Word usage and spelling

Confused words How they differ Example of how to use correctly Notes
among v between
  • Among is used for undifferentiated items
  • She couldn’t decide among all the colleges.
  • Between is used with individual, named items
  • She couldn’t decide between Magdalen or St Hilda’s.
mutual v reciprocal
  • Mutual is used when more than one person has the same feeling/opinion as another towards a third party/object/ concept etc
  • ‘I disagree with the government’s policy on carrots.’
    ‘So do I. The feeling’s mutual.’
This distinction has mostly disappeared. Many people use mutual to cover both of these situations and this is now accepted usage.
  • Reciprocal is used when two or more people feel, think or act in the same way about or to one another
  • ‘I won’t steal your cheese.’
    ‘I won’t steal your cheese either. We have a reciprocal arrangement.’
However, use of reciprocal is recommended for disambiguation purposes.
less v fewer
  • Less is used with nouns which are not countable objects: if you could use much to describe having a lot of the noun, use less
  • ‘I can’t eat that much cheese: please give me less.’
  • Fewer is used with countable objects: if you could use many to describe having a lot of  the noun, use fewer
  • ‘I can’t eat that many sprouts: please give me fewer.’
effect v affect (verb)
  • Effect as a verb means to bring about, or to have the result that
  • A glass of brandy may effect his recovery.
  • effect his recovery: improve his health to the point of recovery
  • Affect as a verb means to have an impact on or to change something; it also means to simulate something which is untrue
  • A glass of brandy may affect his recovery.
  • affect his recovery: have an impact on whether or not he recovers at all, or the speed of his recovery
  • He affected to have drunk only one glass of brandy.
  • affect to have drunk only one glass: pretend to have drunk less brandy than actually drunk
effect v affect (noun)
  • Effect as a noun means the impact something causes
  • The storm had wide-reaching effects.
  • Affect as a noun means somone’s outward appearance of their psychological state
  • His affect was one of cheerful indifference.
infer v imply
  • Infer is to read a meaning into a statement which has not been explicitly stated: to read between the lines
  • He told me that these one-size-fits-all gloves fit most people’s hands. I inferred that he thought my hands were too big, and resented what he was implying.
  • Imply is to suggest something without explicity stating it: to hint at something (usually something negative)

Tricky words

  • alumna – female former member [of college etc]
  • alumnae – plural form for female-only former members [of college etc]
  • alumni – plural form for either male-only or mixed-gender former members [of college etc]
  • alumnus – male former member [of college etc]
  • benefited
  • biased
  • comprise (not comprise of)
  • dependant (noun)/dependent (adjective)
  • email (lower case and not hyphenated)
  • enquire/enquiry (preferred to inquire/inquiry)
  • focused
  • fundraising
  • instalment
  • internet (lower case)
  • licence (noun)/ license (verb)
  • manoeuvre
  • no-one (hyphenated)
  • paralleled
  • postdoctoral (no hyphen)
  • postgraduate (no hyphen, whether as noun or adjective)
  • postholder (no hyphen and lower case)
  • practice (noun)/practise (verb)
  • riveting
  • supersede
  • website/webpage (no hyphen and lower case)

General guidelines

  • use suffix -ise NOT –ize
    Derren Brown hypnotised his subject live on TV..
  • retain -e where required for pronunciation: ageing, acknowledgement, judgement
  • proper names ending in -y do not change to -ies if pluralised
  • foreign spellings
    • just use ‘e’ spellings, not ae or æ, where in common British usage
    • technical words retain the double vowel
    • use accents and different letters in foreign words (ø, ç, capitalisation for German nouns etc) only when:
      • they are required to differentiate from another word (in English or the source language)
      • they are required as part of the name of a person, place, book etc
    • don't use accents on capital letters
    • plurals:
      • use appropriate foreign (particularly ancient Greek and Latin) plural forms where still in common usage (also see alumnus under spelling section above)
    • note that more than one form is sometimes in use for different meanings of a word:
      formula–formulas but formulae in maths/chemistry
      index–indices for maths and indexes for books
      appendix–appendices for books and appendixes in anatomy
    • contractions: use of ‘hasn't’ rather than ‘has not’ etc is fine in the majority of cases, especially informally
    • with compound words formed by a noun and an adjective or two nouns connected by a preposition, pluralise the (more important) noun
      Attorney General/Attorneys General