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by Phil Bartle, PhD


A few of the common errors in writing that hinder good communication


Some people believe that we should never use the word "ain't" in the English language. It is, however, a legitimate and valid word – if it is used in the right place. It is a contraction for "am not."

The sentence, "I ain't going to school today," is therefore correct. It means, "I am not going to school today." It can be used only for the first person singular (I). It can not be used with "we," "they," "you," "thou," "he," "she," or any proper noun.

Advice versus Advise:

Advice is a noun, something that you give. It is a thing. Say, "Please give me some advice."

Advise is a verb, something that you do. It is some action. Say, "Please advise me."

Affect and Effect:

As verbs, they differ. To affect some thing is to have some influence upon it. To effect some action is to cause it to happen.

As nouns, they also differ. Affect is like affection, related to emotion. Effect is a result.

Apart and a Part:

One is a single word; the other includes two words. "Apart" means two things are separate or away from each other. A "part" means one thing is a portion or an element of another.

A wall is usually seen as a "part" of a house, for example, while a fence is seen as "apart" from the house.

Complement and Compliment:

The change from an "e" to an "i" makes a big difference in these two words. The word "complement" is related to the word "complete." If one thing complements another, then the two together make a whole.

In contrast, the word "compliment" is an observation of some good quality in a person. It is considered more sincere than flattery.

Datum and Data:

The word "data" is a plural noun, like "facts." Do not use it as a singular noun (like fact) or as a collective (like water). Right: "There are many data in that report."

If you want the singular of data (one bit of information) then use the word, "datum." Right: "I need only one datum from that report." This is very seldom used nowadays.


End of thinking creatively (E.T.C.). Avoid using "etc."

Fewer and Less:

"Fewer" is used for counting while "less " is used for measuring. You can say Kwaku has fewer litres of fuel than Kwame, if litres are discrete things, or you can say Kwaku has less fuel than Kwame, because you measure fuel, not count it.

You can say that Akua has fewer shillings than Efua, or you can say that Akua has less money than Efua. (You can not say that Efua has less shillings or that Kwaku has less litres). Money is measured while coins and bills are counted.

Grocery store managers display their illiteracy when they put up signs in the express lanes saying ten items or less instead of ten items or fewer.

Forum and Fora:

A forum is a place being used for communication within a group or collection of persons. Historically it was a physical gathering place, but metaphorically it could be in a newspaper or on the internet.

More than one "forum" is not "forums." They are "fora." The word has a Latin origin so we do not make the plural by adding the letter "s." The word "fora" refers to several places for discussion. Few people use the word "fora" any more.

In general, "s" is not used to indicate plural for words that are borrowed from Latin. The singular (one) should end in "um" while the plural (more than one) should end in "a." Examples include: stadium, stadia; medium, media; datum; data. (The word "media" means more than one medium of communication; ie newspapers, radio and TV).


Do not use long words.


Do not use "hopefully" unless you state exactly who is doing the hoping. Say: "They stood hopefully in the rain waiting for the rock star to appear."

Do not say: "Hopefully the bear will stay out of the village," or "Hopefully I will come in time." Say "We hope that the bear will stay out of the village," and "I hope that I will come in time."

Avoid all "...fully" words if you do not specify who is doing the action.

In Spite:

There is no such word as "inspite." Make sure you use the two words separately, "in" and "spite."

Input and put in?

An "input" is a noun, a thing, It is what you put into a project or a process.

"Input" is not a verb. You can not say you input something into a project or a process. You put something in, where "put" is the verb.

Isn't it?

When you make a statement, then immediately ask if it is not true, you can use "isn't it" only if the question used the verb "to be" (ie "is" or one of its forms), the original question was positive, and if the subject of the sentence is third person singular (it). It is correct to say, for example, "It is coming, isn't it?"

In many other languages, "isn't it" can be used without having to modify it to relate it to the original question. In English, you must make it consistent (with both the subject and the verb) – and negative. Thus: "He is coming; isn't he?" "I am coming; ain't I?" "You are coming; aren't you?" "He ate the food: didn't he?" "You will bring the gift; won't you?" "You will not do that; will you?"


Be careful when you use the word "kindly." It is used to begin a request that the listener or reader do something or refrain from doing something. It is polite and appropriate to use it on public notices, posters or broadcasts.

