Tag Archives: spelling

Why I hate the Press!

Why I hate the Press!

I know why they do it (most of the time), but it’s still incredibly annoying and confusing.

I’m talking about grammatical mistakes in the papers.

Yes, it’s important for their copy to be readable, but we have rules on capital letters, spelling, punctuation and other grammar primarily to make language more understandable, not less, so there is a price to pay when mistakes are made.

In addition, newspapers these days employ far fewer copy editors to correct mistakes, so journalists are increasingly having to do spell checks and grammar checks themselves – with predictable results!

As a tutor, I’m in a difficult position. On the one hand, I accept that language changes over time, but my job depends on telling my pupils what is right and what is wrong.

I have to draw a line in the sand and tell people what I would do, but that’s based on the education I got forty years ago!

I’m far more comfortable with language changes that happen over a timescale of centuries rather than years or even decades, and I still teach people not to use words like ‘alright’ or ‘onto’ even though most people wouldn’t know what I was on about.

Anyway, feel free to make up your own mind. Here’s a quick list of the ways in which the ‘style guides’ of newspapers and magazines try to change the rules of English in order to make their articles more ‘readable’:

  • Paragraphs only include one or two sentences (meaning that you often have to check back to see who ‘he’ or ‘she’ is).
  • Commas are omitted before the word ‘and’.
  • Commas are omitted after openers/sentence starters/fronted adverbials.
  • Split infinitives are permitted.
  • ‘Sentences’ may start with conjunctions even though they are strictly speaking only clauses.
  • ‘Likely’ may be used as an adverb.

Writers also simply make mistakes, and my pet peeves are the use of ‘centre around’ (rather than ‘centre on’) and words like ‘focussing’ (rather than ‘focusing’).

I’m sure we can all think of a few more examples, but I thought I’d illustrate my point by putting together a list from just one newspaper on just one day – The Daily Telegraph on Thursday 2 September 2021.

Have a look at the quotations and see how many mistakes you can spot!

‘But, now 34 and in the twilight of his career, it is hard to see Solskjaer using Cavani in the sort of wide role supporting Ronaldo that he became accustomed to for a while at PSG in order to accommodate Ibrahimovic centrally.’

This is not a full sentence as it starts with ‘but’. It is actually only a main clause that needs another main clause before it. The other problem is that we don’t know who or what is 34. By the way it’s phrased, it looks like ‘it’ is 34, but that’s impossible, so maybe it’s Solskjaer, but that’s not right either. It’s actually Cavani!

‘The Norwegian has already admitted he “maybe overplayed” Fernandes and Marcus Rashford is currently sidelined until later next month following shoulder surgery after repeatedly being asked to play through the pain barrier.’

The comma before ‘and’ has been left out. This happens a lot in the papers, but you should be able to see from this example how confusing it is. Commas are a signal to pause when you’re reading, but without that pause It seems as though Solskjaer overplayed both Fernandes and Rashford because it looks like a list. However, the word ‘is’ lets us know that we’re actually entering another main clause. This is just plain confusing and results in readers having to reread sentences in order to make sense of them.

‘Any club sanctioned by Fifa would face further disciplinary action if they defied any ban on fielding affected players – although the teams would likely only do so if they planned on trying to overturn such a ban.’

Pronouns are a problem these days, often because writers don’t want to follow the convention of assuming that an individual is male when using the word ‘anyone’ or ‘everyone’. Using ‘them’ or ‘their’ is an ungrammatical cop-out. Here, the writer uses the plural pronoun ‘they’ to refer to the singular noun ‘club’, which is debatable to say the least. I’d say it was grammatically wrong, but I’ll admit that British English (though not American English) treats clubs as plural when using their names, for example in saying that ‘Liverpool have bought a defender’. That’s all well and good, but that’s not the case here. It’s not the name of a club that’s being used, just the word ‘club’. The other problem is the use of ‘likely’ as an adverb. This is a perfectly acceptable American usage, but ‘likely’ has always been an adjective in British English – until recently!

‘He said: “Monetary policy has always influenced fiscal outcomes — interest rate changes influence sovereign financing costs. But, with QE, the character of the relationship has changed.”’

Colons should be used when introducing a list rather than speech, and ‘sentences’ shouldn’t start with the word ‘but’.

‘In 2019, it was condemned by its own former chairman for celebrating the resignation of a Labour MP, who was chair of the party’s friends of Israel group, on its Twitter account.’

The problem here is the use of commas around the relative clause (‘who was chair of the party’s friends of Israel group’). Yes, a pair of commas may be used to fence off ‘extra information’ from the rest of the sentence, but relative clauses following ‘who’ and ‘that’ are a special case. They need commas if you’re describing something or someone, but not if you’re defining something or someone. Here, the writer is defining which Labour MP is meant, so no commas should be used. It’s the same when using ‘which’ and ‘that’. You should use ‘which’ with a comma to describe, but ‘that’ without a comma to define.

‘She put longevity above genuine achievement, and popularity above actually tackling Germany’s real problems.’

This is the reverse of the missing comma I mentioned before. The comma before the word ‘and’ here implies that a new main clause is about to start and that the reader should expect a verb after the word ‘popularity’, but in fact it’s just a list. Again, this causes confusion and reduces readability by forcing readers to reread the sentence to check the meaning.

‘Its economy only survives thanks to her predecessor’s labour market reforms, and the fact that the euro is much cheaper than the Deutsche Mark would have been.’

Again, this is another example of the redundant ‘Oxford comma’ in the middle of a list.

‘Reread some of your old columns, dust out your biography of Churchill, and, above all, stop trying to imitate Angela Merkel.’

This is yet another instance of the misplaced comma before the word ‘and’. I presume the writer means ‘dust off’ rather than ‘dust out’…!

‘Many centre-ground voters, while they may not allow themselves to become over-heated by the subject, will nevertheless acknowledge the fact that allowing such migrants to remain indefinitely in Britain when many thousands of others are rejected after applying through formal channels is unfair and unjust.’

All that’s wrong with this is the tautology at the end: ‘unfair’ means ‘unjust’, so you don’t need both adjectives.

‘It all adds up to an entangling web of sclerotic bureaucratic processes that will do little to actually protect the environment.’

I realise that the need to avoid the split infinitive was based on an arbitrary comparison with Latin, in which the infinitive literally can’t be split because it’s one word rather than two, but the convention is still common enough to make most people shiver when they read something like this.

‘There’s a clear need to reduce emissions to tackle climate change and conserve the environment. But we need an approach that doesn’t borrow tools from the old socialist handbook.’

The second ‘sentence’ is only a fragment as it starts with ‘but’.

‘Countries with the most economic freedom perform 50 per cent better on Yale and Columbia universities’ Environmental Performance Index, while those with controlled economies perform worse.’

‘While’ is a subordinating conjunction and so shouldn’t have a comma before it.

‘In response to climate change, the Adam Smith Institute and the British Conservative Alliance are focusing on three areas. First, a border-adjusted carbon tax that would account for the costs to the environment while encouraging innovation. Second, embracing nuclear energy by addressing the high fixed costs to design. And third, a clean free trade agenda including abolishing tariffs and quotas on environmental goods and joining the Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability.’

This is just a list, so the writer should’ve used one sentence instead of piling up sentence fragments that don’t have a subject or a verb. The last ‘sentence’ shouldn’t start with ‘and’ either.

‘Former Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli once wrote, “ I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best ”.’

Here, the comma before ‘Benjamin Disraeli’ shouldn’t be there because he is one of many prime ministers. If there’d been only one prime minister, then there should’ve been commas before and after his name, but there are no circumstances in which you should only have one comma.

‘A number of scenarios could unfold: among them a really bad flu epidemic, a new variant that evades the vaccines, or a brutally cold winter that fills the hospitals.’

The first problem here is the phrase ‘among them’. I’d say it was a grey area, but I would leave it out – the colon should introduce the list itself. The second problem is the comma before ‘or’. Yes, it’s a co-ordinating conjunction (or FANBOYS word), but that just means there should be a comma in front of it if it’s being used to join two sentences together, not when it’s separating items in a list. It’s the same for the word ‘and’ and other co-ordinating conjunctions.

‘Meanwhile the NHS is at full stretch to try to reduce the waiting times on operations and diagnostics, with its capacity is reduced by ongoing Covid precautions.’

First, there should be a comma after ‘meanwhile’ or any other adverb at the start of a sentence. Second, the word ‘is’ shouldn’t be there.

‘GPs are still reluctant to see patients face to face, and this is putting additional pressure on hospitals, with health problems spotted later and multiple problems are piling up.’

This is a similar problem, the word ‘are’ being left in by mistake after ‘problems’.

‘Even pre Covid, winter meant headlines screaming “ NHS in worst crisis ever”.’

‘Pre’ is only a prefix rather than a word, so it needs a hyphen. There is also an extra space left in by mistake before ‘NHS’.

‘So lets remember Disraeli’s wise words.’

‘Lets’ should be written with an apostrophe before the ‘s’ as it stands for ‘let us’.

‘We must rebuild the Nightingale hospitals now, this Autumn, before it is too late.’

While ‘Autumn’ is a proper noun, it is not capitalised in English.

‘Some 15,000 beds was prepared last year under the Nightingale plan.’

‘Beds’ is plural, but ‘was’ is singular.

‘There is a short, sharp army recruitment advert running at the moment. It’s slogan is Fail, Learn, Win.’

This time, the apostrophe is wrong. The word should be ‘its’, meaning ‘belonging to it’. You might also argue that there should be inverted commas around the slogan itself.

‘We were not prepared. So let’s learn the lesson. We must be prepared. Then we can win the battle against Covid.’

I know writers and politicians like short, sharp sentences, but this is getting ridiculous! The writer here manages to make two sentences into four…

‘We must now put many thousands of retired medics doctors, nurses on standby. A Medical Reserve, along the lines of the Territorial Army.’

This comes from the same article, which was full of mistakes. There should be a comma after ‘medics’, and the word ‘and’ should replace the comma before ‘nurses’ as it’s the last item in the list. The last ‘sentence’ has no subject or verb, so it should probably start with ‘It should be’.

‘Some 40,000 retired medics offered to come back to help last year, but only 1 in 8 were engaged due to overwhelming bureaucracy.’

Again, this shows the problem with plurals. The number ‘1’ is obviously singular, so how can you say ‘1 in 8 were engaged’?!

‘Yes it will cost money. But it will be cheap at the price if it helps avoid tier restrictions, more lockdowns, more furlough.’

There should be a comma after ‘yes’ as it’s an interjection, the full-stop before ‘But’ should be a comma, ‘But’ should start with a lower case ‘b’ and the word ‘and’ should replace the comma before ‘more furlough’. Apart from that, it’s fine…!

‘Every winter the NHS needs more capacity, we would have both beds and staff.’

There should be a comma after the phrase ‘every winter’ as it’s an opener, and the comma after ‘capacity’ should be a full-stop – this is known as a ‘comma splice’.

 

Americanisms

In the words of Winston Churchill (or George Bernard Shaw or James Whistler or Oscar Wilde), Britain and America are “two nations divided by a single language”.

