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Category: spelling

Co-operate or cooperate?

Co is a prefix, a syllable placed before a word. The word prefix itself is made up of the prefix pre (meaning before) and the word fix (meaning attach).

The prefix co (and its alternative forms con, com, col and cor, depending on which letter follows the prefix) has the meaning with, together with.

A prefix is usually not followed by a hyphen. Some examples:
Afterthought, antedate, biannual, collaborate, commemorate, confederation, displace, ensure, illegal, indirect, overuse, posttraumatic, prepaid, replace, submarine, underestimate, uninterested.

So you are right in leaving out the hyphen in words such as cooperate, collaborate and coordinate.

A grandfather is helping his grandson with a toy car
Cooperation

However, in some cases a hyphen is to prefer, since otherwise the spelling might suggest a different pronunciation:

If you write co-opt without a hyphen (coopt), it looks as if it could be pronounced with a vowel as in too, and re-edit, when written reedit might sound like read it. The same pronunciation issue would apply to, for example, re-enter, re-establish, and re-examine.

Some words with the prefix re- have two versions, one with and one without a hyphen:

When you re-sign a document, you sign it again, but when you resign, you quit a job.
To re-cover means to cover again, while recover is to get better, regain your health.
When you re-store goods, you put them back in store again, but to restore something means to reconstruct or bring back to a former state.

And, since we are dealing with English, we have to accept inconsistencies like the following:

Anti-clockwise, anti-hero and anti-Semitism but antirust, antiseptic and antisocial.
Vice President of a state; vice president or vice-president in business.
Viceroy but vice-chancellor.

A last note: Instead of writing cooperate, you could consider writing collaborate. There is a difference between the two!

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.

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.

A grey cat licking its front 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.

The head of a bear with its teeth showing
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.

Later or latter?

The two words later and latter look similar but there is an important difference that you should know.

LATER

Later modifies a verb, which is why we language nerds call it an adverb. It refers to something happening after a certain time.
Let’s go to the cinema and then we can go to the pub later.
Their best known product was introduced much later.

Later is also an adjective; it modifies a noun:
I prefer his later work, especially the large paintings.
Can we discuss this at a later date?

There are a few collocations with later:
Sooner or later they will succeed.
See you later!
Later on in the film, they get married.

LATTER

Latter usually refers to the second of two persons or things. We can talk about the former and the latter.
I have listened a lot to I’m Your Man and Tower of Song and I must say I prefer the latter.
Would you like red or white wine? – The latter, please.

Latter can also refer to something being nearer the end.
The company went global in the latter part of the 1990s.
The full name of the Mormon Church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

A woman in a car is waving goodbye through the side window
See you later!

Lose and loose

Many writers find it difficult to distinguish between lose and loose.

Both words are pronounced with a long -o- as in too or snooze. However, the s is voiced (sounds like z) in lose and voiceless (sounds like s) in loose.

LOSE

Lose is a verb. It can mean fail to win, misplace, get rid of, no longer have, etc.

The form of the infinitive and the present tense is lose:
”Sometimes it is better to lose and do the right thing than to win and do the wrong thing.” (Tony Blair)
I often lose in chess.

In the past tense and the past participle the form is lost:
They lost a lot of money when they sold their house.
I must have lost my keys somewhere on the beach.

The present participle is losing:
I’m losing my patience with this slow computer.

Losing is also a verbal noun:
Losing is not an alternative.

From the verb lose we have the nouns loser and loss.
He’s a bad loser.
I’m so sorry for the loss of your father.

LOOSE

Loose is an adjective. It can mean not tight or compact, not firmly fixed, free from constraint, vague.
He was wearing a loose shirt.
I’ve got a loose tooth.

In a blurred image a dog is scampering about
A loose dog

Loose is used as a noun in the phrase on the loose:
The prisoner escaped and has been on the loose for two months.

Loose can also be a (rarely used) verb meaning set free, release:
He heard a strange sound and loosed the dog.

You can use the verb loosen to express partially release, relax:
It’s hot in here; I’m going to loosen my tie.

-ice or -ise?

My advice is to practise.

In British English some nouns end in -ice and the corresponding verbs in -ise:

advice/advise

device/devise

practice/practise

licence/license (without the i)

In American English noun and verb have the same form; the s is retained in license/license, and the c in practice/practice.

Some words take the same form as verb and noun:
Disguise, exercise, franchise, invoice, merchandise, notice, promise, sacrifice, slice, surprise

Service is a noun but it is also used as a verb: I need to service my car. However, the word has taken on a sexual connotation and you should avoid using it as a verb with one or more persons as direct object. Use serve, help, aid or assist instead.

Organize or organise?

Against popular belief, the spelling -ize in the word organize was first used in England in the 1400s, centuries before the Pilgrim Fathers landed in America. Nowadays this spelling is considered American, while British English has the form with -ise.

That last statement is not completely true. The so-called Oxford spelling uses the z, which you can read about here.

The spelling with a z agrees with the original root -izo in Greek words. Other English words come from Greek words with an s in their root. Such English words therefore have an s. This applies to words spelled with a y, like analyse, catalyse, dialyse and paralyse. However, you will find many instances of the spelling -yze in American English.

Terra-cotta wine racks with bottles
Well-organized wine cellar

Some verbs must be spelled -ise in both American and British English. Again, even if we state that -ise is the correct spelling of these words, Americans use -ize in some of them.

You should always spell the following verbs with -ise:

advertise
advise
apprise
comprise
compromise
despise
devise
disguise
excise
exercise
improvise
promise
revise
supervise
surmise
surprise
televise

Which English should you use?

American English or British English? Or perhaps Oxford spelling? Does it matter which language you choose? Do your readers care?

Obviously, if you write for an American audience, you should write American English. And if you want to send a paper to a British journal, you should use UK English, which is another name for British English. Always check with the publisher or read the style guide of the journal. However, it is crucial that you are consistent and write your whole text in one and the same language.

When you write a doctoral thesis or a novel, the choice of language is yours. Only, as I said above, be consistent.

If you go for American English, use American spelling and write labor instead of labour, center instead of centre, catalog instead of catalogue, fulfill instead of fulfil, traveling instead of travelling, and so on. Use a z instead of an s in words like recognize and organization. (There are, however, some words that are always written with -ise or -yse – read more about them here.)

American English uses the serial comma, which is the comma that is placed before and or or in a series of words. An example: Horses, cows, and sheep are farm animals. British English does not use this comma.

There are also differences in vocabulary. The American apartment is a flat in Britain, Brits walk on the pavement, while Americans use the sidewalk. And when you are angry in Britain, you are mad in America – to a Brit mad means crazy. When something is quite good it is very good in America but only fairly good in Britain.

There are, of course, also differences in grammar. When a British speaker uses the perfect tense, I have already called him, an American would use the past tense, I already called him. The American a real good movie is in British a really good film.

Oxford spelling is a variant of British English. It prefers -ize in words like organize and recognize instead of the spelling -ise in British English. The spelling with -ize is actually the oldest; organize, for example, appeared in a text in England as early as around 1425. The Oxford spelling is used by publishers like Collins, Longman and Oxford University Press (but not Oxford University!) and some academic journals in Britain. The Oxford spelling uses the serial comma, which therefore is also called the Oxford comma.

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