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Is it Plain sailing or plane sailing?

Is it Plain or plane sailing? We have all heard the expression plain sailing. We have probably used it ourselves plenty of times. But some of us aren’t too sure how to spell the word plain when writing or typing the expression because we sometimes see it in print as plane sailing. So is it spelt -ain or -ane?

The simple answer is that both spellings are acceptable, although plain has in recent times gained acceptance.

So what’s the difference between plain sailing and plane sailing? Well, apart from the spelling, there is no difference. Plain sailing has become a somewhat informal expression covering any activity that is easy or straightforward. Originally it was a nautical expression meaning to navigate in a clear or unobstructed expanse of sea. It is easy to see how it acquired its present figurative meaning.

Technically and historically plain sailing should be written as plane sailing, which used to be a fairly simple method of determining a ship’s position. It was based on the use of flat or ‘plane’ charts which were drawn up on the assumption that the earth was flat – although by then navigators knew it was not – and that the ship was sailing on a plane surface, i.e. not on a spherical surface. This naturally made it easier for the sailors of old to determine the ship’s approximate course and distance travelled during relatively short sea voyages.

The use of these ‘plane’ charts was how the term originated.

Before the standardisation of spelling in the seventeenth century plain and plane were used interchangeably. Plain happened to be the spelling first used in print and this became the norm.

But if you like being pedantic, which I do, write it as plane sailing.


T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

Thomas Stearns Eliot OM, usually known as T. S. Eliot, was an essayist, publisher, playwright, and literary and social critic.

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History



Is the Oxford comma necessary?

Opinions differ on whether the Oxford comma is necessary.

In Standard English (including South African English) it is permissible to use a comma directly before a coordinating conjunction in a series of (usually) nouns? At school we were taught it was not permissible.

For example, may one write, ‘I saw John, Jack, Mary, and Sue’? Is the comma between the words ‘Mary’ and ‘and’ necessary?

Some people would say yes; others would say no. My gut feeling is to say no, but maybe I’m merely a product of my sheltered upbringing. The trend in American English is to accept its use; less so for British English. I am not too sure about its acceptance in South African English. All I can be sure of is that I would never use it.
What do you think?

Incidentally, the term ‘Oxford comma’ came into prominent use when high-spirited students at Columbia University formed a group called Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma. This led to the writing of a humorous song whose message, according to Wikipedia, was more about not caring about anything than the Oxford comma. Another name is Harvard comma, although it is properly called a serial or series comma.


C. J. Cherryh
C. J. Cherryh

C. J. Cherryh (1 September 1942)

Carolyn Janice Cherry, better known by the pen name C. J. Cherryh, is an American writer of speculative fiction.

“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

What is a fragmented sentence?

A fragmented sentence is a linguistic expression. It denotes a word or phrase which stands by itself although, strictly speaking, it doesn’t make up a complete sentence. A fragmented sentence is incomplete because it lacks the elements of a complete sentence.

A complete sentence comprises three components:

• a subject
• a verb
• a complete thought.

In other words, a complete sentence can stand alone and still make sense. A fragmented sentence, on the other hand, is not a complete sentence – although it does make sense, but only if taken within its context.

Consider the following sentences:

• Can we win the game on Saturday? Absolutely!
• Can we win the game on Saturday? Probably not.
• We must win the game on Saturday. But how?

In the sentences above, the words in italics are the dependent or fragmented sentences. On their own they are meaningless but when read in conjunction with what appears in front of them they take on a meaning. Therefore what is left unsaid is implied.

Use fragmented sentences sparingly

Fragmented sentences are very common in ordinary speech – listen to any normal conversation – and we often come across them in newspapers and advertisements. They can be very short, consisting of no more than one or two words.
In narrative writing fragmented sentences should be used sparingly, and if used judiciously they can add variety and vibrancy. But don’t overdo them or your writing will appear disjointed and disorganised.

Correcting a fragmented sentence

It is easy to correct a fragmented sentence, if you feel it necessary to do so. The simplest way is simply to add a comma. This will connect the dependent clause (the fragmented sentence) to the main sentence. If the sentence then becomes too long or unwieldy, create a second independent sentence which can also stand alone.