Quite a few of my pupils live outside the United Kingdom and/or go to foreign schools but are applying to English schools at 11+ or 13+ level.

One of the problems they face is the use of Americanisms.

There are a number of words that are spelled differently in American English, so you just have to watch out for them. English schools want pupils who are fluent in British English, not the American version – however similar it might be!

The first English dictionary was produced by Samuel Johnson, who published A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755.

However, after the War of Independence, Noah Webster was annoyed by all the ‘English’ textbooks in American schools and decided to try and prove that America had moved on from its colonial past by ‘simplifying’ English spelling and making it more consistent.

The result was A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1806, and then An American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828.

If you’re trying to learn English, that was an unfortunate decision!

However, there are a few typical changes that are easy enough to reverse.

  • -ize should be -ise, eg ‘realize’ should be ‘realise’ (but ‘capsize’ is the same in both).
  • -yze should be -yse, eg ‘analyze’ should be ‘analyse’.
  • -se should be -ce, eg ‘defense’ should be ‘defence’.
  • -l- should be -ll-, eg ‘traveled’ should be ‘travelled’.
  • -or should be -our, eg ‘color’ should be ‘colour’.
  • -er should be -re, eg ‘center’ should be ‘centre’ (but ‘thermometer’ is the same in both).
  • -e- should be -oe- or -ae-, eg ‘encyclopedia’ should be ‘encyclopaedia’, and ‘diarrhea’ should be ‘diarrhoea’.

Some of Webster’s alterations caught on in Britain, such as deleting the silent -k in words such as ‘publick’ or spelling ‘connexion’ as ‘connection’, but there were many others that didn’t even make it in the States – phew!

1. Cloke — cloak

2. Soop — soup

3. Masheen — machine

4. Tung — tongue

5. Greef — grief

6. Dawter — daughter

7. Korus — chorus

8. Nightmar — nightmare

9. Turnep — turnip

10. Iland — island

11. Porpess — porpoise

12. Steddy — steady

13. Hainous — heinous

14. Thum — thumb

15. Gillotin — guillotine

16. Spunge — sponge

17. Ake — ache

18. Wimmin — women

19. Determin — determine

20. Giv — give

21. Bilt — built

22. Beleev — believe

23. Grotesk — grotesque

24. Stile — style

25. Neer — near

26. Sley — sleigh

Homophones

Homophones are words that sound the same even though they’re spelt differently and mean different things. Getting them right can be tricky, but it’s worth it in the end.

The reason why homophones are important is not just to do with the general need to spell correctly. Many people think getting them wrong is a ‘worse’ mistake than simply mis-spelling a word because it means that you don’t really know what you’re doing. Anyone can make a spelling mistake, but using completely the wrong word somehow seems a lot worse. That may not sound fair, but that’s just how a lot of people think, so it’s worth learning the common homophones so you don’t get caught out.

Here’s a list of the main ones:

SpellingsMeanings
a lot/allotmuch/distribute
ad/addnotice/put together
ads/adds/adzenotices/puts together/type of axe
aid/aidehelp/assistant
ail/aletrouble (verb)/beer
air/heiratmospheric gas/inheritor
aisle/isle/I’llcorridor/island/I will
all ready/alreadyeverything set/by a certain time
all together/altogethereveryone in the same place/absolutely
all/awltotally/piercing tool
allowed/aloudpermitted/out loud
alter/altarchange/church table
ant/auntinsect/parent’s sister or brother’s wife
arc/arkpart of circle/Biblical boat
assent/ascentagreement/rise
assistance/assistantshelp/helper
ate/eightconsumed/8
aural/oralto do with hearing/to do with mouths
away/aweighoff/up (eg anchors aweigh)
ay/aye/eye/Iyes/yes/organ of sight/1st person
bail/balescoop water out/jump out
bait/batefood on hook/hold (eg bated breath)
ball/bawlsphere/
band/bannedgroup/illegal
bard/barredpoet/banned
bare/bearnaked/tolerate or grizzly
baron/barrenlord/arid
base/bassfoundation/low note
be/beeexist/flying insect
beach/beechsandy area/type of tree
beat/beethit/beetroot
beau/bowmale admirer/bend down or front
bell/bellemusical instrument/pretty girl
berry/buryfruit/inter
berth/birthsleeping place/arrival of baby
billed/buildinvoiced/construct
bite/bytenibble/unit of data
blew/blueforced air/colour
bloc/blockgroup of countries/cuboid
boar/borewild pig/boring person
board/boredflat object/weary
boarder/borderlodger/edge
bode/bowedimply/curved
bolder/boulderbraver/rock
born/bornecreated/tolerated
bough/bowbranch/bend down or front of ship
boy/buoymale child/floating marker
brake/breakslow down/shatter
breach/breechgap/part of gun
bread/bredfood made with yeast/brought up
brewed/broodfermented/family
brews/bruiseferments/scar
bridle/bridalleather strap/to do with brides
broach/broochopen (a question)/piece of jewellery
browse/browslook through/hair above the eyes
but/buttalthough/water tank
buy/by/byepurchase/by means of/goodbye
cache/cashhidden hoard/notes and coins
callous/callusheartless/blister
cannon/canongun/collection of artistic works
canvas/canvasssail fabric/ask questions of
capital/capitolupper case or city/government building
carat/carrot/caret/karatweight/vegetable/arrow/share of gold
carol/carrelsong/cubicle
cast/castethrown/social class
cede/seedgive up/reproductive unit
ceiling/sealingroof/making watertight
cell/sellpart of body/exchange for money
cellar/sellerbasement/person selling
censor/sensorban (film etc)/measurement device
cent/scent/sentUS penny/perfume/dispatched
cents/scentsUS pennies/perfumes
cereal/serialbreakfast dish/TV show
cession/sessiongiving up/period of course
chance/chantsluck/songs
chased/chastepursued/like a virgin
cheap/cheepinexpensive/bird sound
chews/choosenibbles/select
chilly/chillicold/hot food
choir/quiregroup of singers/unit of paper
chord/cordgroup of notes/string
chute/shootdisposal passage/take shot at goal
cite/sight/sitequote/seeing/location
clause/clawsparagraph/talons
coarse/courserough/track or route
colonel/kernelarmy rank/stone in fruit
complement/complimentgo well with/say something nice
coo/coupsound of dove/revolution
core/corpscentre/army unit
correspondence/correspondentsletters/letter-writers
council/counselgoverning body/advice
councillor/counsellorgovernor/advisor
creak/creekwhine/stream
crews/cruiseteams/voyage
cue/queuesnooker tool/line of people waiting
currant/currentdried fruit/electric flow
cymbal/symbolmusical instrument/icon
dam/damnriver barrier/damnation
days/daze24-hour periods/confuse
dear/deerexpensive/type of mammal
defused/diffusedmade safe/circulated
desert/dessertsandy zone/pudding
dew/do/duewater on grass/finish/owed
die/dyeexpire/colour (verb)
discreet/discretenot talkative/separate
doe/dough/dohfemale dear/unbaked bread/oh, no
done/dunfinished/grey-brown
draft/draughtpractise writing/on tap (eg beer)
dual/duelin two parts/fight with swords etc
earn/urn/ern or ernemake money/vase/type of bird
ewe/you/yewfemale sheep/2nd person/type of tree
faint/feintlose consciousness/fake attack
fair/farejust/food
fated/feteddestined/celebrated
faun/fawnrural god/beige or young deer
faze/phase disturb/stage
feat/feetachievement/plural of foot
find/finedseek/told to pay money
fir/furtype of tree/animal hide
flair/flaretalent/bullet making bright light
flea/fleetype of insect/run away
flew/flu/fluepast tense of fly/influenza/chimney
flocks/phloxherds/type of plant
flour/floweringredient for bread/plant
for/four/foreto the benefit of/4/in front
fort/fortecastle/speciality
forth/fourthforwards/4th
foul/fowldisgusting/birds
friar/fryer monk/pan
gait/gateway of walking/door outside
gene/jeanDNA unit/trousers
gild/guildcover in gold/organisation
gilt/guiltcovered in gold/having done wrong
gored/gourdholed/fruit or water container
gorilla/guerrillatype of ape/freedom fighter
grate/greatfireplace/grand
grease/Greecelubrication/a country
groan/grownmoan/past tense of grow
guessed/guestpast tense of guess/invitee
hail/halecelebrate/healthy
hair/harestrands growing on head/rabbit
hall/haulroom/pull
hangar/hangerstorage for aircraft/hook in wardrobe
hay/heydried grass/oy
heal/heel/he’llmake well/back of foot/he will
hear/herelisten/in this place
heard/herdpast tense of hear/group of animals
heed/he’dpay attention to/he would or he had
hertz/hurtsfrequency unit/causes pain
hew/hue/Hughcut/colour/a name
hi/highhello/raised
higher/hiremore raised/rent
him/hymna pronoun/religious song
hoard/hordecollection/mass of people
hoarse/horserough (of voices)/an animal
hoes/hosegarden tools/tube
hold/holedkeep or carry/past tense of hole
hole/wholespace/entire
holey/holy/whollywith holes/sacred/completely
hour/our60 minutes/a pronoun
humorous/humerusfunny/arm bone
idle/idollazy/religious statue
illicit/elicitillegal/draw out
in/inninside/hotel
instance/instantsexample/moments
intense/intentsfierce/purposes
it’s/itsit is/belonging to it
jam/jambfruit spread/door frame
kernel/colonelcore/army rank
knap/napcrest/doze
knead/kneed/needmix dough/hit with knee/require
knight/nightwarrior/dark time
knit/nitfit together/egg of louse
knot/nottied rope/negative
know/no/Nohbe aware of/negative/type of drama
knows/noseis aware of/facial feature
laid/ladepast tense of lay/load ship
lain/lanepast participle of lay/alley
lay/leiplace/flower necklace
leach/leechleak/blood-sucking worm
lead/ledheavy metal/past tense of lead
leak/leekdrop out/vegetable
leased/leastpast tense of lease/superlative of less
lee/leashadow of wind/meadow
lessen/lessonmake less/teaching session
levee/levyembankment/tax
liar/lyreperson who lies/musical instrument
license/licencepermit (verb)/permission
lichen/likenmould/compare
lie/lyefalsehood/alkali solution
links/lynxconnections/wild cat
load/lodeput into/vein of metal in ground
loan/lonelending/single
locks/loxsecures/smoked salmon (American)
loot/lutemoney/musical instrument
made/maidcreated/young woman
mail/malepost/masculine
main/mane/Mainechief/hair/state in USA
maize/mazecorn/labyrinth
manner/manorway/lord’s house
mantel/mantlementalpiece/coat
marshal/martialarmy rank/to do with war
massed/mastbrought together/upright post on ship
maybe/may beperhaps/might be
meat/meet/metetype of food/get together/distribute
medal/meddleaward/interfere
metal/mettleshiny material/spirit
might/mitemay/tiny spider
mince/mintsground beef/plural of mint
mind/minedbrain/dug up
miner/minor/mynahdigger/junior/type of bird
missed/mistpast tense of miss/fog
moan/mowngroan/past participle of mow
mode/mowedway/past tense of mow
moose/mousseelk/foam
morn/mournmorning/regret
muscle/musselpart of body/sea creature
mustard/musteredspicy dressing/broughted together
naval/navelto do with the navy/belly button
nay/neighno (dated)/sound of horse
none/nunnot one/female monk
oar/or/oreblade/alternatively/metal source
ode/owedpoem/due
oh/owe/oah/have a debt of/oh (poetic)
overseas/overseesforeign/manages
pail/palebucket/faint
pain/paneache/window panel
pair/pare/pearcouple/shave/type of fruit
palate/palette/palletpart of mouth/artist’s tray/platform
passed/pastpast tense of pass/in the past
patience/patientstolerance/people in hospital
pause/pawsbreak/animal hands and feet
pea/peevegetable/urinate
peace/pieceharmony/bit
peak/peek/piquesummit/look quickly/annoyance
peal/peelsound of bells/take skin off
pearl/purlprecious stone/knitting stitch
pedal/peddlefoot lever/sell
pedalled/peddledcycled/sold
peer/pierlook carefully/jetty
per/purrfor each/sound of a cat
pi/pie3.14/dish topped with pastry
plain/planeunexciting/2D object
pleas/pleaserequests (noun)/if it pleases you
plum/plumbtype of fruit/measure water depth
pole/pollrod/election or survey
pore/pourconcentrate on/flow
practice/practiserehearsal/rehearse
pray/preytalk to God/victim
presence/presentsbeing somewhere/gifts
prince/printsson of monarch/printed photographs
principal/principlemain/rule of conduct
profit/prophetmoney made/religious seer
rack/wrackwire tray/shipwreck
rain/reign/reinwater from clouds/rule/control strap
raise/rays/razelift/plural of ray/destroy
rap/wraphit/pack up (eg a present)
rapped/rapt/wrappedpast tense of rap/spellbound/past tense of wrap
read/redpast tense of read/scarlet
read/reedstudy/type of plant
real/reelgenuine/cylinder for fishing line etc
reek/wreaksmell bad/cause
rest/wrestrelax/wrench away
retch/wretchvomit/poor soul
review/revuelook over/stage performance
right/rite/writecorrect/ritual/form Leopardtters
ring/wringsound of bell/squeeze out water
road/rode/rowedstreet/past tense of ride/past tense of row
roe/rowfemale deer/use oars
role/rollpart in play/type of bread
root/routepart of plant/roads to take
rose/rowstype of flower/tiers
rote/wroterepetition/past tense of write
rough/ruffcoarse/Elizabethan collar
rung/wrungpast tense of ring/squeezed water out
rye/wrycereal plant/mocking
sail/salecanvas propulsion/selling
scene/seensituation/past tense of see
scull/skullrow alone/head of skeleton
sea/seeocean/be aware of
seam/seemsewn connection/appear
seas/sees/seizeoceans/is aware of/grab
serf/surfagricultural worker/waves
sew/so/sowconnect with thread/thus/plant
shear/sheercut/complete
shoe/shoofootwear/chase away
side/sighededge/past tense of sigh
sighs/sizebreathes out/dimensions
slay/sleighkill/sled
sleight/slightdeceptive skill/faint
soar/sorerise/painful
soared/swordpast tense of soar/bladed weapon
sole/soulonly/spirit
some/suma few/total
son/sunmale child/star in the sky
staid/stayedunadventurous/past tense of stay
stair/starestep/look hard
stake/steakwooden post/joint of meat
stationary/stationerymotionless/writing materials
steal/steelrun off with/metal compound
step/steppestair/European plains
stile/stylefence steps/manner
straight/straitnot bending/narrow strip of water
suite/sweethotel rooms/sugary
summary/summerybrief account/to do with summer
surge/sergerush/type of cloth
tacks/taxnails/levy
tail/taleback end/story
taught/tautpast tense of teach/tight
tea/teemeal/golf ball holder
team/teemgroup of players/swarm
tear/tierteardrop/row
tern/turntype of bird/go round a corner
their/there/they’rebelonging to them/in that direction/they are
theirs/there’sthe one belonging to them/there is
threw/throughpast tense of throw/in and out of
thrown/thronepast participle of throw/royal chair
thyme/timetype of herb/progress of days or years
tic/tickhabit/mark (if correct)
tide/tiedflow of water/past tense of tie
to/too/twotowards/as well/2
toad/towedfrog/past tense of tow
toe/towpart of foot/pull
told/tolledpast tense of tell/rang
trussed/trustbound (with rope)/belief
vain/vane/veinproud/fin/artery
vale/veilvalley/lace face covering (for brides etc)
vial/viletest tube/evil
wade/weighedwalk in water/past tense of weigh
wail/whalehowl/type of ocean mammal
waist/wastemiddle of body/use carelessly
wait/weightdelay or stay/mass
waive/wavegive up/breaker
ware/wear/wherepottery/put on clothes/which place
way/weigh/wheymanner/measure weight/part of milk
ways/weighsmanners/measures weight
we/weepronoun/urination or little
weak/weekfeeble/seven days
weather/whetherclimatic conditions/if
we’d/weedwe would or we had/unwanted plant
we’ll/wheelwe will or we shall/round component
wet/whetliquid/sharpen
we’ve/weavewe have/make cloth
which/witchpronoun/wizard
while/wileas/ruse or cunning plan
whine/winewhimper/alcoholic grape drink
who’s/whosewho is or who has/of whom the
wood/wouldtree material/conditional marker
yoke/yolkpart of plough/yellow part of egg
yore/your/you’reformer times/belonging to you/you are
you’ll/Yuleyou will or you shall/Christmas

