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Spelling

Spelling style

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

realise, recognise

-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

Tricky words

See also Inclusive terms and First Australians

accessible

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.

acknowledgement

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

‘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.

and/or

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.

artefact

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’.

basis

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:

use rather than
It was designed to be user-friendly. It was designed on a user-friendly basis.

billion

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.

centred around

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.

currently

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

disk drive

discreet or discrete

To be ‘discreet’ is to be prudent, wise or cautious; ‘discrete’ means distinct or separate.

disinterested

This does not mean ‘uninterested’; it means unbiased or uninfluenced by selfish motives.

diurnal

‘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

‘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’.

etc.

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.

extinct

Things don’t go extinct; they become extinct.

feasible

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’.

future planning

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.

icon

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.

including

When this word precedes a list, the reader infers that the list is incomplete. If that is not so, delete ‘including’.

join together

This is a tautology: ‘join’ already implies togetherness, so delete ‘together’.

judgement

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.

local residents

Can you be a resident without being local? Delete ‘local’.

media

‘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.

mid-

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.

new initiative

By definition every initiative is new, so avoid this tautology and just use ‘initiative’.

non-

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

‘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’.

often

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:

use rather than
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.

oversight

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.

program

This spelling is preferable to ‘programme’.

quantum leap

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.

such

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.

or even

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:

use rather than
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).

whose

The adjective ‘whose’ can apply to both animate and inanimate objects, largely because there is no suitable alternative to use with the latter.

with

Some writers try to use the preposition ‘with’ in confusing ways. The most common error is to use it as a conjunction:

use rather than
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:

use rather than
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:

use rather than
When the fire season started there were … With the start of the fire season there were …

Places

In Australia

Use the postcode listing issued by Australia Post. Check other place names, including names that are no longer in use, using these sources:

the Macquarie Dictionary

the Macquarie World Atlas

Geoscience Australia

for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander names, use the AIATSIS place name thesaurus

Overseas

Use the Macquarie World Atlas and the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names:

Mumbai

Hawaii

Chennai

In permanent exhibition, online and marketing text, the English form of place names is preferred:

use rather than
Rome Roma
Florence Firenze
Bavaria Bayern

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

but

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:

use rather than
Prado Museum Museo del Prado

Plurals

Non-English plurals

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)
genera (genus)  

Others have an English plural as well. For these, use the English form:

apexes aquariums ultimatums
bureaus minimums syllabuses
octopuses vacuums

Plurals of compound nouns

In compound titles the principal noun takes the plural:

attorneys-general

editors-in-chief

passers-by

Where there is no noun the final word takes the plural:

also-rans

go-betweens

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:

MPs

POWs

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
the Joneses  

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.

rather than

Two El Grecos and three Velasquezes were in the exhibition.