Problem Words A to M



‑A‑ PROBLEM WORDS The following words contain at least one letter A which is either frequently omitted or rendered inaccurately.

catalogue devastate emanate guarantee

imperative loyal Parliament peasant proclamation predominant radical relevant

reliant semblance separate separatist


ABSORB (verb) forms a noun "absorption".


Failure to spell these words with a double M is a common error. Even if you are on holiday at Lake Como, accommodation has a double M.

ACQUIRE, ACQUISITION, ACQUIT Note that these words contain a C.

ADVERBS Most adverbs are formed by adding -LY to the adjective:

high  (adjective)                            highly  (adverb)

quick  (adjective)                          quickly (adverb)

Where the adjective ends in -L, the adverb will end in -LLY (L + LY):

grateful (adjective)                gratefully         (adverb)

Where the adjective ends in E, the adverb will end in -ELY (E + LY):

fortunate   (adjective)           fortunately      (adverb)

            immediate  (adjective)          immediately    (adverb)

Where the adjective ends with a -Y, the adverb ends in -ILY:

greedy     (adjective)             greedily           (adverb)

hasty        (adjective)             hastily             (adverb)

AFFECT         See Pairs

AGGRAVATE means to "make worse". It does not mean "to provoke".

AGGRESSOR, AGGRESSION             Note the double G.

ALIGN, ALIGNMENT                         Note the G.

ALLEVIATE means "to relieve", but it does not have the same -IE- spelling. Think of it as related (distantly) to "lever".

AMERICA, AMERICAN These are weak ways of referring to the United States (or USA), only to be used in set phrases: Canadian‑American relations, American Civil War. The correct adjectival phrase is "United States". Remember that Canada is an American country too.

AMERICAN SPELLING American English has its own set of variant spellings (see also DOUBLING THE FINAL CONSONANT). These are correct when used by citizens of the United States. Common examples include: defense, offense (standard British forms: de­fence, offence), color, valor (colour, valour), program (programme).

See also: -S- and -Z- words.

ANYBODY, ANYHOW, ANYONE, ANYTHING, ANYWAY, ANYWHERE – all spelt as one word. ANY MORE, ANY PERSON, ANY PLACE, ANY TIME are two-word phrases. American English prefers to use "anymore", a practice that seems to be catching on in British English. Students are advised to use the two-word form.

APOSTROPHE See separate section

ASCERTAIN Use a memory device: "I was not as certain about it before I ascertained the answer." Some regard it as a pompous word, and prefer the plainer "find out".

ASSESS The letter S appears four times in this six-letter word. A common error is the dropping of the final S, which converts the word into the plural of "ass".

BARREN  See Pairs                BARON  See Pairs

BORN                    See Pairs                BORNE  See Pairs

BRITAIN         Although extravagant patriotism is out of fashion, old-fashioned politeness suggests that students should be able to spell the name of the country.  Britain has one T and should not be confused either with Brittany in France or with the surname "Brittan".  As Britain is a country full of ancient institutions, its name should be spelt a-i in the second syllable.

 BUREAUCRACY       This is a made-up word, derived from "bureau" [an office] + "-cracy" [power]. Try remembering this nonsense sentence:

Buy Uncle Richard Eating Apples Until Charles Returns Aunt Charlotte's Yoghurt and see:

BUSINESS derives from "busy" [bus-i-ness]


-C- PROBLEM WORDS include across, decision, necessary, secession. Each of these words contains one letter C, not two.

CANNOT is one word. "Should not", "would not", "could not" are each two words.

CANON                  See Pairs                          CANNON          See Pairs  

CAPITAL LETTERS There is a trend in English usage away from capital letters, but there are still examples in which it is wrong to use the lower case.

Names of countries and languages should be capitalised, e.g. Britain, Scotland, France, English, French.

It is preferable to use a capital letter for religious groups: Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Moslems. Apart from showing courtesy to people's beliefs, the capital letter distinguishes "Catholic" ("adherent of the Church of Rome") from "catholic", a useful adjective which means "universal, wide-ranging, tolerant".

Capital letters should also be used for political parties: Conservatives, Labour, Liberal, Republicans, Democrats. Each of these terms has a non-partisan meaning when used without a capital letter: conservative (old-fashioned, cautious); labour (work) and liberal (generous, progressive).

Citizens of the USA are both democrats and republicans, even though they have to choose between the Democrats and the Republicans when they vote.

Capital letters are used for ethnic and cultural groups defined in geographical terms: Asians, Africans, Europeans. Usage is changing in relation to groups defined by skin co­lour: Black and White people or black and white people. The only sound advice is to be con­sistent. It is patronising to write of "Blacks and whites" and insulting to write of "blacks and Whites". In Canada, the term "Native" (which has replaced "Indian") is spelt both with and without a capital letter. Capitalisation is recommended. A Haida person is a Native whose forbears came from British Columbia. But most Haida people are also natives of British Columbia because they were born there.

The terms "anglophone" and "francophone" in Canada are usually spelt without a capital letter.

The general trend away from unnecessary capitalisation means that words such as "province" and "government" are normally used without a capital letter, except in formal titles: Prov­ince of Alberta, Government of Quebec. "Church" should be capitalised when it means an institution, not a building. Of course, there are many Churches, and the term requires qualification -- Anglican Church, Roman Catholic Church, Methodist Church. Similarly, Crown should have a capital letter when referring to the institution, leaving "crown"  to refer to a diadem with jewels.

CAUSAL is an important adjective, derived from "cause". It is the sign of a casual approach to confuse "causal" with "casual".

-CC- PROBLEM WORDS include accept, succeed, success. Each of these words contains the letter C twice.

CLICHES Tired and tiresome clichés drag their unthinking way across the pages of thousands of student essays. Why must every demand be shrill, every crisis fateful, all shortages woeful, all straits dire, all mercies tender, all absences conspicuous? See also HEADLINE WORDS


Should words like "Army", "government", "family" be followed by singular or plural verbs? "The Army offers a great career" or "The Army never tell you where you will go next"? There is no general rule.

If the collection of people, animals or things acts like a single entity, then use the singular verb. If the component parts behave as separate individuals, use the plural.



"The family is an important institution in our society."

"Our family comes from Sussex."

[The verb is singular in each example because the reference is to the family as an institu­tion, or to a family as a single entity.]


"The family always stay with us at Christmas."

[The plural form of the verb is used because the sentence refers to a group of individuals. It might be extended to read: "The family always stay with us at Christmas, but this year my sister is going to Florida."]


"The History Department has decided to teach a new course."          but

"The History Department have agreed to mark all the essays this week."

In the first example, the Department is an institution which has agreed a collective policy. In the second, it is a collec­tion of hard‑working individuals.

Do not switch from singular to plural forms. It is poor English to write: "Canada has [singular] vast resources, but their [plural] market is small."

In Britain and Ireland, sports teams are usually treated as nouns of multitude, i.e. as a collection of individuals: "Arsenal have a home game tonight", not "Arsenal has...". "Waterford are the Munster champions", not "Waterford is...".

If in doubt, use singular verb forms with collective nouns: "The government controls universities."

COMPATRIOT should not be confused with EXPATRIATE (see below).

COMMA The comma is a useful little beast, and the subject of much study by grammar­ians. Here are a few points:

1. The comma is useful in indicating that two otherwise identical statements have different meanings, e.g.:

"Students, who cannot spell, will find it difficult to get jobs."

"Students who cannot spell will find it difficult to get jobs."

In the first sentence, the aside or commenting clause, implies that all students suffer from an inability to spell (which is unfair and untrue). The second sentence conveys the idea that unemployment faces only those students who fail to write good English.

2. A comma should be used to indicate both the start and the finish of a commenting clause:

RIGHT "Macdonald, the prime minister of Canada, said ..."

WRONG "Macdonald, the prime minister of Canada said ..."

In this function, the comma performs exactly the same role as brackets (parentheses). If you open brackets, you must also close them.

3. Commas must not be used to run sentences together.

4. A recent barbarism is the placing of stray commas at the start of a line. A comma should immediately follow a word. If there is not enough room at the end of the line for word + comma, then transfer both to the next line.

5. The comma makes an elegant break between two phrases or clauses if one ends and the next one starts with a proper name: "On his return to Canada, Macdonald announced ..."


These terms, identical in meaning, are often confused, especially in property advertisements. The following statements are correct:

"The property comprises three bedrooms, two reception rooms, kitchen and bathroom."

"The property consists of  three bedrooms, two reception rooms, kitchen and bathroom."

"Comprise" should never be followed by "of".

