About The Joy of English



The initials A.D. do not stand for "After Death", but Anno Domini. This is Medieval Latin for "In the year of the/our Lord". The full term is Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi.

a historic or an historic?

See a historic or an historic?

abettor or abetter?

Abetter is the commonly used spelling in British English, whereas abettor is only used in legal contexts (English law). In the US the one and only spelling is abettor.

able to

The words able to can usually be removed and the verb used directly. Take a sentence such as:

The fireman was able to break down the door in order to rescue the kitten.

This can be cut to:

The fireman broke down the door to rescue the kitten.


The fireman broke down the door and rescued the kitten.

If you do still use it, remember to apply it to humans only and not to objects. Don't write: The boat was able to withstand the worst of the storm.

ability or capacity?

To have ability means having the power to do something with skill, often resulting from practice and exercise. Thus: "He has a great ability to learn."

To have capacity means having the power to take in something, receive or hold, usually intellectually in humans or physically in terms of volume etc. To have capacity usually pre-determined, pre-defined or inate – not matter how much you practice or work. Thus:

His capacity for languages is limited.
The tank is full to capacity.
My schedule is full and I don't have any more capacity.

Aboriginal or Aborigine?

The decades-long debate continues as to whether Aboriginal(s) or Aborigine(s) (with a capital) is correct as the noun for the native inhabitants of Australia. Commonly, the latter is the popular vernacular term and the former is the preferred term of careful writers. In support of this, the Cambridge Guide to Australian English (Pam Peters 2007) cites the 2002 edition of the Australian Government Style Guide as its current recommendation. Also, oxforddictionaries.com gives aboriginal as its first form.

The adjective is also Aboriginal (Aboriginal people, Aboriginal dance).

The roots of this particular situation stem from the Latin ab origine, meaning 'from the beginning', which has been used since the 1500s to describe the original inhabitants of a country (not just Australia). From the 1800s the fused Aborigine took hold as the firmly established form but has begun to give way to Aboriginal only in the last few decades.

abridgement or abridgment?

Abridgement in the UK and abridgment in the US.

absorption or adsorption?

In scientific terms, watch out for absorption and adsorption, with a -d. The former involves sucking in and taking on a property, the latter involves sticking to a surface.

acceptor or accepter?

accepter is the normal usage for a person who accepts something; acceptor is the spelling used in law, commerce, electronics and chemistry for persons or things, such as molecules and atoms etc.


We are familiar with access when it comes to computing, e.g. access a computer, access my e-mail etc, but many people frown on its use elsewhere. Careful writers use gain access to the building rather than access the building, or why not enter the building?

accessary or accessory?

accessory, in British English, is something that women (or men) would wear to go with a particular outfit, while an accessary is the legal sense of having helped someone commit a crime. In American English, accessory is the only form and has both meanings.

accidently or accidentally?

This word is often wrongly spelt as 'accidently', but stemming from the word 'accidental' rather than 'accident' it is correctly spelt accidentally.

acclimatise or acclimatize?

It is acclimatise in British English (unless using z-spellings) and acclimatize in US English.

accurate or precise?

While most people will use these as synonyms, be aware that in scientific writing they each have more precise meanings. A person might accurately be described as being two metres tall, but precisely measured at 1.95 m.

action and actionable

Please resist any attempt to use action as a verb. It is horrible to hear "We will action your request as soon as possible". The only usage of the word actionable should be in legal contexts, but not used to mean possible.

actor or actress?

Political correctness will insist that all men and women are treated equally. Therefore, the need for the suffix -ess is regarded as superfluous by some and derogatory by others. The current advice is to use actor for both genders. The same rule applies to almost all other words in this class. What would the late "Prince Diana" have thought?

acknowledgement or acknowledgment?

acknowledgement is the most common spelling of this word in the sphere of British English, as well as enjoying frequent use in both American and Canadian English. The alternative is, of course, acknowledgment, which is preferred by many publishers and dictionaries despite it not aligning with other -e- words. If you spell management, judgement, ageing and dyeing with an -e-, why not acknowledgement?

across or throughout?

There is a trend towards using, for example, throughout the country rather than across the country. The difference is in the degree of permeation. Across is a better word when speaking about an area, we have offices across the city; throughout is a better word when speaking of volume, there is damp throughout the building.


This word, though useful, can actually get too much use. Unless you mean, 'Actually, that's not what I meant', there probably isn't any reason to insert it in a sentence.