It is rude to use it when talking to a single person. It implies that the listener is in an inferior class or is your servant and you are annoyed with him or her. When asking an individual to do something, it is best to use the word, "Please."

Loose and Lose:

The two words, "loose" and "lose," look similar, especially to those who speak English as a second language. It is easy to mix them up.

The word, "loose," means something is not tight or securely fastened down. It might easily fall apart or fall off. The word "lose," in contrast, means to have something go away and become lost.

Number of:

Do not use the phrase "a number of" to indicate an unknown number of something. Instead, use the word "several."

Remember that zero is a number, so it is true that I had a number of sexual adventures with beautiful Hollywood starlets.

Opposed to:

Do not use "opposed to" when you mean "contrasted with". Opposed means there is a conflict between the two. Contrast means there is a difference

Passive Voice:

The word "obfuscation" means to write or speak in such a way as to look as if you are saying something, but reveal very little. Using the passive voice is a common way to say less than people want to read or hear. In the passive voice you say, "The orange was eaten."

That way you hide the subject and so do not reveal who ate the orange. If you use the active voice, you must reveal the subject. "Aziz ate the orange." The active voice is simpler, and it always identifies the subject, ie who did the action. Nothing is hidden.

Always use the active voice in writing or speaking.

Quotation Marks:

English is not a logical language. We would think, if we are logical, that we should put a full stop, as the end of a sentence, after the closing set of quotation marks. Not so. We first put the full stop (period) to end a sentence, then we put the closing quotation marks.

The same with a comma. When we use quotation marks, the second set of marks are put after the comma, not before, as we might logically assume.

For other punctuation marks, they go inside the quotations if they refer to the content of the quotation, or outside the quotation marks if they refer to the sentence as a whole.


To revert means to degenerate to an earlier condition. Say, "They reverted to barbarism." It does not mean to reply, as in "reply to a message." Say, "Please reply to this email message."


A slash (/) can be used as "either or" when the choice is between "and" and "or." Say: "She is bringing chocolates and/or wine." Do not use the slash, however to make the same statement about nouns (do not say chocolates/wine) or in other places where the two concepts are interchangeable.

Substantive and Substantial:

Do not say substantive when you mean substantial. Substantial refers to a large amount. Enough or more than enough for the purpose. Substantive refers to content, in contrast to form or superificial characteristics.

Upholding and Holding Up:

When you uphold someting, you support and help to maintain it. When you hold something up, you hinder it or prohibit it from continuing or developing.


The word "unique" means "one of a kind." There can only be one of that kind. This is an either/or situation; either something is unique or it is not. It can not be more or less.

That means something can not be "very" unique or something can not be "more" unique than something else. It is like being pregnant; either you are or you are not; you can not be just a little bit pregnant, or less pregnant than Isobel.

English is not Logical:

Up and down are supposed to be opposites. What do we do with a tree? We cut it down. Then what? We cut it up.

Can you read these correctly ... the first time?

  1. The bandage was wound around the wound.
  2. The farm was used to produce produce.
  3. The landfill was so full, they had to refuse more refuse.
  4. Please polish the Polish furniture.
  5. He could be in the lead if he would get the lead out.
  6. Since there is no time like the present, it is time to present the present.
  7. A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
  8. When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
  9. I did not object to the object.
  10. The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
  11. There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
  12. They were too close to the door to close it.
  13. The buck does strange antics when does are around.
  14. A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
  15. To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
  16. The wind was too strong for us to wind the sail.
  17. I shed a tear upon seeing the tear in the painting.
  18. I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
  19. I need to intimate this to my most intimate friend?

There is no egg in eggplant, no ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins were not invented in England nor French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies, while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, are meat.

We find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square, and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig. And why is it that writers write but fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth, beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese?

You can make amends but, not one amend? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it? If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? How is it that people recite a play and play at a recital; ship by truck and send cargo by ship; have noses that run and feet that smell?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? Your house can burn up as it burns down; you fill in a form by filling it out and an alarm goes off by going on. When the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. Why doesn't "Buick" rhyme with "quick?"

Their, There and They're

"Their" is an adjective. It describes something that belongs to them. "There" is a place; further away from here. "They're" is a contraction for "they are." (Amanda Ashton)

Should of

The phrase "should of" is wrong. It must be "should have." (Amanda Ashton)


© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
Web Design by Lourdes Sada
Last update: 2009.09.08

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