New Year’s Guide to Sneaky English


8 January 2013 by thaliakr

Grammar police

Photo credit: the_munificent_sasquatch

I used to teach a course in legal writing that was famed for its pedantry (not thanks to me – on that occasion I didn’t make the rules).

There was half a mark off for every error of any kind – punctuation, spelling, citation, style, everything. Before the first ‘opinion’ (the main kind of assignment at law school, an essay where you apply the law to a hypothetical situation) was due I would warn my students that the marking would be really tough and they should be very careful – after all, their wills and contracts in real life would need to be tightly written.

They would all swagger confidently into the first opinion figuring that since they were good enough to get into second-year law, they’d be sweet in this class. When they all got Cs, they were a bit more sober and ready to listen to all my tips and tricks.

As well as mastering the 150-page law school style guide (I kid you not), my teaching at this point included grammar refreshers (they hung on every word of my apostrophe lesson once the vast majority of them had been caught with errors). And the most popular content was what I thought I’d share today: tips for using English well and correctly with the kind of stuff you might not have learnt at school but will need when lots of smart lawyers and judges are listening to you.

I don’t mean big words or snooty phrases. Law schools these days emphasise ‘plain English‘ and I gave as many marks off for overcomplicated sentences as I did for misusing semi-colons.

What I’ve got for you today are things that are common errors in formal English. I don’t care at all myself if you make these errors, especially in conversation. And some of them are so widely made that you could argue they are now correct, and that’s fine by me.

But there will always be people you’re talking to, maybe in job interviews, or in the workplace or in formal writing, who do care about some of these things. So if it would be helpful to you, or your older kids, to be able to get your meaning across in any company at all, then some of these could be handy to know.

There are plenty of other posts to look at if this is boring you to death already, though :) Check out the Sacraparental Top Ten for starters!

If you want to brush up on some very common questions, that’s not what this post is about, but you might like to check out other sites:

  • Go here for who/whom, affect/effect and their/they’re/there and here for you’re/your
  • There’s an apostrophe guide and a huge number of other grammar tutorials at the University of Calgary’s English site
  • The Purdue OWL site has tutorials in all kinds of English stuff, including punctuation, spelling and sentence construction.

And a disclaimer: I’m not claiming to be the grammar police or a grammar expert. After all, I was brought up in the no-grammar-teaching era of state schooling! This is just stuff I’ve picked up along the way…


Imply and infer mean quite different things. They are two views of one action.

You know how one person lends a basketball and the other person borrows it? One action is happening, but each party gets a different word. Same thing with imply and infer.

Imply means what you think it means. The person talking will imply that they can be bribed with chocolate – they hint at it but don’t quite say it. The person listening, if they’re good at hearing between the lines, will infer, or pick up, the message about chocolate.


Enormity isn’t about size, but about how terrible something is:

When my brother ate my last piece of chocolate, I was struck by the enormity of the loss.

People use enormity when they mean hugeness so often that it has come to sort of mean that, too, but it definitely also means that something is awful.  


Literally means that something actually happened, exactly the way I’m describing it, and I’m not exaggerating or using a figure of speech.

If I went camping, washed SBJ in a portable baby bath and made a terrible mistake when emptying the water from the tub, I might say in horror that I had literally thrown the baby out with the bathwater. I’d be saying, ‘I know that’s usually just a figure of speech, but this time I actually did it!’

The common error is to say literally when we just want to say something was really striking or extreme.

If a diet advocates cutting all sugar out, including fruit and vegetables, we might (wrongly) exclaim that ‘this quack is literally throwing the baby out with the bathwater!’ meaning that if we followed the diet plan we’d be chucking out good stuff (apples and carrots) as well as bad stuff (lollies and cake). But the diet has nothing to do with actual babies or actual baths, so literally isn’t the word to use.

Try really instead.


In British English (which we usually follow in New Zealand on matters of spelling), practice is a noun and practise is a verb. It’s as simple as that, though I can’t give you a clever trick to remember it.

So we go to hockey practice, we have spiritual practices, and we visit the GP practice. And we practise piano, we try to practise what we preach and we sometimes become quite practised liars.


If you’re bored or don’t care about a subject, then you’re uninterested in it.

If you are a judge or board member making a decision, and you are free from bias, then you are disinterested, as in, you don’t have a personal interest in having the outcome go one way or the other.


Generally, a person is discreet, or tactful, and information is discrete, or discontinuous, separate. If you’re not sure of both words, you will probably be using the first one most.


Just one plain spelling error in today’s guide. This is one of the most commonly misspelt words (it doesn’t have an a in it), among people who are otherwise good spellers.


This is tricky because of how the word read works. The problem is that lead has a different pattern.

Today I’ll read the book I read yesterday (the past tense sounds different but is spelt the same).

Today I’ll lead the group I led yesterday (the past tense sounds different and it is spelt differently too).

It’s also tricky because the lead of a pencil sounds the same as led. Sorry about that.


Here’s one I do have a cheesy mnemonic for so you can remember the difference (I heard it from our school principal): The Principal is your Pal!

A principle is something you believe in and try to live by: it’s the principle of the thing!

Principal, as an adjective (a describing word), means main: my principal priority for the holidays is to eat lots of chocolate. 

The same meaning underlies principal as a noun. So the main part of your mortgage is the principal and you get sent to the principal‘s office.


A compliment is the nice thing you say to your girlfriend’s mother.

Something free is complimentary because it comes with the compliments of the business.

Things that go together well, especially if they’re different but well-matched, are complementary. So partners might have complementary strengths, orange and blue are complementary colours and the wine complements the food beautifully.

That’s it from me!

Now, applying our general principles of generosity and kindness and civility, do feel free to add your own tips. Not complaints or smirks (I’ll delete them, ok?), just helpful things you can pass on. Remember that this kind of formal English correctness has very little to do with how smart someone is, nor, certainly, how worthy they are of respect.

Or feel free to ask questions and someone will be bound to know an answer!


42 thoughts on “New Year’s Guide to Sneaky English

  1. Alex says:

    Thanks for that. I hadn’t really thought about the “enormity” point before. Interesting stuff (well, I think so anyway).

    The practice/practise distinction works for other noun/verb pairs as well (advice/advise springs to mind, I’m sure there are more) – I can’t think of a trick to remember the distinction by either, though.

    The other sneaky pair that I always have to check on is stationary (for something standing still) and stationery (for envelopes, paperclips etc) – maybe I should just try to remember E is for envelope, although if anyone has a better trick I’d love to hear it.

    On a tangential point, I remember when I spent a year as a language assistant at a school in Berlin I was horrified (and at the same time very impressed) by the strictness of the marking scheme for Abitur (A-level) students – a third of the marks for each assignment were given for “correctness”, the maximum available was 15 and they lost a whole mark for each grammatical error, and half a mark for each spelling mistake… A massive contrast to the approach I was familiar with from my own schooling.

    • Excellent point about advice/advise. I think I used to tell my students that! And had completely forgotten it :)

      I like E for Envelope in stationery. Very good.

      • Alex says:

        Have to confess I can’t take credit for that – it came up on my googling of the pair before I made my comment.

        • Caroline says:

          I’ve always used “E is for envelopes” and “A is for automobiles” to remember stationary/stationery – a variant on your google results.

    • Caroline says:

      I use advise/advice to remember which way round the “C” and “S” thing is – because they are said differently, it’s more difficult to get it wrong. I make up a sentence with advice/advise in it (e.g. “I gave my friend some advice”) and then work out which spelling is the verb & which the noun.

    • Anna S says:

      (Not sure where to insert this comment amongst all the nested replies – I feel like I’m barging in on a conversation here sorry).

      Since Form 2 I’ve remembered practice/practise by imagining a lump of ice. Ice is a noun. Practice is a noun. But it occurs to me now (literally just now, 25 years later) that ice is also a verb. Clearly I’m not a fast thinker! Never mind – a lump of ice is still a noun, and let’s not think too much about wanting to ice a cake, in this scenario.

      Is that helpful, or have I just confused the issue?

      (In unrelated news, I’d like to confess that I overuse parentheses in written communication.)

      • You’re not barging in, it just turns out to be the most popular post in AGES (grammar is right up there with depression, apparently :) ) and the comments are coming in thick and fast!

        Lump of ice is good. Let’s just forget the rest of that reasoning :)

        I take three or four sets of parantheses (brackets?) out of most blog post drafts. And still end up with dozens.

  2. Matt says:

    My friend’s co-worker uses “breeches” every time she means “breaches”, which causes my friend no end of entertainment. (In a legal/child-welfare context, no less!)

