See Museum terms for building, gallery and exhibition titles
Use the spellings in the latest edition of the Macquarie Dictionary. Where the dictionary provides alternatives – for example, archaeology = archeology – use the spelling listed first.
-ise or -ize
Use -ise rather than -ize except where the -ize is part of an official title:
organisation but World Health Organization
-our or -or
Use -our rather than -or in words such as:
colour, honour, labour
But note the standard spellings of words such as:
honorary, honorific, laborious
Note, too, the spelling of political party names:
Australian Labor Party but British Labour Party
This word is becoming overused. Think about what you mean to say: ‘reaching out to visitors beyond Canberra’, ‘extending our reach’, ‘making the collection available’, and so on.
This is the more regular spelling; it follows the rule of leaving the e of the verb when -ment is added to create a noun.
advice or advise
‘Advice’ is the noun; ‘advise’ is the verb.
affect or effect
‘Affect’ is almost always a verb; ‘effect’ is a noun and can also be used as an intransitive verb:
The leg-side law has an important effect in cricket: it affects the way lbw dismissals can be effected.
In psychology ‘affect’ is used as a noun meaning emotion or demeanour.
alternate or alternative
‘Alternate’ has the sense of ‘following one after another in time or place reciprocally’. Day and night alternate, as do the lights flashing at a railway crossing.
Avoid using ‘alternate’ to mean ‘alternative’ (in the sense of a choice between two things).
If you write ‘alternate’ when you mean ‘alternative’, you will have to think of an alternative word to use when you want to say ‘alternate’. Alternatively, use a different word.
‘And’ is a coordinating conjunction, so it is used to connect two parts of the same kind: two words, two phrases or two clauses. But sometimes we use it too much and make things that are not equal seem as if they are. This usually causes the reader to miss the point we are making:
Fires swept through the forest 55 years ago and salvage logging helped to keep some mills open.
After fires swept through the forest 55 years ago, salvage logging helped to keep some mills open.
Avoid the form ‘A and/or B’. It confuses readers because they usually have to read the sentence twice to understand the meaning. ‘A or B, or both,’ is clearer. Often, using the simple form ‘A or B’ provides the same sense as ‘A and/or B’. For example, consider the sentence:
The possum would eat the food if it contained apple and/or honey.
Only apple or honey needs to be present, so ‘apple or honey’ is a better construction.
An artefact is something made by a human with a view to subsequent use. It does not usually include fossils, human remains, and so on. ‘Artefact’ also has another specific meaning in biology – an unintended product or outcome resulting from the use of a particular technique. Avoid the spelling ‘artifact’.
When ‘basis’ is used as the object of a sentence it often pushes the real object into the minor role of an adjective, thus removing the directness. Recast the sentence to reflect what you really want to say:
|It was designed to be user-friendly.||It was designed on a user-friendly basis.|
The Museum prefers the American English meaning, a thousand million (American English), which is the trend worldwide.
by, by means of, through and via
You can travel ‘by’ bus or ‘by means’ of a bus but not ‘via’ a bus. ‘Via’ is reserved for stages in a process or a route:
From Canberra, you can drive to Gunning via Gundaroo.
Can anything be centred around something? Use ‘centred on’ or, preferably, a different expression.
comparatively or relatively
If you use these words you must say what is being compared with what. You can say ‘A is relatively large’ only if you say what it is being related to – ‘… compared with B’.
complement or compliment
To ‘complement’ is to complete or make perfect. To ‘compliment’ is to flatter. Either can also be a noun.
comprises or consists
Only ‘consists’ takes ‘of’ when describing the make-up of something:
The port’s fleet consists of five tugs.
The port’s fleet comprises five tugs.
continual or continuous
Strictly speaking, ‘continual’ means occurring at intervals without end:
the continual beating of a drum
continual interruptions to a speech
‘Continuous’ means going on without stopping:
a continuous flow of water
a continuous whining from the engine
The distinction is important in scientific and technical writing:
The beaker was continually topped up
is very different from
The beaker was continuously topped up.
In most cases ‘is currently’ is a tautology. The verb ‘is’ implies currency.
data or information
Use ‘data’ when you mean information obtained from direct observation. In other cases – such as anecdotes – use ‘information’.
data is or data are
‘Data’ can be considered singular or plural, according to the sense in which it is used. For a number of individual observations, it is plural and is used in this sense in most scientific writing. In the sense of a mass of information not distinguished as individual observations, it may be considered a collective noun, like ‘media’.
defective or deficient
‘Defective’ means not working properly; ‘deficient’ means lacking something.
disc or disk
Use ‘disc’ for thin, flat circular objects and ‘disk’ for computer terms:
compact disc, disc brake, slipped disc
discreet or discrete
To be ‘discreet’ is to be prudent, wise or cautious; ‘discrete’ means distinct or separate.
This does not mean ‘uninterested’; it means unbiased or uninfluenced by selfish motives.
‘Diurnal’ has three distinct meanings: ‘daily’, ‘active or occurring during daylight hours’ and ‘varying according to whether it is day or night’. Be careful to distinguish the sense in which you use this word. If you mean ‘daily’, use that word to avoid confusion.
each and every
Since ‘each’ and ‘every’ can refer to only one item, they must be accompanied by a single verb:
Each bat was tagged on the ear; every tag was coded according to the sex and age of the bat.
‘Each and every’ is a tautology.
‘Either’ should be used only when there are two choices. Don’t write:
We used either red, black or white tape.
enquiry or inquiry
The Museum prefers to use ‘enquiry’ and ‘enquires’ rather than ‘inquiry’ and ‘inquires’.
Avoid using ‘etc.’ Do not end a restricted list (one prefaced by ‘including’ or ‘such as’) with ‘etc.’; otherwise you have an unrestricted restricted list.
Things don’t go extinct; they become extinct.
The strict meaning of ‘feasible’ is ‘able to be done’; its use in the sense of probable or plausible can cause confusion.
fewer or less
Use ‘fewer’ for numbers and ‘less’ for quantity:
There were fewer than 500 kangaroos in the population; every female weighed less than 30 kilograms.
Put less butter in next time.
flammable and inflammable
Because inflammable can (dangerously) mean either flammable or not flammable, use ‘non-flammable’.
Can we do some past planning too? Delete ‘future’.
historic or historical
‘Historic’ means having some importance in history; ‘historical’ means pertaining to the past.
The word ‘icon’, which means sacred object or greatly admired representative, has become diluted by overuse and should be avoided.
imply or infer
These closely related words are often confused. ‘Imply’ means to suggest or hint; ‘infer’ means to deduce or conclude from evidence. Inanimate things such as data cannot imply or infer anything: you have to do that.
When this word precedes a list, the reader infers that the list is incomplete. If that is not so, delete ‘including’.
This is a tautology: ‘join’ already implies togetherness, so delete ‘together’.
This is the more regular spelling; it follows the rule of leaving the e of the verb when -ment is added to create a noun.
licence or license
‘Licence’ is the noun; ‘license’ is the verb:
I lost my licence.
I am licensed to drive.
likely, liable or prone
These words have distinct meanings. ‘Likely’ has the sense of probable or apparently going to happen. ‘Liable’ means exposed to something happening. ‘Prone’ in this sense means having a natural tendency to something.
Can you be a resident without being local? Delete ‘local’.
‘Media’ in the sense of news media is a plural noun used in the singular sense:
The media has a powerful influence in Australia.
In the scientific sense the distinction between ‘medium’ and ‘media’ remains:
The bacteria were cultured in several media … As a medium, agar gave the best results.
Hyphenate compounds formed with ‘mid’ – for example, in the mid-90s, mid-June, mid-1980s. But note that early and late used in the same way are not hyphenated – early 90s, late June.
By definition every initiative is new, so avoid this tautology and just use ‘initiative’.
Most compounds formed with the ‘non’ prefix are hyphenated. If in doubt, refer to the Macquarie Dictionary.
number is or are
Should you write ‘A number of birds was seen in the forest’ or ‘A number of birds were seen in the forest’? The answer lies in the verb and its subject. The number wasn’t seen in the forest; the birds were: ‘a number of …’ is an adjectival phrase that defines birds, not part of a compound noun. (The same argument holds for sentences beginning with ‘A total of …’)
If you’re not convinced, try this sentence: ‘A number of people [is or are] walking along the street’. One way around this problem is to make the sentence more useful to readers: tell them how many birds, people, or whatever. Of course, the verb has to be singular if the word ‘number’ is the subject of a sentence. This is generally the case when you write ‘the’ number (as opposed to ‘a’ number):
The number of birds observed was smaller than in 1989.
‘Occur’ has a legitimate meaning of ‘exist’, but it is too often used when a more descriptive and lively word is available. Try ‘inhabit’, ‘live’, ‘are found’, ‘are present’, ‘exist’, ‘occupy’, ‘grow’.
Do you often not go to the football? Do you often not drink coffee? If you think positively when you write, you will eliminate this peculiar usage:
|Visitors seldom use these services.||Visitors frequently do not use these services.|
optimum or optimal
‘Optimum’ is both a noun and an adjective; ‘optimal’ is an adjective, but ‘optimum’ is preferred.
An oversight is something that is overlooked; its use as a verb meaning to supervise or oversee should be avoided.
partly or partially
In scientific and technical writing it can be important to distinguish between these two apparent synonyms. For example, a ‘partly’ complete reaction is one in which some of the original material is unchanged; a ‘partially’ complete reaction is one in which not all the stages of the reaction have been completed. The antonyms are ‘wholly’ (for partly) and ‘completely’ (for partially).
peninsula or peninsular
One a noun and one an adjective, these words are commonly confused:
The Museum is located on Acton Peninsula.
