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Do you cooperate or collaborate?

Most writers either use these two words indiscriminately or simply choose cooperation without even reflecting on the alternative collaboration.

The main difference between the two words is that collaboration involves people working together towards a shared goal, while cooperation implies somebody working to support somebody else’s goal.

Two small boys are putting stones into a box.
Collaborating towards a common goal

As a copyeditor, I work with the author of a text. The author wants me to make sure the manuscript is in fluent English without any linguistic or factual errors. (You can read here about how I work.) The author may ask for comments on a certain passage and I may want clarification of what the author intends. I can suggest an alternative formulation. Our shared objective is an article that deals with an interesting topic, has perfect language and format and is of such a quality altogether that it can be accepted for publication. That is collaboration. Collaboration is teamwork requiring mutual respect, trust and adaptability.

In my job as a copyeditor I may come across a word that is totally unknown to me. I can then call an expert to ask about that word. For example, I once called the coast guard to ask what word they used in a certain context. Thanks to their cooperation I could achieve my goal – to use that word correctly.

Should you have a hyphen or not? The answer is here.

Perhaps some writers hesitate to use the word collaboration since it has a less agreeable connotation. A collaborator is someone who helps an enemy that has occupied their country in a war.

How to use the semicolon

Many writers seem to be unsure of how to use the semicolon.

A semicolon
A combination of a comma and a full stop

The semicolon looks like a combination of a full stop and a comma, and that is an indication of how it is used. Like the comma and the full stop, the semicolon separates clauses. The semicolon links two independent clauses that are closely related. In other words, we use a semicolon between two complete sentences to indicate that what they say is of equal importance. The semicolon can replace words such as and and but.

Finally, Tom found his bike behind the garage; it was rusty and the tires were flat.
This method is based on many years of research; particularly important are the findings from four studies in the heavy vehicles industry.
The potential variables are numerous; they include everything that might influence the evaluation criteria.

You cannot have a semicolon after a dependent clause beginning with words such as since, although, when, because, etc.

Since she had visited the city several times, she knew all the tourist spots.
She had visited the city several times; she knew all the tourist spots.

To avoid confusion, use a semicolon to separate groups in an enumeration.

Among the cities in the study were Hamburg, Germany; Milan, Italy; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Helsinki, Finland.

Don’t use the semicolon where you must have a colon!

He had three main interests: vintage cars, whisky and antique furniture.

You cannot write *He had three main interests; vintage cars, whisky and antique furniture (For the use of the asterisk read at the end of this text). After a semicolon there must be a complete, independent, clause with a subject and a verb. So you could write: He had three main interests; they were vintage cars, whisky and antique furniture.

Disinterested or uninterested?

Are you disinterested or are you uninterested? If you are not sure about the difference between those two words, you are not alone. Many writers find it difficult to distinguish between them.

DISINTERESTED

If you are disinterested, you have no stake in the actual matter, you are impartial or neutral. It is understandable that this word is often used in legal or business contexts.

Can we take it for granted that the judge in this case is truly disinterested?

UNINTERESTED

You should use uninterested if you mean that someone is bored or not engaged.

How can we catch the attention of uninterested students?

Uninterested?

Chances are that you will find disinterested used where you would expect uninterested. Not surprisingly, the two words are often confused. But you, as a good writer of English, will of course make the distinction.

Sensible and sensitive

Here you will learn the difference between sensible and sensitive, two words coming from the same Latin root but with very different meanings.

SENSIBLE

If you are sensible, you have common sense, you are reasonable and have good judgement. You don’t make stupid mistakes.

Be sensible! Your chances of winning the lottery are close to nil.

Used about clothes, shoes or other things, sensible can mean practical, functional, not fashionable.

Bob’s wife understood his love for fast sports cars but managed to talk him into buying a sensible car that could accommodate their big family.

A man is cycling on a river wearing sensible weatherproof clothing
Make sure you wear sensible clothing when cycling on the river!

SENSITIVE

A sensitive person can be easily affected or upset by what others say or do.

Why are you so sensitive to criticism?

Being sensitive can also mean that you are understanding and sympathetic to other people’s needs.

As a good mother she was always sensitive to her children’s needs.

Used about things, sensitive means delicate or fragile, easily damaged, needing protection.

A baby’s skin is very sensitive to sunlight.
This is sensitive information.

The corresponding nouns are sensibility and sensitivity.

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 black bird with its wings stretched out is silhouetted against the sky
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.

While walking to school a father is checking his daughter's knowledge to see if she has done her homework
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.

A little boy is walking beside his grandpa on a track through a forest
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.

A man on a balcony overlooking the sea is writing on his laptop
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

A landscape with a motorway in the foreground and mountains in the background against a blue sky
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.

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