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Big, large and great

Can you sort out big, large and great?

Generally speaking, big describes weight or extent, large is often related to dimensions or volume and great suggests something impressive. Great is often used with abstract nouns.

BIG

Big is used more often than large. In fact, big is one of the most frequent words in the English language. Big may also sound a little less formal than large.

They have a big mansion in the countryside.

Big often means important, powerful, successful:
That’s a big decision.
He is a big tycoon in the automotive industry.

Big can also mean older or elder:
My big brother has helped me a lot.

LARGE

As mentioned above, large often refers to dimension or volume.
They have a large house with a very large garden.
I have a large collection of posters from the 1960s.

A large bird or, if you like, a big bird

Large is more common with some quantity words such as the following:
A large amount
A large number
To a large extent
On a large scale
A large percentage
A large quantity

With food and clothes we use large:
I’d like a large coffee, please.
Those shoes are too large for you.

Large, not big, is used in the combination small, medium, large.

The expression at large has two meanings, 1) free, at liberty and 2) as a whole, in general:
The prisoner is still at large.
These findings relate to society at large.

Big and large are only used with countable nouns (read here about countable and uncountable nouns).
You cannot talk about *big traffic or *large traffic (for the use of the asterisk, read at the end of this text). Instead we use heavy traffic, intense traffic or a lot of traffic.

Big and large often overlap in meaning when we talk about size.
A big house.
A large house.

It is sometimes said that big implies an element of emotion, surprise, etc., especially in fixed expressions such as the following:
Big deal!
She’s a big fan of the Rolling Stones.
He’s a big liar.

A big-headed man is not the same as a large-headed man! A big-headed man thinks he is more important or cleverer than others, while a large-headed man just has a large head.

Susan is my big sister – she is older than me.
Susan is my large sister – she is physically larger than my other siblings.

GREAT

Great implies a large size:
All creatures great and small.

Great often means distinguished, remarkable:
She is one of the greatest novelists of our time.
The performance was a great success.
I have great respect for her abilities.
He has great wisdom.
My cousin is really great at tennis.

To vary your language, you should use synonyms. In a dictionary of synonyms you will find many words to describe size or importance, such as huge, enormous, sizeable, impressive, momentous, substantial, comprehensive, extensive, immense, tremendous, prominent, distinguished, etc.

How the English language changes

A language is a living organism that constantly changes. Words often take on another meaning over time.

Let me give you an example:

HOTHOUSE

Originally this word meant a heated building, usually made of glass, used to grow plants.

This is what it still means today, but the word is now also used figuratively referring to a place or situation with intense activity, usually to promote the development of somebody or something.

New York in the 1940s was a hothouse of artists and intellectuals.
For decades the palace was a hothouse of intrigue.

Hothouse can also be used as a verb meaning to train a child intensively in sport, music, academic work, etc. This often has a negative connotation.

The articles imply that women are hothousing their children when they are simply trying to do the best they can for their families.

Are we hothousing our children?

So here we see a change in meaning from something good – promoting the growth of plants – to something negative – disapproval of the way some parents train their children.

A word related to hothouse is hotbed, which originally also had to do with the growing of plants. When used figuratively, hotbed especially in British English usually refers to an unwanted or unpleasant activity.

The village had turned into a hotbed of disease.

Can you think of other English words that have taken on a completely new and different meaning?

Do you know the difference between beside and besides?

Many writers find it difficult to distinguish between beside and besides.

BESIDE

Beside is a preposition meaning next to, by the side of.
Can I sit beside you?
I can never teach my dog to walk calmly beside me.

It felt safe walking beside grandpa

Beside can also mean in comparison with.
I feel stupid beside you.

Beside is used in a couple of sayings:
That’s beside the point. (That is not related to what we are talking about.)
He was completely beside himself with joy. (He had very strong feelings of joy.)

BESIDES

Besides is a preposition meaning in addition to, apart from.
What’s your favourite food besides pizza?
Who was there besides you and your girlfriend?
Besides being a language teacher she is also a talented piano player.

Besides can also be a linking adverb giving additional information.
Sorry I can’t stay longer. It’s a long way home and, besides, I have to get up early tomorrow.

Personal, personnel and staff

The words personal and personnel are easily confused, even if they are pronounced differently. The word personal has the stress on the first syllable, while personnel has a heavy stress on the last syllable, rhyming with carousel.

PERSONAL

Something that is private, that relates to or is owned by one person is personal.

When away from work I use my personal computer.
You must keep this in your personal file.
When he was promoted, he was allowed to have a personal secretary.
Is that your personal opinion?
Don’t take it as a personal attack.

During my vacation I use my personal laptop

PERSONNEL

The people employed in an organisation form the personnel. Personnel refers to human resources. The word can be used in the singular to denote all employees as a whole or in the plural to denote a group of individual employees.

All personnel is required to strictly follow these instructions.
Four security personnel were injured when a gunman opened fire on their patrol.
Who is responsible for the personnel file?
You’d better check with Personnel (with the Human Resources Department).

Now you should be able to understand the difference between a personal issue and a personnel issue. The first refers to a matter concerning just one person; the second refers to a matter concerning all employees.

STAFF

Staff is often used synonymously with personnel. The use varies between organisations. Staff can denote people who work for a special purpose, assist a manager or work under a supervisor.

She is on the editorial staff of the journal.
You may use the car park for senior staff.
He’s in a staff meeting; you’d better send him an email.

Staff can also be a verb:

We are happy to report that we are now fully staffed.
We can staff your facility with our employees.

Principal and principle

Principal and principle sound the same, yet they have different meanings.

PRINCIPAL

As an adjective, principal means the most important.
What’s the principal theme of the book?
Principal is also a noun, meaning leading person.
He is now principal of the school.