CONCERNING This word is nowadays (2018) often used to mean "worrying". This is an interesting development in the language, but students should note that it is recent, and not yet universally accepted as good English.

Traditionally, "concerning" has meant "about" / "on the subject of": "she came to see me concerning her essay". People engaged in an enterprise were "concerned" in or with it: "Turing was concerned in the development of computers."

By extension, people came to be "concerned" about problems, reflecting some responsibility of involvement: "I was concerned about the plan to reduce library opening hours, and I objected to it."

From this, it was a short step to make "concerned" mean "worried", in a more general sense: "I was concerned about the weather." At this point, there seemed no reason why a problem should not be regarded as "concerning".

Fifty years from now, all this may seem stuffy and old-fashioned. But students should note that "concerning" has not yet totally and finally made this journey in its meaning. It is preferable to use "worrying" or "alarming" instead.

CONSENSUS refers to the sharing of a point of view, when everyone has the same sense. It has nothing to do with the census.

CONTEMPORARY Lazy pronunciation gobbles up the third syllable.

CONTRACTIONS Avoid contractions such as "can't" for "cannot" and "isn't" for "is not" when writing an essay (except when quoting direct speech).


Since these words embody the Latin "contra" (against), it does seem inconsistent that they have to be spelt with an O. After all, contraception, contradict, contradiction, contrapose, contrapuntal, contravene and contravention all preserve the more logical A. To add to the confusion, there is "contretemps", a mealy-mouthed borrowing from French, which is used to place a discreet cover over minor disasters in daily life.



DEAL WITH          

In 1959, the British government imprisoned an African nationalist leader, Hastings Banda, in the mistaken belief that he was responsible for riots against colonial rule in Nyasaland (now Malawi). Soon after, a cabinet minister privately predicted "that some time we will have to deal with Banda." He meant that they would be compelled to negotiate (i.e. reach a deal with) Dr Banda. Unfortunately, "deal with" has acquired a semi-slang meaning, to crush or eliminate. "The dictator threatened to deal with his opponents." Students should note this unhelpful ambiguity of meaning and, if possible, use alternative terms.

DEFICIT  (a state of having more debts than cash) is not related to "defecate".

DEPENDENT is an adjective, but DEPENDANT is the noun. "Students who are dependent on their parents may be classed as dependants for tax purposes." (This distinction is breaking down, and "dependent" is widely used as both adjective and noun.)

DEVELOP, DEVELOPMENT. "Develop" does not end with an E.


Some students are confused about whether to use a double S in dis‑ words. The prefix "dis-" generally means "the opposite of". Hence dis + appear means "vanish" and dis + solve means "break up into pieces", dis + use means "stop making use of". If the original word begins with S, then the dis‑ form will have a double S (dissolve). If not, there will be only one S. Since most words do not begin with an S, most "dis-" words will not contain a double S.

One "dis-" word that causes some puzzlement is "DISAPPOINT", because this does not seem to be the opposite of "appoint". The two words have diverged in meaning. "Appoint" originally meant "to arrange a meeting, to fix a time". This meaning has become archaic, although it survives in set phrases such as "the appointed hour". To break an agreed meeting was to "disappoint". By extension, this came to convey a sense of deprivation, which has come to monopolise the meaning of our modern word "disappointment".

DISCREET See Pairs                                            DISCRETE See Pairs

DISILLUSION means "the state of being stripped of your dreams" (dis + illusion). It should not be con­fused with "DISSOLUTION", meaning "disintegration, breaking up".

"Voters were disillusioned when MPs voted themselves a large pay rise. They called for the disso­lution of Parliament so that they could vote against greedy politicians."


In recent years, this word has been steadily acquiring an additional mean­ing "not interested in" or "bored". This is a regrettable development, since it robs the Eng­lish language of a valuable concept. (The nearest equivalent, "impartial", is weaker.)

"Disinterested" strictly means "not possessing a personal or financial stake" in an outcome. Thus a disinterested politician is not an MP who goes to sleep in the House of Commons, but one who acts for the public good and not in the hope of becoming rich or powerful. The modern tendency to confuse "disinterested" with the admittedly ugly word "uninterested" should be resisted.

DIVISION                     The letter E does not appear in this word.


When do you double the final consonant in compound words? The rules are confusing, since they are based upon both the history of the language and the way it is pronounced. (American English deals with the problem by refusing to double any final conso­nants.) Here are some basic guidelines with common examples:

1. Double the final consonant in a compound word when it is followed by a vowel (A, E, I, O, U) and preceded by a short vowel. Thus "commit" becomes "committed", to show that it rhymes with "knitted" and not with "lighted". "Refer" becomes "referred" to show that it rhymes with "bird" and not with "beard". "Occur" becomes "occurred" to show that it does not rhyme with "cured". Generally, a final consonant will be doubled when it forms part of a syllable that is emphasised in speech: committed, referred.

The same rule applies to committing, occurring and referring, since I is also a vowel.

2. The final consonant is not doubled if followed by another consonant. Thus "commit" forms "commitment" (one T because it is followed by M, a consonant), but committee has a double T because E is a vowel.

3. Apparent exceptions are "benefit" which becomes "benefited" and "benefiting", and "interpret" which becomes "interpreted" and "interpreting". Many words of three syllables and more do not double the final consonant, since English pronunciation usually does not emphasise the final syllable. However, the final consonant is doubled in compound words such as "underpin" (under + pin which becomes "underpinned"). Despite appearances, "benefit" is not a compound of the word "fit".



The following words contain at least one letter E which is either frequently omitted or rendered inaccurately.

apparent bourgeois category consistent

different immediately incumbent independent indifferent insistence insistent maintenance

periphery persistent severely subsistence


In a few cases where we would expect to find an E, it disappears. Thus:

argue but argument, arguable

disaster but disastrous

enter but entrance

hinder but hindrance

true but truly, truism

-EDE and -EED words are often confused. The first group includes cede, concede and precede. The second includes proceed and succeed. This causes confusion between preceding and proceeding, which is compounded by the absence of an expected E in procedure.


EFFECT See Pairs

‑EI‑ PROBLEM WORDS include rein seize weight weird

‑EIG‑ PROBLEM WORDS include foreign reign sovereign

EMIGRATION / IMMIGRATION The root word is "migrate". The prefix "ex‑" (meaning "out of") is contracted to "e‑": emigrate. The inverse process is denoted by the prefix "in‑", which for ease of pronunciation has become "im‑" when added to a word beginning with M. Hence emigration, emigrate, emigrant have one M, immigration, immigrant have two. Note that "emigration" usually involves leaving one country and going to live in another. The same process within a country is called "out‑migration" (e.g. from the Maritime provinces to Ontario, or from Scotland to England).

ENSURE See Pairs

ENVIRONMENT Amazingly, many who claim to care about the environment cannot spell the word correctly. It is related to the word "environs", meaning the neighbourhood or local district. Do not drop the second N.

EXCLAMATION MARKS are best avoided in student essays. These convey an air of inane won­derment rather than an intelligent viewpoint. "The Canadian Pacific Railway was built in five years! (Gosh!! Just fancy that!!!)."

EXPATRIATE Expatriates are people who live out of their native country. The word embodies the Latin "patria" (fatherland). It sometimes appears as "ex-patriot", presumably on the assumption that people who live abroad no longer care about their homeland. Possibly the confusion comes from the word "compatriot, which means "somebody from the same country". The distinction is certainly illogical, but it is still worth getting it right.

EXPLAIN drops the I to form the noun EXPLANATION.


-F- PROBLEM WORDS include prefer, profession, professor

A professor is someone who professes knowledge of a subject. Professors are keen to proffer  knowledge to students, but it remains preferable to spell their professional title with one F.

The FF in "proffer" is explained by the word's  relationship to "offer", i.e. proactively offer

FEWER / LESS "Fewer" refers to number, and "less" to quantity (or amount or degree). Anything which can be counted on an individual basis requires "fewer" -- that is, any plural or collective noun.

Fewer students, fewer people, fewer friendships, fewer songs

Less interest, less time, less kindness, less music

Why, then, do we say "she finished the examination in less than three hours" or "the letter weighed less than five ounces"? Less is correct because the examination was not split into three one-hour sessions, and the letter did not consist of five separate one-ounce pieces.

Sometimes people are led astray by the conventional pairing of "more" with "less". A radio station in New Zealand advertised its programmes with the slogan: "More Music. Less Adverts." Somebody added the comment: "Fewer grammar."

