A to Z

This ‘everything else’ section aims to pick out commonly confused words and common errors, and where there are alternative spellings and styles to settle for one. Newspaper practice has been to use the shorter of alternatives, for example ‘guerilla’ rather than ‘guerrilla’, because it made it easier to write headlines when there were constraints on the width of lines. Such considerations may not apply these days.

A

  • -able endings: These include indispensable, irritable. There is no rhyme or reason for -able and -ible endings so if you are not sure, look it up.

  • A-level, AS-level

  • a/an: It used to be considered correct to use ‘an’ before an originally French word beginning with ‘h’ (which is silent in French) such as ‘hotel’. It was also considered correct to use ‘an’ before a word beginning with ‘h’ where the stress is on the second syllable, such as ‘horrific’ or ‘historic’. I think both rules are old-fashioned and should be discarded. Use ‘a’ and ‘an’ according to whether the following word sounds as if it starts with a consonant or a vowel, so ‘it was a horrific experience’ and ‘he knew it was an honour’. Use ‘an’ in front of a set of initials which when spoken aloud start with a vowel, such as ‘an MP3 player’.

  • abattoir, not abbatoir

  • abscess, not abcess or absess

  • absorb, absorption

  • AD, BC: AD comes before the date, AD 1066; BC comes after, 55 BC. Since these terms are of Christian origin – AD stands for Anno Domini (the year of Our Lord) and BC for Before Christ – some are replacing them with the neutral Common Era (CE) and Before Common Era (BCE). So far usage seems to be to place both sets of initials after the date.

  • added bonus: A perfect example of a tautology. Bonus means ‘additional’ or ‘extra’.

  • admission of guilt, etc; admittance: usually ‘no admittance’ to a place or event. So it is wrong to say ‘his admittance of alcoholism’.

  • adopted/adoptive: A child is adopted by adoptive parents.

  • adrenaline is the hormone, Adrenalin is a synthetic substitute which is a trademark and takes a cap.

  • advance/advanced: advance describes something done ahead of time, eg advance booking; advanced means higher level, such as advanced maths. You often see road signs about ‘advanced warnings’. This is wrong.

  • adverse/averse: adverse means unfavourable or hostile as in ‘the adverse weather conditions meant that the invasion was postponed’; averse (usually followed by ‘to’) means opposed or reluctant, as in ‘she was averse to picking up snakes’.

  • advice/advise: You give advice (noun), or you advise someone about something (verb).

  • adviser/advisor: You choose. I feel the widespread use of TripAdvisor makes ‘advisor’ the more logical choice these days; the adjective is ‘advisory’.

  • affect/effect: To affect (verb) means to produce a result as in ‘cold weather affects the growth of plants’, or to touch the feelings as in ‘she was badly affected by the death of her mother’; effect (verb) is to bring about, as in ‘he effected an improvement’; effect (noun) is a result, as in ‘the effect of poison is death’.

  • affidavit: This is a statement sworn on oath in front of a lawyer, so do not say ‘a sworn affidavit’. You can say ‘He swore an affidavit’ or ‘He gave an affidavit’.

  • ageing, not aging

  • ages: Use the construction ‘,71,’ only after a name, eg ‘Germaine Greer, 71, said’, not ‘the academic and feminist, 71, said’.

  • aggravate: To make worse or exacerbate, not to annoy

  • agnostic/atheist: An atheist does not believe in a god; an agnostic has not decided.

  • aide-de-camp, plural aides-de-camp (aide is a noun).

  • Aids is short for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It is not an illness in itself, but renders the body unable to fight off lethal infections. Thus you should say someone died of an Aids-related illness, not of Aids. It develops from the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV for short. In theory one should not say ‘HIV virus’ as this repeats the word ‘virus’, but it is such common currency that I don’t think you can avoid it. (More on this in Political Correctness.)

  • aircraftman, aircraftwoman: RAF ranks. Note that there is no ‘s’ in the middle.

  • Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden: As with all names which originate in a different script, there are several ways to render them. I think these are the most widely accepted styles. It is ok to use ‘Bin’ if it is the first word in a sentence or heading.

  • alcohol: The strength of spirits is often wrongly described as x per cent proof. In fact proof is an archaic measure which equates to 7/4 times the alcohol by volume. Hence a whisky described as 70 degrees proof is in fact 40 per cent alcohol, while a super-strength spirit such as absinthe which was 80 per cent alcohol would be 140 proof. Best to stick to straightforward percentages and avoid the word proof altogether. If you want to use proof because it is higher and therefore more terrifying, say ‘140 proof’, not ‘140 per cent proof’.

  • all right, not alright. The TV programme It’ll be Alright on the Night is wrong and so is The Who’s The Kids Are Alright, though obviously you don’t correct them. Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right is correct, despite many incorrect references on the internet.

  • along with: ‘with’ is usually all you need.

  • America’s Cup, the

  • American spellings: A tricky one. Obviously in narrative you would use English spellings, but what do you do with titles such as World Trade Center or Defense Secretary? The tendency has been to anglicise the spellings unless they are trade names such as Technicolor. My feeling is that younger people are fine with the American spellings. Whatever you choose, it must be Pearl Harbor, not Harbour.

  • amicable/amiable: amicable refers to situations, such as ‘an amicable separation’; amiable is the characteristic of being friendly, as in ‘he was an amiable companion’.

  • amid is generally preferable to amidst.

  • among ditto amongst.

  • amoral/immoral: amoral means having no concept of whether a behaviour is moral or not; immoral means contravening principles accepted by the majority as right or desirable.

  • amount/number: use amount for things that cannot be counted, such as ‘a large amount of gravel’. An example of misuse would be ‘an amount of times’ in which case you should say ‘a number of times’.

  • anaemia, not anemia

  • annex/annexe: annex is a verb meaning to take over, especially in the sense of territory, as in ‘Germany decided to annex Austria’; annexe is a noun, usually for a building extension.

  • anniversary: Applies strictly to years. You cannot have a ‘three-month anniversary’.

  • anoint, not annoint

  • antichrist, not Antichrist or antiChrist

  • anticipate is not the same as ‘expect’. It means to foresee and act in advance, as in ‘He anticipated the fall in value by selling early’.

  • any more: Two words, not anymore

  • appeal: You appeal against a decision or verdict. You do not appeal a decision or verdict.

  • appointed team captain, not appointed as team captain

  • appraise/apprise: appraise means to evaluate, apprise to inform (of something: ‘He apprised the officer of the facts’).

  • apropos does not go with ‘of’, thus ‘apropos yesterday’s revelations’.

  • Arab/Arabia/Arabic/Arabian: Arab is the noun, as in ‘The speaker was an Arab’; Arabia is a geographical area, not an individual country (Saudi Arabia is a country); Arabic is the language and script; Arabian is the adjective, as in ‘1,001 Arabian Nights’.

  • arable farming is the growing of crops; livestock farming tends to be referred to by the name of the animal involved, such as pig farming, dairy farming, beef farming.

  • Ariel/aerial/Arial: Ariel is a Shakespeare character, BBC staff magazine, and washing powder; aerial (noun) is the device that receives radio and TV transmissions or (adj) the view from above; Arial is a typeface which is trademarked, so takes a cap.

  • arranged marriage: Do not confuse with forced marriage.

  • artist is a painter or a person with an outstanding skill, such as ‘he is an artist with the accordian’; an artiste is a performer.

  • as is not necessarily a synonym for ‘because’. If you mean ‘because’ it is better to say so. (Ditto ‘since’).

  • assassination/execution/murder: An assassination is a murder for political reasons and an execution takes place to carry out a legal order, so strictly speaking these should not be used for other types of murder. Assassination and execution are acceptable for a gangland killing. Until a death is called a murder by police, it is probably better to avoid the word. The outcome of a prosecution could be a conviction for manslaughter, which is not the same thing.

  • astronomer/astrologer: An astronomer would be pretty annoyed to be called an astrologer. An astronomer studies the universe in the science of astronomy. An astrologer practises astrology, predicting the future on the basis of the position of stars either currently or at the time of someone’s birth. Although this is the ‘ology’ of the two, it is not remotely scientific.

  • aural/oral: aural is to do with the ears, oral is to do with the mouth, as in ‘he passed his aural music exam’ and ‘she passed her oral French exam’.

  • avant garde: No hyphen

  • axeing, not axing (but it is an ugly and tabloid word which you should try to replace)

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B

  • Broadmoor is a hospital, not a prison, and inmates are patients, not prisoners. The same applies to Ashworth Hospital, Sefton, Merseyside, and Rampton Hospital, Nottinghamshire.

  • bale/bail: There seem to be differing views on this so let’s go for the following: a bale is a block of hay, to bale out is to parachute from a plane or to remove water from a boat; bail is a surety and to bail out is to give that surety to free someone from jail. Thus the spelling for getting someone out of trouble is ‘bail out’. The things on a cricket wicket are bails.

