Category Archives: Be careful

Troublesome words – refusenik

Troublesome words – refusenik

I try not to be an over-prescriptive fuss-pot when it comes to language,* believing the important thing is clarity and accepting things change with them, while obviously, as I do here, trying to share examples where, say, there are two different words that mean subtly different things and thus should be retained and used. I know people get very cross about the use of words like “decimate”, and when I get a little bit cross about things, as with swathe or swath a while ago, I try to remember to make a point of looking them up and finding out whether our big dictionary sources back me up, or not!

Here is a (perhaps more obscure) case in point. I keep hearing the word refusenik being used to describe someone who is actively refusing to do something, usually to prove a point or in some form of protest. School uniform refuseniks and the like. I knew the term in its original meaning, which is the highly specific one describing Jewish people in the former Soviet Union who were refused to be allowed to emigrate to Israel. I kind of expanded this in my mind to incorporate all people whose exit from a place is refused. The emphasis here is on the fact that they are being refused exit – someone else is doing the refusing and they are the passive objects of the refusal (grammatically speaking).

But I checked my sources, and there we are: a refusenik is perfectly able to simultaneously be someone who refuses to do something out of principle and someone who is refused exit.

** Did you notice the at least three rules I have broken in this post to prove my point about not being fussy?



Posted by on August 31, 2017 in Be careful, Language use, Writing


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Tricky words: What does falsify mean?

I occasionally write about tricky words rather than troublesome pairs on this blog, and here’s one that always makes me feel a little uneasy. When that happens, I look it up (a large part of being a decent editor / proofreader is knowing when to look stuff up), and I find I have had to look this one up a few times.

So, falsify.

The most common meaning for “to falsify”, in my opinion, is the one around making something become false. You might change something to mislead “We falsified the results to make it look like smoking is good for you”. You are effectively changing something, a document or some results, in order to deceive people. Falsification is the noun for the action of falsifying, and a falsifier does it.

But the other meaning is to prove to be false, or to disprove. In this case, it’s the opposite of verify, and is used in, for example, social sciences and economics texts (which is where I tend to find it). It looks odd to me when I read, “We falsified the results”, but here the writer is using it in this second meaning: “We proved the results to be false”.

To be honest, I’d rather move away from possible misinterpretation and use “we proved the results to be false” or “we verified that the hypothesis could not be proved” rather than “we falsified the results” or “we falsified the hypothesis”. However, my editing policy is to tread lightly, and it is an acceptable term, found in all the major dictionaries, so it’s not something I would change lightly (although I might make a note for the author if the text was going into general rather than academic circulation).

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Posted by on July 27, 2017 in Be careful, Writing


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Medalling, podiuming and singular they

Of course this isn't exactly what "medalling" means

Of course this isn’t exactly what “medalling” means

Languages change. If languages didn’t change, we’d be speaking like Chaucer, British and American English would be identical, or we’d still be using words like “chairman”, “crippled”, “omnibus” and all sorts. We also wouldn’t have a way to describe “selfies”, “Brexit” or “omnishambles”.

The verbs formed from nouns, “medalling” and “podiuming” have been heard again recently, as they are every four years in an event whose name is controlled so closely you’re not supposed to go around mentioning it in blog posts. Lots of people have been complaining about these, saying it’s an erosion of the English language, etc., etc.

Now, I’m one for making sure we retain two words with a close but not identical meaning in order to be able to distinguish between different concepts or things. But in this case, it’s not taking away the distinction between two different things, it’s just adding another word to say the same thing. And we form words in all sorts of ways – by blending, shortening, lengthening them and shifting the part of speech they belong to. Once, we weren’t even allowed to start sentences with and or but …

The other wordy thing I wanted to mention briefly was singular they. This is something editors and other wordy people are still arguing – quite bitterly – about. “They” used to be used just as a plural. But, just as we’ve removed words like chairman and dustman from the language to cover the fact that different genders of people do different jobs, over recent years there’s been an acceptance that binary genders – the idea that everyone is either “he” or “she”, has joined up with a common dislike of the clumsiness of using “he” and “she” in alternate chapters or “he/she”, “s/he”, etc. to promote the use of singular “they”, i.e. the use of “they” to refer to one person in the singular. An example would be, “When someone gets to the front of the queue, they should go to the first available window”.

