Plain Words
Training Bulletin
issue 39

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Training Bulletin Issue 39

Are you hearing what they’re saying – and vice versa?

We can misunderstand for many reasons – it’s easy to hear something wrongly. Consider the famous Pink Floyd lyrics “The ducks are hazards in the classroom.” If you’re not a Pink Floyd fan, the real lyrics are “No dark sarcasm in the classroom”. As a child, I remember wondering during hymn singing, why shepherds washed their socks by night (watched their flocks by night).

This is all good for a laugh but more seriously, think about the number of times you see “affect” written in a business document instead of “effect,” or “their” where the writer obviously meant “there.” And what, after all, could possibly go wrong if you wrote “a complimentary product” when you meant “complementary”?

Problems also arise when people mis-use words by not getting the meaning quite right. This was the sort of mistake that led to the Co-op being mocked recently for selling “Ambient Sausage Rolls.”

Using the wrong word

It’s easy to hear the wrong word when someone is singing, but I concede that most business is not transacted in song. However, people can and do mis-hear spoken words and then go on to write them down incorrectly. Could of, should of and would of are becoming increasingly common because people don’t realise that the second bit of the spoken could’ve, should’ve, would’ve is short for “have”, not “of.”

Other misuses that stem from unclear or mis-heard pronunciation include “for all intensive purposes”, which should be “for all intents and purposes”, and “pacifically” for “specifically.”

Pronunciation can’t be blamed every time, though. There are many words that sound the same but mean different things, such as “affect” and “effect.”

What can you do if in doubt?

Make sure you use Word’s grammar checker. It will spot “could of” and its variants. Unfortunately, it was perfectly happy with the following two sentences:

If in doubt, check a dictionary – and you can do this quickly on the internet. In your search window, type define and the word you are unsure of.

All Plain Words training courses include a table of commonly confused words – here is a sample:

Generally, use 'ail', a verb, when you mean 'to feel unwell' or 'to have pain'. Use 'ale', a noun, when you mean a type of drink.
All ready
'All ready' means everyone is in a state of preparedness. 'Already' is an adverb, meaning that something has taken place, or will occur at, a particular time.
Use 'alters', a verb, when you mean 'changes'. Use 'altars', a noun, when you are referring to tables used in religious ceremonies.
All together
'All together' means many people or things joined or united. 'Altogether' means entirely or completely: I am not altogether convinced of that.

If you would like us to send you a pdf of our table of commonly confused words as a reference, please email

Stretching the meaning

Ambient sausage rolls turned out to mean sausage rolls that could be eaten at room temperature – ambient temperature. Unfortunately, this is an example of stretching the meaning of a word in a direction that nature never intended. Ambient just means surrounding, from the Latin, ambire, to surround. The most common use is in the term ambient temperature, meaning the surrounding, background temperature. Ambient music is that annoying music that gets on your nerves in shops. But ambient sausage rolls? Stretching the meaning too far.

Management speak – another culprit

Anyone suggesting we hit the ground running so we can leverage our competencies to target low-hanging fruit is not just stretching meaning but putting language on a rack and turning the screws. Enough said.

But it’s obvious what it means…

If you are in a hurry, and your meaning seems completely obvious to you, you could end up with sentences like these:

This is clearer if you avoid double negatives.

This sounds odd because of the word order – it seems to suggest that Oxford is overseas.

This needs to make clear that it’s the double exemption, not the elderly, who will be abolished.

When less is definitely not more

The more people will see a document, the more people ought to check it. This is a good starting point. As well as this, keep in mind our first two principles of good writing:

These will help you to avoid ambiguous or confusing sentences in the first place. Oh, and avoid double negatives.

If you find that your staff have to spend too much time re-writing documents, consider our half-day course on Editing and Proofreading. Click here for the full outline.

Public course schedule

Follow this link for the dates of our public courses.

The price is £495 + VAT per person for a one-day course and £850 + VAT for a two-day course. Half day courses are £295 + VAT per person.

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We also offer private courses at your premises. Please call us for details.

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Kind Regards
The Plain Words Training Team

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