  3. Spaghetti says:

    Despite being raised by a school teacher mother (who is also hot on grammar), I’d never realised that ‘practise’ was a valid NZ spelling of the word until last year – I’d always assumed it was the American spelling and ‘practice’ was the British/NZ spelling! One way to remember which is which could be: ‘N’ (noun) comes before ‘V’ (verb) and ‘C’ comes before ‘S’, so N(oun) = practiCe and V(erb) = practiSe ? :)

  4. SKATERAK says:

    A few points:

    1. ‘Literally’ is only fun to use when used incorrectly. It’s cousin, ‘so to speak’ is always a joy to misuse. Like the netball commentator who said that you COULD teach new tricks to old dogs – so to speak.

    2. Hand on heart, so to speak, how many times did you proof read this post?

    3. Any common spelling mistake, or even some poor grammar, can usually be excused by crying “it’s American English”.

    4. David Lange literally got his knockers in a twist about the 10 Items or Less signs common in many supermarkets.

    5. With English being the fist language being learnt by literally squillions of Indian and Chinese people, the language is sure to evolve over the next few years. Will be interesting to see the results.

    6. Another good error is ending sentences with a question mark to turn them into a question without using the right words.

    A good read, Thalia; thank you.


    PS: I trust you have saved a whole post for the term ‘I could care less’?

    • Angela says:

      “If you know what I mean” is also great to add to the end of many sentences.

      • Thanks, SKATERAK (still with the dark grey background, though we don’t know why)

        1. Yes, the Buck- whanau is spreading that gospel pretty effectively.
        2. More than once. As usual, though. Did you catch anything slipping through the net?!
        3. Too many American friends, couldn’t possibly comment.
        4. Oh, me too. I thought about putting it in the list, since plenty of people do still make the less/fewer distinction (and if people can get much/many right they can manage less/fewer), but I think the horse has probably bolted (I can’t write literally or the universe might implode) on that one, aided in its escape by supermarkets, who are responsible for a great deal of mischief in the world!
        5. Absolutely! Though with so many people having to learn English as an extra language, where you actually learn grammar formally (unlike our generation of native speakers), there might actually be a reinforcement of things that are ‘rules’ but broken a lot, as well as all sorts of unexpected blooms.

        PS. Ach!

  5. Caroline says:

    Working in the legal profession, I agree that there are some situations in which the accurate use of English is important and it’s something we test people on at interview – but I don’t much care how people write in emails, text messages or blog posts for that matter, as long as it’s understandable.

    One that comes up a lot in my work is the distinction between “dependant” (noun – such as a dependant child) and “dependent” (verb – I am dependent on reading this blog every day).

    Another one that really irritates me is misue of “unique” – something cannot be “rather unique” or “somewhat unique” or even “very unique” – if it’s unique, it’s just unique!

    The Economist style guide makes interesting reading along these lines:

    I have to admit, however, to being unable to spell definitely (I have to look it up nearly every time), and to over-using hypens and exclamation marks when I’m being lazy.

    • Well I did NOT know the dependant/ent distinction! (I think you mean -ent is for an adjective; and thank you for the example!)

      More on this:

      Very much agree about unique. Yes.

      Lots of dashes and exclamation marks is just part of email style (its own category, I reckon, alongside written English and spoken English), isn’t it?

      Definitely: does it help to think it’s from the same root as the word FINITE which clearly is spelt with an I not an A? Also INFINITY?

    • Spaghetti says:

      I think it’s thanks to auto spell-checker that I can now correctly spell ‘definitely’ – I must have got it wrong enough times for it to stick! I must also admit though to over-using exclamation marks :)

      One of my favourite news stories is about 2 young men who went on a mission through(out?) Britain, to correct as many incorrect road signs as they could find – they found plenty and duly corrected them, only to find out they’d corrected a heritage sign that was hundreds of years old (!) Oops.

  6. Caroline says:

    The following entry in the Economist style guide amused me, so I thought it was worth reposting here (personally, “guesstimate” would put an end to me reading an article):

    “Words that are horrible to one writer may not be horrible to another, but if you are a writer for whom no words are horrible, you would do well to take up some other activity. No words or phrases should be banned outright from appearing in print, but if you use any of the following you should be aware that they may have an emetic effect on some of your readers.

    carer and most caring expressions
    chattering classes
    grow the business
    informed (as in his love of language informed his memos)
    likely (meaning probably, rather than probable)
    looking to (meaning intending to)
    poster child
    rack up (profits etc)
    source (meaning obtain)

    • Brilliant!

      Is it common in the UK (as in NZ) for civil servants to play bull* bingo with such words in meetings etc? Add in:

      – at the end of the day
      – going forward
      – iconic
      – resources or worse, resource (meaning money)

      • Alex says:

        Yes, yes and yes! “Going forward” was my own particular pet hate when I was still there. Along with “action” being used as a verb – e.g. “Alex, could you action that?”