Oven in an industry with cement as its principal product
The principal product is cement

Principal can also refer to a sum of money on which interest is paid.
During the first years most of your payments go towards interest rather than principal.

PRINCIPLE

A principle is a rule or guideline.
The principle of subsidiarity and the principle of proportionality govern the exercise of the EU’s competences.
Einstein formulated the principle of general covariance.
I’ve always seen him as a man of principle.
”Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well I have others.” (Groucho Marx)

Than or then?

Than and then are often confused.

THAN

The weather is much nicer today than yesterday

Than is used mainly to introduce the second part of a comparison.
The weather is much nicer today than yesterday.
I’d rather go for a walk than sit in the garden.
Isn’t she taller than her brother?

But what about She is taller than he and She is taller than him?

Nowadays many linguists agree that than is both a conjunction and a preposition. As a conjunction it introduces a new clause, often only implied – She is taller than he [is], and as a preposition it is followed by the object form – She is taller than him.

However, we cannot always ignore the difference between the conjunction and the preposition. She likes my cousin better than I (with than as a conjunction) does not convey the same meaning as She likes my cousin better than me (with than as a preposition). The first sentence means She likes my cousin better than I like my cousin, whereas the second one means She likes my cousin better than she likes me.

As your copyeditor I would recommend that you use than as a conjunction (with the subject form) in formal writing such as a doctoral thesis or a paper for a scientific journal.

Than is also used with some adverbial expressions such as hardly, no sooner, scarcely.

No sooner had we settled down on the beach than a heavy rain started to fall. (Notice that the verb comes before the subject of the verb.)

THEN

Then refers to a point in time, either in the past or in the future.

He studied in Paris then.
By then, they had married and were expecting their first child.
We worked out at the gym and then we took a long swim.
First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin (Song by Leonard Cohen)
The door closes automatically at 10 p.m., so you must be back before then.
The then President Obama gave a passionate speech.

It’s or its?

Writers are sometimes not sure about when to write it’s or its.

IT’S
An apostrophe means that a letter has been left out (sometimes more than one letter).
It’s is the abbreviated form of it is (or sometimes it has).

It’s hard to believe that he is 14 years old (It is hard to believe…).
The book is very thick, but it’s really interesting (it is really interesting).
It’s been a long day (It has been a long day).
It’s got to be true (It has got to be true).

ITS
Its is the possessive form of the pronoun it.

Stockholm is known for its many islands.
The cat was licking its paw.

The cat was licking its paw

The simple rule is this: If you can say it is or it has, then the form with an apostrophe, it’s, is correct.

It’s frightening when the bear opens its massive jaws

The abbreviated form it’s should not be used in formal language – there you should write it is.

What is true about it’s and its also applies to you’re and your, they’re and their or who’s and whose.

Affect or effect?

Affect and effect are two words that easily get mixed up

AFFECT

Affect is mainly used as a verb. It means have an impact on, have an effect on.
The bad weather affected our plans for the evening.
The old man was visibly affected by the girl’s kind words.
How will the strike affect your job?

The bad weather affected our plans for the evening

EFFECT

Effect is a noun. It denotes the result of an action or an impression.
The effect of his words was immediate.
I liked the sound effects in the film.
The law is still in effect.

To sum up, most often affect is a verb and effect is a noun.

That said, you may – on rare occasions – find affect used as a noun. Then it means something that acts on something else, usually in psychological jargon.

And effect can be used as a verb meaning to produce, bring about something new, often in phrases like ”to effect a change”

Read about effective and efficient here.

Effective or efficient?

Have you ever thought about the difference between effective and efficient?

EFFECTIVE

Use effective when you want to say that something gives the result that was intended. Effective tells us whether something has been done, not how it was done. The focus is on the result.

Those pills are really effective – my headache disappeared in less than twenty minutes.
The manager’s speech was short but remarkably effective.

Being effective can also mean officially start.

The new regulation is effective from 1 October.

EFFICIENT

Use efficient to say that somebody or something works well without wasting time, money or energy. Efficient tells us how something was achieved. The focus is on the process, on minimising cost or waste.

We are installing a much more efficient cooling system.
She is a very efficient salesperson.

To sum up, effective is goal-oriented and focuses on the ability to produce a wanted result; efficient focuses on how little was wasted to produce the result. Or, to quote Peter Drucker, being effective means doing the right things, being efficient means doing things right.

An efficient company will do things at a lower cost (with higher profit), but it must also meet the customers’ requirements by being effective.

The corresponding nouns are effectiveness and efficiency.

If you have seven minutes to spare, here is a video explaining the difference between effective and efficient. And here you can read about affect and effect.

Efficient use of a sun chair

Use e.g. and i.e. correctly!

These two are abbreviations of Latin words.

e.g. stands for exempli gratia, which means for example.
Use e.g. when you want to list one or more examples of something you have mentioned.

Our products are sold in several European countries, e.g. France, Germany, Italy and Greece.

Since you want to give examples, don’t write a complete list.

i.e. stands for id est, which is Latin for that is or in other words.
Use i.e. to clarify or explain something.

I am a linguist, i.e. I study languages.

In writing, e.g. and i.e. are lowercase. There should be a full stop after each letter, and the abbreviations should be preceded by a comma. In American English there should also be a comma after the abbreviation; British English usually does not have this comma. Instead of a comma before the abbreviation you can have a dash.

Latin words are often italicized in English texts, but when abbreviated they should be written in normal font.

The two abbreviations can, of course, be written out in full: for example and that is or that is to say. You should avoid beginning a sentence with an abbreviation.

To sum up, e.g. opens up some possibilities, i.e. narrows them down.

You will find more Latin abbreviations in English here.

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