Now, some people rail against this change, but I think that it can be made to work grammatically, it gets rid of clumsiness and it doesn’t exclude people to whom, for whatever reason, it’s not appropriate to refer using binary gender wording. This is standard in my editing, although I’d never make this kind of change without consultation if it appeared more than very sporadically.

I’m not expecting to change anyone’s mind here; I’m just setting out my stall. These are my personal opinions, but these are interesting topics to think about and they’ve been at the front of my mind recently. Thank you for reading!

I generally talk about word stuff in my Troublesome Pairs posts which do distinguish meanings between pairs or triplets of words. Have a look at the index here!


Posted by on August 17, 2016 in Be careful, Errors, Ethics, Writing



This is why grammar is important

I just received a sheaf of election material through the letterbox. As regular readers of my blog will know, I don’t tend to share examples of bad grammar and spelling that are just ‘amusing’, as I work with many non-native speakers of English and people who need assistance with their English text production (such as people with dyslexia or those who use voice-recognition software, which can’t always tell the difference between homophones), and I don’t want to make anyone feel bad for not producing ‘perfect’ textbook English sentences.

But I did want to share this example because it demonstrates that the correct or incorrect use of grammar can make a huge difference. Here we go:

when incorrect grammar gives a meaning you didn't mean

Grammatically, the underlined section expresses this: “she was working for her own redundancy and that of every other UK MEP. As now, she will fight for your redundancy and Britain’s interests in Brussels”. OK, there would be a comma before “and Britain’s”, but people don’t always insert sufficient commas …

I’m pretty sure that they meant to express this: “… she will fight for your interests in Brussels and Britain’s interests in Brussels”. If you’re not sure of which form of a noun pronoun to use, making the sentence repetitive in this way will often help, or just removing the other word – “she will fight for your interests in Brussels” (this is how to remember when to use “x and I” and when to use “x and me”, by the way).

All that went wrong was a simple “s”. What this leaflet should have said was: “she was working for her own redundancy and that of every other UK MEP. As now, she will fight for your and Britain’s interests in Brussels”. Oh, and let’s not get into the “As now”, before you say anything …

If you need help with pairs of words or word use, you might like to take a look at my Troublesome Pairs and Be Careful! posts. You might also find this post on the value of proofreading interesting. Enjoy!


Posted by on May 12, 2014 in Be careful, Errors, Why bother, Writing


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Be careful: icon / iconic

Photo by Sarah

Source: Sarah Gallagher 24.06.13. Street artist unknown, Melbourne

When I posted my last Be Careful! post on the use of decimated, my friend Sarah, New Zealand librarian, asked me if I’d looked at icon/iconic and its overuse. So I invited her to write a post for me, and here is the rather marvellous result!

After vociferously agreeing with a recent blog Liz wrote about the misuse / overuse of the word decimate, I was invited to write a guest blog post about the similarly misused / overused word, icon and the adjective, iconic. We certainly overuse and misuse it in NZ, and hardly surprising, it happens elsewhere to. We have all been doing so for quite sometime. It seems that hardly a day goes by where these words are not used to describe a person, thing or sometimes, a place. In some cases it really has gone well past the point of ridiculousness. Here are a few particularly amusing examples I’ve discovered recently:

Iconic image of pepper sprayed woman becomes icon of resistance
Iconic green caravan … An icon of Tokoroa
Iconic sign gets a makeover
Gene Wilder, icon, and star of iconic Charlie and the chocolate factory film
10 iconic t shirts
The anatomy of an iconic image – I agree, the fashion industry over uses the term. I disagree, Kate Moss is not an icon. Nor is she iconic.
Top 10 political icons

So what do these words actually mean? The OED defines icon as having four meanings, two of which are relevant here: an icon is defined as either, a representation of Christ or a holy figure, or a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration. Meanwhile, iconic refers to something that is representative of an icon, so veneration is applicable here too.
Definition of icon – OED
Definition of iconic – OED

Veneration. Perhaps there is a correlation between the overuse of these words has something to do with our increasing societal secularism. Has anyone considered that? Or maybe it’s aligned with our instinct to hyperbole, or a deficit of other adjectives. It some cases these words have become a device to express the importance or significance of something.

