Listener Question Extravaganza

I have a big metaphorical pile of questions from listeners in which the answers are too short to be a whole podcast segment, so today,  I'm going to string them together and do a bunch of quick hits. We'll talk about color idioms, formatting bullet points, and the words "fulsome," "presently," "anyways," "afterward," and more.

Mignon Fogarty
8-minute read
Episode #856

First is Pete.

And cool stuff?

Hi, Mignon. This is Pete from Downingtown, Pennsylvania, and I have this one particular podcast that I enjoyed listening to regularly, and at the start of every episode the podcaster says, 'We talk about writing, history, rules, and cool stuff.' Now to my ear, the way that is said suggest that the stuff that proceeded the cool stuff is not itself cool, which we all know is completely incorrect. I'm wondering about the difference between the way you say it and perhaps and 'other cool stuff.' If that makes a difference. It's not so much a grammar question as it is just the-way-things-sound-to-me kinda question. So just wanted to hear your opinion. Thanks."

Haha, thanks, Pete! You are not the only person who's made this observation, and I have to say that when I was trying to think of a catch-all phrase for the other things we talk about, it was so obvious to me that writing, history, and rules are cool, that it never occurred to me that adding "and cool stuff" to the end would imply that they aren't. But I can completely see how it could be interpreted that way. It's a little bit like a joke format I love that uses implications. They're like, "The existence of popcorn implies the existence of momcorn," and "The existence of badminton implies the existence of goodminton." I guess the inclusion of "cool stuff" implies the rest is not cool. I guess I should change the opening. Thanks.

Color Questions

"Hi, Grammar Girl. This is Carrie Ann from Phoenix, Arizona. I'm currently bingeing 'Seinfeld' for the first time ever, and in season 3, episode 19, Jerry witnesses a hit-and-run. When Elaine urges him to follow the perpetrator, he insists it's not safe, and she responds, 'What are you? Yellow?' To which Jerry takes offense and says, 'I'm not yellow,' and Elaine pushes more saying, 'Jerry, you don't follow him, you're yellow,' which led me to I wonder how such a bright, sunny color got the reputation of insinuating cowardice. And then I found myself down a colorful rabbit hole wondering how blue came to mean sad and green came mean envious. Can you help me out with this color conundrum? Thanks for all your quick and dirty tips. Bye."


Tying the color green to jealousy definitely predates Shakespeare, who referred to the "green-eyed monster" in "Othello," and "green-eyed jealousy" in "The Merchant of Venice." But one source says the idea goes all the way back to the Ancient Greeks who thought that if you were sick, your body would produce too much bile, making you look green. Alternatively, Etymonline says that green may be tied to the idea of inconstancy—being fickle—because the color green you find in nature, like in leaves or grasses, changes or fades, maybe like a lover's affection fading, which can then lead to jealousy.


I don't have as much information about "blue" meaning sad, but I can tell you it goes all the way back to 1385 and Chaucer, so people have been blue for a long time. 


Yellow meaning cowardly is much newer though. The first example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Boston "Evening Gazette" from 1856, and according to vocabulary.com, the earliest "yellow" term meaning "cowardly" was "yellow-bellied" after birds that literally have a yellow belly, like the yellow-bellied sapsucker." I imagine they're easily frightened?

On the other hand, Etymonline also starts from "yellow-bellied" and then goes to "yellow," but suggests it was a slur based on race or the color of military uniforms.

The OED says "yellow" has been associated with treachery since the Middle Ages—for example, Judas Iscariot, who is said to have betrayed Christ, is often shown in medieval art wearing yellow or having a yellow beard—but they say that the origin of yellow meaning cowardly is American and is unknown. So those are some possibilities, but I'm really not sure about the true origin for that one. Thanks for the question.


"Good morning. It's November 15. In this morning's 'Globe and Mail' there's a headline: 'Presently, federal prison staff can place a prisoner in a cell …' They mean 'at present.' I always thought 'presently' meant in the near future. I wonder if that's a pair of terms that you might use for one of your columns. My name is Rod Ferguson. I live in Ontario."

Thanks, Rod. I found a couple of interesting usage notes about "presently." The American Heritage Dictionary says that the meaning "currently, or at the present time" was the original meaning, going all the way back to the late 1300s. But then in the 1600s, it disappeared and people seemed to forget about it, and the "in the near future" meaning became the most accepted formal meaning. 

But now, people are using the "currently" meaning again (should I say "Presently, people are using the "currently" meaning again?), but usage experts don't love it. Only 63% of the American Heritage Dictionary's panel of language experts accepted that meaning in 2011—the last time they asked the question. But it's probably a losing battle. Garner's Modern English Usage calls it "poor usage" but also says it is ubiquitous, especially in American English.


Rod also asked about the word "fulsome." 

"I realize that more more people are using it in a positive way, but it would be good to keep its negative meaning."

Well, we're going to turn to the American Heritage Dictionary and Garner's Modern English Usage for this one too. Both say that "fulsome" *should* be a negative term that means "excessive," but that, as you noticed, people now often use it to mean just "excessively full" or "copious."