Fragmented sentences have a necessary place in narrative writing, especially where the author is replicating direct speech.


E.L. Doctorow
E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow (6 January 1931)

Edgar Lawrence “E. L.” Doctorow is an American author. He is known internationally for his unique works of historical fiction.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

Defining clauses define the noun

Defining clauses introduce additional information to a sentence by defining the noun. That is why they are called defining clauses.

Take a look at this sentence: This is the house that Jack built.
The defining clause is that Jack built. It defines the house.

Defining clauses belong to the category subordinate relative clauses.

There are two kinds of subordinate relative clauses:

• Defining clauses. These are usually introduced by that, but also by which or who.
• Non-defining clauses. These are descriptive and provide information about someone or something, but this information doesn’t exactly define what is being written about. Without them the sentence still makes sense and is grammatically correct. They are introduced by relative pronouns (who, whom, whose, which) which refer to a noun that appears earlier in the sentence e.g. My brother, who is older than me, owns a sports car. Note that they are never introduced by the word that. Commas (or parentheses) are used to distinguish non-defining clauses from the rest of the sentence.

Difference between defining clauses and non-defining clauses

These sentences highlight the difference between defining clauses and non-defining clauses:

(a) I dislike travelling in buses that are dirty.
(b) I dislike travelling in buses, which are dirty.

Sentence (a) means that I dislike travelling in dirty buses, and by implication that I am happy to travel in clean buses. This is an example of a sentence with a defining clause. If the defining clause is omitted, the basic meaning of the sentence would be changed from I dislike travelling in some buses to I dislike travelling in all buses.

Sentence (b) means all buses are dirty and by implication that I would rather use other means of transport.

Sentence (a) is an example of a sentence with a defining clause, and sentence (b) is an example of a describing or non-defining clause. If the describing clause is removed from this sentence the basic sense of it remains the same i.e. I dislike travelling in all buses.

A non-defining or describing clause is normally introduced by a comma. A defining clause is essential to the sentence and cannot be put within commas. It is important to note that it can’t be omitted without eliminating or severely limiting the sense of the sentence.

Defining clauses are usually introduced by that

Defining clauses are usually introduced by that e.g. I live in the house that Jack built.
Here the defining clause is so fundamental that if it were to be omitted, the sentence would be incomplete and confusing. It defines the house as being the only house built by Jack.

In the sentence I live in a house, which Jack built the meaning is that Jack has possibly built several houses and I live in one of them. This is an example of a non-defining (or describing) subordinate clause.

Points to remember

Who and which may also be used to introduce defining clauses but that is almost always preferred.
That is used to introduce defining clauses only.
That always defines rather than merely describes.
• Defining clauses must not be marked off with commas.
Who, and sometimes that, refers to people, but that and which refer to things.

Defining clauses are usually introduced by the word that, and, unlike non-defining clauses, are essential to the meaning of the sentence.


Tana French
Tana French

Tana French (1973)

Tana French is an Irish novelist and theatrical actress.

“Don’t get discouraged if you’re hammering away at a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter, and it keeps coming out wrong. You’re allowed to get it wrong, as many times as you need to; you only need to get it right once.”


John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

What is a footnote?

What is a footnote? It is a note or comment which, for some reason or other, is not able to be accommodated in the main body of the text and is placed at the bottom of the page on which it applies.
A footnote provides supplementary content or information which is important, useful or interesting. Its purpose is to add to or simplify what is contained in the text. It should never contain complicated, irrelevant or non-essential information. It is used when you want to add a comment to a sentence you have written, and the comment isn’t directly related to what you have written.

Where do you put a footnote?

Footnotes are created on your computer or laptop by inserting a symbol in the most suitable place in the text and reprinting that symbol at the bottom of the page, followed by your comment. Whenever possible, put the footnote at the end of a sentence. It should be placed immediately following the full stop (period) or whatever punctuation mark completes that sentence. If, for clarity’s sake, it needs to be placed in the middle of a sentence, try to put it at the end of the most relevant phrase, after a comma or other punctuation mark. If this can’t be done then put it immediately behind the most relevant word.