My own understanding of the word icon comes from my background and training as a classicist and specifically as a student of iconography. The study of images, and for my research, specific likenesses, brings with it the need to identity work by style, describing their content, and placing them in a stylistic context. In part this happens by identifying patterns in depiction and symbolism. It’s a world where gestures, colour, pattern, and attributes articulate meaning. In preliterate societies it was these subtleties that allowed artists tell stories, or pass on messages to their audiences, and for the illiterate public to ‘read’ the images (think pictorial shop signs, statues of deities, stained glass windows).

So when I read that someone or something is an “icon” I expect there will be a number of attributes: the object of veneration will represent something of deep meaning to a significant group of people, it will be of sufficient gravitas/ age/ mana (this is a Maori word) to demand respect of even those who do not believe in it themselves. It is something or someone who transcends the ordinary, and is truly representative of e.g., a deity, an explorer, a scientist, an artist, a place of worship, a building, a monument; and who has a belief system, story or legend that is inherent in their being. Iconic seems to have come to mean a symbol or to be representative of. Symbols, logos, emblems and insignia all convey meaning but do they truly, hand on heart, evoke veneration in the way a true icon would?

I’ll close with an example of the Virgin Mary:
Here’s an icon
The modern image that illustrates this piece (see top) is an iconic image
Finally, here is a modern icon

Try this yourself. Run a Google image search on the words icon and iconic and see what results. You might be surprised.


Iconic the adjective of an age
Icon, iconic and other overworked words
Cultural icon
Cultural Icons: A Case Study Analysis of their Formation and Reception


Sarah Gallagher is a Medical Librarian based in Dunedin, NZ and holds Masters degrees in Classics and in Library & Information Studies. She’s an early adopter of social media and is interested in how these tools can be used in the GLAM and heath professions. Sarah’s also writing a book about named student flats in Dunedin, an ephemeral print culture.

Sarah’s Tumblr
Sarah on Twitter
Sarah’s official bio page

Read more Be Careful! posts …


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Be careful! Decimated

I have always foamed at the gills slightly when someone has used decimated to refer to “lots of people/things”, as in “The invading army decimated the defenders and no one on that side survived”.

That’s because I’d learned that decimated means to kill a tenth. The clue’s in the first part of the word – from the Latin decimus or tenth (it came into English via Middle English). There is a specific use of the word that does mean that – in ancient Rome, one in ten of a group of soldiers could be killed to punish the mutiny of the whole group.

But look in your dictionary nowadays and you will see something along the lines of “To destroy a large proportion of something” as the first and major meaning. There may be a little explanation relating to those pedants among us who still insist on the idea of killing only a tenth of the population of whatevers. But this is one that has passed into common usage, and having found this out, I am no longer permitted to froth at the gills when I hear the “other” usage.

I was going to say that I’ll still never use it myself in the less precise way … but I’m not sure that I have ever, actually, used the word …

Be careful! is a series of posts about words that are misused commonly – but really shouldn’t be. It’s not a new variant of meaning, it’s an error that gets duplicated as people see the word misused and copy it.

Contact me via email or via my contact form.


Posted by on June 17, 2013 in Be careful, Errors, Language use, Writing


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Businesses: be careful when marketing around the Olympics!

No Olympic logos here!

If you’re a business operating in the UK, it’s so tempting to think you can pin some of your marketing and advertising on certain summer sporting events. But be careful – the Games’ Marks are very carefully protected, and you can run into big trouble if you break the rules!

It may seem a bit harsh, but events do need to protect the investment of their sponsors, and this includes making sure that companies that haven’t paid for sponsorship don’t profit as much as those who have.

Thinking about it on more local terms, if you’ve bought kit for your local football team, and you go along to the match to see your company logo all over their kit, you’d be really annoyed to find a rival company at the gate, giving away merchandise with their information plastered all over it, but without any official status or paying for the privilege. Well, it’s really the same here.

There’s lots of information on this official website so I won’t repeat it. What I will repeat is: be careful. Just as you wouldn’t infringe other copyright, “borrowing” the typeface or logos of the market leader in your sector to confuse potential clients and drive them to buy your products, so you need to keep away from pushing the Olympic angle, unless, of course, you are an official sponsor or partner. Keep aware of the Games’ Marks and be careful, and you’ll be fine. Try to muscle in on the action, and you might find yourself with a hefty punishment.