Spelling rules

The problem with the English is that we’ve invaded (and been invaded by) so many countries that our language has ended up with a mish-mash of spelling rules.

Keep calm and check your spelling

 

 

 

 

 

 

English is among the easiest languages to learn but among the most difficult to master. One of the problems is spelling. We have so many loan words from so many different languages that we’ve been left with a huge number of spelling rules – and all of them have exceptions! Contrast that with Spanish, for example, where what you see is generally what you get. The problem for students of English, then, is that it’s very difficult to find shortcuts to improve your spelling, and an awful lot of words just have to be learned off-by-heart. Considering that there are over a million words in English, that’s a big ask!

There are lots of lists of spelling rules on the web, but I thought I’d put down what I think are the most useful ones.

  1. I before E except after C when the sound is /ee/.
    This is the most famous rule of English spelling, but there are still exceptions! Hence, we write achieve with -ie- in the middle but also ceiling, with -ei- in the middle, as the /ee/ sound comes after the letter c. The most common exceptions are weird and seize.
  2. If you want to know whether to double the consonant, ask yourself if the word is like dinner or diner.
    One of the most common problems in spelling is knowing when to double a consonant. A simple rule that helps with a lot of words is to ask yourself whether the word is more like dinner or diner. Diner has a long vowel sound before a consonant and then another vowel (ie vowel-consonant-vowel, or VCV). Words with this long vowel sound only need one consonant before the second vowel, eg  shinerfiver and whiner. However, dinner has a short first vowel and needs two consonants to ‘protect’ it (ie vowel-consonant-consonant-vowel, or VCCV). If the word is like dinner, you need to double the consonant, eg winnerbitter or glimmer. Just bear in mind that this rule doesn’t work with words that start with a prefix (or a group of letters added to the front of a word), so it’s disappoint and not dissapoint.
  3. If the word has more than one syllable and has the stress on the first syllable, don’t double any final consonant.
    This rule sounds a bit complicated, but it’s still very useful – particularly if it helps you spot your teacher making a mistake! We generally double the final consonant when we add a suffix starting with a vowel, such as -ing, but this rule means we shouldn’t do that as long as a) the word has more than one syllable and b) the stress is on the first syllable, eg focusing and targeted, but progressing and regretting. The main exceptions to this are words ending in -l and -y, hence barrelling and disobeying.
  4. When adding a suffix starting with a consonant, you don’t need to change the root word unless it ends in -y. This is among the easiest and most useful rules. There are loads of words ending in suffixes like -less-ment or -ness, but spelling them should be easy as long as you know how to spell the root word, eg shoe becomes shoelesscontain becomes containment and green becomes greenness. However, words ending in -y need the y changing to an i, so happy becomes happiness.
  5. When adding a suffix starting with a vowel to a word ending in a silent -e, the must be dropped unless it softens a or a g.
    An at the end of a word is often called a ‘Magic E’, as it lengthens the vowel before the final consonant, eg fat becomes fate. However, that job is done by the vowel at the start of the suffix when it is added to the word, so it needs to be dropped, eg race becomes racing and code becomes coded. The main exceptions come when the word ends with a soft or g, which need to be followed by an -e, an -i or a -y to sound like /j/ and /s/ rather than /g/ and /k/. If the suffix doesn’t begin with an e- or an i-, we still need the to make sure the word sounds right, eg managing  is fine without the -e, as the in -ing keeps the soft, but manageable needs to keep the -e to avoid a hard /g/ sound that wouldn’t sound right.
  6. The only word ending in -full is full!
    There are lots of words ending in what sounds like -full, but the only one that has two ls at the end is full. All the other words – and there are thankfully no exceptions! – end in -ful, eg skilfulbeautiful and wonderful.

 

Remember the iceberg!

Remember the iceberg!

What, that tiny thing…?

To pass Common Entrance, you have to be a scuba diver. Only a small part of any iceberg is visible above the waves, and only a small part of any answer to a question is visible in the text. To discover the rest, you have to ‘dive in’ deeper and deeper…

When I tutor Common Entrance candidates at either 11+ or 13+, I explain how to approach the two main types of question in the entrance exam: the reading comprehension and the composition.

Most 11+ papers last an hour or an hour and a quarter, and the marks are equally divided between the comprehension and the composition. That means half an hour or so for the comprehension. The 13+ exam is a little different and may involve two papers, one covering a prose comprehension and the other a poetry comprehension and a story. Whatever the format, it’s very important to read the instructions on the front cover. They will tell you exactly what you have to do and – crucially – how much time to spend on each section.

When it comes to doing a comprehension, I recommend a five-step process that involves reading the passage, reading the questions, reading the passage again, answering the questions and then checking your work. Reading the text may take five minutes or so, reading the questions a minute or two, re-reading the text another five minutes and checking your work another five minutes after that, which leaves only 15-20 minutes to answer the questions. If there are 25 marks available, that means around 30-45 seconds per mark. The number of marks available for each individual question will tell you how much time you have in total, eg two minutes for a four-mark question.

  1. Read the passage (5 mins).
    The text is usually taken from a short story, a novel or a poem. Whatever it is, the most important thing to do is to make sure you understand it and remember the main points. Rather than reading it as fast as you can – just to get it over and done with – you should go as slowly as you would if you were reading it out loud and make sure you understand everything. Re-read any bits where you get stuck and ask yourself the W questions as you go along: who, what, where, when, why and how? It may help to repeat  the story or the message to yourself – just to make sure everything makes sense.