Use footnotes only when necessary

The most important rule to remember regarding footnotes is: do not use them unless they are absolutely necessary.
Too many footnotes make your writing laborious to read and make it appear cluttered and disorderly. Never use information that is incorporated in a footnote if it can just as easily be incorporated in the text itself. Academic writers are often guilty of using too many footnotes which could just as easily have been placed in parentheses within the main text. So think carefully before deciding if a footnote is absolutely necessary. Your work should be a pleasure to read – or at least easy to read.

Flagging footnotes

The best way of flagging footnotes is by means of numbers, although if you don’t require too many footnotes it is permissible to use other symbols, such as an asterisk. This is not recommended, however.
Footnotes at the bottom of a page should be set apart in some way from the main body of the text. It is preferable to put them in a smaller typeface than the text itself and separate them with a horizontal line. Your program usually does this automatically. If a footnote is too long to fit at the bottom of its page then it may be continued at the bottom of the next page. But if this happens you might as well incorporate the information it contains in the document itself.

Footnotes in academic writing

In academic writing footnotes are employed mostly to refer to other work of which you have made use, or to which you wish to direct the reader’s attention. The best system to use is the Harvard system (also called the author-date system). In this system you state the author’s surname and the year of publication, e.g. (Smith, 2005). If the reference is part of the structure of the sentence, the date is placed in parentheses, e.g. Smith (2005). These in-text references will allow the reader to turn to a fully detailed list of references in your bibliography at the back of the document. Note that the numerous rules for citing references in academic works are the subject of an article on its own.


When you see a footnote in the main text you have the choice of reading the comments at the bottom of the page or continuing to read the text and deal with the comments later. One of the advantages of endnotes, which are the same as footnotes except that they appear at the very end of the text, is that they aren’t so intrusive and don’t interrupt the flow of the text. Personally I prefer footnotes. If you want your readers to read the footnotes immediately, footnotes are a better way of getting their attention.

Footnotes and endnotes are useful forms of punctuation, especially in academic works, but remember to use them sparingly.


William Faulkner
William Faulkner

William Faulkner (1897-1962)

William Cuthbert Faulkner was an American writer and Nobel Prize laureate from Oxford, Mississippi.

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

List of commonly confused words in English

This is the final instalment in our list of commonly confused words in English.

In linguistics, cognates are words that have a common etymological origin. False cognates are pairs of words in the same or different languages that are similar in form and meaning but have different roots. That is, they appear to be, or are sometimes considered, cognates, when in fact they are unrelated.

•metre / meter
Meter is a device for measuring something (as in gas meter). It is not to be confused with metre, a unit of length in the metric system and of rhythm in poetry. In American English both words are spelt meter.

•minute / minute
The only way to know if minute is a noun, a verb or an adjective is the context in which it appears in writing or in print, or in the pronunciation of the speaker if he is actually speaking. Compare the following: I’ll be there in a minute (noun). The secretary will minute what is said (verb). He examined everything in minute detail (adjective). The accent is placed on the first syllable for the noun and verb, and on the second syllable for the adjective.

•moot / mute
These words can be used as nouns, adjectives or verbs, have quite different meanings and are pronounced differently. Moot (as in ‘boot’) most frequently appears in its adjectival form, as in a moot point (i.e. a debatable point). Mute has to do with silence and is pronounced ‘myooht’.

•pitiable / pitiful
Pitiable means deserving of pity (e.g. illness had reduced him to a pitiable figure). Pitiful means showing or feeling pity. Note that pitiful is often incorrectly used to mean contemptible (e.g. his small contribution was pitiful).

•premier / premiere
These words derive from the same Latin root. Premier (noun or adjective) is first in order or time. Premiere (noun) is the first public performance of a play or film

•principal / principle
These words have several meanings but the meanings we use most often are principal, meaning chief. This is used as a noun and verb (as in principal of a school or the principal reason) Principle is only a noun (e.g. a man of principle).

•prostate / prostrate
Prostate is a word you hear more frequently when you get to my age, especially when it is coupled with the words gland or cancer. Prostrate, on the other hand, means lying face down, or prone, but is often confused with the dreaded p-word. Prostrate is also often used mistakenly when supine (lying face up) is intended.

•racist / racialist
Race relations are delicate matters and their vocabulary is correspondingly complex and shifting. The definition of both words is now identical and interchangeable although it wasn’t always so. The newer word racist indicates a slightly greater degree of contempt than racialist on the part of the user.

•referee / umpire
Umpires and referees are technically the same thing – sports officials who ensure that a particular game is played fairly and to the rules. However, different sporting codes have chosen to name these officials either an umpire (tennis, cricket, baseball, American football) or a referee (rugby, soccer, basketball and boxing). So follow convention. But remember that in some sports, such as tennis, the role of a referee has evolved to become the final arbiter of umpiring decisions.

•revue / review
Review as both a noun and a verb can be used in several contexts including military, legal and academic. To avoid confusion it is better to steer clear of the spelling review for anything to do with a theatrical performance. The only context for revue (noun) is theatrical.

•sarcasm / irony
These two nouns should not be confused with each other. Sarcasm is the use of intentionally bitter and wounding remarks made in a direct fashion. Irony can be bitter but it is indirect, and may be light-hearted. It usually says the opposite of what is really meant (e.g. saying someone is a genius when he has made a basic blunder). Usually tone of voice indicates the speaker has an ironical intention.

•sensuous / sensual
If you are a careful writer you will think before deciding which word to use. Sensual describes a person who is excessively inclined to the gratification of the senses, especially in sexual activities. Sensuous also has to do with the senses but lacks a sexual connotation

•smelled / smelt
How do we spell the past tense and the past participle of smell? I am never sure. Smelled is certainly not incorrect but smelt has now become the preferred spelling. So go with the flow.

•social / sociable
Sociable has to do with companionship (friendly, enjoying the company of others), social with the community or society (e.g. social club, social worker).

•stationary / stationery
Stationary (adjective) means not moving and stationery (noun) refers to writing materials.

•urban / urbane
The adjective urban means of a town or city (e.g. the urban population) and urbane, also an adjective, means courteous, elegant or refined.

•use / usage
These two words do not have the same meaning. Use is the act of using (e.g. it will be put to good use) and usage is the manner of using (e.g. with careful usage it will last several years). Usage refers to the way in which words are used. The Concise Dictionary of Correct English states: “What is standard practice in a language is governed by what is habitual, i.e. usage.”

•uninterested / disinterested
Disinterested (impartial) is not to be confused with uninterested (lacking interest). A judge should be interested and disinterested in what the accused says.

This list of commonly confused words in English, is not the entire list but will go a long way to helping you work out what the various words mean. Please have a look at words often confused and misused and commonly confused words to complete our list.

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

Commonly confused words

Commonly confused words in the English language

Commonly confused words in the English language can cause a lot of consternation. They either look similar, sound similar or, sometimes, look and sound similar but they have completely different meanings.

Other words look and sound very different but have similar meanings and, sometimes the difference is very subtle. If you are lucky enough to have studied Latin and Greek, it is quite easy to work out the root of the word but for those that are not so lucky we have compiled a list of commonly confused words for you.

• delusion / illusion
A delusion is a permanent and misguided impression, a belief that what is false is true (e.g. a delusion that he is the emperor Napoleon). A delusion cannot be removed by any appeal to reason. On the other hand an illusion is something that seems to exist, or seems true to the senses (e.g. the happy illusions of childhood). An illusion is usually harmless and often pleasant. In a very few contexts the words can be used interchangeably.

• dependant / dependent
This causes some confusion. Remember to use the noun dependant for a person, such as a child, who relies on another for support. Dependant always refers to a person. For the adjectival form use dependent (followed by ‘on’) meaning reliant on, or contingent on (e.g. we are dependent on good weather for our school outing). In American English independent is used in all forms of the word.