  • balk: To obstruct or pull up short (eg ‘he was balked in his getaway by a parked lorry’, ‘the horse balked at the fence’); baulk: part of a snooker table (therefore the word you usually need is balk).

  • ballerina: A senior female ballet dancer of a recognised rank. Others are ballet dancers.

  • balmy/barmy: balmy means mild and pleasant weather; barmy is a slang term equivalent to ‘potty’ or ‘nutty’. It probably should appear only in quotes.

  • banister, not bannister

  • barbecue, not barbeque. But BBQ, if necessary, in a heading.

  • bate/bait: To be in a bate is a rather antiquated expression for being in a temper; bait (noun) is something to attract fish or other hunted animals, or (verb) to torment, as in bear-baiting. Bated breath, not baited.

  • bath: In my view preferable to bathtub or tub, which are Americanisms.

  • beleaguered, not beleagured

  • belie/betray: These are almost opposites but often incorrectly used. To belie means to disguise or misrepresent, as in ‘her angelic appearance belied her nasty nature’; to betray, in this context, means to reveal, as in ‘his red face betrayed his anger’.

  • benefactor/beneficiary: A benefactor gives, a beneficiary receives or benefits.

  • benefited, not benefitted (others of the same type are biased, combated, cosseted, focused, picketed, riveted, sequined, targeted).

  • biannual/biennial: biannual is twice a year; biennial is every two years.

  • biased, not biassed; unbiased

  • bicentennial: Marking the 200th anniversary (the bicentenary), not twice a century. As far as I can tell there is no word for twice a century.

  • blonde: female; blond: male (see also entry under Political Correctness).

  • boarder/border: Often confused. A boarder is someone who boards a ship, probably without authorisation, or who lives in a boarding house or goes to boarding school; a border is a margin, a garden feature or the dividing line between countries.

  • boor/bore/boar: A boor is an ill-mannered man, a bore is one who makes you yawn, as in a ‘pub bore’. A bore can easily be a woman too. A boar is a male domestic pig or a wild pig.

  • bootees for a baby, not the often-seen booties. The singular of booties is booty, meaning loot or part of a lady's body, neither of which relates to infants' footwear.

  • bored with or by, but not of. Similarly fed up with, not fed up of.

  • born/borne: A baby is born, a mother can be said to have borne a child or children. Borne means carried, as in ‘water-borne’.

  • bouquet: You don’t need to say ‘of flowers’.

  • brake: Many young people think that the past tense of ‘to brake’ in a vehicle is ‘broke’, as in ‘I broke but I still hit the car in front’. The past tense of ‘brake’ is ‘braked’; ‘broke’ is the past tense of ‘break’.

  • breach/breech: A breach is a break, as in ‘a breach in the sea wall led to flooding’ or a ‘breach of manners’; breech is the word for a birth when the baby arrives feet first (it’s to do with trousers).

  • breath/breathe: breath is the noun, breathe is the verb. So you take a breath, or you breathe the air.

  • broach (verb) is to bring up a subject or to open, as in a can of beer; a brooch (noun) is worn on the lapel or dress.

  • brolly: If you must use this instead of umbrella (and I wish you wouldn’t) at least don’t spell it ‘brollie’.

  • buoy, not bouy

  • bureau de change: The plural is bureaux de change.

  • burgle (verb), not burglarise, which is American.

  • burka/burkha/burqa: Various forms of the Muslim ankle-length garment for women have appeared regularly, but it now seems to have settled down to burka. The niqab is a covering for the face. The hijab is a covering for the head and face.

  • bus stop: Two words

  • by-election, by-product, bylaw, bypass, byway, byword

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C

  • caddie is for golf, caddy is for tea.

  • caesarean section, not caesarian (lower case); caesarean is acceptable on its own. (Justification for lower case: we don’t cap up wellington or sandwich, also named after people). Increasingly the term ‘c-section’ is used. I think ‘caesarean’ should be used first, then c-section in a subsequent reference if you wish.

  • canister, not cannister

  • cannon/canon: A cannon is an artillery weapon (plural also cannon), a canon is a clergyman or a body of work, usually by one author, as in ‘The Wodehouse canon includes the Jeeves books’.

  • Canute, King: He commanded the tide to turn back not to boast about how powerful he was but to demonstrate the reverse, that he had no power at all, so don’t malign the poor old chap by using him as an illustration of arrogance.

  • canvass/canvas: To canvass (verb) is to seek views or ask for votes before an election as in ‘he canvasses/canvassed’; canvas (noun) is a fabric or painting surface, plural ‘canvases’.

  • capital punishment is execution, corporal punishment is inflicting pain, usually flogging (corporal meaning bodily).

  • Casanova/Lothario/Romeo: The first two are synonyms for a promiscuous man, but Romeo had only one romance, and even that didn’t work out too well.

  • caster sugar; castor for wheels on furniture; castor oil

  • caviar, not caviare (in line with the general policy of choosing the shorter form).

  • censor/censure: To censor is to prevent publication or delete part of an item; to censure is to criticise severely.

  • centrifugal means movement away from the centre; centripetal is the opposite, movement towards the centre.

  • champagne bottle sizes: 

    Name (note if capped) and equivalent number of bottles

    magnum  2

    Jeroboam  4

    Rehoboam  6

    Methuselah  8

    Salmanazar 12

    Balthazar 16

    Nebuchadnezzar 20

  • cheap at twice the price is the correct version, not the often-heard ‘cheap at half the price’. Think about it. Similarly, in Britain we say ‘I couldn’t care less’, while in America, inexplicably, they say ‘I could care less’.

  • cheat: The noun for a person who cheats, not ‘cheater’. See also ‘fraud’.

  • cheese: Normally l/c even if named after a place eg cheddar, camembert (see If the Cap Fits).

  • cherub: The plural may be cherubs or cherubim (from the Hebrew), but not cherubims as seen recently in the Times. The same applies to seraph/s/im.

  • childish/childlike: childish is usually a pejorative term for an adult behaving like a child; childlike means behaviour appropriate for a child, usually innocent or trusting.

  • climate/weather: climate is the long-term pattern of temperature, precipitation and wind in a particular area; weather is day-to-day events such as sunshine, rain, wind and fog. So you could say 'Horrible weather today' or 'The climate here is good for growing roses'.

  • climatic/climactic: climatic is to do with the climate, climactic is to do with a climax.

  • clime: a ‘clime’ is a region defined by its climate. It is often used in the plural, for example ‘He departed for the sunnier climes of the Mediterranean’. So it cannot be used as a synonym for weather or temperature.

  • co-operate, co-ordinate: Use hyphens for ease of reading to avoid a double letter.

  • coarse/course: coarse is an adjective meaning rough or vulgar. Course as a noun may mean a path, an academic session, a place where you play golf or part of a meal. As a verb it is used to describe movement, eg ‘blood courses through the arteries’.

  • cochlea (noun): The part of the inner ear which is sometimes augmented with a cochlear (adj) implant to alleviate deafness.

  • colleague means a person you work with, so don't say ‘a work colleague’.

  • combated, not combatted

  • common sense/commonsense: Two words as noun (‘he used his common sense’), one as an adjective (‘the commonsense approach’).

  • compare with/to: To ‘compare with’ is to examine the relative values of two or more similar things, as in ‘The number of oranges sold last year rose by 50 per cent compared with 2007.’ It includes the idea of difference. ‘Compare to’ means to liken, as in ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ It includes the idea of being the same. Most of the time the one you need is ‘compare with’.

  • complement/compliment: A complement is something which completes, as in ‘her outfit was complemented by a pink hat’; ‘a full complement’ is a complete staff or set; a compliment is an admiring remark. Complementary medicine/therapy, not complimentary.

  • comprise is not followed by ‘of’, so ‘the Bible comprises two testaments,’ not ‘the Bible is comprised of two testaments.’ It probably gets muddled with ‘consists of’. Some grammar authorities seem to accept that ‘comprised of’ is now common usage, but I don’t see any problem with getting it right.

  • confidante/confidant/confident: A confidante (noun) is a female to whom private matters are confided; the male version is a confidant; confident (adj) is being sure of oneself.

  • consensus, not concensus

  • conspirator means one who plans with another or others (usually to do something illegal), so co-conspirator is tautologous.

  • contagious/infectious: All diseases which can be passed from one person to another are infectious, but ‘contagious’ is reserved for those which are easily spread among the general population going about their normal business and which can in theory be contained by isolating patients or quarantining those at risk. Examples of contagious infections are measles and chickenpox. Non-contagious infections usually require a specific way of transmission and include yellow fever, which needs a mosquito to pass it on, and sexually transmitted infections, which obviously require a particular form of behaviour.

  • contemporary means consistent with the period, not necessarily modern, so you could have ‘contemporary evidence from the 12th century’ as well as ‘the contemporary artist Tracey Emin’.

