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Introduction

Some grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors in written English are minor but annoying. Here I've tried to concentrate on areas which are both commonly heard and especially irritating. It's a personal and rather esoteric list, though! Sometimes the piece is just my opinion, but in general, where I suggest solutions, more details can usually be found in standard reference books like The Oxford English Grammar.

Affect and Effect


To affect is to have some influence on, or to change: if I score a goal I affect the result.

To effect is to cause to happen (think "bring into effect"): income tax chages are put into effect by the budget (or the Finance Act); I might effect change by firing all the staff.

An effect is the result of something: the fireworks produced some dramatic effects; sacking all the staff had no effect.

An affect is something obscure in psychology. You probably don't want this one (unless you're a psychologist).

The Reason Why


"The reason why is because there's a global recession." What a lot of word: reason implies why and because. "The reason is that there's a global recession." No need for "The reason why is that there's a global recession", and even less for "the reason why is because ...". Don't be a politician!

(Same with "It'll happen in two years' time". How is that different from "It'll happen in two years"?

Snuck


  • I sneaked round the back not I snuck round the back.
If something leaks, it has not luck; your performance has peaked, not puck.

Cords


We have vocal and spinal cords, not chords.

Less and Fewer


If you can count them, you have fewer of them; if you can't, you have less.  
  • Less time but fewer minutes
  • Less height but fewer inches
  • Six items or fewer, not six items or less.

Periods of time take less rather than fewer.

  • The bell rang for less than 60 seconds, not fewer than 60 seconds.

(I am coming to believe that six items or less might be correct. See discussion here.)

Cheap Prices
and Hot
Temperatures


  • Low prices and cheap items; high temperatures and hot weather.

Not cheap prices or hot temperatures.

 Spelling


  • consensus not concensus
  • supersede not supercede
  • minuscule not miniscule
  • licensed not licenced (even in British English, which uses a licence and to license, like some advice and to advise)
  • practising in British English or practicing in American English
  • liaise not liase
  • extension not extention
  • footwear and swimwear, but hardware, software and housewares
  • soundbites, not soundbytes (it's not a computer term)

Wrong Word


  • Enormity does not mean great size, it means great wickedness.  (References.)
  • To beg a question does not mean to invite it, and does not mean to avoid it.
  • Credulity is similar to gullibility, it is not interchangeable with credibility. A politician's denial does not "stretch credulity", even if it lacks credibility.
  • Principal means major or main; a principle is an ethical guide.  A college principal, a principal project manager, a moral principle.
  • Discreet means tactful or unobtrusive; discrete is separate from.
  • I set something loose; I lose something important. (Strange but true: choose and moose don't rhyme, but choose and lose do!)
  • The person whose job it is, not who's job it is.
  • It's means it is; otherwise use its.

Lay and Lie


  • Lay is a transitive verb: it takes an object. One may lay an egg, a carpet, a false trail, someone out cold or down the law.
  • Lie is an intransitive verb or a noun: it doesn't take an object. One may go for a lie down, but not for a lay down. I may decide to lie in the heather; I do not lay in it.
Bob Dylan (Lay Lady Lay), Savage Garden (I want to lay like this forever), and Eric Clapton (Lay Down Sally) aren't grammarians.  Even the BBC sometimes gets it wrong: "The boat was laying in about six feet of water", BBC TV news.

May have and might have


  • We are receiving reports of a plane crash: 20 people may have been killed.
  • We are receiving reports of a plane crash: 20 people might have been killed.
The first means that we're not yet sure if people have been killed; the second means that 20 people were in danger but escaped.
  • I was stopped for speeding ten years ago, and I may have been fined. (I can't remember.)
  • I was stopped for speeding ten years ago, and I might have been fined. (But I wasn't.)
Strangely, the distinction only applies to the "have" form; in most other uses may and might are interchangeable.
  • I was flashed by a speed camera this morning, I may get a ticket.
  • I was flashed by a speed camera this morning, I might get a ticket.
This (a TV trailer for a programme) is wrong:
  • MMR: it caused mass panic ... if you knew what you now know, you may have acted differently.

Sat Sitting


  • I was sitting on the bus not I was sat on the bus.
  • I was standing at the back not I was stood at the back.
If in doubt, think walking. Would you say I was walking in the park or I was walked in the park?  If you were walking, you were also standing or sitting.

Snuck


  • I sneaked round the back not I snuck round the back.
If something leaks, it has not luck; your performance has peaked, not puck.

Quiz


There is a good quiz on commonly-confused words on the BBC Web site.

More?


I'd be happy to receive suggestions for further items – you can e-mail from the link on the left.

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