Hair shirt

A hair shirt is as it sounds: a shirt made out of hair. Though they are rarely used today, historically people in some Christian religious orders wore them as a means of penance. The shirts were originally woven with goat hair and were worn next to the skin to keep the wearer in constant discomfort and awareness of the shirt’s presence. (The shirts evolved to contain bits of metal woven with hair. Delightful.)

Today, this item of self-torture survives in the language as a noun that means “one that irritates like a hair shirt” and as an adjective that means “austere and self-sacrificing.”

Here are some examples of hair shirt as a noun:

Uncle Harvey is such a hair shirt. I would rather drink soup from a toilet than listen to another of his “olden days” stories.

Merv thought yoga was a hair shirt until he tried it and enjoyed how limber he felt afterward.

Here are some examples of hair shirt as an adjective:

Carla felt so guilty about murdering her gardener that she chose to live a hair-shirt existence. She gave her belongings to charity and moved to the desert, where she survived by eating spiders and rats.

Getting healthy doesn’t mean living a hair-shirt lifestyle. Merv found vegetables to be delicious, and he got lots of dates from yoga class.


Fairy tale vs. fairy-tale


fairy tale (noun): a story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (as fairies, wizards, and goblins)

fairy-tale (adjective): characteristic of or suitable to a fairy tale, marked by seemingly unreal beauty, perfection, luck, or happiness


It’s finally feeling like summer. The wind is carrying lovely, flowery scents (unless you live in a city—then it’s most likely pee smell). Either way, this is the season to daydream and think of fairy tales. Now let’s make sure you are using the term correctly.

When used as a noun, fairy tale is two words without a hyphen.

Example: Mom told me a fairy tale about a princess who turned into a fairy.

However, when it is used as an adjective to describe a noun, it has a hyphen and looks like this: fairy-tale.

Example: Her fairy-tale wedding must have cost a fortune.

(Here, fairy-tale describes the noun wedding.)

Check your understanding with this quiz. Fill in either fairy tale or fairy-tale in the blanks. The answers are below.

1) Every day as he sat in his cubicle, Ralph dreamed of a new life, a _______ life.

2) The _______ involved goblins and mean elves, so Susie thought it was scary.

3) Al had a new car, a new wife, a mansion, and a raise. Could this mean his _______ was coming true?

4. The cake had chocolate chips, frosting, strawberries, and fudge. It was basically a _______ dessert.



1) fairy-tale (adjective describing life); 2) fairy tale (noun); 3) fairy tale (noun); 4) fairy-tale (adjective describing dessert)


Straight vs. strait

straight (adjective): free from curves, bends, angles, or irregularities
straight (adverb): in a straight manner  
strait (noun): 1) a comparatively narrow passageway connecting two large bodies of water; 2) a situation of perplexity or distress

When determining whether to use straight or strait, remember: strait is usually a noun, but straight can be an adjective or an adverb. This means straight works with nouns and verbs to describe them.

Examples of straight:
1. Morris has straight teeth.
2. Morris walks straight to the dentist.

In the first example, straight is an adjective that works with the noun teeth. In the second example, straight is an adverb that works with the verb walks.

Examples of strait:
1. The boat barely fit through the strait.
2. The crew was in dire straits when the boat started to sink.

In both examples, strait is a noun. The first example uses the first definition of the word. The second example uses the second definition of the word.

A note about jackets
The word for the white, strappy device used to restrain people is commonly misspelled. It is spelled: straitjacket. Also note that it is one word.

Fill in the blank with either straight or strait. The answers are at the bottom.

1. The negative balance in Liz’s checking account showed she was in desperate financial _______s.
2. It took less time to run the _______ path than the curvy one.
3. Liz ran ______ to the candy shop.
4. The ship sailed _______ through the _______.
5. The men forced the patient into a _______jacket.


1. strait (second definition) 2. straight (adjective) 3. straight (adverb) 4. straight (adverb), strait (first definition) 5. strait


Capitalizing Titles of Works

Some people prefer to capitalize each word of a title. But, if you need to learn the rules of the “up and down” style of titles, here is a guide.

Section 8.157 of The Chicago Manual of Style lays out rules:

  1. Capitalize first and last words
  2. Capitalize nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs
  3. Lowercase articles the, a, and an
  4. Lowercase prepositions (of, in, to, for, with, on, at, over, between, around, etc.)
  5. Lowercase conjunctions and, but, for, or, and nor

Note: These are only the basic rules. However, these are likely the only ones you’ll need.
Preposition list: For a longer list of English prepositions, click here.

Let’s run through some examples. I’ll explain why I capitalized or lowercased each word.

1. Vampires Suck Blood from a Young Woman.

  • I capitalized Vampires and Woman because they are the first and last words. (rule 1)
  • I capitalized Suck because it’s a verb. (rule 2)
  • I capitalized Young because it’s an adjective. (rule 2)
  • I lowercased a because it’s an article. (rule 3)
  • I lowercased from because it’s a preposition. (rule 4)

2. The Mating Habits of Mutants

  • I capitalized The and Mutants because they are the first and last words. (rule 1)
  • I capitalized Mating it’s an adjective. (rule 2)
  • I capitalized Habits because it’s a noun. (rule 2)
  • I lowercased of because it’s a preposition. (rule 4)

3. The Unicorn Who Forgot His Knife

  • I capitalized The and Knife because they are the first and last words. (rule 1)
  • I capitalized Unicorn because it’s a noun. (rule 2)
  • I capitalized Forgot because it’s a verb. (rule 2)
  • I capitalized Who and His because they are pronouns. (rule 2)

4. Four Snakes and Rats Played Nicely Together

  • I capitalized Four and Together because they are the first and last words. (rule 1)
  • I capitalized Snakes and Rats because they’re nouns. (rule 2)
  • I capitalized Played because it’s a verb. (rule 2)
  • I capitalized Nicely because it’s an adverb. (rule 2)
  • I lowercased and because it’s a conjunction. (rule 5)

Test your skills with a quiz. Below you will see titles with every word lowercased. Rewrite each title with the correct words capitalized. The answers are below.

1. young boy caught farting in class
2. crazy cat and the dumb dog
3. swarm of grandmothers brazenly pinch cheeks at noon
4. ten clouds turn pink
5. the curious way the sea monster eats her food in the ocean

Answers: 1. Young Boy Caught Farting in Class 2. Crazy Cat and the Dumb Dog 3. Swarm of Grandmothers Brazenly Pinch Cheeks at Noon 4. Ten Clouds Turn Pink 5. The Curious Way the Sea Monster Eats Her Food in the Ocean

Breathe vs. Breath

I rarely go a day without seeing this mistake. So, if you have problems mixing up breathe and breath, don’t feel bad; you have lots of company.

Luckily there’s an easy way to remember the difference.

If you are doing the action (verb) of taking in and letting out air, use breathe with an e at the end.

If you are referring to the air (noun) you are taking in and letting out, use breath—no e at the end.

Breathe is a verb (because it’s an action). Breath is a noun (because it’s a thing).

Here are some sample sentences:

Martin was thankful he could breathe deeply when he recovered from his cold.
Francis took a deep breath before he jumped in the pool.

Test your skills with a quiz. Fill in either breathe or breath in the blanks. The answers are at the bottom.

1. Fish ________ in water.
2. Marcy hated her boss because he had bad _______.
3. Do you think there is alien life who _______ something other than oxygen?
4. The doctors put Uncle George on a respirator because he couldn’t _______ well on his own.
5. Sally couldn’t take a good _______ because the air was filled with smoke.

1. breathe 2. breath 3. breathe 4. breathe 5. breath.