  • continual/continuous: continual means to recur at frequent intervals, as in ‘he was driven to violence by the continual barking of the dog next door’; continuous means prolonged without interruption, as in ‘he was driven to distraction by the continuous hum from the factory next door’. If in doubt, ‘constant’ should cover either.

  • convince/persuade: You can convince someone that something is right, or persuade him to do something, but you cannot convince him to do anything. You can say ‘My wife convinced me that a new job would be a good idea’, or ‘My wife persuaded me to apply for a new job’, but it is wrong to say ‘My wife convinced me to apply for the job’. Some authorities now say you can do this, but as ever, what is the harm in getting it right?

  • coral/corral: coral is for reefs, corral is for enclosures.

  • corps/corpse: a corps is a trained group, as in ‘corps de ballet’ or ‘medical corps’; a corpse is a dead body.

  • cortege/corsage: A cortege is a funeral procession; a corsage is a flower or a small bunch of flowers attached to a woman’s outfit.

  • cosseted, not cossetted

  • council/counsel: a council is an elected group who take decisions on behalf of the electorate, and members are councillors; counsel (noun) is a lawyer or (verb) to advise. One who counsels is a counsellor. Confusingly, the members of the Privy Council are Privy Counsellors. (You may find some authorities give different spellings, but this is what the Government’s website says, and I suppose they should know.)

  • coup d’etat, coup de grace: I suggest no accents – see Accents in the Punctuation section.

  • creak/creek: to creak (verb) is to make a sound like a loose floorboard; a creek (noun) is a waterway.

  • credible means it can be believed; credulous means gullible.

  • crescendo: A steady increase in volume. It is not possible to ‘reach a crescendo’. The word you want there is ‘climax’, or at this point you might decide to rephrase the whole thing.

  • crevasse/crevice: A crevasse is a fissure or chasm in ice, into which one could fall; a crevice is a small split in any surface.

  • criteria is plural, criterion is singular. So you don’t say ‘The criteria for this post is teaching experience’.

  • crochet is a handicraft, crotchet is a musical note, crotchety is bad-tempered.

  • Crufts: No apostrophe

  • cruise missile: (lower case) a type of missile, not a name.

  • curb/kerb: To curb (verb) is to restrain, while a kerb (noun) is the edge of a pavement. Note however that in the US the edge of a pavement is a curb, and a pavement is a sidewalk.

  • currant/current: A currant is a fruit; current means up to date or the flow of water.

  • curtsey, not curtsy: therefore present tense is curtseys, not curtsies, past tense is curtseyed, not curtsied.

  • cusp is technically a physical place where two points meet, eg ‘on the cusp of town and countryside’; it does not mean ‘on the brink of’, but is often used this way.

  • cutbacks: ‘cuts’ is adequate, bearing in mind that there is no such idea as ‘cutforwards’.

  • czar/tsar: A matter of choice.

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D

  • data is usually treated as a singular noun, although it is technically a plural (from the Latin datum), so for example ‘The data shows that the oceans are rising’.

  • dates: A common format is Wednesday, April 29, 2009. Don’t use 29th which looks messy.

  • de rigueur, not de riguer or de rigeur

  • dearth means shortage, not complete lack of. Therefore you cannot have a ‘total dearth’ any more than you can have a ‘total shortage’.

  • decimate, decimated: This is often used, but nearly always wrongly. Decimate means to ‘reduce by one tenth’, in a reference to the Roman punishment of executing every tenth man in a rebellious cohort. This does not happen much these days. An alternative would be ‘devastated’. Note: The dictionary gives a definition of decimate as ‘killing a large proportion’. I think this is simply legitimising a wrong usage. You might think differently.

  • decorous/decorative: decorous is dignified or proper, decorative is ornamental.

  • defend in the context of a title means to try to win it again, not necessarily to be successful. So ‘Andy Murray defends Olympic title’ does not mean that he won it, only that he was in the contest. The word for winning a title you already hold is ‘retain’, or you could say that he successfully defended his title.

  • defuse/diffuse: To defuse means to disable an explosive device by removing the fuse or reduce tension in a confrontation; to diffuse (verb) means to dilute or scatter, as in ‘the sunlight was diffused through the trees’, or it can be used an adjective as in ‘the diffused sunlight’. Watch out for this, as diffuse is often wrongly used in copy when defuse is meant.

  • dependant/dependent: A dependant (noun) is a person who depends on others, usually for financial support. He or she is then dependent (adj) on another. It can also be said that an addict is dependent on drugs.

  • deprecate/depreciate: To deprecate is to disparage, usually in the sense of ‘self-deprecation’ or self-mockery; to depreciate is to lose value.

  • descendant, not descendent. (Older usages use descendent in some contexts but this seems to have died out, which helps keep it simple.)

  • desert/dessert: A desert (noun) is a barren place, or (verb) to abandon, as in ‘he deserted his post’. A dessert is a pudding. This is relevant in the expression ‘he got his just deserts’, meaning ‘he got what he deserved’. If it said ‘He got his just desserts’, it would mean his pudding arrived. But take care: on one occasion a vigilant Daily Mail sub corrected ‘just desserts’ in Ephraim Hardcastle to ‘deserts’, only to get a memo complaining that ‘desserts’ in that case was some sort of joke.

  • desiccated, not dessicated (think ‘secco’ for dry white wine).

  • detract/distract/subtract: To detract from is to diminish value, usually in the sense of feelings, eg ‘The presence of her ex-husband detracted from her enjoyment of her wedding day’; to distract is to divert attention, eg ‘She was distracted by a gunman coming towards her’; to subtract is to do arithmetic and is not a synonym for detract.

  • different from, not different to or than; differ from (remember ‘different from, similar to’ which cannot be changed round).

  • diktat, not dictat

  • dilapidated, not delapidated

  • diphtheria, not diptheria

  • disburse/disperse: To disburse is to pay out money from a fund; to disperse is to scatter, for example ‘Police dispersed the crowd with water cannon’.

  • discreet/discrete: discreet means tactful, circumspect (noun discretion); discrete means separate or distinct, as in ‘the piano work consists of three discrete movements’. These words are often confused.

  • dissident: We tend to use this for any opponent of any regime. However it implies someone taking risks for his or her beliefs rather than plain disagreement. A ‘dissenter’ might often be a better choice in the latter context.

  • dissociate, not disassociate

  • dived/dove: Americans use ‘dove’ as the past tense of ‘dive’. British writers use ‘dived’.

  • doable: This has come in very recently and for a while I thought it should have a hyphen for clarity. Now I think we have already got used to doable, but you choose.

  • draught/draft: A draught is a current of air, or a drink; a draft is a plan or preliminary sketch, or, in the US, compulsory military service. So not, as I have seen, ‘It’s drafty in here’ or ‘a pint of draft bitter’.

  • drawer, the thing you open: increasingly I am seeing the incorrect ‘draw’, which is what you do with a pencil.

  • drier is the comparative of dry; dryer is the noun, as in tumble dryer.

  • dual/duel: dual carriageway; duel to the death.

  • duct tape is the generic word for heavy duty sticky tape, not duck tape. There is a brand called Duck Tape.

  • due to is not the same as ‘because of’. It should be used only if it can be replaced with ‘caused by’. So it is incorrect to say ‘You must leave the train from the front four coaches due to short platforms’. It would be ok to say ‘The train cancellation was due to an earthquake’. You never need to say ‘due to the fact that’, simply ‘because’.

  • during the course of (eg the day): ‘During’ will do fine.

  • dwarf: Plural dwarfs, not dwarves. There are two reasons for this: dwarfs is shorter than dwarves, and the story is called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Note other words ending in ’f’: hoof (noun), plural hooves; but hoof (verb, as in dancing), present tense hoofs, past tense hoofed; roof, plural roofs.

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E

  • -eable endings include manageable. There is no logic to -able, -eable and -ible endings so if you are not sure, look it up.

  • earn: In many uses this incorporates the idea of money, so you do not need to say, for example, ‘she earns more money than her husband’. It is sufficient to say ‘she earns more than her husband’.

  • educationist, not educationalist

  • effectively/in effect: These are not synonymous. ‘Effectively’ means the intended outcome was achieved, as in ‘Putting down poison effectively cleared the island of rats’, while ‘in effect’ means that something happened even though it might not have been intended, as in ‘Putting down poison in effect turned the island into a wildlife desert’. Most of the time ‘effectively’, if correctly used, would be redundant, while ‘in effect’ is nearly always the one that is required.

  • elder/eldest: elder is for the senior of two, eldest for three or more. It is very common to see ‘eldest’ of two, but wrong. The same applies to younger and youngest.

  • electric/electronic: Things are electrically powered (as opposed to petrol, as in a car) and electronically controlled (as opposed to manually, eg automatic gates).