• economic / economical
I will never forget the difference because many years ago in a school essay I got this wrong. Economic is the adjectival form of economy or economics (e.g. economic recovery). Economical means using something as cheaply as possible or thrifty (e.g. it is economical to buy in bulk).

• egotist / egoist
These words are often confused although they are not interchangeable. They are derived from the Latin ego (‘I’). An egotist is an arrogant, boastful person with an excessive sense of self-importance, inclined to use the words ‘I’ or ‘me’ too frequently. Egoist is much more subtle. Egoism is a doctrine in philosophy or ethics in which self-interest is the root of moral conduct. You can be an egoist without being an egotist.

• emigrate / immigrate
Emigrate (from the Latin e + migrare to migrate out) is to leave the country of your birth, and immigrate is to enter another with the intention of remaining permanently. Remember that people are emigrants from the country they leave and immigrants in the country they settle.

• envy / jealousy
These words are similar in meaning and both have different shades of meaning. Envy is the feeling of discontentment aroused when others possess the thing you desire. Jealousy is a stronger emotion and incorporates hostile feelings towards a rival you fear might take something you already have. A good example is feeling envy because your friend has a new sports car but jealousy when he takes your girlfriend for a ride.

• farther / further
These are comparatives of far, and their superlatives are farthest or furthest. Both refer to distance but you should use further when referring to time or extent (e.g. until further notice; make further enquiries). Further may also be used as a verb (e.g. to further one’s plans).

• fewer / less
Less is used when referring to mass, volume, extent or quantity (e.g. less water, less sand) and fewer when referring to numbers (e.g. fewer spectators, fewer cars). As a general rule use less with a singular noun and fewer with a plural noun.

• flagrant / blatant
Originally these words did not have the same meaning, although now they are almost synonyms. Blatant is anything that is offensive or shocking in an obviously conspicuous way. Flagrant comes from a Latin word meaning to burn. It refers to anything that is conspicuously scandalous or outrageous. It has a more forceful meaning than blatant. Examples are a blatant lie and a flagrant violation of civil liberty.

• fortunate / fortuitous
These two words do not mean the same thing. Fortuitous comes from the Latin fortuitus which means by chance. Fortunate is derived from fortunatus and means bringing some lucky or unexpected advantage, such as a tax refund. It has nothing to do with chance.

• gaff / gaffe
A gaffe is a blunder whereas gaff can have several meanings: a barbed spear, a pole with a hook, a spar or boom aboard a sailing vessel etc.

• historic / historical
Historic refers to an event noted in history, memorable, famous (e.g. a historic victory). Historical has to do with history (e.g. a historical novel).

• homonyms and homophones
Homonyms are words that are pronounced alike but have different meanings (e.g. too and two) and homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings (e.g. son and sun).

• illegal / unlawful
There is a slight and very confusing semantic difference between these two concepts, but for the most part they are synonymous. Illegal refers to something that is expressly forbidden by enacted law (e.g. it is illegal to own a gun) whereas unlawful goes against what is generally allowed and has connotations of morality (e.g. unlawful pleasures).

• impractical / impracticable
These are virtually synonymous. Impractical is an adjective describing someone who is incapable of dealing sensibly with useful things, including plans, ideas and concepts (e.g. an impractical person). Impracticable is very similar in meaning but refers to something incapable of being carried out (e.g. an impracticable scheme).

• introspective / introverted
In psychology these terms have very precise meanings but in general usage introspective concerns examining one’s own thoughts and feelings, while introverted refers to concentrating or directing one’s mind, feelings and emotions on oneself.

• licence / license
These words are pronounced in the same way but licence is the noun and license the verb. Compare advice / advise; practice / practise etc. British English, which we in South Africa follow, makes this distinction but in American English both noun and verb are spelt license.

• lie / lay
Lie, in the sense of being at rest, is far too often confused with lay. Lie is an intransitive verb (it has no object e.g. I won’t take it lying down – never laying down) and lay is transitive (it takes an object e.g. lay a carpet).

• lightning / lightening
Lightning is a flash of bright light in the sky during a thunderstorm and should be differentiated from lightening which means lessening the load to make it less heavy. The latter can be used literally and figuratively.