FREQUENT should not be confused with REGULAR. A frequent event happens often. A regular event takes place at a fixed interval. Halley"s Comet appears every 76 years. It is regular visitor to our solar system, but it does not make frequent appearances.




GONE and WENT "She goes to University" -- "she has gone to University" -- "she went to University". Two verbs have combined into one: "went" is the past tense of "wend", a verb which is mostly used nowadays in a single phrase, "wend your way". A widely used spoken form in Scotland and sometimes in Ireland combines "have" + "went", especially in the past conditional -- "she could have went last year but she waited". This is a combination which has a long history, and it would be pointless to describe it as either "right" or "wrong". In Standard English, the correct forms are "I go", "I have gone", "I went", and these should be used in essays and in formal speech (such as interviews for jobs).

GOVERNMENT, GOVERNOR These words derive from the verb "govern". Governments impose rules and regulations.

GUARANTEE and GUARD can cause problems. "They give you a guarantee" may help you to remember that these are -UA- words. GAUGE is not a -UA- word.



The past tense of the verb "to hang" differentiates between displaying a picture and inflicting the death penalty. Pictures are hung; people were hanged.


Newspapers favour short, punchy words because these permit bold and eye‑catching headlines. Headline words should be avoided in essays.

Headline words include "bid" [attempt], "fury"/ "outrage" [any form of criticism], "shun" [avoid], "axe", "scrap" [cancel], "blast" / "slam" [criticise] "clash" [disagree], "bar" [exclude, rule out], "riddle" [unexplained event], "quiz" [question], "oust" [replace], "curb" [restrict, cut back] and "blow" [setback, inconvenience].

HIERARCHY by a happy accident derives from a Greek word pronounced like "higher", which may provide a clue to prevent confusion with heir.

HISTORIC See Pairs                                                HISTORICAL See Pairs


The historic present is a dramatic device which describes past events in the present tense. It is especially effective in television documentaries: "The year is 1940. Hitler is poised to invade. Only Fighter Command stands between Britain and invasion. Churchill rallies the British people, but he knows that disaster is at hand." The historic present is effective on television, because it is accompanied by black-and-white film of Spitfires and brave pilots with short hair. It should be avoided in essays.

HOARD          See Pairs                                             HORDE        See Pairs

HUMOUR            See -U- PROBLEM WORDS in N-Y Section

HYPHENATION Avoid breaking words with a hyphen. It is better to write the whole word on the next line than to split it into two. If you must hyphenate, try to break the word between syllables: commit‑ment, not commi‑tment.


I and ME.    See ME

INNOVATION An innovation is something new. It is just possible to write about a "new innovation". For instance, in an organisation that is constantly introducing fresh ideas and procedures, today's development might be termed a "new innovation", meaning the latest of many. On the whole, it is best to avoid the phrase. See also REVERT.

‑I- PROBLEM WORDS The following words contain at least one letter I which is either frequently omitted or rendered inaccurately.       

business                       Calvinist            cannibal                        citizen  

inevitable                      liaison               marriage                       politician

privilege                       religion             religious                        responsible

sensitive                       similar              territory                        vicious


 There was a time when small children learnt this simple rule. Nowadays it has to be urged upon university students. It means exactly what it says:

 belief, relief      but       deceive, perceive, receipt, receive

 The rule applies only to C, not to CH: chief, achievement, grievous, mischievous

There are a few exceptions in which ‑EI is used with a long E sound (seize and weird), plus other words in which ‑EI conveys other sounds (foreign, sovereign). Some words of foreign origin accidentally conform to the I-before-E rule. These include "diesel" and "Riesling", from German, and "hygiene", from Greek.

 I BEFORE E EXCEPT AFTER C does not apply to proper names: "Keith from Leith told me the BBC was founded by Lord Reith."


IDEOLOGY, IDEOLOGICAL, IDEOLOGUE The word "idea" forms compounds by changing the final vowel to O: "ideo‑". This does not apply to ideal.


 IMPLY and INFER     These two words are often confused.

 "To imply" means to make a statement which hints at some other meaning, or which seems to be based on unstated assumptions. Thus to say "X always seems to have a lot of money. Isn't it strange that he has no job?" might imply that X is dishonest. Similarly, to say "Stupid Y cannot spell" would imply that poor spelling is a sign of lack of intelli­gence (which is not true).

 "To infer" means to deduce something which is not immediately obvious from a statement made by somebody else. "You said you were hungry. I infer that you have not had your dinner."