  • electrocute means to cause death by electric shock. If you need to discuss torture survivors, say that they were given electric shocks.

  • elegy/eulogy: These are rather similar, but not interchangeable. An elegy is a musical or literary composition in honour of someone who has died; a eulogy is an address in praise of an individual given specifically at the funeral.

  • elicit/illicit: Often confused, but quite different. To elicit (verb) is to draw out, such as ‘The police officer elicited from the victim that the attacker was a young man’ (probably not a word you would often need), while illicit (adjective) means illegal.

  • embarrassment (double ‘r’), harassment (one ‘r’)

  • embonpoint: Some writers have it firmly stuck in their heads that this means a voluptuous woman’s cleavage. It actually means a fat belly.

  • empathy/sympathy: These are not exactly the same. Empathy is being able to understand another’s feelings of any sort, while sympathy tends to be to do with sorrow and compassion. For example, ‘He empathised with his son’s desire to become a doctor’, and ‘he felt sympathy for the man who had lost his son’.

  • enormity: This has nothing to do with size. It means the quality of being outrageous or atrocious, as in ‘the enormity of the crime’. Although it is commonly misused, and some authorities are fine with this, I don’t see any reason to do so.

  • ensure/insure: To ensure is to make certain, to insure is to guard against risk.

  • envelop/envelope: To envelop (verb) is to wrap; envelope (noun) is what you put a letter in, or what pioneers metaphorically push.

  • epicentre: This has a specific scientific meaning, ie the point on the earth’s surface which is directly above the site of an earthquake deeper in the crust. It can be extended to denote the focus of some bad event such as a riot or terrorist attack, but it is not a synonym for ‘centre’.

  • equally is not followed by ‘as’. So you would say ‘equally good’, not ‘equally as good’. Here is a weird contortion from Mail Online, November 2015: ‘If you opt for Wayfair's faux leather armchair against that of [‘that of’ is redundant] a real leather offering from Habitat, you can save £1,170 and have an equally as comfortable seat.’

  • everyday/every day: everyday is an adjective meaning commonplace or ordinary, while ‘every day’ means daily.

  • exalt/exult: To exalt is to glorify; to exult is to rejoice.

  • execution refers to the carrying out of a death sentence imposed by a legal process, so strictly speaking it should not be used for a murder (see also assassination). However I don't think anyone would object to the use of execution in a gangland context.

  • expatriate, not expatriot or ex-patriate (the ‘ex’ means ‘out of’ as in extract, not ‘former’, as in ex-wife).

  • eye of the hurricane/storm: This is the calm centre of a rotating storm, and should not be used as a metaphor for intense activity.

  • eyewitness: witness is good enough unless you need to distinguish from an earwitness.

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F

  • factoid: This word was coined by Norman Mailer to describe rumour or unverified information presented as fact. It is now often used to describe a snippet of information, as in ‘here’s an interesting factoid’, but a better alternative might be ‘factlet’, recently seen in the Times. The suffix ‘-oid’ means ‘similar’, not ‘the same’.

  • fairy tale/fairytale: Two words as a noun (‘the prosecutor dismissed the evidence as a fairy tale’), one as an adjective (‘a fairytale romance’ – if you absolutely must).

  • farther/further: Technically farther applies to distances, as in ‘he moved farther away’; further means additional, as in ‘further to the last question’, or applies to quantities, as in ‘he needed further supplies’. Some authorities are happy for ‘further’ to be used in the same way as ‘farther’, and that suits me.

  • fazed means overwhelmed, phased means in stages.

  • fed up with, not fed up of. Similarly, bored with or by, not bored of.

  • ferment/foment: To ferment is the chemical reaction which produces alcohol; to foment is to agitate in the political sense, as in ‘he fomented discontent’.

  • fewer/less: fewer is used for numbers of people or things, such as ‘fewer than 100 people attended’; less is for quantities, as in ‘There is less water in the river’ or ‘There is less money in my bank account’. As Keith Waterhouse sums it up: Fewer can be counted, less cannot.

  • fiance is a male, fiancee is a female. I think you can get away without an accent on either.

  • fictional/fictitious: A fictional character is one from a work of fiction, such as ‘the fictional Mr Pickwick’. Fictitious means imagined or made up, such as ‘he gave a fictitious address’.

  • financial/fiscal: financial refers to personal or corporate matters, fiscal to government or public finances, particularly tax policy. Monetary policy is the expression for inflation, quantitative easing etc.

  • firing line/in the line of fire: To be ‘in the firing line’ means to be one of an execution squad. To be ‘in the line of fire’ is to be the target.

  • flagrant/fragrant: flagrant is blatant or outrageous, fragrant is scented.

  • flak is anti-aircraft fire or abuse, not flack.

  • flannel/flannelette: Flannel is a lightweight woollen fabric used for trousers – ‘flannels’ – while flannelette is a brushed cotton material used for warm sheets, also called winceyette (which is not a trade name). Not many would want to sleep between flannel sheets.

  • flare/flair: flared trousers, distress flare; flair means talent, aptitude.

  • flattery: This is not straightforward praise, but carries the implication of insincerity or deception, possibly in the hope of some reward.

  • flaunt/flout: To flaunt is to display ostentatiously; to flout is treat with contempt (usually in the sense of breaking rules).

  • flunkey, not flunky; plural flunkeys, not flunkies.

  • fluorescent, not flourescent

  • flyer, as in high-flyer or handbill, not flier

  • focused, not focussed

  • font/fount: A font is a basin used in christenings; a fount is a source, as in ‘the fount of all wisdom’. Fount was the original word for typeface, but font seems to have taken over.

  • for ever/forever: These seem to be more or less interchangeable, but these are preferred forms: ‘I will remember him for ever’ (when it follows the topic); ‘she is forever changing her mind’ (when it precedes the topic); ‘Forever young’.

  • fore/for: The prefix ‘fore’ means ‘ahead of’ or ‘in front of’. It might be helpful to remember that golfers shout ‘Fore’ when striking a ball. Thus ‘forebear’ means an ancestor. The prefix ‘for’ may indicate prohibition or abstention, thus ‘forbear’ means to abstain, as in ‘he forbore to comment’. Similarly, ‘forego’ means to go in front of, while ‘forgo’ means to do without.

  • fortuitous does not mean fortunate; it means by chance or accidental, but it is usually in the sense of being lucky.

  • forward planning: A classic tautology.

  • found/founder/flounder (verbs): To found is to set up or establish, as in ‘he founded a series of schools’; to founder is to sink or fail, as in ‘the relationship/project/ship foundered’; to flounder is to move awkwardly or struggle, as in ‘he floundered in the mud’. It is therefore incorrect to say ‘the marriage floundered because of his infidelity’. It should be ‘foundered’.

  • Frankenstein: Creator of the monster, not the monster itself (which had no name in the Mary Shelley novel).

  • fraud: This is the noun for a person who commits fraud, not the commonly used ‘fraudster’.

  • front line: ‘The troops are in the front line’ (two words) or ‘front-line troops’ (hyphenated). Not ‘frontline’ in either case – this is a flea treatment for dogs.

  • fuchsia, not fuschia: this garden plant was named after a Mr Fuchs.

  • fulsome: Often misused to mean ‘much’ or ‘full’, as in ‘the judges gave fulsome praise to the singers’, but it actually means excessive or insincere.

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G

  • gaff/gaffe: A gaff is a piece of angling equipment or slang for a home; a gaffe is a blunder.

  • gambit: An opening move in chess, so the word contains the idea of starting. Therefore ‘opening gambit’ is a tautology. However I think many modern readers would be puzzled to see the word on its own. It is now often used to mean a strategem or manoeuvre at any stage of an operation.

  • gases/gasses: There seem to be various styles around so I suggest gases for the plural of the noun gas (‘he discovered many gases’) and gasses for the verb to gas (‘troops gassed civilians’).

  • gender: This is the grammatical classification of masculine, feminine or neuter; sex is the biological classification of male and female. Thus ‘gender-bender’ or ‘gender-bending’ is technically wrong but we’ll never stamp it out now.

  • geriatric does not mean elderly, but is applied to medical treatment for the elderly, as in geriatric hospital. Therefore we should not talk of ‘geriatrics’ when we mean elderly people.

  • gipsy/gypsy: In keeping with the practice of using the shorter alternative, newspapers used to use ‘gipsy’. Then TV brought us My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and it looked silly to use both styles in the same story. As a result I would say the current style is ‘gypsy’. Either way, no cap.

  • glamorous: I have been horrified to find that some dictionaries accept the incorrect ‘glamourous’ as an alternative spelling. Not by me it isn’t.

  • gourmand/gourmet: Both nouns mean someone who enjoys good food, but a gourmand eats too much of it (an alternative is glutton) while a gourmet is a connoisseur. Gourmet can also be used as an adjective for a high quality or expensive food, but gourmand cannot. 