        I liked to think that these were all imports from business English, and they were certainly equally prevalent amongst the consultants I came across. To be honest, though, Civil Service English could probably fill a blog post all of its own, and that’s without even starting on its acronyms… Our most common deadline, for example, was “COP today” [=close of play], which I think was intended to avoid specifying when you would be going home… I always preferred to ask for things to be returned by 8am the following morning, but that’s probably just because I worked an 8-4 pattern and it suited me better. ;-)

        [sorry, veering off topic and dangerously close to a rant there!]

  7. Angela says:

    Very interesting T, I didn’t know the imply/infer distinction.
    Can we dedicate point number 3 to our British friends (no doubt none if your readers of course), they literally say it all the time and it literally drove me crazy! Though it was an interviewee on (NZ) National Radio who once said “literally threw the baby out with the bath water.” I have never forgotten it.

    • Alex says:

      My favourite was a commentator (I forget which sport) who was “literally bursting with excitement”… My mind was literally boggling ;-)

      It does intrigue me, though, that “really” is acceptable as a substitute in these contexts (and I agree it mostly is), when it could be said that it is just as inappropriate as “literally”. Presumably at some point “really” actually always meant something that was real and really happening, much as literally does. I wonder when and how it softened, and whether literally is now just treading the same path (so to speak / if you see what I mean).

      • Great points and examples!

        Yes, Alex, words meaning ‘very good’ ‘very’ and ‘very bad’ often push others out of the way at a fast rate as we search for a way to bring fresh emphasis, don’t they. Anyone got easy access to the OED to answer the ‘really’ question?

        (PS I love how when blogging on words, we can ignore the need for sources and citations! :) )

  8. Alex says:

    The word I have to check on most frequently is “separate” (although I actually got it right first time this morning). For some reason I always think it should be spelt “seperate”. If anyone’s got a handy trick for that, please let me know.

  9. andrew says:

    superb post. Helpful links.

    The only downside is that grammar nazis (I wonder if in the third reich they did have people who were in charge of enforcing grammatical rules who were literally grammar nazis) are likely to be trawling for errors in comments. :-)

    Considering the billions of people who use english not as their mother tongue and that english has been in continual change since before chaucer, and enforcing a firm set of rules will be a challenge. Having a set of rules is desirable in terms of having consistency in communication and clear understanding. How do we have a set of rules that are firm enough that we can understand one another without ossifying into a modern form of latin?

  10. Frank says:

    Great post Thalia! One after my own heart.
    Does anyone have a good tip for teaching kids (although I’m sure adults do it too, I just don’t have to teach them) that it should be “would have, could have etc” not “would of, could of”
    Drives me bonkers. Luterally. The problem is that’s what they hear, so they don’t even realise the word is have not of.
    While we’re on the subject of interesting words, anyone know why the phrase “turn to custard” came about? I like custard, but I guess there are some things I wouldn’t want to turn into custard. Still, it seems a bit mean.

    • Alex says:

      Thanks for raising this one, Frank. I’m hoping someone out there will have a handy answer.
      I’m afraid I don’t really have a good tip, beyond trying to explain the fact that “could”, “would”, “should” etc are auxilliary (helping) verbs, so the word they “help” has to also be a verb – so it can’t be “of” (I of / you of / she ofs is clearly ridiculous!) … But that’s a far too grammatical explanation to be any use in most contexts. Sorry.

      I have honestly never heard the phrase “turn to custard” – what does it mean? Is it the same as “going pear shaped” (as in going wrong)?

      • Frank says:

        Thanks Alex, I’ll try that. Although I just read somewhere “that case would of come home with me too.” Taking out the would sounds wrong wether it is followed by have or of. Ah well.
        The turn to custard phrase is a NZ one, I think. Maybe that’s why you haven’t heard it?

        • Frank says:


        • Alex says:

          Hi there Frank. Sorry not to be clear – I didn’t mean that auxilliary verbs are optional in all cases – they add something extra to the main verb (tense, mood, potential etc); all I meant was maybe remembering (or reminding others!) that they have to appear with other verbs might help? But maybe not.

  11. […] for the real laugh-out-loud (literally), I can recommend his (slightly sweary) insights into a two-year-old’s emotional […]

  12. Alex says:

    I have spent the whole weekend (almost literally!) working on project reports and budgets, and I have mis-spelt the word “deficit” as “defecit” on every single occasion that I’ve had cause to use it… If anyone has a handy hint for helping me get that one right, I’d be very grateful!

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