About The Joy of English

This page was last updated: 26 October 2013

palate, pallet or palette?

A palate is what you taste food with, a pallet is what boxes are transported on and a palette is the wooden plate that painters use to mix colours with, as well as being a range of colours.

parallel or paralell?


parallelling or paralleling?


parallelled or paralleled?


parent's worst nightmare

And you thought that the world was running out of clichés. Best avoided, no need to state the obvious.

par excellance or par excellence?

The correct spelling is par excellence, despite the the "-unce" sound.


Partake in or partake of?

The in kind follows the same usage as take part in an event or activity such as 'He was the only one present who partook in the burglary'.

The of variety is the more lofty kind, as in to 'partake of my favourite tipple'.

patients or patience?

Patients have doctors, and people waiting in queues have patience.

While we are on the subject, remember that a prisoner is 'released from custody'. But patients aren’t ‘released’ from hospital, they are discharged.

peddle or pedal, pedaller or pedaler, peddler or pedlar?

To pedal is to use your feet to turn wheels and cogs. The peddle is to sell something. From these we get pedaller (US pedaler) for 'one who uses their feet' and peddler (variant spelling pedlar) for 'one who sells goods and items'.

pedaller, peddler or pedlar?

A pedaller is a cyclist, a peddler a drug dealer and a pedlar someone selling door to door.

people or persons?

Never persons, always people, unless for legal contexts.


There is a view by some that per is more formal and/or superior than the more simple a. While Latinisms may be given more formal treatment in English than Anglo-Saxon words, this is nothing but snobbery. More important, however, is using per in the correct way. Being a Latin preposition, per needs a Latin word following. You might want to write ‘£45,000 per annum’ not ‘£45,000 a year’, that’s your choice, but don’t go writing ‘£45,000 per year’.  If you want to choose Latinisms, stick to them.

The general stock Latinisms for per include: per annum, per se and per capita. This includes per cent (percent US).

Other examples of common usage include using 'per head' for per capita and 100 miles per hour for an hour (but mph/kph is acceptable).

Also, the same applies to as per usual, which is no different from as usual.

per se

Some people find the use of per se, meaning 'by or in itself', as stuffy. It is not. This useful adverb is perhaps tarnished by being associated with stuffy usage of the preposition per (see above). The only thing to look out for is to not spell it 'per say' or 'persay', which is how it is pronounced.

The Latin per se is also much used in legal terminology ('illegal per se', 'negligence per se' and 'malum in se' etc) but the rules in this area aren't applicable to everyday English usage.

percent or per cent?

it's per cent in British English. Only in American English is it percent – well, maybe not just Americans.

percentage cuts

How many time do we hear or read about a drop in interest rates from 3% to 2% as being a 1% decrease? It’s actually a 33% decrease, as well as being a 1 percentage-point decrease or a 1-point decrease in interest rates. The main point is to remember to take care before stating percentage falls or increases.

persons or people?

Never persons, always people, unless for in certain legal contexts.

phoney or phony?

The British spelling is phoney and the American spelling is phony.

pixelated or pixellated?

Pixellated is the correct British spelling and pixelated is the American spelling.

pixelated or pixilated?

Pixelated/pixellated is the computer-screen type. Don’t spell it pixilated, which means being drunk and derives from pixies.

plural of plateau: plateaus or plateaux

The plural is either plateaus or plateaux.

playwrite or playwright?

Always spell it playwright.

pleaded or pled?

You can be forgiven for thinking that criminals in American movies have always “pled guilty”, because in the movies they often do. The correct past tense form of plead is pleaded. Guilty your honour.

plural of plectrum: plectrums or plectra?

The plural is plectra.

plough or plow?

The British spelling is plough and the American spelling is plow. (snowplough UK and snowplow US)

pointy or pointed?

The question here is, should it be a pointy hat or a pointed hat, and is there a difference between the two. Yes, pointy is considered by dictionaries to be an informal form of the preferred form pointed. So if you are writing a scientific paper, essay or article, say, then use pointed, thereby relegating pointy to casual, everyday conversation and style. If you really need to avoid either of these, you might get away with triangular.

political correctness (PC)

Avoid. We’ve come to the point where even the term political correctness is out of bounds for a lot of people.

Post Modern or postmodern?

Actually, when talking about any form of art with Post Modern characteristics, the capitalised, spaced version is the only correct one – unless you want to describe your postmodern lifestyle or attitude, which requires the latter form.

practice or practise?

In the US the correct spelling is practice in all instances. (Contrary to popular belief, practise is an alternative US spelling but considered incorrect.) The noun/verb distinction is not made in the US as far as spelling goes.

