Style Guide A-H


a/an

The Guardian‘s style guide says:

Use ‘an’ before a silent H: an heir, an hour, an honest politician, an honorary consul; use ‘a’ before an aspirated H: a hero, a hotel, a historian (but don’t change a direct quote if the speaker says, for example, “an historic”). With abbreviations, be guided by pronunciation: eg an LSE student

abrogate/arrogate

abrogate means ‘to repeal or abolish’; arrogate means ‘to take something without justification’.

abjure/adjure

abjure means ‘to renounce’; adjure means ‘to solemnly urge’.

advance/advanced

Used as an adjective, advance means ‘beforehand’, as in advance bookings, advance warning etc; advanced means ‘far ahead’, as in at an advanced stage.

adverse/averse

adverse means ‘unfavourable’, as in adverse circumstances; averse means ‘having a strong dislike’.

affect/effect

effect is a noun to mean ‘result, outcome’; affect is a verb meaning ‘to alter, change, have an impact on’.

effect is also used less often as a verb meaning ‘to bring about’, especially in relation to change.

affect can also mean ‘to pretend to have or feel something’. The noun is affectation, which can also be used to convey the sense of false behaviour designed to impress in some way.

The effect of his pleading was negligible; it did not affect the outcome one bit.

Government legislation is one way to effect change.

He affected a complete lack of concern; this clumsy affectation was unconvincing.

aficionado

a knowledgeable enthusiast.

akimbo

means ‘hands on the hips and elbows turned outwards’, so ‘legs akimbo’ is nonsensical, though widely used to mean something like ‘legs wide apart’.

all right

not alright.

all together/altogether

all together means ‘a group of people in one place’; altogether means ‘in total’.

We were all together in the pub watching the match; I had five pints altogether.

alternate

As an adjective, it means ‘every other’. Avoid using it in the US English sense of ‘alternative’, except perhaps for the phrase alternate universe, beloved of sci-fi film enthusiasts.

another think coming

not ‘another thing coming’.

appendices/appendixes

appendices for books but appendixes in anatomy.

around/round

are both used adverbially and as prepositions, and are usually interchangeable.

artefact

‘artifact’ is US English.

auger/augur

An auger is a tool for making holes; augur is to do with predicting or presaging the future, as in it does not augur well.

bail/bale

The online dictionary lexico.com lists bale (noun and verb) only with reference to bundles of hay etc. It lists bail with reference to releasing a prisoner, helping someone with financial difficulties, scooping water from a boat and escaping from a plane — bailing out. It also notes bale as a UK variant spelling of baling out a boat.

The Guardian style guide, on the other hand, has bail out with reference to a prisoner or person in (financial) difficulties, but bale out when referring to a boat or aeroplane.

bated breath

not ‘baited’. It comes from ‘bate’, an old word for ‘restrain’.

bellwether

is the leading sheep of a flock, with a bell on its neck, and figuratively something that indicates a trend.

biannual/biennial

biannual means ‘twice a year’; biennial means ‘every two years’.

Bible/Bible belt/biblical

Use a capital to refer to the holy book but not for things like Mein Kampf was the bible of the Nazi movement. The adjective biblical is always lower case.

bloc

bloc refers to groups of people, political parties, countries etc with common interests who have formed an alliance eg the Soviet bloc.

blond

not ‘blonde’ (the stray ‘e’ comes from French which distinguishes between masculine and feminine, and ‘blonde’ is an out-of-date term for a female with blond hair).

born/borne

born of necessity, in the sense of ‘came into being’; borne out by the facts, meaning ‘proved, confirmed’; borne can also mean ‘carried’, as in the airborne virus and borne on the wings of time (from Fool’s Overture by Supertramp).

Britain/British

synonymous with the UK — the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. However, Great Britain refers only to England, Scotland and Wales.

callous

means ‘hard, cruel and insensitive’, but hardened skin is a callus; skin can be calloused.

censor/censure

censor means ‘to prevent publication’; censure means ‘to criticise severely’. Censors in ancient Rome were involved in counting people (the census) as well as overseeing public morality.

compared to/compared with

These phrases are often used interchangeably nowadays, though compared with is more common in British English, according to Brandreth.

There are occasions when the difference matters. Use compared to when highlighting how similar two things are or when making an analogy. Use compared with when highlighting differences.

The Led Zeppelin fan compared Plant, Page, Jones and Bonham to the Beatles.

Let’s compare the Spice Girls with the Beatles.

complacent/complaisant

complacent means ‘smug, self-satisfied’; complaisant means ‘eager to oblige’.

complement/compliment

complement means ‘adding something extra’; compliment means ‘saying something nice’. A complimentary bottle of wine is a free one.

comprise(s)

not ‘is comprised of’.

contemporary

means ‘of the same period’ not ‘modern’. As the Guardian states, “a performance of Shakespeare in contemporary dress would involve Elizabethan costume, not 21st-century clothes.”

continual/continuous

continual means ‘happening again and again’; continuous means ‘non-stop’.

coruscating

means ‘dazzling’ (literally and figuratively) and is often confused with excoriating, which means ‘criticising severely’.

councillor/counseller

A councillor sits on a council; a counsellor offers counsel (advice). However, a member of the privy council is a privy counsellor.

credible/credulous

credible means ‘believable’; credulous means ‘gullible’; incredible means ‘unbelievable’ and incredulous means ‘unwilling to believe something’.

