Difficult words

Choose your words tiles

The following words and phrases are frequently misused:

biggest, fastest, etc are used when comparing one thing with many others, bigger, faster, etc when comparing one thing with just one other.

compare a chocolate bar with another chocolate bar; compare a chocolate bar to ambrosia.

chronic is confused with acute and severe. In medical terms it means long-lasting.

decimate is confused with destroy. Technically it means to kill one in ten (hence the suffix ‘deci’) and nowadays it is lazily used to mean ‘heavy casualties’. But to write ‘completely decimated’ or ‘decimated by half’ is just nonsense.

different is followed by from.

dilemma is not the same as problem. You may know the answer to your problem (even it is unavailable) but with a dilemma you have at least two courses of action – both unfavourable.

disinterested means impartial; uninterested means bored.

effectively is not a synonym for in effect: “the Cameron campaign was effectively launched in 2007” means the launch was official and its intended effect was achieved; “the Cameron campaign was launched in effect in 2007” means this was not the official launch, but events at the time described did have the effect of launching it, whether intended or not. Effectively is almost invariably misused, and can often be omitted.

famous: if you need to describe someone as famous, they aren’t. If something is so famous that it obviously is, then you don’t need to say so.

fewer refers to discrete (distinct) objects; less to mass or volume: I have fewer pound coins than I had, therefore I have less money.

Further for additional items; farther for distance: we reached the farthest reaches of the islands after five o’clock.

Inflammatory means it is controversial; inflammable means it will go up in flames.

Judicial means connected with the law; judicious means wise.

literally means what it says; don’t use it for emphasis (“Leeds United literally came back from the dead“).

only must be positioned carefully, usually before the word qualified: only I saw her yesterday; I saw only her yesterday; I saw her only yesterday.

very is the least necessary adverb. Avoid it.

Don’t useDo use
very noisydeafening
very oftenfrequently
very oldancient
very old-fashionedarchaic
very opentransparent
very painfulexcruciating
very paleashen
very perfectflawless
very poordestitute
very powerfulcompelling
very prettybeautiful
very quickrapid
very quiethushed
very rainypouring
very richwealthy
very sadsorrowful
very scaredpetrified
very scarychilling
very seriousgrave
very sharpkeen
very shinygleaming
very shortbrief
very shytimid
very simplebasic

Where there is a choice between two or more correct versions, these are the ones to go with:

  • ageing, likeable and similar words: written with a middle e
  • all right (not alright)
  • among (not amongst); amid (not amidst)
  • burnt, knelt, dreamt, leapt, learnt: with t, not with ed in British English; ed is American English
  • enquiry: question; inquiry: investigation
  • In verbs: ise not ize
  • no one (not no-one)
  • OK (not okay or ok)
  • program (in computing), otherwise programme
  • trade unions (not trades unions)
  • T-shirt (not tee-shirt). A-line skirt (not a-line skirt)
  • until or till (not ’til)
  • while (not whilst)
  • whiskey (Irish and American), whisky (scotch)

The following words and phrases (not exhaustive) are redundant, please avoid (not, avoid at all times):

  • Absolute perfection
  • 35 acres of land
  • acute crisis
  • a hearing to discuss a case
  • a brief cameo
  • a brutal murder
  • all-time record
  • a number of examples
  • appear on the scene
  • appear to be
  • a team of 12 workers
  • best ever
  • brand new
  • close proximity
  • completely outplayed
  • dates back from
  • depreciated in value
  • doctorate degree
  • eat up
  • ever since
  • fresh start
  • gather up
  • have got
  • in a work situation
  • in the city of Leeds
  • joined together
  • lend out
  • merge together
  • mutual cooperation
  • needless to say
  • new recruits
  • one of the last remaining
  • original source
  • polish up
  • skirt around
  • total contravention
  • watchful eye
  • worst ever
  • young infant

Ironic, ironically

Do not use when what you mean is strange, coincidental, paradoxical or amusing (if you mean them say so, or leave it up to your reader to decide).

There are times when ironic is right but too often it is misused, as in this typical example from the Guardian: “Santini’s Tottenham won 2-0 at Nottingham Forest, ironic really with the north London club having a big interest in Forest’s Republic of Ireland midfielder Andy Reid … “

As Kingsley Amis put it: “The slightest and most banal coincidence or point of resemblance, or even just-perceptible absence of one, unworthy of a single grunt of interest, gets called ironical.”

According to Fowlers, irony literally means saying one thing and meaning another when the true meaning is only available to an exclusive audience.

It is like a private sarcasm where not everybody gets the joke.


American English

In general, use British English spellings: secretary of defence, Labour Day, World Trade Centre, etc; exceptions are place names such as Ann Arbor, Pearl Harbor.

Use the United States or US, not America.

The American continent includes, of course, Canada, Mexico and South and Central America.


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