  2. Read the questions (1 min).
    Once you’ve read the passage, it’s time to read the questions. Again, understanding and memorising them are more important than sheer speed. When you re-read the text, you’ll need to look out for answers to all the questions, and you won’t be able to do that if you can’t remember what they were! If it helps to jog your memory or draw your eye to the most important bits, you can underline key words and phrases in the questions or in the text itself, eg if you have to give the meaning of the word ‘annihilate’ in line 25.

  3. Read the passage again (5 mins).
    Some people suggest only reading the passage once, but the danger of doing that is that you’re not so familiar with it, which means you can’t answer so many questions off the top of your head and often have to hunt through the text for the answer. What that means is that you effectively end up reading most of the passage three or four times just looking for the bit you need! Reading the text twice is probably a good compromise between speed and memorability, and it also gives you the chance to underline or mark the answers to any of the questions that you happen to spot as you go through.

  4. Answer the questions (15-30 mins, depending on the length of the exam).
    This is obviously the main task, but there are a few things to remember:

    Answer each question in the same way.
    Try to be consistent in the way you answer the questions, and make sure you do all the things you need to do:
    a) Read the question carefully.
    b) Read it again (and again!) if you don’t understand it.
    c) Check the mark scheme to work out how many points and pieces of evidence you need.
    d) Scan the text to find the answer, underlining any words you might need.
    e) Write down the answer.
    f) Read it through to make sure you’ve actually answered the question correctly and you haven’t made any silly mistakes.

    Read the question carefully. You’re never going to get the right answer to the wrong question, so make sure you understand exactly what you need to do. If that means reading the question two or three times, then that’s what you’ll have to do.

    Make sure you answer the question. 
    I often see pupils writing down facts that are true but don’t actually answer the question. If you’re being asked how Jack feels after losing his dog, It’s no use saying that he cries. That’s not a feeling. It’s a bit like writing “2 + 2 = 4”: yes, that may be true, but it’s completely irrelevant!

    Use the mark scheme as a guide. Most exam papers will let you know how many marks are awarded for each question, so it’s worthwhile bearing that in mind when you’re writing your answers. There’s no point spending ten minutes on a question that’s only worth one mark, and it would be daft to write only one sentence for a question worth ten marks. If it helps, you can always work out how much time you have for each question. For example, if you have 15 minutes to answer questions worth 30 marks, you’ll have 30 seconds for each mark, which means two minutes for a four-mark question.

    Follow any instructions to the letter
    . All these hints and tips are useful, but they are only general rules. Occasionally, examiners will let you off the hook and tell you that you don’t need to use full sentences, eg for the meanings of words. Just be sure to abide by what they say. If you’re told to answer a question ‘in your own words’, that means you can’t use any of the words in the text (except ‘filler’ words such as ‘the’ and ‘of’ or words that don’t have any obvious alternative, eg ‘lightship’ or the names of the characters). You need to show that you understand what’s written in the text, and you’ll actually be marked down for using quotations, even though that’s what’s usually needed.

    Refer to the text.
    I know the point of reading the text twice is to try and remember it, but you can’t possibly expect to remember the answers to all the questions and all the quotations to back them up! The answer is always in the text, so don’t be afraid to spend a few seconds going back over it to make sure you get the answer right and are able to support it with the right evidence.

    Use full sentences. Even if a question is as simple as ‘What is Jack’s dog’s name?’, the answer should be ‘His name is Rover’ rather than just ‘Rover’. The only time you don’t need to use a full sentence is either if it’s the meaning of a word or if the question gives you special permission.

    Make sure any definitions you’re asked for fit exactly in the context. Words have different meanings, so you must check to see whether you have the right meaning and the right part of speech, eg ‘catch’ can be a verb meaning to fall ill or a noun meaning a fish! Nouns also vary in number, and verbs vary in tense and person, so it’s easy to lose marks by putting down ‘destroy’ rather than ‘destroys’, for example.

    Don’t use PEE (Point, Evidence, Explanation). This is not a good way of structuring your answers. It’s fine if you’re writing an essay, but it’s very unlikely in a comprehension that you’ll be asked for one point backed up by one piece of evidence with a fuller explanation at the end. It’s also confusing because it suggests that an ‘explanation’ is somehow different from a ‘point’, which it’s not. Points can be explanations as well as facts.

    Answer ‘how’ questions by talking about the language. Comprehensions often start with a simple one-mark question such as ‘In what country is this passage set?’ This is a ‘what?’ question, a question about content, about facts. However, there is another kind of question, the ‘how?’ question, which is all about language. Suppose you’re asked, ‘How does the writer explain how Jack feels after losing his dog?’ What do you have to do? What you definitely shouldn’t do is just describe how he feels. The question is not ‘What are Jack’s feelings?’ You’re not being asked for facts but for an analysis of the techniques the author uses. If it helps, you can keep a mental checklist and look for each technique in the passage:
    a) Poetic devices. How has the author used metaphors, similes, personification or sentence structure?
    b) Parts of speech. What can you say about the kind of adjectives, verbs or adverbs used in the passage?
    c) The Three Ds. Has the writer used Drama, Description or Dialogue to achieve a particular effect?
    However you tackle these questions, the important thing to remember is that they’re generally going to be about language, not content.

    Use the right tense. Most of the time, you should use the ‘eternal present’ to talk about the text, but the most important thing is to use the same tense as the question. Sometimes, passages are about historical events, so the past is more appropriate. For example, if the text comes from The Diary of Anne Frank, it wouldn’t make sense to talk about the Second World War as if it were still going on!