  • graffiti, not grafitti. Incidentally graffiti is plural, and if you need the singular it is graffito.

  • grisly/gristly/grizzly: grisly is gruesome, gristly is something unpleasant to do with meat and grizzly is a kind of bear.

  • guerilla, not guerrilla, if you follow traditional practice.

  • guinea pig: two words, no hyphen; also guinea fowl.

  • guttural, not gutteral

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H

  • Halloween (October 31) is now probably more common than Hallowe’en.

  • hangar/hanger: A hangar is for aircraft, a hanger is for clothes.

  • hanged: The past tense of hang when it means execution, as in ‘he was hanged at Wormwood Scrubs’. This is the kind of thing ‘every schoolboy knows’, so don’t get it wrong. The usual past tense is ‘hung’, as in ‘he was hung out to dry by his colleagues’.

  • harassment (one ‘r’), embarrassment (double ‘r’)

  • hardcore/hard-core/hard core: hardcore is a noun meaning a style of rock music; hard-core is the adjective for pornography or rebels; hard core (two words) is a noun for an intransigent central group as in ‘the hard core of the rebels’ or for rubble used as a building material.

  • hare-brained, not hair-brained

  • hear, hear: expression of approval, not ‘here, here’

  • Hells Angels (no apostrophe)

  • heralded/hailed: To herald is to usher in or foretell, as in ‘the Prime Minister’s remarks herald a change of policy’; to hail is to praise or greet enthusiastically, as in ‘Labour MPs hailed the Prime Minister’s change of policy’.

  • heroin/heroine: heroin is the drug, heroine the brave female, though some now prefer to use hero/heroes for both men and women.

  • Hibernian/Caledonian: Hibernian is to do with Ireland (notwithstanding the Edinburgh football club); Caledonian is to do with Scotland.

  • hoard/horde: A hoard is a store of, for example, food or treasure; a horde is a multitude, usually of rioters or other out-of-control persons.

  • Hobson’s choice means no choice at all – you can take what is on offer or get nothing.

  • hoi polloi: this literally means ‘the masses’, so it should not be preceded by ‘the’, otherwise you are saying ‘the the masses’. However this may be an example of the technically correct looking odd.

  • home town, not hometown.

  • honours: A person is made or becomes or (more formally) is appointed an MBE, and is not awarded or given an MBE. This also applies to OBE and CBE.

  • hoof (noun), plural hooves; hoof (verb, meaning to dance), present tense hoofs, past tense hoofed.

  • hopefully: This is an adverb and technically should not be used in the sense of ‘Hopefully, we will get there by dusk.’ A lot of authorities get exercised by this and insist it should be ‘It is to be hoped that we will arrive by dusk’. However no one seems to have a problem with ‘Sadly, we arrived too late to get a drink’, which is exactly the same construction. So don’t worry about it.

  • hospitalise is an Americanism; I would prefer ‘taken to hospital’ or ‘treated in hospital’ (not ‘rushed to hospital’).

  • how are the mighty fallen: This is the version from the 1611 King James Bible, not as commonly rendered ‘how the mighty are fallen’.

  • huntsman: A paid employee of a hunt who looks after the hounds in their kennels, not a hunter (person on a horse) or a hunt follower (person on foot).

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I

  • -ible endings: these include convertible, discernible, irresistible, permissible. There is no rhyme or reason for -able and -ible endings so if you are not sure, look it up.

  • -ise is the English ending, not -ize, which is American.

  • ice cream (no hyphen, two words)

  • illegible/unreadable: These are not the same. Illegible means you can’t read it because the writing or printing is too small or obscure; unreadable means you can’t read it because it is so deadly dull or gibberish.

  • immune to, not from

  • imposter, not impostor

  • impracticable: It won’t work; impractical: It could work but this is not the right time to try it.

  • impresario, not impressario

  • incredible/incredulous: incredible is unbelievable, incredulous is unbelieving.

  • infer/imply: To infer is to deduce from the evidence, as in ‘he inferred from the state of the body that the victim had been dead for weeks’. To imply is to hint or suggest, as in ‘he implied that the man was of questionable honesty’. These are frequently mixed up but I don’t think they have got to the point of changing their meanings, so I would advise sticking to the traditional usages.

  • ingenious/ingenuous: ingenious is clever in the sense of solving a problem; ingenuous is innocent, in the sense of naive. Disingenuous is insincere or concealing the truth.

  • innocuous, not inocuous

  • inoculate, not innoculate

  • inquire, not enquire (saves half a character)

  • install, but instalment

  • instil, instilling

  • inter (verb): to bury; intern (verb): to detain without trial. It’s quite bad to confuse these.

  • into/in to: ‘I went into the room’, ‘I went in to see my friend’, ‘I listened in to their conversation’.

  • invaluable/valuable: Both mean precious but valuable is usually applied to things with a monetary value, such as a vase or picture, while invaluable is used for intangibles such friendship. If you are talking about a work of art which it is impossible to value, the best word is ‘priceless’ (but don’t fall into the trap of saying ‘a priceless necklace worth £1million’ – it’s been done, many times).

  • invitation is the noun, not ‘invite’. This is a verb. So ‘he had an invitation to a Buckingham Palace garden party’ or ‘the Queen will invite him to a reception’, not ‘he had an invite to a State banquet’.

  • Islam is the name of the religion followed by Muslims (generally preferred to Moslems). Islam’s holy book is the Koran. Islamists are supporters of Islamic fundamentalism who may or may not be terrorists. If they are, call them Islamist terrorists.

  • it’s/its: it’s is a shortened form of it is or it has, for example ‘it’s a big task compiling this stylebook and it’s taken me a long time’. Its is the possessive of ‘it’, for example ‘the cat sat on its mat’. There is no excuse for getting this most basic thing wrong. It might help to remember that ‘its’ is among possessive pronouns including mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours and theirs, all without apostrophes. (See Punctuation for more on this.)

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J

  • jail has completely superseded the old-fashioned gaol, but obviously Oscar Wilde’s poem remains The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

  • Jeeves in the P G Wodehouse books is Bertie Wooster’s manservant, valet or gentleman’s gentleman. He is not a butler.

  • jewellery, not jewelry

  • jibe rather than the old-fashioned gibe.

  • jinks/jinx: Students are often pictured getting up to high jinks after their exams, when it is a charitable expression for drunkenness or minor vandalism; a jinx is an alleged curse bringing bad luck.

  • judgment/judgement: You choose.

  • just deserts, not desserts: This means ‘he got what he deserved’, not ‘he got his pudding’ (see desert/dessert).

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K

  • kibosh: To ‘put the kibosh on’ a plan or act is to ruin it. Use only informally.

  • kudos: This is a singular word (originally Greek) meaning acclaim or prestige. Example: ‘He gained kudos by climbing Everest on his hands’. I have often seen it wrongly used as a plural as in ‘Kudos go to Nigel for his first novel’. This suggests that there is a unit of praise called a kudo, which is nonsense.

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L

  • lamp post (two words, no hyphen)

  • Last Post, like Reveille, is sounded, not played.

  • launch: This should be restricted to ships. Inquiries, investigations, etc, are ‘started’.

  • lavatory, not toilet

  • lay off does not mean to sack or make redundant, but to send workers home on part pay or no pay until demand for their product revives.

  • lay waste means to devastate or destroy, so it does not need a following ‘to’. So ‘the enemy laid waste the town’, not ‘laid waste to the town’.

  • lay/lie: See Handle with Care.

  • leach/leech: leach (verb) is to be removed by percolation, as in ‘the goodness leached out of the soil’; a leech (noun) is a blood-sucking creature, or a metaphor for a clinging or predatory person.

  • lead/led: lead is the present tense, led is the past tense. Confusion may occur because ‘read’ is both present and past tenses.

  • leftie/lefty: these usages are too new to have settled into authoritative definitions but from observation I would say that ‘leftie’ (as a noun) refers to a person of Left-wing views (this could also be Leftie) or (as an adjective) to such views, and that ‘lefty’ (l/c) is a noun for a left-handed person, particularly in sport.

  • legionnaires' disease, not legionnaire’s or with a cap.

  • lend/loan: lend is a verb, loan is a noun. So you should say ‘I lent him the book’, or ‘he helped me out with a loan of £100’ not ‘I loaned him the book’.

  • leukaemia, not leukemia

  • libel/slander: both are false defamatory claims, but libel is written and slander is spoken. See The Law for a bit more.

  • licence/license: licence is the noun, license is the verb. So: ‘He has a driving licence’, and ‘He is licensed to sell beer’ (thus ‘licensee’).

  • lightening/lightning: lightening refers to making something lighter in weight or colour; lightning goes with thunder.

