Problem Words N to Z



The surnames of some historical figures often cause problems.

If you are writing about the Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi, it is vital to remember that H is the fifth letter and NOT the second. Try memorising this American-style rhyme:

Gandhi was a friendly guy,

Always saying "Gee!" and "Hi!".

This may not be great poetry, but it captures the spelling: "G - and - hi". Gandhi was not a ghost and he did not come from Ghent in Belgium.

The surnames of British prime ministers sometimes cause problems. The -ae- in Disraeli denotes his Jewish identity (as in the country, "Israel"), while the Ll- at the start of Lloyd George reflects "LG's" Welsh heritage.

There is no double-R in Rosebery (Lord Rosebery was Britain's prime minister in 1894-95. He was not very effective as prime minister but, as a race-horse owner, he did win the Derby twice.) However, there is a double -T in the surname of Clement Attlee, British prime minister 1945-51. He was probably descended from a medieval knight, Sir John atte Lee, who died about 1380.

The letter H does indeed appear twice in the surname of Winston Churchill, once near the beginning of his name and again towards the end. In strict logic, there ought to be a third H, since the name derives from "hill with a church" -- but there is no third H.

Clusters of Scottish surnames beginning with variants of Mac- and Mc- can cause problems, with the same name appearing in variant forms such as Macdonald, McDonald and MacDonald. The first prime minister of Canada was Sir John A. Macdonald, but the first Labour prime minister of Great Britain was Ramsay MacDonald. By contrast, a Conservative successor was Harold Macmillan. William Lyon Mackenzie King was a long-serving prime minister of Canada. Another Canadian, the political scientist Robert McKenzie, helped pioneer the academic study of general elections in Britain. Make a careful note of each example you encounter.

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century British public life was enlivened by members of a family called Lyttelton, including Alfred (the only cabinet minister ever to play cricket for England) and Humphrey (a jazz musician). A town in New Zealand bears their name. The -el- form traps the unwary. The family name of the Duke of Wellington, Wellesley, includes two apparently redundant Es.

The Habsburg imperial dynasty ruled Austria-Hungary: note that the letter B occurs twice, even though the first B is usually pronounced as P.

The royal family of later mediaeval Scotland was the house of Stewart. They were usually allies of France. The French language did not use the letter w, and an alternative spelling developed: "Stuart". When James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, the French version was widely adopted by his new subjects, and it is generally used by historians of the seventeenth century. Use "Stuart" in relation to England, "Stewart" for Scotland.

Some surnames have originated in other European countries, and include words meaning "of" (followed by a place) or "the" (followed by an occupation) were common. Where these names have become part of the English-speaking world, both words are generally spelt with a capital letter: Walter De La Mare, William De Lancey, Ambrose De Lisle, Thomas De Quincey, Robert F. La Follette, Charles Joseph La Trobe, Gaspard Le Marchant, Martin Van Buren, William Van Mildert. The lower case is used to indicate people from other countries: Charles de Gaulle and Alexis de Tocqueville from France, Ludwig van Beethoven, who was German but of Dutch descent, and Simon van der Burgh, the Dutch industrialist. Dutch and Afrikaner names in South Africa, from Jan van Riebeeck to F.W. de Klerk, follow this usage.

As always, there are exceptions. The Irish leader Eamon de Valera is usually given the lower-case spelling in Ireland, although British publications do not always recognise this. Artists of international rank also acquire capital letters: Da Vinci (although art-lovers prefer "Leonardo"), Ter Borch, Van Gogh. The seventeenth-century painter Van Dyke was a naturalised Englishman and so his name falls into both categories.

Arthur Phillip was the first governor of New South Wales, John Philip an influential missionary in nineteenth-century South Africa.

First names can also cause confusion. Wilfrid Laurier was a Canadian prime minister, Wallis Simpson was Duchess of Windsor. Vivian Fuchs (male) was an explorer, Vivien Duffield is a philanthropist, Vivienne Westwood a fashion designer. British Labour politicians have included Hilary Marquand and Hilary Benn (both male), but in the USA Hillary Clinton is a major political figure. (However, Hilary is used for women too.) Sydney Smith was a nineteenth-century politician and wit, but Sidney Smith was an eighteenth-century British admiral. Sidney Webb was a socialist intellectual. His wife, Beatrice, was born Beatrice Potter, but should not be confused with Beatrix Potter, who wrote children's stories. Two Scottish names, Allan and Iain, are variants of the better-known Alan and Ian: Allan Ramsay (painter), Edgar Allan Poe (writer) and Iain Macleod (politician).


NECESSARY A little etymology (history of words) may help here. "Necessary" derives from the Latin nec ("not" or "without which") + esse (the verb "to be"). If something was necesse, it meant "without which it could not be". Hence the English word necessary has one C and a double S.

