Grammar Moses: Can a con artist run the gambit?

  • A group of children plays chess during the first round of a local tournament Aug. 21, 2016, in Panama City. Opening tactics in chess run the gamut from the Sicilian defense to the queen's gambit.

    A group of children plays chess during the first round of a local tournament Aug. 21, 2016, in Panama City. Opening tactics in chess run the gamut from the Sicilian defense to the queen's gambit. Associated Press

Updated 6/18/2022 5:27 PM

Assistant Weekend Editor Susan Klovstad said she thought of me when she saw this in a recent news release:

"In the summer of 1978, two recent college graduates and their high school drama director founded the organization because they wanted to expand the scope of community theater in town by producing plays and musicals that run the gambit from important classics to completely new plays and musicals."


"Obviously, he means 'run the gamut,'" Susan told me.

If you're a Netflix subscriber, you probably remember hearing of or breathlessly streaming "The Queen's Gambit," a series about a young female chess player who takes the boys club of players by storm in the 1950s and '60s.

"The Queen's Gambit" is a popular opening move in chess that sacrifices the queen's pawn to help gain control of the table. A "gambit" in a variety of contexts is about sacrificing now for something better later. Life is full of them.

"Gamut" is an entirely different word that defines a range. My career at the newspaper has run the hierarchical gamut from unpaid intern to executive editor.


Further proof that there is a word for everything:

I wrote two weeks ago about double negatives, fumbling through an explanation of why it's fine to say "I'm not uninterested" in something to convey that I am mildly interested in it.

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And Jan Gollberg came to the rescue.

"Yes, it's true that double negatives can be proper in other languages," Jan wrote to me. "In Spanish, 'No tengo nada' translates into English either as 'I don't have anything' or 'I have nothing.' In English, in general, a double negative is a no-no. However, Tom Jones sang 'It's not unusual ...'"

These are "litotes," Jan said. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us "litotes" is a singular form. Think: biceps.

Litotes uses understatement to emphasize a point by stating a negative to further affirm a positive.

How about them apples? I think I found a fill-in Moses disciple should I ever take an extensive vacation.

Now it's your turn to try out a litotes.

You won't be sorry!


What do you call someone who is both a word nerd and a computer nerd?

I don't know, but I'm willing to take suggestions. (Seriously, send them to me.)


Some months ago, I wrote about portmanteaus -- those great words that result from the mashup of other words: motor + hotel = motel.

Steve Bense has long corresponded with me about grammar and usage stuff, but I wasn't aware of the depth of his computer geekiness until he sent me this:

"Thanks for bringing up 'portmanteaus.' The name of the Linux operating system in almost all my computers is a portmanteau: 'Xubuntu,' which combines XFCE (which creates excellent 'windowing" systems) and 'Ubuntu,' a repository which provides the bulk of the software used in the operating system. In fact, Linux is also a portmanteau, since it honors Linus Torvalds (original developer of today's Linux operating systems) and Unix (Mr. Torvald's source for understanding the OS he eventually developed)."

Thanks, Steve. That just short-circuited my brain.

Extra credit

Did you notice that I finished my discussion of litotes with a litotes? If so, give yourself a gold star.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at Write him at and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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