Garner also says this one is ubiquitous and is probably a skunked term, meaning no matter how you use it, someone is going to think it's wrong; but the American Heritage Dictionary Usage panel is much less accepting of this new use of "fulsome" than they are of "presently," coming in at only 21% accepting "fulsome" to mean "full" or "copious," so maybe you can hold out a tiny bit of hope for this one, at least for a while.


"Hello. Listen, I'm hearing the word "anyways," you know, the plural of "anyway," a lot lately including on podcasts, and it's really bugging me. Why is this happening so much more frequently or so it seems. Thanks."

Thanks! I've been noticing this for years and it kind of bugs me too. I thought it was new or at least new-ish because I don't remember anyone saying it when I was growing up, but, you know, I always look things up, and I was surprised to find that it's actually quite old. 

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples going all the way back to 1828, and Charles Dickens used it in his book "Our Mutual Friend." A character named Miss Pleasant responding to a story about a sailor being attacked and his attackers punished says, "Anyways, I am glad punishment followed, and I say so."

So that was in dialogue and has a very colloquial sound, just like you might hear it used today. The OED also describes the word as "chiefly North American." And both the OED and Merriam-Webster suggest it is related to the archaic word "anywise" that meant the same thing, but I do doubt that people who use "anyways" today are making any kind of connection to "anywise." 

But even though it's old, it's definitely becoming more common. When I search Google Books, I see a big increase in the use of "anyways" starting around the year 2000, and when I search the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which covers many more types of sources than Google Books, I see a gradual increase from 1990 onward, which is as far back as that corpus goes. 

COCA breaks it down more, and as you might expect, "anyways" is a lot more common in words spoken in TV and movies, on the web, and in blog posts, and is a lot less common in magazine, news, and academic writing. 

So, I don't know why people are saying it more often—sometimes I imagine a famous person started using it and a lot of people heard it—but no matter why it happens, you aren't imagining it.

Afterward or Afterwards

"Hi, Grammar Girl. I'm such a fan, and my name is Carter, and I'm in New Hampshire, and I feel like I should know this one, because I know a few grammar things, but there's so much to know. Anyway my question is I don't know whether to use the word 'afterward' or 'afterwards' with an S. And my sentence was, 'Yes I helped out with that, but I didn't feel very good afterward, afterwords?' I'm leaning towards adding the S.Anyway, if you can shed some light on that, that would be great. Thanks so much. I love what you do. Take care."

You're right! There is so much to know!

This is an interesting one because almost every source I checked said the two words are interchangeable. There doesn't seem to be a strong feeling about one being right or wrong, which is kind of unusual when there are two forms of a word. 

The only difference I could find is that some sources say you don't hear "afterward" as much in British English as in American English. Bryan Garner says that American editors prefer "afterward," but I'm really getting the sense that you can use whichever one you like, even in American English.

Thanks, Carter!

Bullet Points

"Hey, Grammar Girl. Thank you so much for your wonderful podcast. When you are typing a list of bullet points—in other words, please do this—and then there are bullet points, at the end of each sentence for each bullet point do you need to put a period? I never put a period at the end of the sentence unless there's a second sentence, for the multiple sentences for that bullet point, and now I'm wondering if that's correct or not. Thank you."

For this one, it's a style choice, so it completely depends on which style guide you follow. For example, in Associated Press style, you put a period (or other terminal punctuation mark) after every item, whether it's a complete sentence or not. But if you follow the Chicago Manual of Style, then you only put a period at the end of a list item if it's a complete sentence. Thanks for the question.

Their, They're, There

"Hi I was wondering why people struggle so much with "there," "they're," and "their." I don't get it. I really don't. That's all. Thanks. Bye."

Well, people always struggle with words that sound the same or similar but are spelled differently. It's a huge category of common errors ("affect"/"effect," "homed in" on something or "honed in" on something, for example). But I actually have a hunch about why people seem to especially struggle with the possessive pronouns "their," "its," "your" and so on. I believe it's because we're taught as kids that apostrophes indicate a possessive, but that's only true for nouns. These other words are pronouns, and pronouns get their own new spelling to become possessive. But then, the fact that all these pronouns have words—contractions (like "they're" for "they are")—that sound the same and use apostrophes, which people associate with being possessive, especially confuses people. That's my hunch!


Finally, I'll end today with some great santabacks some of you shared on social media. If you missed last week's show, a santaback is a word or phrase that has an ambiguous meaning because an apostrophe could be interpreted two different ways.

Like in this one from Brian Mansfield: "Taylor Swift's single." Are we referring to her new song, or are we saying Taylor Swift is without a significant other? You could read that either way. It's a santaback.

And a couple of people suggested "The World's Fair," which could refer to the event, or be a statement that the world is fair. (And then I wondered if we're still having World's Fairs. Well, it turns out the name "World's Fair" was retired in 1967 in favor of "World Expo," so now we have World Expos, and I believe the next one is scheduled for 2025 in Osaka, Japan.)

As for the santabacks, thanks and keep 'em coming!

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.