Better use of English through better understanding (A–K)
A better understanding of words helps clarify thinking and improves usage, especially where English is a foreign (not a first) language.
The following list tries to help with some of the more common errors and areas of difficulty (and continues with L to Z).
A and An (the Indefinite Article)
This is used to indicate a non-specific item, for example, a coat I wore as distinct from the coat I wore. In the former, the coat worn may or may not have been mine, or could have been one of my many coats. Whichever it is, it is unspecified, indefinite, hence the term indefinite article. In the latter, the word the in the coat I wore refers to the particular coat worn; it was definitely that one. (See The)
Here is an example of incorrect usage: “…giving up one’s home, wealth, wife and children and leading a life of a recluse.” A recluse's life is essentially of one kind, reclusive—not several. Therefore, we must not suggest by using the indefinite article a that there are several undefined variants of reclusive. There may be variations within reclusive but reclusiveness itself, as a life-style, is of one kind. Hence, the phrase should read: “…leading the life of a recluse.”
An has the same function as a and (usually) replaces it before nouns. However, there are exceptions (determined by pronunciation): a uniformed officer, an uninformed officer, a horrid taste, an honourable man, a European, an Eskimo, an hour, a half, a eulogy, an epigram, an ink, an orange, an uncle, etc.
Some nouns are countable, some are not. Advice is an example of an uncountable noun—it has no singular or plural form—and so one cannot say advices. To make advice plural (countable) is to confuse content with form: the content of the advice given may be varied and therefore many, but the form (advice) is not.
Similarly, knowledge may be of many kinds, but all are forms of knowledge—likewise with equipment, help, etc.
Emotions such as love, hate, fear, anger, distress, jealousy, frustration, etc, similarly have no plural form, strictly speaking (for the reason given above) and yet one can find references to a person's loves, hates, fears or frustrations, for example. Does this negate what is said here? No, such plural misusage is merely emphasising form over content by pointing to the (often many) things or people that are the focus of a person's love or hate.
It should also be emphasised that love, hate, fear, etc are nouns, not verbs: 'I love you' actually means 'I have (feel) love for you'. This is easily demonstrated to be true by asking a person to love, hate or fear someone by an act of will. If these words were verbs it would be possible to love or hate on demand, but it is not. Love, hate, fear, distress, jealousy, etc happen to people. They are non-volitional.
Affect and Effect
Affect, as a verb, refers to an influence. Effect, as a noun, refers to a result. When something is influenced (affected) a result (an effect) follows.
“She was adversely affected by the unkind effect of his words.” The effect (result) of his words was to affect (influence) her unfavourably, triggering unhappiness.
“The bad weather affected [influenced] the time at which their journey began.”
“Price often affects [influences] how money is spent.”
“The illness had a bad effect [result] on his speech.”
“The effect [result] of his words was that the work they did was better.” “His words affected [influenced] their work for the better.”
“The effect of the food was to affect the size of his waist.”
Effect can also be used as a verb, having the sense of create or produce.
“The effect [noun: result] of his teacher's words was to effect [verb: produce] a change in his behaviour.”
The verb affect may also be used to refer to artificial or sometimes even pretentious behaviour:
“He affected an air of calm detachment while boiling with rage inside!” He hid his rage and pretended to be calmly detached.
“She affected an air of superiority in the hope of impressing them.” She made a pretence of being superior to them in order to impress them.
This adverb carries the sense of as well or additionally. It's often unfortunately placed at the end of a sentence by non-native speakers.
In the statement, “I am hungry and there is food also,” an Englishman would expect to then read what else is present or is about to happen. He would regard the sentence as incomplete without that missing information. It would be correct to say: “I am hungry and there is also food here.” Now we are saying that there is hunger and there is, additionally, the means to satisfy it. But the purist would then remark that there is no such food as also food. Therefore, the best usage here would be just to omit the word also in this instance as it is, in fact, superfluous: “I am hungry and there is food here.”
Similarly, “…they do not exist in the present and will not exist in the future also.” There is no such entity as a future also. There may be a future time or a future event, but there is no future also.
Since adverbs usually work best when placed close to the verb being qualified, also is best used that way: “He was a gifted painter and had also studied sculpture.”
Alternate and Alternative
These two adjectives are not synonyms. Alternate means 'occurring in turns'. Alternative means 'a choice between two or more options'. (The verb to alternate, to act in turns, is not being considered here).