NEGOTIATE, NEGOTIATION Until late in the nineteenth century, these words were often spelt with a C instead of the first T. This is now an error.


NUCLEAR It is hardly necessary to state that this is an important word in the modern world. The pronunciation is nu‑cle‑ar, and so is the spelling. The barbarous pronunciation "noo-kew-luh" is simply wrong, even when it was used by a recent President of the United States. 



‑O‑ PROBLEM WORDS   include controversy, controversial and opportunity.

ON TO should not be run together as a single word, unlike INTO and UNTO.

OTTAWA is the capital of Canada. OttAwa. 


 PAIRS                                    See separate section

 PARLIAMENT Note the second A.

 PAY              The past tense is paid

 PENINSULA / PENINSULAR  The first is a noun, the second (almost always) an adjective.

 "The Iberian peninsula comprises Portugal and Spain."

"The Iberian peninsula consists of Portugal and Spain."

 "The Gower peninsula is in south Wales."

"The Duke of Wellington fought the Peninsular War in Portugal and Spain."

 In the nineteenth century, a veteran of Wellington's campaign was referred to as "a Peninsular", so giving the "-ar" spelling a noun form. This was a semi-slang term which (for obvious reasons) is no longer in general use. Hence we can say: peninsula = noun" peninsular = adjective.


Three groups of words seem to cause problems.

 1. Words ending in ‑y.

 There really should be no difficulty (or difficulties) with these. Singular ‑y becomes plural ‑ies:

 assembly -- assemblies         university -- universities

 Surnames are an exception to the rule. 

"Trollope's second novel was The Kellys and the O'Kellys."

2. Words ending with ‑f.  Some form plurals in ‑ves:

 Self -- selves (himself / herself -- themselves)

calf --  calves                        wife  -- wives

wolf -- wolves                      thief -- thieves

 However, nouns such as roof, reef, chief, proof and gulf form plurals simply by adding ‑S.

 Other words confusingly straddle the categories -- hoof, wharf and scarf can become either hooves, wharves and scarves or hoofs, wharfs and scarfs. Turf usually becomes turfs nowadays.

Staff forms the plural staffs when referring to the undervalued bands of human beings who work in universities, but where "staff" means a wooden stick, the plural is staves.

 3. Greek and Latin words. This is a frontier zone in which English has imposed its own forms in some cases but not in others. "Phenomenon" and "criterion" (singular) should not be confused with "phenomena" and "criteria" (plural): "the criteria for judgement are ...". 

"Data" (singular "datum") strictly falls into this group, although it is often treated as singular.  "Agenda" is a Latin plural which has become singu­lar in English. "Media" seems to be making the same transition.

"Refer­endum" has acquired an anglicised plural -- referendums.  

POLITICIAN  The word ends with ‑ian. If you have a problem here, remember to ask: "was Ian Paisley a politician?" 

POPULACE           See Pairs                                POPULOUS  See Pairs

POTATO  This word was made famous by former Vice‑President J. Danforth Quayle, who thought that it ended with an E.  Perhaps he was confused by the fact that potato and tomato (singular) become potatoes and tomatoes (plural).

PRACTICE  See Pairs                                PRACTISE  See Pairs

PRAIRIE / PRAIRIES  The fourth letter is an I.  There is plenty of fresh air on the prairies.


Presence means "the state of being present".  It should not be confused with prescience meaning "foreknowledge" or "foresight".

PRIME MINISTER   Even though it is often pronounced as if it were "pry‑minister", the title of the head of the Queen's government contains two words. Modern usage avoids capitalisa­tion, except when used (incorrectly but frequently) as a title: Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

PRINCIPAL           See Pairs                                PRINCIPLE  See Pairs

PRIVILEGE   This is a word which students really ought to spell correctly, since it is a privilege to acquire a university education. The word is privilege, and there is no D in it.


During my career as a university teacher, I was surprised by the number of students who were capable of taking courses in Psychology (and doing well at the subject) without grasping that the word begins with the letters P-S. The resulting mis-spelling was mildly disgusting. Please Stop Your Car Here + ology.


QUITE is a much abused word. It means "totally". "I am quite well" = "I am one hundred percent fighting fit". "I have quite finished" = "The job is over, done and completed".

It has to be admitted that it is a rearguard action to insist on the correct meaning of this word. (See SIGHING SIBLINGS.) Thanks to colloquial misuse, "quite" has acquired two utterly contradictory meanings --"totally" and "partly".

QUOTE is a verb. In journalism, "quote" is used as a noun, but in a university essay, this is slang. The correct term is "quotation" (or "extract").


