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


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.


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.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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”.


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:




 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: