Cereal - serial

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Be careful not to confuse these two homophones. The first is derived from the name Ceres, a Latin goddess of crops; the second from the noun 'series' (these two nouns form another pair of homophones).

  • Cereal is primarily an adjective meaning 'to do with the forms of grass-like crops grown for people, and farm animals, to eat.' As a noun, it means one of these crops. Cereals include wheat, rice, barley, maize (now often called corn), millet and oats. Two particular uses may be useful to students:
    • Cereal crops is the term in Geography and in Agriculture to name the sorts of grains that are grown in bulk. A farmer may have half his land 'under cereal crops' or 'in cereals'.
    • Students may have 'a bowl of cereal' for breakfast (or at other times), which means the sort of prepared food that comes out of a packet, is made from a cereal crop, and is usually consumed with milk, such as corn flakes, Rice Krispies and All-Bran. These used always to be called 'breakfast cereals', and still are in American English.
  • Serial, on the other hand, is the adjective from the noun series. The primary meaning is 'one of a series', or 'forming part of a regular sequence'. It may help students in Higher Education to note some particular uses:
    • In literary and television studies and similar, the noun 'a serial' means a work that only appears as a series of separate, but connected, parts. Many of Dickens's novels were published as serials, or 'in serial form': each chapter appeared as a separate issue of a magazine, and readers who wanted to read the whole story had to collect these instalments one by one. Soap operas on television are serials of a particular sort.
    • A serial killer is a murderer who kills many people, one by one; "a person who commits a series of murders, often with no apparent motive and usually following a similar, characteristic pattern of behaviour" (OED). 'Jack the Ripper' and 'Bible John' were two famous serial killers in the UK; 'Hannibal Lecter' and the 'Phantom of the Opera' are famous fictional versions, along with the fairy story 'Bluebeard'.
    • Serial monogamist labels a person who forms a single and faithful relationship - but then ends it and forms another, often more than once. The film star Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011), for example, who was married eight times, could be called a serial monogamist.