crescendo

In music, crescendo means ‘a gradual increase in loudness or intensity’, so ‘building to a crescendo’ is a tautology. Strictly speaking, used figuratively it is the build-up to a climax, not the climax itself.

cull

involves choosing or selecting — a selection of songs culled from their first five albums — and doesn’t mean a mass slaughter, except in the sense that an animal population might be reduced by selective slaughter.

cusp

means ‘a place where two points meet’ and, metaphorically, ‘a transition point’. It doesn’t mean ‘on the brink of something’.

deceptively

avoid, unless using it literally to mean ‘in a deceptive way’. Some people interpret the phrase it was deceptively simple to mean ‘it was simple in appearance but not in reality’ and some people interpret the phrase to mean the exact opposite — ‘it was simple in reality but not in appearance’.

defuse/diffuse

defuse means ‘to render something harmless’; diffuse means ‘to spread about’. Tension gets defused.

dependant/dependent

dependant is a noun — he has two dependants — and dependent is an adjective.

derring-do

not ‘daring-do’.

deserts/dessert

dessert is what you have after a meal; deserts means ‘getting what you deserve’, hence just deserts.

discreet/discrete

discreet means ‘taking care to avoid embarrassment’; discrete means ‘separate and distinct’.

disburse/disperse

disburse is to do with giving out money; disperse means ‘to spread or scatter’.

disinterested/uninterested

disinterested means ‘unbiased, not partial to either side’; uninterested means ‘having no interest in something’.

draft/draught

draft is a version of a document or a plan, outline or sketch; draught is a current of air. However, a person who makes detailed technical drawings is a draughtsman.

Earth

either Earth or the Earth when referring to the planet, but lower case when referring to soil and in expressions such as what on earth.

effect/affect

effect is a noun to mean ‘result, outcome’; affect is a verb meaning ‘to alter, change, have an impact on’.

effect is also used less often as a verb meaning ‘to bring about’, especially in relation to change.

affect can also mean ‘to pretend to have or feel something’. The noun is affectation, which can also be used to convey the sense of false behaviour designed to impress in some way.

The effect of his pleading was negligible; it did not affect the outcome one bit.

Government legislation is one way to effect change.

He affected a complete lack of concern; this clumsy affectation was unconvincing.

elegiac

not ‘elegaic’. An elegy is a poem of mourning so elegiac doesn’t just mean ‘sad’.

enervate

means ‘to deprive of energy, strength, vitality’, not the opposite.

enormity

should be used only to refer to something monstrous or wicked. It isn’t a synonym for ‘large scale’.

enquire/inquire

The traditional distinction was that inquire was used in the general sense of ‘ask’ and enquire related only to formal investigations. The online dictionary lexico.com suggests that enquire is more common in British English and inquire in US English.

ensure/insure

ensure means ‘make sure’; you insure against risk (and assure life).

equable/equitable/equity

equable means ‘unvarying’ or ‘calm and even-tempered’; equitable means ‘fair’. The noun equity is the quality of being fair and impartial, as in the principles of equity and justice.

erupt/irrupt

erupt is to burst out; irrupt is to burst in.

especially/specially

especially means ‘particularly or in particular’; specially means ‘for a special reason’.

evangelism/evangelicalism

evangelism is spreading the word of God; evangelicalism is a fundamentalist branch of Christianity.

factoid

is not a piece of trivia; it is mistaken information repeated so often that it is widely believed to be true. Did you know that Bob Holness …?

far away/faraway

far away is an adverb; faraway is an adjective.

They moved far away to a faraway place.

farrago

a confused jumble — a farrago of lies — not a synonym for chaos.

farther/further

farther and farthest relate to ‘far’ in the sense of physical distance — farther away, the farthest point.

further and furthest are used more figuratively to relate to ‘far’ as in ‘degree’ — further arguments, further from the truth, the furthest I will go to meet your objections.

first/firstly …

first, second … is more common than firstly, secondly … but both are okay. Don’t mix.

flounder/founder

flounder means ‘to be in serious difficulty’ with the suggestion that poor performance is the cause (as if floundering in the mud); founder means ‘to fail or break down’.

forbear/forebear

forbear means ‘to refrain’; forebear is an ancestor.

forgo/forego

forgo means ‘to do without something’; forego means ‘to go before’.

forswear

not ‘foreswear’ and means ‘to agree to do without’.

formulas/formulae

It is formulas but formulae in maths/chemistry.

fulsome

fulsome means ‘excessively complimentary or flattering’; it’s not meant in a nice way so the MP was fulsome in his praise for the prime minister’s speech is actually a criticism of what the MP said.

gambit

means ‘an opening strategy intended to gain an advantage’, so ‘opening gambit’ is a tautology.

haven

means ‘a place of safety’, so ‘safe haven’ is a tautology.

heterogeneous/homogeneous

note the -eous ending.

highfalutin

note the lack of a ‘g’ at the end of the word.

historic/historical

historic refers to something important in history; historical means ‘to do with history’.

hoard/horde

hoard (noun and verb) refers to accumulating things of value; horde is a derogatory term for a large group of people.

hung/hanged

hung is the past tense of ‘hang’; hanged specifically refers to people who are executed by hanging.

He hung the Lowry on the wall.

Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in Britain.