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Words and phrases Words to watch

Overview

There are several words and phrases that often trip up writers. Some words have similar spelling but different meaning or use, while other words have multiple meanings.

Here's a list of the most common words to watch and tips for how and when to use each of them.

A or An

Use “a” and “an” as they would be said.

an 18% increase
a NATO paper
a UK organisation
an IT solution

Use “a” for words beginning with “h” when the “h” is pronounced.

a historian

an hour

Accept or except

“Accept” means to agree to receive or do. “Except” means not including.

I accept your terms.

Bring everything except the tent.

Advice or advise

“Advice” is a noun and means recommendations about what to do. “Advise” is a verb and means to recommend something.

The advice was very useful.

I advised him to call the police.

Affect or effect

“Affect” means to influence or to adopt. “Effect” means to accomplish the result of an action. "Affect" is the verb, while "effect" is the noun.

The war affected him greatly.

The overall effect was stunning.

Altogether or all together

“Altogether” means completely. “All together” means everyone in one place.

There were six altogether.

We were all together in the living room.

Alzheimers disease

Use “Alzheimers disease”, without an apostrophe.

Because, due to and since

The words “due to” and “since” should not be used in place of “because”. “Owing to” can replace “because of” if needed.

"It was wet inside owing to the window being open" not "it was due to rain"

"This increase was because of widespread growth in the services sector" not "This increase was due to widespread growth in the services sector"

Due to

“Due to” can be used to mean either “owed to” or “scheduled to”. It should not be used in place of "because of".

the money that is due to her from an inheritance

the train is due to arrive at 8:45pm

Since

“Since” is usually used in the past tense.

They have known each other since 1982.

Mother and I have not spoken since the fall of Tobruk.

“Since” can be used in the present tense when it refers to the current situation.

Since he went to university, he thinks he knows everything.

Between or among

Use “between” when referring to two subjects. Use “among” when referring to more than two subjects. Do not use “amongst”.

We divided the money between John and Michael.

We shared the sweets among Sarah, Lucy and Clare.

Brexit, not EU exit

Search engine data show that many more people use “Brexit” than “EU exit”.

The UK government set out its strategy for trade policy after Brexit in a paper published in October.

The decline in transport equipment was due largely to a fall in car manufacturing, as firms planned shutdowns around the originally-intended date for Brexit.

Click here

Do not use directional text, such as “click here” or “the list below”, as this is not accessible and could be misleading for people using various tools to browse the website.

Read more about how to write and format accessible hyperlinks

Complement or compliment

“Complement” is that which completes or fills up something. “Compliment” is an expression of admiration or praise.

A full complement of staff.

He complimented my choice of outfit.

Complementary or complimentary

“Complementary” is completing or making up a whole. “Complimentary” means given free of charge.

The complementary staff.

Here are the complimentary peanuts.

Coronavirus and COVID-19

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause disease in people and animals. They can cause the common cold or more severe diseases, such as COVID-19. COVID-19 refers to “coronavirus disease 2019” and is a disease that can affect the lungs and airways.

Coronavirus is lower case unless at the start of a sentence. Always refer to “coronavirus (COVID-19)” in the first instance of each section of your article or bulletin.

For all subsequent uses in a section, use:

  • “coronavirus” when referring to the virus and the pandemic in general - for example, "coronavirus pandemic lockdowns and restrictions"
  • "COVID-19” when referring to the specific disease - for example, “there was an increase in registered deaths involving COVID-19” or "the COVID-19 vaccine"
  • "the coronavirus pandemic" or "the pandemic"
  • "pre-coronavirus pandemic" or "pre-pandemic"

Do not add the word “the” before “coronavirus” when it is being used as a noun. For example, “effects of coronavirus on the economy.”

Questionnaires and respondent materials should use “coronavirus (COVID-19)” for all instances.

Using coronavirus and COVID-19 in titles and summaries

If the article or bulletin is specifically about coronavirus, please include this in the title. Use the format “Coronavirus and [topic]” where possible.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Infection Survey, UK: 20 May 2022

Coronavirus and employment for parents in the UK: October to December 2019

If the release contains some information on coronavirus, but this is not the main focus of the content, include “coronavirus (COVID-19)” in the summary and meta description.

Homeworking during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, focusing on changes and how they have altered the distribution of labour across the UK.

Provisional counts of the number of deaths registered in England and Wales, including deaths involving coronavirus (COVID-19), in the latest weeks for which data are available.

Important information:

The Content Design team can help you write short, concise and frontloaded article titles and summaries. Email content.design@ons.gov.uk (opens in a new tab) 

Data

The word data is a plural noun, so always use "data are". The singular of data is "datum".

The data are for 2012 to 2013.

Dependant or dependent

“Dependant” is a noun and means someone who relies on another for support, financial or otherwise. “Dependent” is an adjective and means depending, relying, contingent or relative.

I have six dependants.

The trip is dependent on the weather.

Expenditure

“The act of spending” or “money spent”. An item cannot have expenditure, it can only have money spent on it.