In the UK (British English) there is a distinction between practice (noun) and practise (verb). The easy way to remember is to link them to advise and advice – when in doubt try testing with advice/advise. The -ing form is always practising.

practising homosexual

This is a strange term, because it doesn't convey when the practising stops and the real work starts – like someone in training (joke!). Practising surely means you aren’t really doing something fully, doesn’t it? What about practising heterosexuals? What are they all about?

On a more serious note, this term is both idiotic and – to borrow an overused phrase – not fit for purpose. The same goes for active homosexual. If it must be said, use the correct term gay.


The prefix pre- has been sprouting up a lot in the past few years. I blame advertisers and marketing teams for this one, adding pre- to words that simply don’t need it: 'pre-booked', 'pre-installed', pre-loaded, pre-ordered,  pre-rehearsed and so on. Sometimes you hear 'pre-prepared'. Why oh why? I don't see the benefit of describing software as being 'pre-loaded'.

precursor of or precursor to?

Use precursor to for British English and Australian English, and precursor of for American English and Canadian English.

preface or introduction?

An ideal preface sets out the purpose and scope of a book, with details about how you came to write it. An introduction should set out the subject of the book, introduce the text and the framework, as well as address the reader.

Put simply, a preface is the "I" part of a book and an introduction is the "you, dear reader" part.

premier or premiere?

Use premier to mean 'leading, most important' (in Australia and Canada premier used for a head of government or the Prime Minister) and premiere to mean the opening performance of a play or show.

presently or currently?

Careful writers use currently to mean 'now' and 'soon' instead of the variant presently.

President or president?

If you want to write about the president of France use a lower-case p; if you write about the French President as a title use the upper-case P.

presumption or assumption?

If we start with presumption, it means roughly 'having a preconceived position or understanding before the start of a debate, hearing or argument'. Meanwhile, assumption means more generally 'having a preconceived idea or expectation of events'. Subtle, but not impossible to separate: we often hear presumption of innocence (which would not be "assumption of innocence"); while we generally assume that a 24-hour store will always be open when we go there (we don't "presume" so).

If we dig a little deeper, an assumption is an idea 'not supported by evidence', while a presumption is something based on more than guesswork, based on more evidence. In the forms assume and presume the waters are murkier and they both generally mean '[I] take it for granted [that]'. But still, the pre- in presume signals the difference. Then there are other meanings of assume (assume a new role, authority etc). Presume can also mean 'taking an arrogant stance, view or position', which is why it is called being presumptuous. Like the quote goes, 'Dr Livingstone, I presume?'

Prime Minister or prime minister?

See President/president above.

principal or principle?

Principal is 'most important or senior'; principle is to do with ethics.

prise open or pry open?

The British spelling is prise open and the American spelling is pry open.


A lot of people spit the dummy over this one. It remains fashionable and overused, despite being coined in the 1930s. It is the kind of empty word used to have the appearance of meaning when it doesn’t have any. What’s wrong with using initiative rather than 'being proactive'?

The origin of proactive is that it was first used in 1971 as an antonym of reactive, not an antonym of 'no initiative'.


Profile is best kept a noun and not a verb.

pro-life or anti-abortion?

Protesters and campaigners of this variety are against abortion, therefore a better description is anti-abortion.

'Pro-life' is Orwellian newspeak, spin. It is a glass half full or half empty situation. Pro-life could also be someone against capital punishment.

protest, protester

This word is often incorrectly spelt ‘protestor’. And then we have the question of pronunciation. Say it PRO-test, say it pro-TEST. Say it your way. Generally speaking, nouns and verbs have differing pronunciation (CON-test (n), con-test (v); CON-duct (n), con-DUCT (v) etc).

proven or proved?

The well worn phrase, guilty until proved innocent, needs a -d not an -n. The past participle of prove should be proved [We have proved our case].

Stay well clear of ‘proven’ unless as an adjective ("proven ability").

Also, some people in Britain insist on the artificial pronunciation 'PRO-ven' – rhyming 'proven' with 'woven' – rather than 'PROO-ven'. Somehow this seems to be spreading unchecked among people trying to be haughty. However, restrict "PRO-ven" to judgements from Scottish courts (where they have a verdict known as 'not proven').

provided that or providing that?

Use provided that, not 'providing'. I will give you the money provided that you can assure me it will be spent wisely.

Ps and Qs or P's and Q's?

Ps and Qs, never P's and Q's.

public schools or private schools?

In the UK, public schools are 'private schools'. For non-Brits it can be confusing – why not just say private school? It certainly sounds more exclusive, whereas words with public generally aren't exclusive. Compare: public library/private library, public bar/private bar, public transport etc.

push(ing) the envelope

Can we please stop using the overused and (often) meaningless phrase?


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.