It's therefore incorrect in British English to speak (as Americans do) of an alternate member of a group or of taking an alternate route or of making an alternate choice. Alternative is the correct usage in such cases. Neither is alternate ever a synonym for substitute.
Moreover, if one has a plan and (say) two alternative plans, there are three options but only two alternatives: the options are to stick with the original plan or choose one of the two alternative plans. The original plan is ever an option, never an alternative.
Amidst, Amongst, Whilst
These words are archaic and best not used. Amidst is an archaic form of amid and so amid should be preferred. Amongst is likewise not discernably different from among in meaning and so the latter (being simpler) should be preferred. Similarly, whilst, although used by some as a synonym for while, is also a synonym for whereas. In both cases, whilst is best avoided and while or whereas should be used instead, as appropriate.
Any more and Anymore
Any more is a measure of quantity or extent in respect of doing or having more of something.
“I don’t want any more of that food.”
“I don’t need any more [any longer] time.”
“Have you got any more of those flowers?”
“I can’t listen any more [any longer].”
Anymore as a single word is an unnecessary colloquialism and best avoided. Rather than say:
“He isn't anymore interested in cars.”
say “He isn't interested any more [any longer] in cars.”
Any one and Anyone
Any one, as two separate words, means any single or individual item. It can refer to people or objects. Anyone as one word refers only to people and means any person.
“Keep away; she doesn't want anyone to disturb her.” No-one must disturb her.
“You cannot disturb any one of them.” We should not use anyone here.
When referring to people, the above sentence means no-one in the group should be disturbed. Here, the individuals in the group are not primarily being regarded as people: they are being seen as a collection of individual items (items that happen, in this case, to be people). Therefore, any one should be used because it is referring to any one, any single item or member of the group. The general rule of using anyone rather than any one when referring to people does not apply here.
Beside and Besides
The preposition beside has two meanings: firstly, at the side of, next to (including next to in the sense of comparison) and secondly, out of contact with.
“He wanted her to sit beside him.” He wanted her at his side or next to him.
“She is so brilliant that beside her you look dull.” Next to her, or compared with her, you look dull.
“His illness made her beside herself with worry.” It made her out of contact with, as it were 'standing beside', her normal state of composure.
“That remark is beside the point.” The remark is not germane, not on the point, because it is out of contact with, at the side of, the issue being discussed.
Besides has just one meaning: in addition to.
“Besides, he has no money left.” In addition to other considerations, he now has no money.
“I have no help besides you.” He has no additional help, just you.
“Beside his books there were some photos.”
Next to (at the side of) his books there were some photos.
“Besides his books there were some photos.”
In addition to his books there were some photos—and no information is being given about the location of either the books or the photos.
Call as, Called as
The expression called as and its variants are frequently misused.
“He is called as Peter.”
“The roof was declared as safe.”
“The book was entitled as 'The Bell Tower'.”
“She was named as Ann.”
“The idea was termed as silly.”
Removing as from each of the above sentences will correct them and make them good English.
However, “He is known as John” is correct usage because we are identifying him. We are saying he, this individual, this being, has the name John. The sentence speaks of a person whose name happens to be John. In contrast, when we say, “His name is John,” the focus or emphasis is on his name, not on him.
So, when a person (and not his name) is the focus of the sentence, we are saying something about him, the very person. This is indicated in our example sentence by the (understood) word being i.e. “He is known as (being) John.” Since it is cumbersome to include it, it is not shown: it is unstated yet present.
All this is a special usage of the word known. It is a mistake to mimic this form of words when merely naming (labelling) something. Hence, there is no validity for usages such as called as, termed as, entitled as, declared as, named as, etc, when all that is happening is a form of labelling.
The following usages are therefore incorrect:
“The party was declared as a success.”
“The wording was termed as vague.”
“We call this journey as pleasant.”
Correct usage would be:
“The party was declared a success.”
“The wording was termed vague.”
“We call this journey pleasant.”
“He is called as John” is particularly unfortunate. The insertion of the word as introduces an unintended comparative: we are not saying, for example, John is or was called as early as possible to the meeting (which would be a correct use of called as) we are merely saying he is called (named) John.