Fewer or less

Use “less” with nouns that cannot be counted or do not have a plural.

less praise

less rain

In sentences with “than”, use “less” with numbers on their own.

The price fell from £18 to less than £12

Use “less” when referring to measurements or time.

Companies less than 5 years old are creating jobs.

Per capita income is less than $50 per year.

Heath Square is less than 4 miles away.

Use “fewer” with nouns in the plural.

fewer than 20 employees

fewer people

Do not use “over” and “under” for quantities. Use less than and fewer than, or more than.

more than 6%

Always write fewer than or less than out as words. Do not use the symbols.

Read more about why some symbols and special characters are not accessible

Functionality

The capacity to be functional or practical; purpose. Also means “a specific application of a computer program”.

Hopefully

“Hopefully” means “full of hope”. Instead, use “it is hoped that” or “we hope”.

However

“However” has two meanings: “nevertheless” and “no matter how”. If you use “however” at the beginning of a sentence to mean “nevertheless”, it must be followed by a comma.

The data are usually consistent. However, rounding can cause differences.

If you use “however” to mean “no matter how”, a comma is not required.

However many times I write this, it is never easy.

Do not use “however” as a substitute for “but”.

It is raining today, however we hope it will be dry tomorrow.

-ise and -ize

Use “-ise”, not “-ize” as a word ending, unless it is a proper noun

The Cambridge English Dictionary (opens in a new tab)  uses “-ize”, please ignore this.

organise
prioritise

Illegitimate births

Avoid the phrase "illegitimate births". Instead, use “born outside marriage”.

Imply or infer

“Imply” is to insinuate, signify or hint. “Infer” is to draw a conclusion from something.

The statistician implied the crime levels had gone down.

From the statistics we infer that the crime levels have gone down.

Important or interesting

If something is important or interesting, you should also say why and to whom.

The crime statistics are important to the police in each area, as they can use them for employment estimates.

Lead or led

“Lead” (verb) means to cause a person or animal to go with one or to be in charge or command.

Jack will lead the horses to water.

I always lead the team on large projects.

“Lead” (noun) can mean taking the initiative or being an example to others, or it refers to the metal.

Britain has taken the lead in this race.

The pipe is made of lead.

“Led” is the past tense and past participle of the verb “to lead”.

Annie led the meeting successfully.

Licence or license

“Licence” is a noun and means being allowed or given leave. A patent or grant of permission. "License” is a verb and means to give permission or allow.

The police asked to see my licence.

The premises is licensed for alcohol.

Like

Use “such as”, not “like”.

Stylistic devices such as bold and italic.

Mitigate

To appease, to make something more easily borne or to lessen the severity, violence or evil of something.

Of, from, with and to

Compared with and compared to

Use “compared with” when pointing out the similarities and differences of subjects.

Full-time workers in England earned £316 per week compared with only £284 per week in Wales.

Use “compared to” when pointing out similarities.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Use “in comparison with” and never “in comparison to”.

Consists of and comprises

Use “consists of” or “comprises” but never use “comprises of”.

The pudding consists of cream, berries and meringue

The pudding comprises cream, berries and meringue

Different from/than/to

Use “different from”, “different to” and “different than”.

It is different from the original version

It is different to the original version

It is different than the original version

Practice or practise

“Practice” is a noun and means the application or use of an idea, belief, or method. “Practise” is a verb and means to perform an activity or exercise.

The practice of hanging was outlawed.

I am practising my juggling.

Principal or principle

“Principal” as an adjective means taking the first place. "Principal" as a noun means the head of a college or university.

The principal idea for school closure. The principal closed the school.

“Principle” means a law or premise.

The school was closed on principle.

Program or programme

Write “computer program” but every other type uses the extra “-me” spelling.

television programme

theatre programme

Recession

In the UK, “recession” refers to two or more consecutive quarters of negative growth in GDP or output. If you are unsure if this applies to the period you are writing about, use the term “economic downturn”.

Similar to

Use “similar to”, and never use “with” or “as”.

It is similar to the original version.

Stationary or stationery

“Stationary” means not moving. “Stationery” means writing or office materials

The train was stationary.

The pen is in the stationery cupboard.

That or which

Use “that” when the next part of the sentence is essential to its sense or meaning.

The statistics that show the decline are invaluable.

The chart shows the population increase that occurred in 2019.

Use “which” to introduce part of a sentence that offers additional information but is not essential. When used in this way, “which” should be preceded by a comma.

The statistics, which were produced this week, show there has been a decline.

The largest increases were in Wales and Northern Ireland, which both saw a 3% rise.

Which or what

Use “which” when there is a limited choice and assumed knowledge of options. Use “what” when there are many possibilities.

Which colour do you prefer?

What breed is your dog?

Web, internet and online

The words “web”, “world wide web”, “www”, “internet” and “online” are always lower case. “Online” is always written as one word.

web
world wide web
www
website
homepage
web page

Read about our words not to use

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