• loath / loth / loathe
The th in loath and loth is pronounced as in birth and the words mean disinclined, whereas loathe means feeling hatred and the pronunciation is as in clothe. There is no reason for the existence of loth so I suggest you avoid it.

Well that’s all for now with the commonly confused words and words that are often confused and misused. Do look out for the final installment in this three part series.

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

Words often confused and misused

Words often confused and misused in the English language are usually words that sound similar but can mean something entirely different. So to help you out we have compiled this list of twenty groups of words that are often confused and misused:

• adapt / adopt
Adapt means alter or make suitable for a purpose and adopt means accept or take (an idea etc.) from someone else.

• affect / effect
These words have several meanings but those that are most confused are the verbs. Affect is to have an effect on someone or something (e.g. paralysis affected his limbs) and effect is to bring about or accomplish something (e.g. giving up smoking may effect an improvement in your health). Effect can be a noun and a verb, but affect is only a verb.

• aggravate / irritate
Aggravate means to increase the gravity of a condition already serious. It should not be confused with irritate, which is to annoy or cause anger, displeasure, impatience etc.

• air / heir
These are homophones, words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings. They are usually spelt differently. Although air has several meanings we usually take it as the gaseous substance we breathe. An heir, on the other hand, is a person who inherits or is entitled to inherit.

• aisle / isle
These are also homophones. An aisle is a passage between rows of seats. Isle is a small island. In both words the‘s’ is silent.

• all right / alright
Before checking this I wasn’t sure if one could use alright and all right interchangeably. A Concise Dictionary of Correct English says “alright is always wrong.” Other dictionaries disapprove of it but grudgingly accept that it is gaining legitimacy. You decide for yourself but I will stick with what my old English teacher at school told us: “The spelling a-l-r-i-g-h-t is a barbarism.”

• amoral / immoral
Amoral is a word coined by Robert Louis Stevenson which means unconcerned with morals, or having no sense of right or wrong. It is not judgmental. Immoral also has to do with right and wrong but certainly is judgmental. Here the ‘immoral’ person knows the difference.

• avenge / revenge
Avenge (verb) is to punish a wrongdoing with the purpose of seeing justice done (e.g. he avenged his brother’s murder). Revenge (noun or verb) is more personal and is concerned with retaliation by inflicting harm.

• bathos / pathos
Bathos is an anti-climax or disappointment. Pathos is a quality that raises pity or sadness. Both words are of Greek origin.

• between I / between me
Saying between you and I is a common error and is always wrong. All prepositions are followed by the accusative case (direct object). Similarly, to say they beat John and I at tennis is wrong because beat is a transitive verb (takes an object). While we’re at it you should never say in between. Between is sufficient.

• blond / blonde
Both mean fair-haired, blond for males and blonde for females. In all other cases use blond.

• canvas / canvass
Canvas, the cloth, should not be confused with the noun or verb canvass, which has to do with the ascertainment of opinion (e.g. to canvass for votes).

• capture / captivate
Second-language English speakers may have difficulty with this one. Although capture is used to describe downloading data on a computer its more common meaning is to take captive, in the sense of capturing prisoners. Captivate is figurative, in the sense of an actor captivating an audience by his irresistible acting skills and leaving them spellbound.

• careen / career
The noun, verb or adjective career is derived from the Latin carrus (car). It has several shades of meaning e.g. a diplomatic career, a career woman or the car careered off the road. Careen is unrelated and comes from the Latin carina (keel of a ship). It means to cause a boat or small ship to heel over so that repair or maintenance work can be done. Why, in American English, it has come to mean lurch, sway, seesaw or stagger drunkenly (as a car careening off the road) can only be guessed at. Remember that this meaning of careen is for North American use only.

• childish / childlike
Being childish is to display the behaviour and immaturity of a child. Being childlike is to resemble a child in innocence, trust and naivety.

• classic / classical
As adjectives both mean of the first class. Classic denotes something of historical value and serving as a standard of excellence. Classical usually refers to the works of art, literature, architecture and ideals of ancient Greece and Rome.

