A Compilation by Ged Martin

Any errors in this Compilation are solely the result of poor typing

Using English Effectively is based on Good English for Canadian Studies (1997), which I compiled for use of students in Canadian Studies courses at the University of Edinburgh. Many of the errors and misunderstandings listed in this booklet have been culled from (a minority of) essays written by students in those courses. It is only fair to add that most Edinburgh University students are highly literate, intelligent, interested and interesting. (I regret to say that academic colleagues, television "personalities" and other public figures have also contributed some of the more embarrassing howlers.) I owe particular thanks to Grace Owens who helped me compile and produce the original text. I also offer warm thanks to colleagues who shared in the fight against poor English usage, especially Colin M. Coates, Kathleen Burke, Jean Cameron, Anthony Cohen, Lyn Collins, Peter Freshwater, Denise Gareau, Stephen J. Hornsby, William Lawton, Mairi McLennan, Andrew McWhirter, Barbara Messamore, Jan Penrose, Simon J. Potter, Donald Rutherford, Judith P. Wiesinger, Michael Williams and Philip Williamson.

Many students had been led to believe that accuracy in the use of English was both unnecessary and too difficult. Neither fantasy is true. This compilation is intended to help, and not to intimidate or overawe. The same errors occur time and again in student essays, and many of them can easily be overcome, either by taking note of the origins of the word, or even through simple memory tricks.

Some students claim to have a "spelling problem", which they regard as a quasi-medical diagnosis that excuses them from bothering to use a dictionary. We all have encounter words that we find difficult to spell, and I accept that some people encounter more problems than others. Using English Effectively offers tips to remember correct spelling, and arranges "problem" words into groups to help identify them. A "spelling problem" is a challenge, not an excuse. It is certainly not the same thing as dyslexia, which is a condition that can be tested, and for which most institutions such as universities offer programmes of support. It is an insult to people who have to contend with dyslexia to claim it as an excuse for a lazy attitude to accuracy.

No doubt English spelling would be easier if it were phonetic. Unfortunately, as a world language, English words are pronounced in many different ways. Even Scottish, English and Irish ideas of phonetic spelling would soon develop into a dozen separate languages. It is also true to say that English is a vigorous and living language which changes and develops. However, it is inadvisable for individuals, and especially university students, to initiate such changes themselves.

Spelling checks on word processors can identify some errors, but they do not protect against misuse of words. There is no substitute for buying and using a dictionary.

Some of the comments which follow relate to correct pronunciation. This is not a plea for "posh" speaking. I grew up in the Essex suburbs of London, speaking a laundered form of Cockney. I retain a Romford accent, and I am proud of it. (For readers in distant parts of the world, it should be pointed out that Romford is not a fashionable part of London, and Essex is not regarded as high prestige area.) It is possible to respect the Queen's English, both in speaking and writing, without sounding like the Queen. Indeed, perhaps the best example of English enunciation owes no allegiance to the Queen at all. In an age of dumbing-down, the news broadcasts of Radio Telef√≠s √Čireann stand out for clarity and accuracy of enunciation: even the weather forecasts are a delight to the ear. RTE Radio is widely accessible by satellite and on the Internet.

Every commentary on English usage should come with the equivalent of a health warning or, at the very least, a profession of humility. I may not be right in everything included here, although I try where possible to indicate why certain forms are recommended. There remain many matters for individual judgement (or, indeed, individual judgment in the case of those words which still, after hundreds of years, do not seem to have a fixed spelling). My defence for making the original attempt back in 1997 lay in my growing disillusionment with British higher education. I shared the opinion of many of my colleagues that too many students were being short-changed by the failure of the school system to equip them to use their own language accurately and effectively. I tried to do something about the problem, and Using English Effectively is the result.

Publication on the Internet may bring this compilation to the attention of readers overseas. It should be stressed that it relates largely to English as written and spoken in Britain and Ireland. There are many forms of English around the world. Australian English tends to be relaxed about the split infinitive, Canadian English warily accepts some American spellings. Dynamic contributions to the language come from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. However, at the start of the 21st century, English stands as the pre-eminent international language, and it is important that we retain a form of communication that can unite people across continents and cultures.

Using English Effectively is arranged in three sections. PROBLEMS deals with spelling and usage, divided into two sections, A-M and N-Z. PAIRS (including some TRIOS) deals with words which are commonly confused. Both these sections are arranged alphabetically.  THE APOSTROPHE offers some simple points about using this form of the possessive. PRONUNCIATION FOR PRESENTATION identifies words that are frequently mangled.

Further Reading 

For an informative and often entertaining discussion of awkward points and disputed issues, see:

R.W. Burchfield, ed.,


(3rd edition, Oxford University Press, 1996).


(Profile Books, 2003, frequently revised)