  • likeable, not likable

  • linchpin, not lynchpin

  • loath/loathe: To be loath to do something is to be unwilling or reluctant; to loathe something is to hate it. You occasionally see the variation ‘loth’ for ‘loath’ but I don’t think many use it.

  • lovable, not loveable

  • luxurious/luxuriant: luxurious is the adjective from luxury; luxuriant means abundant and thickly growing, as in ‘He has luxuriant body hair’.

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M

  • Madam/Madame: A madam runs a brothel; a little madam is an unbearable female child; ‘Madam’ is an address by a servant or shop assistant to an employer or customer (probably not much heard now that we are all equal). Madame is the polite address for a married Frenchwoman or an older Frenchwoman whether married or not. The Puccini opera is Madame Butterfly. The waxworks are in Madame Tussauds (no apostrophe).

  • Magna Carta, not the Magna Carta.

  • Manila is the capital of the Philippines; manilla is the brown paper used for envelopes.

  • marinade/marinate: you marinate, or soak (verb), food in a marinade, or flavoured liquid (noun), before cooking.

  • marshal: (noun) military rank as in Air Chief Marshal; a person who officiates at races and the verb for what he or she does; or (verb) to arrange in order, as in ‘to marshal the facts’. Not marshall in any case.

  • Mary Celeste, not Marie

  • masterful: domineering or imperious; masterly: skilful; mastery: full command of a subject.

  • may/can: ‘may’ implies permission while ‘can’ means it is possible with or without permission. So ‘the boy can pick apples’, which means the boy is physically capable of picking apples, is not the same as ‘the boy may pick apples’, which means the boy is allowed to pick apples.

  • may/might: The rule is that ‘may' is for the future, as in ‘it may rain tomorrow', and ‘might' is for the past, as in ‘it might have happened last week', but in practice these days the words are used interchangeably, as in ‘the  team might/may be promoted’. However there is a difference between may have and might have: ‘may have’ implies that a possibility remains open, while ‘might have’ suggests that it is no longer open. So ‘The England win may have taken them through to the next round’ suggests that it is still possible depending on other results, while ‘An England win might have taken them through to the next round’ suggests that they lost, or that they won but because of other results they will not go through.

  • Mayday is the distress call; May Day is May 1.

  • mecca must be used lower case, as in ‘a mecca for teenagers’, except when referring to the Muslim holy city or Mecca Bingo.

  • medieval, not mediaeval

  • meet with is wrong, as in ‘The President met with the Queen’. The correct version is ‘The President met the Queen’. ‘consult with’ is also wrong.

  • militate/mitigate: ‘militate’ is usually followed by ‘against’, and it means to influence or affect, as in ‘The evidence militated against his release’. ‘Mitigate’ means to lessen or soften, as in ‘mitigating circumstances led to a lesser sentence’. You occasionally see a defence lawyer referred to as ‘John Smith, mitigating’, ie giving background information that might make a criminal seem a bit less wretched. In most cases, ‘John Smith, defending’ is clearer.

  • minuscule, not miniscule

  • morgue: This is an Americanism for the British ‘mortuary’.

  • motorway: If you identify the road, you don’t need to add ‘motorway’. So ‘They drove along the M1’ not ‘the M1 motorway’. However you do need it in the construction ‘the M40 London to Birmingham motorway’.

  • Muslim is preferred to Moslem by most publications. It covers both the general, as in ‘the Muslim world’, and the particular, as in ‘he is a Muslim’.

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N

  • naught/nought: naught means nothing, as in ‘all for naught’, nought is the figure 0.

  • naval (l/c) is the adjective to do with the Navy, navel is the belly-button or umbilicus. Hence navel-gazing (usually).

  • nest egg: two words, no hyphen

  • no one, not no-one

  • noisome means smelly, not noisy.

  • NSPCC: No need to spell out.

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O

  • obsolescent/obsolete: Out of date things are obsolete; things that will soon be out of date are obsolescent. Note that you don’t need to say ‘becoming obsolescent’ as it means ‘becoming obsolete’.

  • of: Watch out for horrors such as ‘should of’ and ‘must of’. There is no such construction. It is ‘should have’ and ‘must have’.

  • off, never ‘off of’

  • oil rig: two words

  • OK or okay, but I don’t think Ok.

  • on to, not ‘onto’

  • ordnance/ordinance: ordnance is munitions, an ordinance is a decree or a law. Also Ordnance Survey, the map people.

  • outside, not outside of. ‘Outside of work, he enjoyed . . .’ is wrong. Similarly, inside, not inside of.

  • over the course of the day: ‘During the day’ is fine.

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P

  • palate/palette/pallet: These seem to be more often wrong than right. The palate is the roof of the mouth or personal sense of taste; a palette is what an artist uses or a set of colours; a pallet is what goods are stacked on.

  • paparazzi is the plural, paparazzo is the singular.

  • paramount/tantamount: paramount means of supreme importance (so you don’t need to say ‘it is of paramount importance’, simply ‘it is paramount’); tantamount means equal to or very nearly, as in ‘killing someone by dangerous driving is tantamount to murder’.

  • paranoia/paranoid means a clinically diagnosed fear of persecution but it is increasingly being used for more trivial matters, such as ‘I was paranoid that I would put on weight’ or ‘Simon Cowell is paranoid that his ratings are slipping’. In most cases ‘worried’, ‘anxious’ or ‘mildly concerned’ would be more appropriate.

  • passed/past: passed is the past tense of the verb to pass, as in ‘the train passed a red light’; past is a noun meaning the time before the present and an adjective meaning previous, as in ‘winters seem to be milder than in past years’ or ‘summers seem to be wetter than in the past’.

  • passer-by, passers-by, not passerby

  • pastime, or hobby: Not pass time or passed-time, both seen recently.

  • pavilion, not pavillion

  • peak/peek: These seem to be increasingly confused. A peak is a summit or mountaintop; a peek is a snatched glimpse. Both can also be verbs.

    No sooner had I written this than a perfect example appeared in the Daily Telegraph, May 26, 2015, within one paragraph: ‘Knocker, a new smartphone app that allows users to peak (wrong) into strangers’ homes . . . it’s the kind of sneak peek (correct) afforded to anyone . . . ’ Honestly, if you can’t see that you have two spellings of the same word in a matter of a few lines, then you should seriously consider if writing is really the job for you.

  • peal/peel: peal of bells, peel of an orange.

  • pedal/peddler/pedlar: Use drug peddler, and the old-style pedlar for the old-style hawker; pedal is for bicycles, past tense pedalled.

  • pendant/pendent: A pendant is a piece of jewellery; pendent is a rarely used adjective meaning suspended in the physical sense.

  • peninsula is the noun for a narrow projection of land and peninsular is the adjective derived from it. The Peninsula Medical School in Plymouth is often wrongly given the extra ‘r’.

  • permissible/permissive: permissible means permitted or allowable, permissive usually means lenient or indulgent in matters of sex, as in ‘the permissive society’.

  • pet: You do not need to say ‘pet’ dog or cat unless you need to distinguish between the domestic animal and the wild dog or cat the person also owns.

  • phenomenon is singular, phenomena is plural.

  • phoney (noun or adjective), not phony, which is the American spelling. The plural is phoneys, not phonies.

  • phosphorus/phosphorous: phosphorus is the element, as in ‘phosphorus bomb’, phosphorous is the adjective derived from it.

  • picketed, not picketted

  • pixelated, not pixellated or pixillated

  • plausible/feasible: plausible can mean believable or reasonable, but it can also have connotations of fraudulence as in ‘a plausible liar’. It is not the same as ‘feasible’ which means ‘can be achieved’, or ‘likely’, as in ‘a feasible excuse’.

  • playground/toys: Do not need to be coupled with ‘children’s’.

  • polygamy/polygyny/polyandry: polygyny is the practice of a man having multiple wives; polyandry is a woman having multiple husbands; polygamy covers both, ie multiple spouses.

  • pore/pour: To pore over a book; to pour cold water.

  • post mortem: This used to be considered incorrect (the correct version was post-mortem examination). These days I would say post mortem is perfectly acceptable.

  • practical/practicable: practical is the opposite of theoretical, practicable is capable of being done, as in ‘It is practicable but would be too expensive’.

  • practice/practise: practice is the noun, as in a doctor’s practice. Practise is the verb, as in ‘she practises the violin until the neighbours go crazy’ or ‘the doctor practises in London’. It’s the same with licence/license.

  • pre: This means in advance, so pre-planned, pre-recorded, pre-ordered and pre-prepared are tautological.

  • predilection, not predeliction

  • prescribe/proscribe: To prescribe is to order the use of something, as in a prescribed reading list; proscribe is the opposite, to forbid the use of something or to outlaw it.

  • presently means soon, not now.

  • press, in terms of newspapers: Some papers use caps but I think this looks rather self-important and would prefer lower case.

  • prestigious: An example of the evolving language – fifty years ago it meant deceitful, now it is transformed into meaning having prestige.