*Note: I’m not trying to cash in myself with this post! I have had to mention this issue to a couple of my clients recently, so it seemed worth summarising it all in a more public place.

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Posted by on May 4, 2012 in Be careful, Business, Ethics


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Be careful! Alot vs. a lot

I was reminded of this one again over the weekend: I see it used over and over again, and sometimes by people and in places that surprise me. I’m not even sure how it started, as it seems rather odd and not really explicable. With many of the words I’m including in this little Be Aware series, you can see how the error has come about, as in the thought processes. But this one seems to be just about missing a space while typing and doing nothing about it. Or maybe people DO think it’s correct in some way: if you use it (or used it until you read this post), please explain, because it does, genuinely, leave me baffled.

So, the word is alot. As in, “I did alot of homework today”; “Alot of people believe it is correct to miss out this space”, “I know alot of you do this, but it doesn’t mean it’s correct”.

And it really shouldn’t be. The phrase, and correct usage, is a lot. “I did a lot of homework today”. A being the indefinite article and lot referring to many. It’s exactly the same construction as a little, a few, a bunch, a collection: two separate words, with a space in between. And that’s how, really, it should stay.

There is a word, allot, which means to give or apportion something to someone – “I will allot you a corner to watch while you are marshalling for the marathon”, and although it’s brought us the good old allotment, I really don’t think this has crept in and influenced our word under discussion today.

I think it’s one you are just going to have to train yourself out of, if you do tend to use it – put that space in, please!

Update: a fab person has created an ALOT MONSTER on their blog! Thanks to the commenters who mentioned this: I think it deserves a place here in the post, too!

Note: I’ve been asked if “a lot of” is suitable for academic writing. I would suggest avoiding it and replacing it with “many” (“many people feel this is correct”) or “a great deal of” (“a great deal of research went into Dexter’s Theorem but it remains unproved”) or another similar phrase.

Be careful! is a series of posts about words that are misused commonly – but really shouldn’t be. It’s not a new variant of meaning, it’s an error that gets duplicated as people see the word misused and copy it.

Contact me via email or via my contact form.


Posted by on February 27, 2012 in Be careful, Errors, Language use, Writing


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Be careful! Unique

I’ve heard a lot of comments about unique since I originally wrote this post, and most people think it should be used as I originally thought it should be used. So hopefully this post will clear things up and stop people getting annoyed about an “incorrect” usage that actually turns out to be allowable!

The word I’m talking about here is unique. Unique, according to the dictionary, means “being the only one of its kind” and “unlike anything else”.  So if it’s the only one of its kind, something can’t be more unique than something else, can it? Or very unique. Or a bit more unique, or less unique. Can it? Many people feel this usage is creeping in and diluting the “original” meaning of the word.

However: It also means “special or unusual“! The Oxford Concise English Dictionary says that the less precise sense of “special or unusual” is a valid one and that means it CAN be modified! So, next time you see something described as being more unique than something else … save your irritation for some of the other Be Careful! words I write about!

Be careful! is a series of posts about words that are misused commonly – but really shouldn’t be. It’s not a new variant of meaning, it’s an error that gets duplicated as people see the word misused and copy it. Contact me via email or via my contact form.

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Posted by on November 21, 2011 in Be careful, Errors, Language use, Writing


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Be careful! Enormity

The word enormity is used an awful lot more than it should be.  In most cases, instead of its correct usage, to describe something bad of extreme seriousness – something like a tsunami, an earthquake, a deadly virus sweeping the world. Instead, it’s just used for something, well, enormous.  Enormousness, even.  The thing, is, we have a word for enormousness already. The beauty of the English language is in its variety and scope – so we have ranges of words for very precise shades of meaning.

It’s like your Mum used to say as she threaded those mittens on a string down your winter coat sleeves: don’t put your coat on indoors or you won’t get the benefit.  Over-use enormity and you’ll be stuck for a word to use when something REALLY big and bad happens.

Be careful! is a series of posts about words that are misused commonly – but really shouldn’t be. It’s not a new variant of meaning, it’s an error that gets duplicated as people see the word misused and copy it.

Contact me via email or via my contact form.

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Posted by on November 7, 2011 in Be careful, Language use


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