Difficult words

According to a study, English is such a difficult language to learn that it takes British schoolchildren twice as long to learn the basic skills as pupils on the continent.

Researchers blame the arcane rules and, in particular, the complicated syllable structure
and inconsistent spelling .

There’s no doubt that English contains many idiosyncracies. People who use the language professionally, like journalists and teachers, are expected to know right from wrong, but, in the absence of logic or consistency, there’s often no choice but to learn difficult words and phrases by heart.

In this chapter we’ll highlight the most troublesome words, so you can recognise them and use them correctly.

Confused Words

Affect or effect
To affect is a verb meaning to influence or to produce an effect upon:

The lawyer hoped to affect the jury’s decision

Effect is usually a noun meaning result or consequence:

The lawyer’s closing statement had an effect on the jury’s decision

To effect is a verb meaning to bring about:

The new manager effected many changes in personnel

Alternate or alternative
Alternate refers to every other one. Alternative is choice of two

Complement or compliment
Complement is a verb or noun meaning to complete a whole or satisfy a need:

His efforts complemented those of the rest of the team

A complement of 12 soldiers undertook the patrol

Compliment is also either a verb or noun, meaning to praise

She complimented him on his friendly manner

Her compliment was appreciated

Continual or continuous
Continual means over and over again. Continuous means uninterrupted or unbroken

Council or counsel
A council is a body of people. Counsel is both a verb and a noun meaning to advise, the advice itself, or a barrister

Dependent or dependant
Dependent is an adjective meaning reliant upon:

I do not like being dependent on my parents

Dependant is a noun meaning one who is dependent:

She has three dependants, her two children and her aged mother

Different from or different to/than
Different from is correct. Different to or different than are incorrect

Discreet or discrete
Discreet describes behaviour that is prudent or respectful of others’ sensitivities. Discrete means distinct or individual

Disinterested or uninterested
Disinterested means neutral or indifferent to the outcome. Uninterested simply means lacking in interest

Farther or further
Use farther when you’re referring to distance. Use further in all other senses, such as additional time, degree or quantity

Fewer or less
You should use less for quantity - fewer for number:

The workers produced fewer cars

The company earned less money

Imply or infer
To imply is to suggest indirectly or to insinuate. To infer is to draw a conclusion or to deduce

Lay or lie
Lay is a transitive verb meaning to place or put down:

Lay the package on the table

Lie is an intransitive verb meaning to recline:

Lie on your exercise mat

Licence or license
Licence is a noun meaning permission or permit. To license is a verb meaning to permit or allow. The American spelling is s in both cases, so some computers are set up to reflect it

Like or as
Use the word like as a preposition linked to a noun:

She took to politics like a fish to water

Use the word as instead of like when it qualifies a verb:

She took to politics as a fish takes to water

Loose or lose
Loose is an adjective meaning unfastened or unrestrained. To lose is a verb meaning the opposite of to win or gain

Practice or practise
Practice is the noun; it ‘s what you get when you practise (the verb):

He began practising as a doctor last year but already has built up a large practice

Don’t use the American spelling!

Principal or principle
As a noun, principal is the head of a college or the capital sum that earns interest. As an adjective, it means chief or main. Principle is a noun meaning rule or standard

Program or programme
Use the word programme in every sense except when you mean a set of instructions for a computer, then it is program.

Beware the American spelling for all uses!

Stationary or stationery
Stationary means fixed to one place or not moving. Stationery is writing paper and envelopes

Misused Words

Another set of words are commonly misused. The mistakes may be less obvious to the untutored eye, but as professionals in the use of the English language you will be expected to be word-perfect. Learn the correct way to use the following words:

Meaning every one separately considered, it takes a singular verb:

Each had his own story to tell

As an adjective it means one of two:

Either man might have the ball

As a pronoun, it can replace the word man :

Either has the ball

It takes a singular verb

A sentence containing if sometimes expresses uncertainty by modifying the verbs: If I were you, not If I was you

If I were the editor, I would insist on accuracy

May or might
In the present tense use may. In the past tense use might. Unfortunately, it ‘s slightly more complicated than that. The word may expresses a possibility, a wish or an uncertainty. The word might indicates a greater sureness, a knowledge that what might have happened didn’t:

The sun may shine tomorrow

The sun may have shone yesterday (we don’t know)


The sun might have shone yesterday (had it not been for the clouds)


Pigs may fly (for all we know)

Pigs might fly (but of course they won’t.)

In indirect speech, when you use the past tense, remember to change may to might

None means not one, so it takes a singular verb. Neither is the negative of either (above) and also takes a singular verb

Always use it near to the word it qualifies, so:

He had only one cigarette

rather than

He only had one cigarette

That or which
These words are not interchangeable. A clause starting with which preceded by a comma gives additional information about the subject of the sentence, whereas a clause starting with that is a direct description. For example:

The green car, which started last, won the race

The green car that started last won the race.

The first sentence says there was only one green car in the race. It started last and won. The second says that, of all the green cars in the race, the one that started last won.

Whether (or not)
Don’t use the phrase or not when you intend whether to have the same meaning as the word if . You should use it only when you want to show there’s an alternative, as in

He will attend the meeting, whether or not the party likes it

The word While means at the same time. Do not use while instead of and. It is ridiculous to write

Smith hit a century while he also bowled well

He couldn’t have done both at the same time!

Always use who rather than that or which when referring to people. Remember it changes to whom after a preposition, or as object to a verb, as in

He is a man who has done good work, whom we all admire and to whom we owe so much

Redundant Words

Casual speech is littered with redundant words. Remove the words in brackets from your speech and writing:

(absolutely) essential
(actively) engaged
(advance) warning
(and) also
(around) about
(as) from
combined (together)
(dead) body
(first) began
funeral of (the late) Mr Smith
(future) plans
golden wedding (anniversary)
(government) white paper
(if and) when
(included) among
(in order) to
linked (together)
may (possibly)
meet (with)
(new) acquisition, departure, development
(old) adage
(past) experience
(regular) monthly meeting
7pm (in the evening)
small (in size)
(successfully) passed
suddenly (and without warning)
(temporary) reprieve
(terrible) disaster
(totally)(completely) destroyed
(unexpected) surprise
(young) boy, girl