The British fought against the French in the Peninsular War.
practice or practise
‘Practice’ is the noun and ‘practise’ is the verb. The noun form ends in ce, the verb form ends in se:
She has a law practice.
She practises law.
The United States is an exception, where ‘practice’ is used for both.
principal or principle
These words are often confused. ‘Principle’ means fundamental rule or truth; ‘principal’ means main, most important, or, as a noun, a person of prime importance.
This spelling is preferable to ‘programme’.
A ‘quantum leap’ is not a giant step. It is an abrupt (and often small) change from one level to another and derives from theories of the arrangements of electrons in an atom. Common misuse makes it a cliché that is best avoided.
Do not use ‘such’ as an adverb or conjunction left over from the phrase ‘in such a way’ – as in ‘We planned it such that it would take three days instead of five’. Try ‘so’ instead.
sulfur or sulphur
‘Sulfur’ is the internationally agreed spelling: it is not an Americanism. However, where the ph spelling is used in names – as in the sulphur-crested cockatoo – it should be retained.
that or which
In a defining clause – that is, a clause that defines a noun – either ‘that’ or ‘which’ can be used. (A good test is to read the sentence without the clause in question: if the sentence still makes sense and tells the main story, the clause is non-defining.)
The photos that I took are inside.
The photos which I took are inside.
The photos I took are inside.
In a non-defining clause – that is, a clause that provides incidental information – only ‘which’ can be used:
The photos, which I took, are inside.
Non-defining clauses should always be marked off from the sentence by commas, em rules or parentheses, so an easy rule to remember is to use ‘which’ if these punctuation marks are present and either ‘which’ or ‘that’ if they are not.
‘Which’ is usually preferable to ‘that’ when another ‘that’ appears in the sentence:
Is that the horse which won last week?
‘Which’ is often preferred in defining clauses containing a preposition:
|The boat in which you sail is broken.||The boat that you sail in is broken|
waiver or waver
‘Waiver’ is a noun meaning relinquishment; to ‘waver’ is to show doubt or indecision (or to flutter about).
The adjective ‘whose’ can apply to both animate and inanimate objects, largely because there is no suitable alternative to use with the latter.
Some writers try to use the preposition ‘with’ in confusing ways. The most common error is to use it as a conjunction:
|The Gorae district has a mild climate, and its soil is suitable for growing radiata pine.||The Gorae district has a mild climate with soil suitable for growing radiata pine.|
‘With’ is used incorrectly as a substitute for a conjunction and a verb, often with a weak verb form that robs the sentence of its strength:
|Here the smallest tree is 20 metres, but one reaches 85 metres.||Here the smallest tree is 20 metres high, with one reaching 85 metres.|
It is also used to start a sentence when another word would make the meaning clearer:
|When the fire season started there were …||With the start of the fire season there were …|
the Macquarie Dictionary
the Macquarie World Atlas
for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander names, use the AIATSIS place name thesaurus
Use the Macquarie World Atlas and the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names:
In permanent exhibition, online and marketing text, the English form of place names is preferred:
However, the choice of spellings is dependent on context.
Names of institutions and organisations
Do not change official spellings. For example, do not use ‘organisation’ (with an s) to replace a z spelling:
World Health Organization
International Labour Organization
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
World Trade Center
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation
Informal translations of official names can, however, be changed to reflect Australian usage:
|Prado Museum||Museo del Prado|
The Macquarie Dictionary shows the plural forms of nouns that do not simply involve adding ‘s’. Many English words retain the plural forms of the language from which they derive:
|addenda (addendum)||media (medium)|
|crises (crisis)||phenomena (phenomenon)|
|criteria (criterion)||strata (stratum)|
Others have an English plural as well. For these, use the English form:
Plurals of compound nouns
In compound titles the principal noun takes the plural:
Where there is no noun the final word takes the plural:
Indices or indexes
Sometimes the plural form used depends on the circumstance:
indices (in maths)
indexes (in documents)
Use the plural forms ‘appendixes’ when referring to documents and ‘appendices’ when referring to the body part (the vermiform appendix).
Plurals of initialisms
Plural forms of capitalised abbreviations and capital letters are written with a lower case s:
To avoid confusion, an apostrophe is added to the plurals of lower case letters:
Mind your p’s and q’s.
Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.
Plurals of proper names
Most names of people and other proper nouns are pluralised by adding s or es:
|two Ceciles||two cold Januarys|
|the Medicis||on Tuesdays|
Exceptions are made for French names ending in s, x and z:
four King Louis not four King Louises
To avoid awkward formulations – for example, with Spanish names ending in o and z – recast the sentence:
There were two paintings by El Greco and three by Velasquez in the exhibition.
Two El Grecos and three Velasquezes were in the exhibition.