The letter R appears only once in the following words:

Caribbean, harass, harassed, sheriff, tariff

Although there is only one R in "harass" and "harassment", there are two Rs in "embarrass" and "embarrassment".

RACE and RACIAL are words which should be used with great care. While it was standard practice to refer to English‑speaking and French‑speaking Canadians as "races" until recent times, modern usage avoids such terms, preferring "ethnic group", "language group" or "community" as classifications.

RECOGNISE A hideous but widespread pronunciation associates this word with "reckon", as in "reck-er-nise". Why not sound the G and reconnect the word with the idea of cognition?

REFUTE is a verb which means "disprove by detailed and reasoned argument". It does not mean "deny" or "contradict". It is correctly used in a sentence such as:

"The professor delivered a detailed lecture in which he refuted the theories of his critics."

If somebody challenges a statement by simply asserting "I refute what you have said!", the proper response is to invite them to do just that, to present their arguments and disprove the statement point by point.

REGULAR                                          See FREQUENT

REIGN                              See Pairs                           REIN See Pairs

RELIGION, RELIGIOUS                      Do not omit the second I.

RENOWN                                               There is no K in this word.

REVERT  This word means "to go back", usually with reference to an idea or a condition. "Let me revert to the main subject." "We must not revert to a state of barbarism." Since the word means "go back", it is a tautology (something unnecessary, redundant and embarrassing) to add the word "back" all over again.

RIDICULOUS derives from the verb "to ridicule". It has nothing to do with the colour "red".


-S- or -Z- words.  Words such as "capitalisation / capitalization", "civilisation / civilization" and "organisation  / organization" are used with both the -s- and -z- forms. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) favours the -z- form, but sometimes tolerates the 's- version. The Economist Style Guide favours -s- forms. British English leans towards the -s- forms, American English to -z- forms. The OED also prefers "organize", but in British English, most similar nouns and verbs take "-ise" forms: advertise, compromise, merchandise, revise, supervise, televise.  

SATELLITE communications tell the whole world.  One T, double L.

SEIZE should not be confused with siege.          See SIEGE

SEPARATE  This word is one of the touchstones of basic literacy. The word is related to the verb "to part", and the letter A occurs twice in the correct spelling of "separate", "sepa­rated", "separatist".

SIEGE is related to the French word "siège" (a seat) because this is what happens during a siege: the attackers sit down and wait for the defenders to give up. It is not related to "seize".

SIGHING SIBLINGS: "fairly", "quite", "rather", "somewhat". The four sighing siblings are over‑used by students who wish to avoid committing themselves to a point of view in an essay. "The policy was fairly successful"" "the government was rather authoritarian", "the outcome was somewhat mysterious". The poor lecturer reads these mealy‑mouthed evasions and longs to scream: "was it successful or not?", "were they authoritarian or not?", "was it mysterious or not?"  Avoid fence‑sitting: if the policy was successful in some respects but failed in others, then say so.

"Rather" is correctly used in the phrase "rather than".

"Fairly" is correctly used to mean "reasonably": "Canadians may fairly claim that they do not need a large army."                                                                         See also QUITE.


This word contains two Is, not three, ending simply -ar. Similar should not be confused with familiar, which ends -- iar.

SLANG   Slang terms rarely have any place in a student essay, unless they are being quoted.  Terms which should be avoided include "do a deal" [reach a compromise], "raving" [angry], "set up" [especially as a noun, for "structure", "system" or even "circumstances"], "a bit of" [a small amount of], "toe the line" [conform], "lead‑up" [preceding period], "big news" [major event], "came up with" [proposed], "sat in on" [attended], "made towards" [encouraged], "wanted out" [wished to withdraw].

"Hype", "part of the furniture" and "fun and games" are worse than slang: they are utterly meaning­less. Phrases such as "the likes of Blair" and "radicals of every stripe" are sneering barbarisms.

Semi‑slang expressions also devalue an essay. These include "pull off" [achieve], "it did not end there" [problems continued], most phrases including the term "scene" ["on the political scene"] and all phrases that hyphenate the word "wise" ["population-wise"].  Words with similar meanings are not always exact synonyms, and their use in an essay trivialises the discussion. Avoid "irate" [angry], "back‑chat" [dissent], "scared" [alarmed], "stupid" [ill‑ad­vised], "elated" [satisfied] and "gesticulating" [protesting].

The use of slang suggests loose thought and an inability to identify good English.

SO is a short word, but capable of causing much irritation. It may be used, informally but pleasantly, as a kind of deep breath to signal the winding-up of some discussion: "So, at the close of this discussion, what conclusions can we reach?"