It is, however, correct usage to say, “John Smith was named as an accomplice to the crime” or “The other man is known as Tom Harris” because, in both cases, existence is being referred to: in the former case, a man is named as being an accomplice, and in the latter, known as being a particular individual. This is not mere naming or labelling, it is a functional reference, a reference to an action of being something or someone.
In these instances, known as and named as are short forms of known as being, or named as being. This reference to being needs to be at least implied in such usage.
Therefore, called as, declared as, termed as, etc, are incorrectly used when merely naming, labelling or describing someone or something.
Can and May
Can expresses ability, not permission. May speaks of permission, not ability. They are, therefore, not synonyms.
“I can easily reach the room, but I may not be allowed to enter.” I have the ability to get there, but may not have permission to go in.
“She says I may eat another piece, but I can't. I'm too full.” I have permission, but not ability.
“I can come at 6 pm” is merely expressing an ability to come. Whether the hearer finds that time acceptable (permissible) is not known.
Since may speaks of permission it is often used to express a possibility naturally arising from permission:
“I may come, I may not.”
“I may phone you later.”
In both examples a possibility is being expressed (perhaps couched as an intention) and the permission from which it arises is assumed or implied: I infer or assume you are happy for me to come or to phone you.
Sometimes, may is used to express a wish or hope: “May you have a safe journey” “May he rest in peace.” The hope is that circumstances permit it. So, again, it comes back to permission.
Compared to and Compared with
Compared to is used to show similarities in dissimilar things.
“He compared her movements to those of a swan.”
“He compared her long, hard nails to claws.”
“They compared his unkempt hair to a mop.”
Compared with is used to contrast or to bring out differences in apparently similar things.
“Compared with that dish, this tastes sweeter.”
“Compared with her, this girl is taller.”
“Compared with him, she is not so expert.”
“Her last book compared well with her best work.”
Comprise never takes of or any other preposition.
“The team comprising eleven men began play.”
“The team comprises eleven men.”
“The team comprised eleven men.”
All of the above are correct and are good English. Why are the following two sentences not good English?
“The team is comprised of eleven men.”
“The team comprises of eleven men.”
To answer this, we have to turn to the dictionary.
Some say that comprise and compose are synonyms, but the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary says that compose means: to put together, make up by assembling parts, construct; whereas comprise means: to include, contain, consist of. This shows us that compose speaks of a process and comprise of a result. Put another way, the two words reveal different perspectives on the same thing: various parts compose (make up) the whole and so the whole comprises (contains, consists of) those various parts. Therefore, the two words are not synonyms.
How does this answer our comprised of question? It shows that to use comprised of is to confuse word and meaning. The word is comprise. Its meaning is to consist of. Comprise should, therefore, not be treated as though it were a word similar to made of or formed of, both of which imply activity—as was shown above, comprise is not an activity but the finished result of activity.
To decide which preposition to use…
“He is confident about the future.”
About is used with a topic, such as the future.
“He is confident in his abilities.”
In is used with a possessive pronoun, such as his.
“He is confident of winning.”
Of is used with a gerund, such as winning.
“He is confident that the problem is solved.”
That is used when referring to a complete statement able to stand on its own as a separate sentence.
“He is confident to the point of complacency.”
To is used to introduce (show) a limit or measure.
Continual and Continuous
Continual – occurring again and again, repeatedly, for a time.
Continuous – unceasing movement or unending presence.
“There was a continual ticking of a clock: tick, tick, tick,…”
“His love of poetry had been continuous since childhood.”
“He threw pebbles continually, for a while, into the continuously flowing river.”
Disinterested and Uninterested
These two words are not synonyms. To be uninterested is to have no interest at all in something, no attraction to it and so not even the slightest wish to pay it any attention. To be disinterested is, however, to be equanimous, impartial, unbiased or even-handed concerning a result, for there is no personal benefit involved; such a state implies detachment.
It is possible to be both highly interested (or completely uninterested) in something while simultaneously being disinterested; but not, of course, to be concurrently both interested and uninterested in it.
The word interest has two meanings in English: it implies attention, concern and attraction on the one hand, and on the other implies a personal benefit (typically financial), a stake, an involvement. Why does interest have this twofold meaning? Because, fundamentally, when interest (attention) flows it nourishes, which is a benefit. An idea enlivened by the attention it receives is nourished, activated by it.
Hence, uninterested is speaking about the absence of a desire to attend to something, resulting in a lack of attention; but disinterested describes a state of impartiality due to an absence of personal benefit and is therefore not describing a flow of attention but a quiet, poised state of unmoving attention or interest (hence the connotation of impartiality).
Similarly, uninterested does not mean indifferent. It simply means having no engaged interest, no wish to actively pay attention.
When we are interested or uninterested in something our attention flows towards it in the case of interest or turns or remains elsewhere when there is no interest. In the poised state of disinterest it does neither: disinterest is a state of unmoving interest, an interest neither given nor withdrawn, and so is not a flow or movement of attention. This is why disinterest cannot and must not take a preposition, whereas interest and its opposite can.
We cannot, for example, say, “He is disinterested in the idea” or “He showed disinterest towards them” when trying to show someone’s impartiality, for that is treating the word disinterest as though it describes a movement of attention when it does nothing of the sort—a state, being a condition, has no movement. Therefore, we can only say, “He is disinterested” or “He showed disinterest” (or the like) and must never follow the word with a preposition (such as in or towards).
In the following sentence the man’s disinterest is correctly shown to be a state he lost, a poise he descended from—not a movement of his attention. “He was asked to keep the peace at the meeting as a disinterested chairman, but unfortunately lost his impartiality, spoke vehemently against us and the meeting ended in uproar!”
In another example, a male judge, presiding over a case involving a complaint of unlawful activity by one dressmaker against another, may have no interest in dressmaking: he may, as a man, have no interest whatsoever (be completely uninterested) in women’s clothes. However, he will (as a judge) give the case his fullest attention, interest and concern, and yet be and remain disinterested, i.e. he will have no bias or partiality towards either dressmaker. He has nothing to gain (no interest, in the sense of a benefit, will come to him via the case as he is not involved in the clothing industry) and hence will treat both parties fairly and equally under the law.
Disinterest therefore implies dispassion, whereas interested and uninterested do not.
Due to and Owing to
Due to means caused by (a particular entity, condition or state) and therefore modifies nouns.
Owing to means because of (a particular activity, an event) and therefore modifies verbs:
“His illness was due to overeating.” The noun illness is being modified.
“He fell owing to loose gravel.” The verb fell is being modified.
“The flooding [noun] was due to weeks of heavy rain.”
“The visit was cancelled [verb] owing to flooding.”
All of this perhaps originates from the distinction between what is due and what is owing. From the perspective of the giver, what is due is yet to be given or delivered; from the perspective of the recipient, what is owing (the due) is yet to be received. A due (a behaviour/payment) requires an action to fulfil it and so is the named cause of that action. What is owing (the due) is the reason for the delivery of that behaviour/payment—it is that because of which delivery must happen.
What is due and what is owed are therefore reciprocal: two views of the same event. But the cause of that event is a named entity (necessarily a noun, never a verb) and the reason for the event points back to that very cause as being the cause—hence, cause of and because of, respectively. Therefore, due to (i.e. the describable cause) relates to a noun, and owing to, in spelling out the reason for an action arising from that cause, relates to a verb.
All this highlights the fact that rights do not and cannot exist in isolation. For every right there is a corresponding duty, and vice-versa. A right is what is due to me on my having fulfilled my duty. Only by first fulfilling what is due from me (my duty) may I then receive what is due to me (my right). A right is naturally due to me, naturally mine, on fulfilment of the appropriate duty—and not until. It is simple cause and effect.
Does this mean the defenceless infant has no rights since it cannot fulfil any duties? No, where there is a clear imbalance in the capacity for action, the stronger have a moral duty to protect the weaker. Hence, the defenceless is the recipient of the duty of care of those from whom that is due.
Enquire and Inquire
British English spelling favours enquire and Americans tend to use inquire, with the words often regarded as having identical meaning and usage.
However, some make the distinction that enquire means to question, whereas inquire means to investigate as in, “The reporter enquired into [looked into, questioned] the results of the rail crash inquiry [the crash investigation].” Although this is a fairly common usage it is not universally regarded as definitive.
Every day and Everyday
Every day, as two words, is measuring frequency. It is saying something is happening on every (single) day, i.e. repeatedly, day after day. Similarly, some event might perhaps occur every other day (every alternate day) and so repeat less often.
The single word everyday is used only as a synonym for commonplace, ordinary or mundane. It carries no sense of repetition.
