A language is a living organism that constantly changes. Words often take on another meaning over time.
Let me give you an example:
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.
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?
Many writers find it difficult to distinguish between beside and besides.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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 sound the same, yet they have different meanings.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
Supplement and complement are used as nouns and verbs. The adjectives are supplementary and complementary.
Supplement as a verb means add to, increase. She supplemented her salary by freelancing as a journalist. The lecturer gave her students a handout to supplement the textbook.
It is also used as a noun. After a few years the author felt that he had to write a supplement to his book. Have you read the Sunday supplement? (Here supplement means an additional section of a newspaper.) Many athletes use herbal supplements.
Complement means complete, harmonise with, bring to perfection. That tie really complements your suit. Red wine and cheese complement each other. Watching them together on the track through the forest I saw how well they complemented each other.
In mathematics, angles are complementary if they add up to 90 degrees and supplementary if they equal 180 degrees.
Compliment as a verb means to praise, to express appreciation or admiration. He complimented her on her new dress.
It is also used as a noun. Every time someone calls me a nerd, I take it as a compliment. The dinner was excellent. Give my compliments to the chef!
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 simple rule is this: If you can say it is or it has, then the form with an apostrophe, it’s, is correct.
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 and effect are two words that easily get mixed up
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?
Effect is a noun. It denotesthe result of an action oran 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”
Have you ever thought about the difference between effective and efficient?
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.
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.
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