Be careful not to spell it 'adminstration', which is how some people say it.

ad, add or advert?

The correct abbreviation of advertisement is ad, not 'add'. It is also common in the UK to use advert.

ad nauseam or ad nauseum?

The best rule for using Latin is: if you are going to use it, know what you are saying. The correct spelling is ad nauseam.

adrenaline or Adrenalin?

Adrenalin is a trademark name for a brand of the hormone adrenaline. The latter is naturally occurring and the former is either extracted from animals or synthesised and used in medicine.

adultry or adultery?

Unlike the words sultry and husbandry, cheating on your spouse is correctly spelt as adultery, not 'adultry'. This is adulterous behaviour.

advance or advanced?

Use advance to mean in advance, and advanced to mean at a high level. It would be wrong to advertise 'advanced tickets'.

adverse or averse?

The easiest way to remember the difference between these two words is that adverse is likely to be the word you want (meaning 'difficult' or 'contrary'). The word averse, on the other hand, is less frequently used and means to have dislike of or strong feelings against something.

advisor or adviser?

How do you spell advisor/adviser? Well, Adviser is preferred spelling in both the UK and the US. Advisor remains an alternative spelling. Some Americans will also tell you that both spellings are fine, but in the UK only adviser is the standard spelling.

advocate or advocate for?

See advocate of or advocate for?

aeroplane or airplane?

The correct British spelling is always aeroplane, while the correct spelling is airplane in the US, as well as in Canadia. Both languages use aircraft and the shorter plane. You might as well be aware that the word deplane, to exit an aircraft, is only used in the US. Use disembark instead, or simply leave or exit.

aficionado or afficionado?

The correct spelling is aficionado, with one f.

affect or effect?

See affect or effect?

affinity between, with, to or for?

In general terms it is correct to use affinity between (plural) and affinity with (singular), but not 'affinity to' or 'affinity for'. The use of affinity of/to is often seen in scientific writing – almost to the point of being standard – but there is no reason why the normal rules shouldn't apply also here.

Afghans or Afghanis?

Although neighbouring Pakistan's inhabitants are Pakistanis, people from Afghanistan are Afghans. They are not 'Afghani', but their money is. British people are not called pounds, so why should Afghans be called Afghanis?

Afrikaans or Afrikaners?

The language in South Africa is called Afrikaans (-aa-) and the people who speak it are called Afrikaners (-a-), not 'Afrikaaners'.


To aggravate means to make worse, it has nothing to do with aggression or "aggro". It would be silly to think that an unsterilised and rancid bandage would annoy or intimidate a wound, rather than aggravate it.

aged or age?

It is British custom to write aged 30; it is US custom to write age 30. As in: The policeman questioned the man, aged/age 30.

aging or ageing?

The British spelling is always ageing (without the -e- looks more like "agging"). It is US custom to spell it aging.

aha or ah ha?

One word, written aha, as in "aha moment".


ahead of

Corporate and PR English loves to speak of things like: 'There is expected to be a surge in demand ahead of Monday's announcement.' Careful writers and speakers, however, prefer to use in advance of, or simply before.

AIDS or full-blown AIDS?

AIDS, of course, stands for Acquired Immune-Deficiency Syndrome (scientific and medical types aren't big users of the compound hyphen, by the way). Careful writers will use people with AIDS rather than 'AIDS victim' or 'AIDS sufferer', just because the subjective nature of their plight is not always relevant – let alone known. AIDS patient is objective, and therefore quite acceptable.

To speak of full-blown AIDS is another matter. AIDS does not have stages. You either have it or you don't, in the same way that you aren't in a 'full-blown marriage'. You either are or you aren't

airforce or air force?

Write it, air force, with two words.

air hostess

The correct term these days is cabin attendant, cabin crew, cabin staff, cabin personnel, flight attendant. Take your pick, but don't use 'air hostess' in formal contexts and remember that air crew and flight crew refer to those flying the aircraft, not the ones cross-checking the doors.


To stand akimbo means to have your hands on your hips and your elbows out, but if you know the word (and therefore the posture), you only have to use akimbo. Also, there is no such thing as "legs akimbo" (sic), even if you can get your feet to touch your hips.

alibi or excuse?

Having an alibi means knowing where you were at a particular time, this ruling you (usually) out of probable suspicion. This is different from having a reason or an excuse.

all-around or all round?

It is all-round in British English and all-around in American English (e.g. all-round tan and all-around tan).

all of the or all the?