“Washing dishes is an everyday activity that happens every day.”
Everyone and Every one
The collective pronoun everyone refers to a group of people, regarding them as a single entity. The term every one does the opposite: it singles out every single individual (or object) in a set or group saying every (single) one.
“Every one of us is going to the concert and that means everyone needs transport.”
The previous sentence is saying that each one of us (regarded as individuals) is going to the concert and so all of us (regarded as a group) need transport. Notice also that both take the singular form of the verb because a group is a single entity, as is the individual.
Note also that every one is applicable to any single item (not just individual people) even within a group of disparate ones, because it is making no distinction as to kind; but everyone only ever refers to people.
In common with called as the misuse of this term can be very frequent and needs clarification. It is extremely common in some circles to hear statements such as, “The ocean expresses as waves,” “Unfulfilled desire expresses as anger.” Such usage is incorrect and even slightly risible to an English ear.
To express is a transitive verb and must, as with all such verbs, have an object to complete its meaning. Expresses as has no meaning other than the beginnings of a comparative one. The verb to express always begs the question: 'What is being expressed?' and that always needs to be made known.
For example, a toothpaste tube expresses toothpaste when pressed. Toothpaste is the object expressed or squeezed out and is different from the tube (the subject) expressing it. To say that the tube expresses as toothpaste would be absurd.
However, the object (or aim) of the verb express can sometimes be its own subject and here lies the root of the error in usage with expresses as. We may, for example, correctly say, “Unfulfilled desire expresses itself as anger.” We cannot, however, say, “Unfulfilled desire expresses as anger” for that confusingly appears to be attempting to introduce a comparative in the form of expresses as, as flat as, as short as, as many as, etc. To use expresses as correctly in this manner we would have to be saying something like, “He expresses as much anger as possible when his desires are unfulfilled,” or “He expresses as little toothpaste as possible when squeezing the tube.”
Therefore, one cannot say, “Time expresses as the fruit of action,” or “The gulf between the two [of them] expresses as dissatisfaction and sorrow.” Neither 'the fruit of action' nor 'dissatisfaction and sorrow' are the objects of expresses (and also no comparison is being attempted). The aim of the verb to express is always to express its own object, but in these examples the subject and object are in fact one and the same and this needs to be clearly stated; so we make clear that it is 'Time itself' and 'The gulf itself' that are being expressed, thus: “Time expresses itself as the fruit of action,” and “The gulf between the two expresses itself as dissatisfaction and sorrow.”
Notice also that the simple sentence, “He expresses himself well”—meaning, he is articulate—is faultless grammatically for it makes clear what is being expressed i.e. him, his ideas or thoughts.
Similarly, we can say, “She expresses sorrow through singing” because sorrow is the object of the verb expresses and completes its meaning: sorrow is what she expresses or brings forth from within herself. However, we cannot say, “She expresses as sorrow through singing” for the reasons given above.
Farther and Further
Farther should be used to indicate distance, whether literal or metaphorical:
“The house is farther than you think.”
“Inspiration was farther away than ever!”
Further is used when indicating a greater number or degree:
“There were further steps to take.”
“A further effort is needed.”
Fewer and Less
Fewer should be used when talking about items that can be counted individually:
“There were fewer than eleven men.”
“We have fewer than three options.”
Less is used when quantities cannot be counted individually:
“I would like less milk, please.”
“We need less talk and more action!”
I and Me
The pronoun I refers to the subject of the sentence and the pronoun me to the object. Me is also used with prepositions since they indicate the object. For example:
In the sentence, “John and I are going out,” John and I is the subject of the sentence—and we would, in any case, never say “Me is going out.”
“She showed John and me the picture,” is correct as John and me is the object of the verb 'showed'.
In the sentence “The book was read by both Peter and me,” the accusative form me is used because Peter and me is the object of the sentence and the preposition 'by' also shows this.
In the sentence, “Between you and me, that's a silly remark!” the use of me is correct and between you and I would be incorrect. Why? Because the subject of the sentence is 'that remark', whereas you and me is the object. The preposition (between), preceding the pronoun (me), also points to the object.
Strictly speaking, the response “It is I” is correct because both pronouns refer to the same subject, and “It’s me” is incorrect. However, frequent misuse has now unfortunately made the former sound a little odd (and even pretentious!) and the latter universally accepted.