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Page last updated 06/11/2020

Words that sound the same or similar that have different meanings. They’re easily mixed up, so always double-check.

Affect/effect

Affect is a verb that means to have an influence on or make a difference to, for example, the sunny weather began to affect my health. Effect is usually a noun that refers to a change that results from an action or other cause, for example, the mood-enhancing effects of sunny weather.

Bail/bale

Use bail for the temporary release of someone awaiting trial. To bail out is to help a company or person with financial problems (noun: bailout). Use bale out for removing water from a boat or jumping out of a plane. A bale is also a large wrapped or bound bundle of paper, hay, or cotton.

Complement/compliment

To complement means to make complete or supply what is lacking. Whether as a noun or verb, compliment means to praise.

Defuse/diffuse

Defuse is to make safe an explosive. Diffuse means something that’s widespread.

Discreet/discrete

Discreet means "careful" or "tactful". Discrete means "distinct and separate".

Fazed/phased

Someone who is disorientated or disconcerted can be described as fazed. Phased means "introduced in stages".

Formerly/formally

Formerly means previously. Formally means officially, or according to convention.

Gate/gait

Gate is an entry. Gait is a manner of walking.

Hangar/hanger

A hangar is where aircraft are kept. A hanger is for putting clothes on.

Hyperthermia/Hypothermia

Hyper is a prefix that means excess or exaggeration. Hypo is a prefix that means under or beneath. Therefore, hyperthermia is where the body temperature is greatly above normal, while hypothermia is where the body temperature is markedly below normal.

Illicit/elicit

Illicit means illegal. Elicit means to extract something, usually information.

Licence/license

The noun is licence with a "c", for example, driving licence. License with an “s” is the verb, for example, licensed to kill.

Passed/past

Past refers to something that has gone by in time and no longer exists. It can also be used as a noun to describe a period of history – ‘the past’. Passed is used to indicate movement – it’s the past tense of ‘to pass’, as in, “we’ve passed the point of no return”.

Practice/practise

As above, the noun has a "c" and the verb has an "s". For example, she’s a practising lawyer running her own practice.

Like all punctuation, Hyphens are there for a reason. In their simplest form, they help the text make immediate sense – they shorten the journey from eye to understanding by removing ambiguity. Despite being frequently misused, hyphens play a vital role in succinct communication, as shown in these examples:

 

With

Without

 Mother-to-be assaulted

 This means a pregnant woman (a mother-to-be) has been assaulted.

 Mother to be assaulted

This means that a woman who has children (a mother) is for some reason scheduled to be assaulted.

 She never tips black-cab drivers

This mean the woman in question doesn't tip any drivers of black cabs.

 She gives tips black cab drivers

This means she doesn't tip a cab driver, if the driver is black.

They can be pretty tricky, however, so we’ll keep the rules simple to aid consistency.

Compound adjectives

An adjective is a word naming an attribute of a noun, such as sweet, red, or technical. A compound adjective is a single adjective made up of more than one word. For example, two-seater, or free-range. Note that free-range is a single attribute, made of two words, but joined by a hyphen.

So, the words in a compound adjective are often linked together with a hyphen (or hyphens) to show they are part of the same adjective.

However, they’re not used when part of the adjective is an adverb ending in -ly. For example, "badly researched report", "severely wounded person", "newly cleaned car".

We’d say Jim Smith is a father of two, but it's father-of-two Jim Smith because in the second example, father-of-two in an attribute – a compound adjective – of Jim’s. Likewise, Jim Smith is 25 years old but 25-year-old Jim Smith.

Phrasal verbs

These are constructions such as build up, turn out, drive in, take over. Some need hyphens when they are used as nouns:

  • Those ending in -in, -to, -on or -up use a hyphen – check-up, break-in, turn-on
  • Those ending in -off use a hyphen – pay-off, turn-off, drop-off
  • Don’t use a hyphen for those ending in -out – payout, turnout, dropout, bailout
  • Don’t use a hyphen for those where the second part is four or more letters – takeover, clampdown, giveaway, setback, lookahead, runaround
  • Rare exceptions are where two vowels need to be separated by a hyphen, as in go-ahead, though this isn't always necessary
  • Use a hyphen to separate repeated letters in a compound word – re-emergence, co-operative, film-maker, night-time – annoyingly, there are some random exceptions to this rule, including overrun, override, overrule, underrate, withhold

Examples of words and phrases that do and don’t need hyphens: