Accept or except? Affect or effect? Spelling words that sound similar.

by Liz Walter

Michelle Patrick/EyeEm/Getty

A reader of one of my recent posts asked for an explanation of the difference between aught and ought. Aught is a very old-fashioned word, found mainly in old literature or poetry. Strangely, it can mean ‘anything’ or ‘nothing’, depending on the context. Ought is both a less common spelling of aught and (much more importantly) a very common modal verb, used in sentences such as: You ought to take more exercise.

In reality, most people go through their whole lives without ever using the word aught, so they are not likely to confuse the two. However, the question made me think about more common words that my students (and also many mother-tongue speakers) often muddle up. Continue reading “Accept or except? Affect or effect? Spelling words that sound similar.”

Capital M, small c, capital I…

by Colin McIntosh

Credit: Getty

ABBA, iPad, e e cummings, Schadenfreude: a strange list of words, but one thing they have in common is an unconventional approach to capitalization.

English speakers assume that having small letters and capitals is a natural state of affairs, but many languages, including classical Latin and languages with non-alphabetic scripts, don’t have such a distinction. The Romans had one style for inscriptions in stone, which gave our capitals, and another for handwriting, which gave our small letters, but they were never combined in the same text. Gradually, capitals were introduced into normal text to emphasize, for example, nouns, proper names, and the first word of the sentence.

English no longer capitalizes all nouns, whereas German does. For this reason German nouns borrowed into English are often written with a capital letter. Examples in the Cambridge dictionary include Schadenfreude, a feeling of pleasure when something bad happens to someone else, and Realpolitik, a type of politics that is decided more by the urgent needs of the country than by moral principles. This rule is often ignored for German words that are more integrated into English, like rucksack and strudel. Continue reading “Capital M, small c, capital I…”

There, their and they’re – which one should you use?

by Liz Walter

thereIf you are a learner of English and you are confused about the words there, their and they’re, let me reassure you: many, many people with English as their first language share your problem! You only have to take a look at the ‘comments’ sections on the website of, for example, a popular newspaper, to see plentiful examples of errors with these words. This post is a brief guide to using them correctly. Continue reading “There, their and they’re – which one should you use?”

Down with skool!

by Colin McIntosh

spellingEnglish is famously difficult to spell, although its uniqueness in this respect has been considerably exaggerated. The often-quoted ghoti as a spelling of fish (gh as in tough, o as in women, and ti as in nation) would never be possible, as the values attached to those letters are dependent on their position in the word. It is true that there are some unnecessary complications, though, and there have been attempts over the years to simplify English orthography. Not many have succeeded.

If we take the linguist’s view that speech is primary and writing simply a secondary representation of speech, then spelling should not matter that much. But attitudes to spelling are extremely firmly rooted in the English-speaking world. Any attempt to make the system more logical, efficient, or practical has to get past the language mavens, those self-appointed guardians of correctness. But English has no official or regulated spelling – it’s a matter of convention. In such circumstances, it’s the dictionary’s job to guide users through the minefield and help them make the best spelling choices for the situation. Continue reading “Down with skool!”

The indispensable @

by Colin McIntosh

at signOne of the least used keys on the keyboard is now one of the most indispensable: @.

It is read as at, but the symbol itself has no proper name in English. The at symbol seems to be the only generally recognized way of referring to it.

Traditionally it was used in financial records to show the price of a particular item on a list, and read as at:

50 units @ £4.75

Now it has found a new life as the symbol that joins the name of a person or a department in an organization to a domain name to make an email address: (read as dictionary at cambridge dot org)

It is also used in microblogging and social media, for example on Twitter, before the username, so that publicly readable replies can be sent:


Continue reading “The indispensable @”