The complete sequence is all of the. This is because it follows some of the, half of the, more of the, most of the, a bit of the etc., all of which don't work without the inclusion of of. e.g. "most the", "a bit the", "some the" etc. The same therfore goes for the colloquial "all the".

all right or alright?

To many people, the word alright might seem to have earned a place in the dictionary by now -- surely? Alas, no. In Britain, the correct spelling is the two-word variant. All right?

alot or a lot?

You are not alone if you continue to spell a lot as one word, alot, instead of the two that it should be. Most likely, you have always written alot and no one has pointed out that it is incorrect. Well, if you want to know how to spell alot, it is a lot. Use it from now on.

Alsation or Alsatian?

The breed of dog also known as a German Sheperd is an Alsatian, not "Alsation".

altar or alter

This brings to mind the old joke about why is it called and altar? Because she'll be walking down the aisle thinking, "I'll alter him". On a serious note, an altar is the place used for religious services, while alter is to make a change or correction to something.

alter ego

Make sure that you don't spell it "altar ego", or that would be wrong, even if people knew what you meant.

ambiance or ambience?

The correct UK spelling is ambiance and the correct US spelling is ambience.

amend or emend?

There is a fine distinction between these two words that are good to know. First, amend is the general word meaning 'to correct, adjust, modify, update, put right or change'. Second, emend is the specialised word for correcting a text, document, bill etc. However, some dictionaries will also state that amend is also used for texts.

What you need to remember is that emend is used only with texts, while amend is used for physical objects etc, such as amend a dress – never "emend a dress". A text emend, once done, is called an emendation.

America and Americans

Some people will argue, with some merit, that America is not just the United States of America, so we should not use America or Americans to only mean people of that nation. But America and Americans in this context have been used for 400 years, and there is no doubt that we mean Americans and not Canadians or Mexicans. Although some Mexicans may like to be called Americans, there are many Canadians who do not wish to be called Americans. When Americans say 'God bless America', they really only mean themselves. Americans mean Americans, and we should too. Rarely are North America and South America referred to in terms of one cohesive unit, except by geologists and geographers, so why should we? It's just the way it is. Don't be bullied into thinking otherwise.

-based, America-based or American-based?

Some people get it wrong with nations and use the noun form when they should be using the adjectival form, so say things – incorrectly – like "Britain-based company". Click here for the full explanation of America-based or American-based.

amidst or amid?

Like 'whilst', 'amidst' and 'amongst', 'unbeknownst' harks back to an older form of English that sounds overly formal and stilted in today's usage. Few people say 'hither' and 'thither' as they did not so long ago; we say 'here and there'. Using -st forms like these is still popular – championed, even – in pretentious language. The more modern forms are while, among, amid and unbeknown. It is much easier to say 'amid the confusion' than 'amidst the confusion'.

Take note, too, that the -st forms are rarely encountered in American English, no matter how much they are loved by a minority few in Britain. Use superfluous -st endings by all means, if you really want to, but there is absolutely no need for you to use them – nor obligation. If you insist on using amidst, then you really should also insist on using drunkard instead of drunk.

amongst or among?

There is no need to use amongst, among will do. See amid or admidst, above.

among or between?

There are some who say that between can only refer to two people or parties, and that a conversation between a group of people should always be among. This is just another untruth. It is absolutely correct to speak of a peace treaty between several countries, not between just two.

The difference between the two words is one of relation: something happening between people is reciprocal, no matter have many there are; something happening among people is going to be distributive, where something is being shared.

amok, amock or amuck?

Use amok for UK English and amuck for US English.

analyse or analyze?

Analyse is always the British spelling, regardless of whether you use -se or -ze spellings, while analyze is the only US spelling.

whichenglish @ twitter

any more or anymore?

Use any more in examples such as, 'We don't have any more supplies'. But use anymore in examples such as, 'I don't want to be here any more', 'You don't kiss me anymore'. You will see from this that anymore is a synonym of 'still', 'nowadays', 'these days', 'now' etc.


Anyplace is an informal US word – where it is not liked in formal circles – and will, with any luck, stay that way. The same goes for everyplace.

antenna or antennae?

Insects with more than one antenna have antennae; a radio with more than one antenna has antennas.

anti- or ante-?

depends: ante means 'before' and has the opposite meaning of 'post-', while anti- has the meaning 'against' and is the opposite of 'pro-'. The easiest way to remember this is to think of 'anti-abortion/pro-abortion' and 'antenatal/antenatal'.

anti-Christ or Antichrist?