  • pretext means a false justification, so to say ‘Tony Blair went to war on a false pretext’ is tautologous. You can say ‘he went to war on the pretext that Iran had weapons of mass destruction’.

  • prevaricate means to speak falsely with intent to deceive, but is often confused with procrastinate, which means to put off doing something.

  • preventive is preferable to preventative.

  • priceless: Do not go on to say an item is worth, say, £1million.

  • principal/principle: principal (noun or adjective) means chief, such as the principal of a college, or the principal objective. Principle is a noun meaning concept, morality or belief, for example ‘her guiding principle is that the chief sub is always right’.

  • prison officer, not warder. This term was discontinued in 1922, so we should be getting used to it by now.

  • Privy Council, but Privy Counsellor.

  • prodigal: A common misunderstanding of the parable of the Prodigal Son in the Bible is that prodigal means someone who returns after a period of absence. The word actually means extravagant or profligate – the Prodigal Son came home only after he had run through his inheritance.

  • prodigy/protege: A prodigy is an exceptionally talented young person in some field, such as sport or music; a protege is again usually young, but is one who is protected or nurtured, usually by an older or more experienced person, with no implication of talent.

  • Professor: Give in full every time, not shortened to Prof. In subsequent references you can use ‘the professor’ (lower case).

  • program, not programme, for computers. Also disk for computers, not disc.

  • prone/supine: prone means lying face down; supine is face up.

  • prophecy/prophesy: prophecy is the noun, prophesy is the verb.

  • proposition as a verb: To propose is to suggest a plan or to ask for someone's hand in marriage, but to proposition someone is to suggest something more saucy. There is no problem with proposition as a noun, which means roughly the same as proposal in the non-marriage sense.

  • prostate/prostrate: The prostate (noun) is part of the male anatomy; prostrate (adjective) is lying face down. You can also prostrate yourself (verb), ie lie face down, usually in a gesture of surrender or supplication.

  • protagonist does not mean opponent. It means the main character in a drama (therefore ‘chief protagonist’ is a tautology) or a supporter of a cause. The word for opponent from the same Ancient Greek context is antagonist.

  • protester, not protestor

  • proved/proven: proved is almost always the one you want – proven is used only in the Scottish verdict of ‘not proven’ and in certain idioms such as ‘proven record’. It is not the past tense of ‘to prove’. However ‘unproven’ is the adjective for something or someone untested or not guaranteed, such as an ‘unproven recruit’.

  • psychiatry/psychology: psychiatry is a branch of medicine dealing with mental disorders, psychology is the study of the mind.

  • publicly, not publically

  • pup: Use in preference to puppy, which is a diminutive similar to ‘kitty’.

  • pygmy, not pigmy. Cap only if you really mean the ethnic group.

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Q

  • Queensberry rules for boxing, not Queensbury

  • queue; queueing

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R

  • racked: ‘He racked his brains’, not wracked. It means he put his brains on a rack, stretched them, tortured them. Likewise ‘racked with grief’. It has nothing to do with seaweed. But note the phrase ‘wrack and ruin’, in which the word wrack derives from ‘wreck’.

  • racquet/racket for tennis etc: You choose. Racquet used to be the norm but racket is now widely accepted.

  • raised: An Americanism for the British ‘brought up’.

  • ravage/ravish: To ravage is to lay waste; ravish is a man having his wicked way with a woman.

  • raze: To raze a town is to reduce it to level ground. Thus you do not need to qualify it as in ‘razed to the ground.’ It is sufficient to say ‘The town was razed’.

  • rebut/refute/deny: rebut and refute do not mean deny. To rebut is to argue, using evidence, and to refute is to disprove with evidence. To deny does not imply using any evidence.

  • referendum, plural referendums

  • register office, not registry office

  • rendezvous is both singular and plural.

  • rent/rent out: To rent rooms is either to let them or to hire them; to rent out is specifically to let them.

  • repel/repulse: Both mean to drive away, but traditionally repulse meant a physical action while repel meant causing feelings of disgust. This distinction is now so blurred that I don’t think you need to worry about it. The adjectives repulsive and repellent both mean disgusting.

  • reportedly/reputedly: Use reportedly for something which has been published, reputedly for something which has been passed on by word of mouth.

  • Republic, Irish, but Irish (or any other nationality) republican

  • restaurateur, not restauranteur

  • Reveille, like the Last Post, is sounded, not played.

  • revert means to go back or to return. Therefore you should not say ‘revert back’, which would mean ‘go back back’.

  • riffle/rifle: riffling is flicking through papers or clothes on a rail; rifling is ransacking belongings or goods.

  • riveted, not rivetted

  • rock’n’roll: One word, no spaces

  • roof: Plural roofs

  • RSPB, RSPCA: No need to spell out.

  • rubbish as a verb, for example ‘He rubbished the idea’: This is an example of the recent transformation of nouns into verbs. Many are unacceptable, but I think this one has a meaning of its own which is not quite conveyed by the alternatives ‘He criticised/dismissed the idea’. However, use sparingly as older readers may not be thrilled by it.

  • Rubens, the painter, but Rubenesque is the adjective for a curvaceous woman, not Rubensesque.

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S

  • s/z: use s in words where the alternative is z, such as criticise, organise. Beware some spellcheckers which prefer the American z.

  • sac/sack: a sac is the technical term for a bag-like structure in a body or a plant; sack is the word for a large bag or being fired.

  • saccharin (noun): the artificial sweetener (not a brand name); saccharine (adjective): excessively sweet.

  • sacrilegious, not sacreligious

  • Sahara: Purists say there is no need to add ‘desert’ because Sahara means desert in Arabic. For those not fluent in Arabic I don’t see the problem with adding ‘desert’. On the other hand, could anyone reading the word Sahara wonder if it means a mountain or a sea?

  • sanatorium, not sanitorium; plural sanatoriums

  • sat/stood: Do not use as synonyms for ‘sitting’ or ‘standing’, as in ‘he was sat in a corner’. This really shows ignorance.

  • Satan: cap S but satanic is lower case.

  • satnav: One word

  • scars do not heal, even with time. Wounds heal, leaving scars.

  • sensual/sensuous: sensual is the one to do with sex, sensuous is do with the senses.

  • sequined, not sequinned

  • Serb/Serbian: A Serb (noun) is a native of Serbia, eg ‘Novak Djokovic is a Serb’; Serbian is an adjective for relating to Serbia, eg ‘a Serbian village’.

  • sew/sow: Sew is to do with needles, sow is to do with seeds. So not ‘Manchester United have the title sown up’.

  • sewage/sewerage: sewage is waste matter, sewerage is the disposal system.

  • Shakespearean, not Shakespearian

  • shanks's pony (lower case): to go by shanks’s pony is to walk.

  • sheik, not sheikh, if you are following the tradition of using the shorter alternative.

  • ships are traditionally female, but this is declining. Either ‘she’ or ‘it’ will not grate. Many would use ‘she’ if the ship has taken part in heroic action or has some sentimental value, such as Ark Royal. I don’t think many would refer to a cross-Channel ferry or an oil tanker as ‘she’, but you never know.

  • shoo-in, not shoe-in

  • sight/site: sight is being able to see, a site is a location.

  • silicon/silicone: silicon is the element from which glass and computer chips are made (lower case except Silicon Valley), silicone is a synthetic material used in breast implants (lower case).

  • ski, skier, skied, skiing

  • slither/sliver: Often confused. To slither (verb) is to glide along like a snake; a sliver (noun) is a thin slice, as in ‘I will have a sliver of cake’.

  • snuck: The past tense of sneak is ‘sneaked’, not this Americanism.

  • specious/spurious: A specious argument is full of holes, eg ‘All cats have four legs; all cats have fur, therefore all animals with fur and four legs are cats’. Spurious means false, as in ‘a spurious allegation’.

  • speed: In the sense ‘to accelerate’, use the past tense ‘speeded’, eg ‘Ministers speeded up a scheme . . .’ In the sense of going fast, the past tense ‘sped’ is an acceptable alternative, eg ‘The cyclist sped along the road’.

  • Spider-Man

  • sprightly, not spritely, unless you are talking about the elf-like creatures. (Actually there is no such word as spritely.)

  • St John Ambulance, not St John’s

  • stalactites hang from above, stalagmites grow from the ground. It may help to think that the ‘g’ in stalagmites stands for ‘ground’.

  • stationary/stationery: stationary is not moving, stationery is writing paper etc. Remember that a stationer sells stationery.

  • storey of a house, plural storeys. Watch out for ‘story’ and ‘stories’ in American copy.

  • straitjacket, strait-laced, in dire straits: strait means narrow or tight-fitting, and whatever the dictionaries say ‘straight’ is not acceptable in these contexts.

