Some problem words

Last updated: Saturday, July 11, 2015

Here are some common problems posed by particular words or phrasing:

Try and avoid double (or even triple) negatives because it can create confusion. In English, double negatives effectively cancel each other out, so that It would not be inappropriate to use salbutamol means that salbutamol can be used. However, some sentences with many negatives can get very convoluted and the meaning becomes lost. For example: Would you not disagree that the improper use of this resource is inappropriate? What on earth does that mean?

Most of us have favourite words that we use too often. Common ones include: however, also, and therefore. Try and identify your favourite words and devise some alternatives to save repeating yourself too often. Use a thesaurus perhaps?

Think twice before starting sentences with although. This word tends to spark off particularly convoluted sentences. For example: Although a number of experts in the field, including Desagnio and Childs (2001), and Schmidt (2002), have agreed with this hypothesis concerning the role of this group of drugs in the aetiology of confused behaviour in the elderly... Already you’re in trouble with the beginning of a huge unwieldy sentence and it isn’t even finished yet!

Be careful about using the word 'only'; it is particularly prone to cause ambiguity. For example: Blogapril only causes mild eczema. This could mean three different things:

  • Blogapril causes eczema, but it’s only mild.
  • Blogapril only has one side effect and it's eczema.
  • Blogapril is the only drug that causes mild eczema.

Think carefully about using the word 'they'. It can cause problems by sounding colloquial. In particular avoid the phrase: They say that... (Who are 'they'?). The word ‘they’ can also cause a sudden change to the plural. For example: A patient with diabetes may say that they feel hypo. The sentence started out singular and ended up plural. Better to re-write the sentence.

Learn the difference between common words that sound the same such as:

It’s and its.                             Complementary and complimentary.
Into and in to.                       Principal and principle.
Your and you’re.                   Their, there and they’re.
Maybe and may be.             Accept and except.
To and too.                            Apart and a part.
Licence and license.

 Use a dictionary if you are not sure about any of these.