This word is a noun, not an adjective. It is Antichrist or the Antichrist – with a capital A and no hyphen.

anticipate or expect?

PR types love to speak of how they or their clients anticipate (sic) such and such, but to anticipate means to do something because you expect a certain action. What they really mean is that they expect such and such. If I anticipate someone's move, It is because I already expect it. The two words are not synonyms, and careful writers make the distinction in their writing.

any time or anytime?

Prefer the form any time over the informal 'anytime'.

appal or appall?

Appal (UK) and appall (US). Both spell appalling and appalled.

apart from or aside from?

This is a minor thing but one that few people are well aware of. The expression apart from is the preferred form in the UK, while aside from is the more commonly used expresssion in the US. There is no right or wrong here, only regional practice and reference – like tick a box and check a box.

Arab or Arabic?

Arab is used to describe nouns, such as Arab culture and Arab history. The word Arabic is used when speaking of the Arabic language or its literature. So, Arabic newspapers describe newspapers written in Arabic, while Arab Media would describe media (regardless of language) produced in the Arab region, possibly even by Arabs.

are able to

Just use can.

Arctic or Artic?

Remember that Arctic has two Cs and a capital A, even if it is not the place. Therefore write Arctic weather, Arctic explorer and Arctic region.

ardor or ardour?

Spell it ardour in the UK and ardor in the US.

Argentine or Argentinian?

Use Argentine as an adjective to describe things from Argentina. Use Argentinian to describe people from there. That said, when in doubt Argentine is also the preferred choice in the UK while in the US many stick to Argentinian (also Argentinean) for everything.


Careful writers omit using the word arguable, not just because it can be argued that it doesn't add anything but because it is arguably really very literally, and frankly, basically quite overused. If something is arguably overused, then why not just say that it is overused?

If you still want to use it, try I would argue that instead and say it more forcefully. Why else would you argue about it? Everything is, quote unquote "arguable".

around or round?

I want to travel round the world. I have so many friends around the world. Use round when you mean a direction of movement, and use around in the surrounded sense. Americans only tend to use around for everything.

arse or ass?

Brits only ever use the word arse. Americans call it an ass.

artifact or artefact?

The choices are: artefact (UK spelling and Australian spelling) and artifact (American spelling and Canadian spelling).

arms length or arm's length?

The correct spelling is always arm's length, with an apostrophe.

as or like?

Click here for details.

aside from or apart from?

Although these two expressions are used in both British English and American English, the strong British preference is definitely to use Apart from and the strong American preference is to write Aside from. They both mean the same thing, the only difference is where they are most commonly used.

assumption or presumption?

See assumption or presumption?

asylum seeker or illegal immigrant?

First, there can be no such thing as an "illegal asylum seeker". An asylum seeker only becomes an illegal when they ignore an order to leave the country they seek to remain in, but then they become a illegal immigrants. Despite what the tabloid-reading British public think, asylum seekers and immigrants are not the one and same. A British couple who move to France to retire are immigrants; footballers from abroad who sign up to play with teams in the UK are also immigrants. They all want a better life, but only asylum seekers seek asylum.

at the end of the day

The overused expression "at the end of the day" is a meaningless phrase. Turn it into finally or ultimately to sharpen your writing.

at this point in time

Oh, you mean "now"? Can we please stop using the overused and (often) meaningless phrase?


Australian English has its own vocabulary. Words like crook (sick), chook (chicken) and sook (whinger) are used regularly but are not understood in, for example the US or UK. See also Briticism and Americanism, which are treated slightly differently.

a while or awhile?

The difference between these two is subtle, but significant. Use a while to mean 'for a period of time' and awhile to mean 'a period of time'. Don't get it? It might take you a while to remember which is which. Compare with The pain only hurts awhile. Also remember not to write 'for awhile'.

axeing or axing?

The British spelling is axeing (as a verb, to fire, or with an axe (ax US)) and the American spelling is axing.


This page last updated: 15 November 2014

Jesse Karjalainen is the author of The Joy of English: 100 conversations about the English Language, Cannibal – the language and history of the discovery of the New World, and Roanoke – the language and history of Early Colonial America.

Jesse Karjalainen is the author of The Joy of English: 100 conversations about the English Language, Cannibal – the language and history of the discovery of the New World, and Roanoke – the language and history of Early Colonial America.