• contagious / infectious
When applied to disease this word, derived from the Latin for touch or to have contact, means spread by physical contact. Infectious, on the other hand, refers to a disease transmitted by air or water. The distinction is important.

• contemptible / contemptuous
Contemptible is deserving of scorn, ridicule or contempt. It refers to the person or thing the contempt is aimed at. Contemptuous refers to the person or thing feeling or showing the contempt. (E.g. that contemptible hooligan makes me feel contemptuous.)

• council / counsel
It is important that you differentiate between these two spellings. A council is an assembly of people (e.g. municipal council) whereas counsel is advice (e.g. take my counsel). Note that a councillor is someone in local government and a counsellor is someone who gives advice (e.g. marriage-guidance counsellor).

• compare / contrast
These are similar in meaning and both are followed by ‘with’. Compare lays stress on the similarities between two things while contrast emphasises the differences. An exception is compare to, which means liken to.

• compliment / complement
As a verb or a noun compliment has to do with showing esteem or admiration (e.g. paying a pretty compliment). Complement deals with making something complete or the full number required to make it complete (e.g. when all the crew members of a ship are on board, the ship has a full complement). These words are often confused.

• continual / continuous
Continual: always going on, very frequent, never coming to an end. Continuous: connected, unbroken, uninterrupted (e.g. water may flow continuously but a tap drips continually).

The English language can be very confusing, especially if you are not a native English speaker, and we hope that this list of words often confused and misused words will help you on your way to becoming a better writer. Please also have a look at commonly confused words in English and commonly confused words to complete our list.

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

How to craft a character and plot that fit together seamlessly

Character and plot in a piece of fiction are inseparable. So if you are planning to write a novel you will need to find not only a plot but also the sort of characters that will suit that plot.

So what exactly is a plot? In simple words a plot (or storyline) is a literary term which outlines the series of events that constitutes a particular story. But that is by no means the full story. A plot is far more than merely a starting point and a logical conclusion. If that was all it involved it would be very boring.

Perhaps a fuller description is: a sequence of events determined by the actions and reactions of the characters; these actions and reactions create a chain of causes and effects; and how these events and the various characters relate to one another.

Right, so that sounds fine. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Each element of a plot must come from something in an earlier part of the story. So you need to create sufficient dramatic impetus to carry readers through to the end of the story by creating a series of mini-climaxes that builds up to the main climax. Or, in other words, you get your hero into trouble and keep him there until the resolution in the final chapter.

A plot pulls together all the characters, settings and voice with a major dramatic and pressing question. This question is usually fairly straightforward and is answered by the end of the story.

Consider the character and plot in the following novels and see what questions the reader wants answered:

• In Pride and Prejudice, the question posed by Jane Austen is whether the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet will accept the proud Mr Darcy
• The question in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is whether Robert Jordan will escape his apparent fate by surviving his military mission in the Spanish Civil war
• In Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë’s dark novel of revenge, the reader wonders if Heathcliff will ever find inner peace after the death of his beloved Catherine
• In J.D. Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye we wonder if the adolescent Holden Caulfield will ever grow up and find his true identity
• In Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd the question is whether Gabriel Oak will finally win his true love, Bathsheba
• In Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands will Davies and Carruthers get to the bottom of the Kaiser’s plot to invade Britain and thwart the intrigues of the renegade former English naval officer?

Look at any well-written novel and you will see that the main reason we keep reading is because of the suspense the major dramatic question creates. We can’t wait to find out the answer. This is called the denouement, the part where all is revealed.

But let’s leave the plot for the moment, although we agree that character and plot are intertwined, and move on to characterisation.

In fictional narrative writing the literary element known as characterisation deals with the art of creating characters. Characterisation may be portrayed by means of a description of the characters as well as through their actions, speech, thoughts and interaction with other characters.

Characters lead the readers through the story, helping them understand plots and themes. Characterisation allows the reader to empathise with the protagonist and the secondary characters by bringing them to life. Dialogue is a very important part of characterisation because it allows the reader to gain a better insight into their thought processes. It also helps to move the story along.

‘Character’ includes moral qualities and ethical standards or principles – or lack thereof – and is a combination of all the features and traits that form a particular character’s nature or personality.Writers make use of different types of characters to fulfil the different roles in the story.

Here are examples of how character and plot go together:

• Characters are described as either dynamic (those who undergo a developmental change in the story) or static (those who remain the same).
• Dynamic and static characters must not be confused with flat (two-dimensional) or round (complex personality) characters.
• Major (or central) characters are essential in that the plot revolves around them.
• Minor characters complement the major characters and help move events forward.
• The protagonist is the central person in a story. He/she need not necessarily have admirable qualities (e.g. an anti-hero).
• A character who represents a particular class or group of people is known as a type. Allied to this is the stereotypical stock character. Literature is full of them: the wicked schemer Iago in Othello; the miser Scrooge in A Christmas Carol; or even the absent-minded genius Professor Calculus in the Tintin comic series.
Note that the above characteristics are not necessarily mutually exclusive and many of them may be combined at the same time.

To sum up, it doesn’t matter how good your plot is if your characterisation is poor. So make sure character and plot fit together like a hand in a glove.

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

How to write a first draft

How to write a first draft is not really something that can be taught as each writer is unique and what works for one writer will not work for another. So to help you I have put together 15 simple rules for completing your first draft in record time:

1) Commit to a particular time of day

The choice is yours but early in the morning is best, and stick to that every day, no matter what happens
If you have a full time job you might have to get up at the crack of dawn or, even better, take some leave and just get the job done.

2) Skip over problem areas

You can skip over any parts that really don’t make sense right now, but try to get the main points of the plot on the page or you could end up with nothing. You need to see if your story is going to work.

3) Don’t worry about quality

Concentrate on the story and don’t worry about editing your work. Punctuation and spelling can be sorted out later on.

4) Don’t think too much

If you take your time and think about every word you will not be able to get your ideas down

5) Know what problem, or problems your protagonist will face.

All stories are about how someone solves a problem. Often there is more than one problem that can’t be avoided and you need to decide on the internal and external battles your main character will face.

6) Know how your protagonist looks at life

Decide on how your protagonist reacts to what life throws at him. In other words how does he relate to the world and the people in it?

7) Come up with ideas for minor characters

Have a basic feel for the minor characters and decide which one is to be the antagonist

8) Flesh out minor characters later

Names, ages and all the other nitty-gritty can come later on, for the time being just let it flow.

9) Extra research and characterization

Characterization and motivation can be fixed in later edits, once you have got the basic story down, and you have more time to do research

10) Decide on what the moral (lesson) of the story is

Every story has a lesson. The protagonist needs to be changed somehow at the end of the story. Don’t leave this decision right until the end.

11) Know where your story is going

If you know how your story is going to end you will be able to work out how to get there. If you don’t follow this important piece of advice you may end up with a convoluted story that is difficult to edit.

12) Ask “why” and not “what”

Stories are not about “what” happens, they are about “why” it happens.

13) Use the five senses

What your characters see, smell, hear, touch, and taste will draw the reader into the story and make it more real. Although the first draft is not about going into too much detail, focussing on the senses will help create the imaginary world that your characters live in.

14) Decide on your theme or genre

The theme will decide the underlying feel of the story and will influence the way that you write so this is extremely important. Another way to look at this is that books fall into different genres such as love story, adventure, thriller and so on.

15) Shut your inner critic up

I have written about how to wake up the writer in you and to do this you need to stop that nagging voice that criticises you as you write. Just tell yourself that this is the first draft and it really doesn’t matter if it isn’t a master piece and this will help you to shut your inner critic up.

Now that you know how to write a first draft of your book you can put some time aside and do it. Oh and my one last piece of advice is to put the first draft away for a week or two and let it percolate. When you come back to it you should know exactly how to correct any problem areas.

Tricia DorringtonTricia Dorrington (9)

Tricia has been writing content for websites for many years and, as the editor of this site, attends to the posting of all content, together with the online marketing of the business.