 A speaker implies but a listener infers from what is said.

 INDEED is one word, but IN FACT is a two‑word phrase.

 INDEPENDENT There is no A in this word.    See DEPENDENT.

 INEVITABLE is a word best banned from historical discussion. If the out­come of any episode was "inevitable", why bother to study history?

 INFAMOUS This word should not be confused with the much milder NOTORIOUS. Winston Churchill's fondness for brandy and champagne was notorious. Hitler's persecution of the Jews was infamous.


 INSURE  See Pairs

 INTEGRATE is not an "inter-" word.


JARGON  is best avoided, especially if it is anachronistic. Twentieth-century phrases such as "trading partners", "talks" [for "negotiations"], "get off the ground", "state funding", "media" and "detente" are out of place in discussion of events in the nineteenth century or earlier.


LAY  See Pairs

LEAD  See Pairs                                LED        See Pairs

"LED TO"  

This is a mealy‑mouthed expression, since it is rarely clear whether it implies a causal link, or merely a chronological one. "The European Enlightenment led to the French Revolution" may mean that the Enlightenment caused the Revolution, or the statement may simply note that one event followed the other.



Why does the letter I make two appearances in liaison?  In seventeenth-century English, there was a word "liason" (with one I).  It was a cookery term, which described the thickening of sauces by egg-yolks.  After 1800, the word acquired another meaning, that of an illicit sexual relationship.  Since sex was naughty and un-British, the French equivalent (liaison) was adopted, usually in italics.  In the First World War, British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand troops fought on the Western Front alongside the French, an alliance which required close tactical co-operation. Through this process, the French word "liaison" acquired a more general meaning, especially through the new term "liaison officer".  There are some interesting stories buried in dictionaries.

LICENCE  See Pairs                LICENSE  See Pairs

LIE  See Pairs

LOOSE                   See Pairs                LOSE                      See Pairs


As a measure of quantity, "a lot" is vague and conversational, much too imprecise to be used in student essays.  Those who insist on using it should remember that "a lot" is a two-word phrase, not to be confused with "allot", meaning "to allocate".

LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATOR This is a standard phrase, often disapprovingly applied to television programmes that use knockabout humour, or to politicians who appeal to simplistic arguments. The implication is that the television producers and the politicians are descending to appeal to the values of the least sophisticated and to the brain-power of the least intelligent. An old friend, J. Alan Smith, has called upon his mathematical skills to explain to me that this condescending phrase is based on a misunderstanding of a basic arithmetical concept.
Suppose you wish to add 5/8 and 5/12. (This kind of challenge often occurred, for instance in the building trade, in days when measurements were made in inches, which were rarely calibrated in tenths.)  To add eighths and twelfths would be like trying to perform a sum out of apples and oranges. Some common or neutral form is needed to bring them together. This is the lowest common multiple, alias lowest common denominator.
In this case, 3 times 8 = 24; 2 x 12 = 24. Thus the sum is possible if both fractions are converted to twenty-fourths. 5/8 becomes 15/24, 5/12 is now 10/24. Add them together, and the result is 25/24, or one and one twenty-fourth.
When people haughtily grumble about crude television comedy or rabble-rousing politicians, they are actually much closer to another arithmetical device, the HIGHEST COMMON FACTOR. Suppose you wish to find the number that will divide into both 12 and 18, without leaving any messy fractions. 18 can be divided by 9 (answer: 2), but 12 divided by 9 gives one and a third, precisely the untidy solution we aim to avoid. But 6 will divide into both 12 (answer: 2) and 18 (answer: 3). Therefore the number 6 is the Highest Common Factor linking 12 and 18, just as laughing at somebody skidding on a banana skin is the level of joke that appeals to most basic television viewer.
As Alan Smith happily recognises, the phrase "lowest common denominator" is too deeply embedded in English usage to expect clever people to switch to sneering at the "highest common factor" in the collective public intelligence. However, if you use it, bear in mind that it is mathematical nonsense.