  • strangle: This means ‘to kill by compressing the windpipe’; therefore you cannot say ‘a woman was strangled until she passed out’, or ‘a woman was strangled to death’. If you need it, use ‘throttle’, which means ‘to kill or injure by squeezing the throat’, or ‘choke’.

  • strategic alliance: This comes up repeatedly in business stories. It suggests there must be some other type of pact between companies, such as a casual alliance. You can assume the firms have some purpose in mind and omit 'strategic'.

  • supersede, not supercede

  • swap/swop: A matter of choice, but I prefer swap.

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T

  • Taittinger champagne, not Tattinger; Veuve Clicquot, not Veuve Cliquot

  • takeaway: One word

  • Taliban, not Taleban, as the shorter alternative.

  • Taoiseach: Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland

  • targeted, not targetted

  • taut/taught: I would not have believed it necessary to include these two before I saw ‘taught fabric’ in the Mail on Sunday. ‘Taut’ means tight or stretched; ‘taught’ is the past tense of ‘teach’.

  • tax avoidance is legal, tax evasion is illegal.

  • tendinitis, not tendonitis

  • terrace house, not terraced

  • thalidomide: Not a trade name, so lower case

  • their/theirs is the possessive of ‘they’ as in ‘they went on their way’ or ‘the house is theirs’; they’re is a contraction of ‘they are’; there is just about everything else, including ‘over there’, ‘there is a promised land’, ‘I don’t agree with you there’ and ‘there you are’.

  • til/till: the short form for ‘until’ is sometimes given as ‘til’, but ‘till’ is perfectly acceptable and has been in use for centuries.

  • till death do us part is the phrase which appears in the 1662 Church of England Book of Common Prayer as part of the marriage service. The BBC TV series which ran  from 1965 to 1975 transposed the third and fourth words to make Till Death Us Do Part.

  • times: Joining the hour and am or pm, as in 9pm or 6am, should avoid the risk of the line breaking in the middle. Use noon or midnight, not 12 noon or 12 midnight. Do not say 6am in the morning etc. If it is vital to use morning or evening, say 6 o’clock in the morning or 6.45 in the evening.

  • tipple: Use only if it is clearly in a light-hearted context, not as a direct alternative for an alcoholic drink.

  • titillate/titivate: To titillate is to excite sexually, to titivate is to smarten one’s appearance. It’s not a good idea to confuse these.

  • torch, as in ‘set fire to’. This is not acceptable to some, but is increasingly seen. Up to you.

  • tortuous/torturous: tortuous is winding, as in road, or involved, as in explanation; torturous is the adjective to do with torture.

  • total: use 'a total of' only if necessary to avoid starting a sentence with a number. In 99 per cent of other cases it is redundant.

  • totalled: used in the US for a car crash which results in a write-off, as in ‘he totalled the car’. I don’t think it is familiar enough here to be acceptable, but younger people may disagree.

  • tranquillity, tranquilliser: Not tranquility or tranquiliser (and with an ‘s’, not a ‘z’)

  • transatlantic, not Transatlantic or transAtlantic

  • treble/triple can both be used as adjectives or verbs. I prefer triple as the adjective (‘triple heart bypass’) and treble as the verb (‘house prices treble in three weeks’). However ‘treble chance’ could obviously not be rendered as ‘triple chance’. In all, I don’t think it’s worth trying to lay down a rule.

  • trolley, plural trolleys, not trollies

  • trooper is a soldier (‘swear like a trooper’); trouper is a member of a troupe (which is usually a group of performers), or a metaphor for a reliable member of a team.

  • Trooping the Colour: No ‘of’, and it’s a singular Colour.

  • trustee (noun) is a legal term (plural trustees); trusty is an adjective meaning reliable or a noun for a prisoner who is trusted to carry out certain tasks (plural trusties).

  • try to, not ‘try and’

  • tsar/czar: A matter of choice

  • tummy: A childish word. Use abdomen, stomach or torso. Incidentally when a woman is pregnant, it is not her ‘stomach’ which grows larger. The best way round this is usually to use ‘bump’.

  • twitchers: A term reserved for ultra-keen bird enthusiasts who race around the country trying to see as many species as possible. It should not be used for standard birdwatchers. By the way, ‘feathered friends’ is a ghastly cliche.

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U

  • uncharted territory, not unchartered

  • under way: If you must use it, this is two words, not one.

  • underwater (one word) is an adjective eg ‘an underwater camera’; under water (two words) is everything else, eg ‘his fields have been under water for a month’.

  • uninterested/disinterested: uninterested means bored or ‘not bothered’ while disinterested means not having a stake, being impartial. So a ‘disinterested witness’ is one who does not have anything to gain one way or the other from his evidence, while an ‘uninterested schoolboy’ is a typical one.

  • Union Jack: Some insist that this should be ‘Union Flag’ in most contexts. I feel this could be a case where the misuse is so commonplace that it has become the norm, and ‘Union Flag’ now looks a bit pedantic.

  • unique: Cannot be qualified, so do not put ‘almost unique’ or ‘completely unique’.

  • unshakeable, unmistakeable

  • up: This seems have to have become surgically attached to all sorts of words which do not need it, such as park up, free up, head up, train up, serve up. Amputate it.

  • upsurge: Use ‘surge’, not ‘upsurge’. There is no such concept as a downsurge, so once again the ‘up’ is redundant.

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V

  • verruca: That nasty foot thing (a sort of wart). Note that the Roald Dahl character is Veruca Salt.

  • Veuve Clicquot, not Veuve Cliquot

  • virulent means extremely poisonous or fast-developing in terms of illness, virile means manly or sexually potent. Recently Tom Jones was described as ‘virulent’, but I presume this was a mistake.

  • vocal cords, not chords. They are literally string-like.

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W

  • wacky, meaning eccentric, not whacky; wack or wacker is the Liverpool word for ‘mate’, not whack or whacker.

  • waive or waiver is to do with relinquishing a claim or right, as in ‘she waived her right to anonymity’; to waver is to dither.

  • war: First World War and Second World War are preferable to World War I or II, but WWI and WWII are acceptable in headings. Use 'Great War' only if you are certain that your readers will know you mean the First World War. Cap up a war only if it was officially declared, such as the Korean War; otherwise keep it lower case, as in Falklands war, or use ‘conflict’.

  • wear/ware as suffixes: menswear or leisurewear for garments; glassware or silverware for items made of particular materials; kitchenware for items for particular uses.

  • weigh anchor means to raise a vessel’s anchor, not to drop it. The related expression is ‘anchors aweigh’, not ‘away’.

  • whence/whither: Old-fashioned words for which there is still a use. Whence means ‘from where’, so you should say ‘Whence did you come?’ rather than ‘From whence did you come?’; whither means ‘to where’, either physically or metaphorically, as in ‘Whither are we heading?’ or ‘Whither newspapers?’

  • whereabouts: According to the experts, you can use this as singular or plural in the usage ‘his whereabouts is/are unknown’. However either way it's a bit clumsy and police jargon-y, so try to think of something else.

  • while, not whilst

  • while: This cannot be used to start a sentence that has no follow-on clause. You can say ‘Purple is dark, while yellow is bright’, or ‘While some like pink, others prefer blue’. However you cannot say ‘Pink is a popular colour. While not many like orange’.

  • whisky comes from Scotland, whiskey from Ireland and the US. The usual Japanese version seems to be whisky.

  • who’s/whose: who’s is a contraction of ‘who is’ or ‘who has’; whose is the possessive of ‘who’. So ‘The boy who’s just gone past the window’ and ‘the boy whose dog was run over’.

  • widow is the correct word for a woman whose husband has died, rather than a wife. Similarly widower, not husband. So ‘He leaves a widow, Marilyn, and three children’.

  • wintry, not wintery

  • wish list: Two words

  • witness box, not the American ‘witness stand’. Do not say a witness ‘took the stand’. An alternative would be ‘Giving evidence, Mr Stevens said . . .’

  • wits’ end, not wit’s end

  • wreaked/wrought: The past tense of wreak is wreaked, as in ‘the hurricane wreaked havoc’. Wrought is the old-fashioned past tense of work (‘what hath God wrought’) and can be used for wrought iron or ‘finely-wrought lace’ etc. Also overwrought.

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XYZ

  • X-Men

  • X-ray

  • Xmas: Traditionalists do not like this.

  • yoke is a shoulder device to help carry a burden; yolk is part of an egg.

  • You’ve got another think coming: not, as one former Daily Mail executive insisted, and succeeded in getting in the paper, ‘you’ve got another thing coming’.

  • your/yours is the possessive of ‘you’ as in ‘that is your book’ or ‘that book is yours’; you’re is a contraction of ‘you are’. There is no such word as ‘your’s’.

  • zealous is the adjective for carrying out a task meticulously, a zealot (noun) is a fanatic, particularly a religious one.

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Last updated August 25, 2017