “short-story” to make clear what the short is modifying.

The rule for hyphenating compound adjectives (things that describe nouns) is to leave them open unless the meaning might be misconstrued, such as in the example I gave.

Take a look at these:

  • Free market economy (Is the market economy free, or are you talking about “free market” economy?)
  • Secret police force (Is the police force a secret, or are you referring to the secret police?)
  • Post office celebration (Is there a party at your local post office, or is this a party held after the office closes?)

You can see how hyphenating these compounds changes the meaning: free-market economy, secret-police force, and post-office celebration. Continue Reading…

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