‑M‑ PROBLEM WORDS  The following words contain just one letter M but are oftenwrongly rendered with two.

 amount  emergency  emigrate   emigration

 ‑MM‑ PROBLEM WORDS  The following words contain the letter M twice but are oftenwrongly rendered with only one M.

 accommodation and immigration

[but there is only one M in emigration]

 MAINTAIN/MAINTENANCE  There seems to be no logical explanation why "maintain" and a series of related words (maintainability, maintainer) should switch to "maintenance".  The explanation lies in their common origins in the French word "maintenir", an irregular verb with forms like "je maintiens" and "maintenant". Unfortunately medieval English borrowed indiscriminately from different versions, and modern English is saddled with the inconsistency.

 MALL. There is a pronunciation issue here. An enclosed shopping centre is a Mall, usually pronounced (under the influence of American English) as if it were "maul". In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England and Ireland, the term "Mall" was used to denote an elegant street, and in this sense it is pronounced to rhyme with "pal". This in turn derived from a mallet and ball game called "pall mall" which was played on such streets. (The game is now forgotten except for the old-fashioned term "pell-mell" denoting speed.) The London streets called "The Mall" and "Pall Mall" are examples. 

MAY and MIGHT  For some reason, the distinction between "may" and "might" is breaking down, with "may" often intruding where it does not belong.  Broadly, "may" suggests uncertainty, "might" indicates choice.  The first three statements are correct English.  The fourth is meaningless:

RIGHT          "Stalin may have held secret talks with Hitler in 1938."  (Perhaps he did; perhaps he did not.  The use of "may" indicates that this is a speculation: we simply do not know.)

RIGHT          "Stalin might have held secret talks with Hitler in 1938."  (This statement assumes that no such negotiations took place, but implies that Stalin had every reason to talks with Hitler if he had so wished.)

RIGHT            "Britain might have refused to send soldiers to fight in defence of Belgium in 1914."  (Nobody forced Britain to send intervene to defend Belgium.)

WRONG        "Britain may have refused to send soldiers to fight in Belgium in 1914".  (This is nonsense, since it is a matter of historical record that Britain did send an army to the continent.  The only logical explanation of this statement is that its perpetrator does not know what happened and is making a wild guess.)

 ME and I

When the Reverend John Trillo was appointed Anglican Bishop of Chelmsford in 1971, he and his wife went to inspect their official residence. He later wrote of "the horror that seized Pat and me" when they set eyes on the ugly and costly mansion. 

Many people would assume that the bishop's grammar was inaccurate. How could a learned cleric (Trillo was an authority on New Testament Greek) say "Pat and me"? Surely the correct form (certainly the one that is widely used) should be "Pat and I"? 

In fact, the bishop was absolutely correct. Had he written "Pat and me 'ated that 'orrible 'ouse", he would indeed have violated all the rules of grammar. But, consider: if Mrs Trillo had not accompanied him, the bishop would have written of "the horror that seized me", not "the horror that seized I". If we were reporting the couple's reactions, we should say "horror seized them", not "horror seized they". The incorrect use of "Pat and I" in such a sentence is a piece of false propriety, because "Pat and me" seems to sound wrong and uneducated. In fact, it is perfectly correct, so long as the people mentioned are on the receiving end of the action described. 

The pronouns I, he, she, we and they are used to indicate the subject of a sentence (the person who performs the action), but the forms me, him, her, us and them are used for the objects (the people on the receiving end of the action).

"Pat and I thank you for your help."

"Thank you for helping Pat and me."

Let me add that I rarely praise bishops of the Church of England.


The correct form is "Jack and I". There seems to be a growing notion that the "me and ..." form is more people-friendly. I have even heard a distinguished public figure refer to "me and my government". There are probably two cultural influences operating here. One is the well-known song from a 1937 Broadway musical, "Me and My Girl". The other is that an even more distinguished person sometimes refers to "My husband and I", and British people feel embarrassed to appear to be emulating the phrase. 

METER                  See PAIRS                             METRE                  See PAIRS

MILITATE, MITIGATE  These verbs are often confused.

"To militate against" something is to fight or resist it.  The word is related to "military".

"To mitigate" means to alleviate or reduce the severity of an action.

MILLENNIUM     With luck, we shall not be bothered with this word for the next 900 years. The letter N appears twice.

MINUSCULE. Here a confession, lest I appear to be intolerant and omniscient. I was well past my 50th birthday before I discovered that I was mis-spelling this word myself. Minuscule is related to "minus" (which, in Latin, means "smallest" or "very small"), so it is the letter U that appears twice in this word, not the letter I, even though we usually pronounce the word "minis─".