Unfortunately, it has become a mindless throat-clearing word. The TV Newsreader says, "Please tell us about your exciting new research." The interviewee replies, "So, we have conducted experiments ...". "So" is meaningless here, and serves only to create an impression of moronic muttering.

SO-CALLED  This is a nasty sneering term which implies either incompetence ("the so-called prime minister") or an accusation of unfounded pretension ("the so-called bourgeoisie").  It should be avoided.

SOLELY   Lazy pronunciation butchers this simple word.  Solely has six letters, and two of them are Ls.

SOVEREIGN   The English sovereign Edward I planned to invade Scotland in 1307, but he died near Carlisle. Remember: Edward I Goes Nowhere.


The infinitive is the basic form of the verb formed by adding the word "to", as in "to be" or "to go". A split infinitive is one into which an adverb has been inserted, as in Star Trek's "to boldly go". In everyday speech, this device can make a point very effectively: "Percy, do you want to -- really -- do this?" The danger is that once a single word has crept into the infinitive, where will the process stop? Once one word has been inserted into an infinitive, why not a dozen? Here is a horrible, nightmare example. "He asked to -- just for once, promising not to tell anybody and not to regard it as a precedent -- borrow a reference book." Consequently, purists believe that our civilization is under greater threat from those who split the infinitive than it has ever been from those who split the atom. Perhaps the purists are narrow-minded reactionaries, but remember that they do mark student essays and vet job applications.

As with all rules, there are some common-sense exceptions. Obviously, in the case of a double booking, the verb form results in a statement such as: "Sorry, I am double booked". It would be pompous and ponderous to contort the infinitive, so that "to double book" became "to book double". The best solution is to insert a hyphen: "Please do not double-book the lecture room."

In standard Irish speech, the infinitive is often simplified by omitting "to": "He was allowed go home early." This is best avoided in written communication, not because the widespread form is "wrong" but because we all have to make compromises to ensure conformity in an international language.

SUCCESS, SUCCESSFUL   Double C, double S

SUPERSEDE  means "replace" (usually with the implication of "improve" or "bring up to date").  It derives from Latin words meaning "to sit on top of", and the third syllable is related to "sedentary".  The origin may seem obscure, but there is no C in this word.

SUPPRESS / SUPPRESSION   These words incorporate the prefix "sub‑", which has changed to a P to avoid clashing consonants. Remember that "suppress" means "to keep down". It is not connected with "surmount", meaning "to overcome".


Sometimes the spelling of surnames can mislead. For instance: an unmarried person is a bachelor, but the surname usually includes a T -- Batchelor.  Similarly, the noun and verb "marshal" both have one L, but the surname usually has two -- Marshall. Somebody who rents a house or a flat is a tenant, while the surname is usually Tennant or Tennent.

See also NAMES.


A common error is the omission of the first R.  This is not a surprise.  It is a shock.



Texting by mobile phone has opened up a lively means of communication. But texting abbreviations must not be used in student essays: write "you", not "u" and "for", not "4".

THAT is often used in conversation to mean "very".  ("He was not that clever.") This should be avoided in student essays.

THEIR    See Pairs                THERE  See Pairs 

TOO is also used in conversation to mean "very".  ("He was not too clever.")  This slang form possibly owes its origin to the memorable condemnation of a politician (by a less gifted colleague) as "too clever by half".


The letter U is often omitted or rendered incorrectly in these words:

bourgeois              bourgeoisie           January                  guarantee

guard                      February                Portuguese            particular              

pursue                    voluntary

In British English, a small number of -U- words are utterly inconsistent in forming compounds.

Glamour, humour, rancour, rigour and vigour, words ending in -our, switch to -or when forming adjectives ending in -ous: glamorous, humorous, rancorous, rigorous, vigorous.

Similarly, honour forms adjectives honorary and honorific.

However, this does not extend to verb forms of the same words: "I humoured him by saying that I was honoured to meet him."

The muddle gets worse.  Somebody who cracks jokes is a "humorist", but the Scottish painter S.J. Peploe was a "colourist". The adjective from "favour" is "favourite" (which can also be used as a noun).

The only safe advice is to note examples as you come across them. 



The same rule applies as for DIS- words. Un + necessary becomes "unnecessary", with a double N. Un + intended becomes "unintended", with one N.

Not all words have an accepted opposite formed by adding un-. In 1973, I noted an advertisement in Melbourne for indigestion tablets which used the slogan "Unburp". The term is a tribute to the creative vigour of Australian English, but it did not catch on.

 "YOU HAD"  

This is a colloquial formulation which is very effective in everyday discus­sion. "Look, in Tsarist Russia, you had greedy officials, you had bad harvests, you had a stupid government and then you had a disastrous war -- no wonder there was a Revolution."  In student essays, use "there was" / "there were".