    Don’t repeat the whole question in your answer. 
    In primary school, teachers often tell their pupils to do this to make sure they’ve understood the question, but it takes too long when you’re older. I’ve seen children spend a whole minute carefully copying down most of the question before they’ve even thought about the answer! The best approach is probably to imagine what the whole answer would look like and then simply start writing from the word after ‘because’, eg Jack was crying when he made the long walk home from school on Friday because…’His dog had just died, and he missed him very much.’ You need to use a full sentence, so you can’t start with the word ‘because’ (or another conjunction like ‘so’). The best place to start is usually with a pronoun. Whatever the question talks about, turn it into a pronoun and start with that.

    Answer all parts of the question. Examiners will sometimes try to catch you out by ‘hiding’ two questions in one. You should pay particular attention to these questions, eg ‘How do you think Jack feels about losing his dog, and how do you think you would feel if you lost your favourite pet?’ It would be easy to answer the first part of the question and then forget about the rest, so be careful!

    Don’t waste time with words you don’t need. You never have enough time in exams, so it’s pointless trying to pad out your answers by including waffle such as ‘it says in the text that…’ or ‘the author writes that in his opinion…’ Far better to spend the time thinking a bit more about the question and coming up with another quotation or point to make.

    Use quotations. Whether or not you’re using PEE and whether or not the question asks you to ‘refer to the text’, you should generally try to back up your arguments with a short quotation or example. Just make sure you use quotation marks (or inverted commas), copy the quotation out accurately and drop the key words into a sentence of your own, eg Jack feels ‘devastated’ by the loss of his dog.
    Don’t just tag quotations on to the end of your answer or start with a quotation followed by ‘suggests…’, eg Jack is really sad, ‘devastated’ or ‘Devastated’ suggests Jack is really sad. If you really want to use ‘suggests’ or ‘shows’, it’s better to start with ‘The word…’ or ‘The fact…’, eg The word ‘devastated’ suggests Jack’s really sad or The fact Jack is ‘devastated’ suggests he’s really sad.
    If the quotation is too long, you can always miss words out by replacing them with an ellipsis (…), eg Liz went to the supermarket and bought apples…pears and bananas.
    If it needs a slight change to make sense, you can put the change in square brackets. That’s quite useful if the question is in the present tense and the story is written in the past, eg Jim ‘love[s] strawberries’ rather than Jim ‘loved strawberries’.

    Remember the iceberg! As you can see from the picture, the vast majority of an iceberg remains hidden from view, and it’s the same with the answers to questions in a reading comprehension. Don’t be satisfied by what you can see on the surface. That won’t get you full marks. Like a scuba diver, you have to dive in deeper to find the rest…!

  5. Check your work (5 mins).
    If there’s one tip that beats all the rest, it’s ‘Check your work’. However old you are and whatever the subject, you should never finish a piece of work before checking what you’ve done. However boring or annoying it is, you’ll always find at least one mistake and therefore at least one way in which you can make things better. In the case of 11+ or 13+ comprehensions, the most important thing is to test candidates’ understanding of the passage, but spelling and grammar is still important. Schools have different marking policies. Some don’t explicitly mark you down (although a rash of mistakes won’t leave a very good impression!), some create a separate pot of 10 marks for spelling and grammar to add to the overall total and some take marks off each answer directly – even if you got the content ‘right’ . Either way, it pays to make sure you’ve done your best to avoid silly mistakes. If you think you won’t have time to check, make sure you manage your time. You’ll almost certainly gain more marks in the last five minutes by correcting your work than trying to answer one more question, so it makes sense to reserve that time for checking. If you do that, there are a few simple things to look out for. You may want to make a quick checklist and tick each item off one by one.

    Correct and complete answers. 
    This is the most important thing to check, and it takes the longest. Make sure that each answer is correct (by referring back to the text if necessary) and that each part of the question has been covered. Quite a few of my students have needlessly lost marks in practice tests by forgetting to look at all the pages, so you should always check you haven’t missed out any questions.

    Spelling. 
    This is the main problem that most Common Entrance candidates face, but there are ways in which you can improve your spelling. Firstly, you can look out for any obvious mistakes and correct them. It can help to go through each answer backwards a word at a time so that you don’t just see what you expect to see. Secondly, you can check if a word appears anywhere in the text or in the question. If it does, you can simply copy it down from there. Finally, you can choose another simpler word – if you’re not quite sure how to spell a word, it’s sometimes better not to take the risk.

    Capital letters. This should be easy, but candidates often forget about checking capitals in the rush to finish. Proper nouns, sentences and abbreviations should all start with capital letters. If you know you often miss out capital letters or put them where they don’t belong, you can at least check the beginning of each answer to make sure it starts with a capital.

    Punctuation. This simply means any marks on the page other than letters and numbers, eg full-stops, commas, quotation marks, apostrophes and question marks. Commas give almost everybody problems, but you can at least check there is a full-stop at the end of every sentence.

    Other grammar. It’s always useful to read through your answers to make sure everything makes sense. It’s very easy to get distracted first time round, but it’s usually possible to spot silly mistakes like missing words when you read everything again.

Quiz

If you want to test your knowledge of this article, here are a few questions for you. You can mark them yourselves!

  1. What are the five steps involved in doing a comprehension? (5 marks)
  2. Name three things you should do when reading the text for the first time. (3 marks)
  3. Why should you read the questions before re-reading the text? (1 mark)
  4. What should you be doing when you read the text for the second time? (1 mark)
  5. What are the six steps to take when answering a question? (6 marks)
  6. What are five hints and tips for answering questions? (5 marks)
  7. What are the two types of things that questions might ask for? (2 marks)
  8. What are the two occasions when you don’t need to answer in a full sentence? (2 marks)
  9. Name five poetic devices. (5 marks)
  10. What five things should you be checking for at the end? (5 marks)

Total: 35 marks