Little Book of Confusables

Licence vs license: top spelling tricks to help you get it right

LICENCE vs LICENSE: simple tips to remember the difference

LICENCE and LICENSE are easy to confuse. The fact that both words sound the same trips people up time and time again.

Here are my simple tips to remember the difference between LICENCE and LICENSE*

LICENCE is a noun.

You need a licenCe to drive a Car.

Also, remember that a licenCE is printed on paper, like a CErtificate.


Bonus tip

If you know the trick for PRACTICE vs PRACTISE – remembering that ICE is a noun – you can apply the same C vs S spelling rule here 👍🏼

You can apply this same bonus spelling tip to other similar pairs, such as ADVICE and ADVISE or DEVICE and DEVISE. Just remember, the suffix ICE means the word is a noun.


LICENSE is a verb that means to give permiSSion.

Remember the S in licenSe and permiSSion.

*Important note – in the US, both the verb and the noun are spelled LICENSE.

Confusables: LICENCE vs LICENSE. Simple spelling tips to remember the difference, from UK copywriter, Sarah Townsend Editorial

Confusables: lLICENCE vs LICENSE. Simple spelling tips to remember the difference, from UK copywriter, Sarah Townsend Editorial

Two become one: compound words and how to use them

In the process of writing a brochure for a financial services client, I found myself with a dilemma. Do I write healthcare, health-care or health care?

Ahh, those tricky compound words… are they one word, two words or hyphenated?

Let’s start at the beginning.

What is a compound word?

A compound word occurs when two or more words are joined to create a new or combined meaning.

There are three types of compound word:

  • open compounds
  • closed compounds
  • hyphenated compounds

Open compounds, closed compounds and hyphenated compounds: what’s the difference?

What is an open compound word?

Open compounds are written as two separate words. Here are some examples:

  • ice cream
  • door frame
  • full moon
  • dining table
  • coffee mug
  • phone call
  • test tube
  • first aid

What is a closed compound word?

Closed compounds are written as one word, like this:

  • sunflower
  • toothbrush
  • moonlight
  • fireplace
  • notebook
  • flowerpot
  • redhead
  • teacup

What is a hyphenated compound word?

A hyphenated compound occurs when two or more words are joined by one or more hyphens. Here are some examples:

  • self-confidence
  • mother-in-law
  • check-up
  • train-spotter
  • half-mast
  • pre-dinner
  • non-starter
  • ex-husband

The tale of the incredible disappearing hyphen…

Many words that begin as hyphenated compounds become so commonplace that the hyphen ends up being dropped – it’s a natural part of the evolution of the English language.

For example, all these words started off with a hyphen (and some dictionaries still use one):

  • online
  • mindset
  • proofreader
  • secondhand

According to a 2007 article published by Reuters, the OED dropped 16,000 hyphens in its sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Some hyphens disappeared from compound nouns, which became a single word (for instance, pigeon-hole became pigeonhole, chick-pea became chickpea and bumble-bee became bumblebee) while other compounds, such as ice cream and test tube lost their hyphen and became two words.

In the article, the dictionary’s editor, Angus Stevenson, explains that the hyphen’s demise reflects current usage: “We have been tracking this for some time and we’ve been finding the hyphen is used less and less.”

Care to make any predictions on what could be next? With the growth of online shopping, I predict that next-day – in the context of next-day delivery – will become nextday. Sure, it looks wrong now, but give it five years

Using hyphens in compound adjectives

When two words are joined to modify a noun (forming a compound adjective) and are placed before the noun, they’re usually hyphenated, but take care – when the same two words are placed after the noun, they don’t need a hyphen.

For example:

  • “Benefit from a tax-free lump sum” BUT “the proceeds are tax free
  • “Fresh from our in-store bakery” BUT “you’ll find bread in store
  • “She has a long-term illness” BUT “her symptoms will improve in the long term

Advanced tip

An exception to this rule applies when the compound adjective is formed using an adjective that ends -ly, in which case it’s always written as two separate words with no hyphen.

Here are some examples:

… a successfully applied formula

…a newly formed group

…a widely used tool

Compound words vs portmanteau words

So, is a compound word the same as a portmanteau*?

Nope. Here’s why.

Sometimes called a blend, a portmanteau is a new word that’s formed from part of one word and part of another, like this:

Brunch = breakfast + lunch

Sitcom = situation + comedy

Smog = smoke + fog

*According to the OED, Lewis Carroll was the first to use the term portmanteau in this way in Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Here, Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice the portmanteau word, in which “two meanings are packed up into one word”. (His description comes from portmanteau – a large bag – which is itself a blend of the words porter and mantle.)

Compound words in British English vs US English

In the process of researching this article, I came across many words spelled differently in different dictionaries. Generally speaking, British English dictionaries tend to be more cautious – clinging on to the hyphen (mouth-watering) when US English has dropped it (mouthwatering).

So, if you’re not sure of the current recommended spelling of a compound word, check your favourite online dictionary. Just don’t be surprised if they don’t always agree…

19 common expressions you’re getting wrong… plus a classic Friends moment

I’ll admit it. I have a weird sense of humour.

Most comedians leave me cold. If critics describe a film as “hilarious” I’m almost guaranteed not to like it.

But one thing that does make me chuckle is misuse of language.

Some people are outraged by ‘shocking falling standards’ or the ‘English language going to hell’, much like a Daily Mail headline. Not me. I prefer to be amused. It makes life more fun.

I read something the other day that used the expression ‘white as a sheep’. Brilliant! But wrong. (The expression is ‘white as a sheet’. I think I prefer sheep. My sheets are purple.)

It got me thinking about the phrases people often misuse – and why it happens. This article contains 19 of my favourite stupid mistakes that even smart people make… and a cheeky language lesson while we’re at it.

Mondegreens, malapropisms and eggcorns

You what now?

Don’t be misled by the title of this post: these are all real names for common lexical errors.

A mondegreen* is a misheard version of a song lyric, like this: “It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not” from Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer.

(Of course, the lyric is actually, “It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not” – but the alternative sounds a lot more fun.)

A malapropism** is when a similar-sounding wrong word is used instead of the right word, with nonsensical and often funny results. Finally, an eggcorn*** is a misunderstanding or mishearing of a phrase or word, often with broadly the same meaning.

(There are also homonyms, where words sound the same, like ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ but these are more likely to trip you up when you’re writing, not speaking.)

Lesson over. Without further a dew (sorry), here are 19 phrases that are commonly confused in British English.

Nip it in the bud NOT nip it in the butt

If you nip something in the bud, you’re cutting it off before it has a chance to develop, or grow. You might want to watch out for crabs nipping you in the butt if you’re hanging out at the beach… otherwise, it’s wrong.

“Your dog’s developing bad habits. You might want to nip that in the bud.”

On tenterhooks NOT on tender hooks

This phrase, meaning worried anticipation, comes from the word ‘tenter’ which was a frame on which cloth was stretched to prevent shrinking. The tenterhook kept the cloth tense and tight – hence the expression. A tender hook isn’t a thing.

“I’m on tenterhooks waiting for my exam results!”                               

To all intents and purposes NOT to all intensive purposes

‘To all intents and purposes’ is defined as meaning ‘in all important respects’ or ‘virtually’. The phrase dates back to 16th century law, where it started life as, ‘to all intents, constructions, and purposes’. It’s easy to see how this is misheard as ‘intensive’, but it’s still wrong.

“The house was, to all intents and purposes, abandoned.”

I couldn’t care less NOT I could care less

“I could care less” means you do, at least, care a little. “I couldn’t care less” means you don’t. Simple.

“I couldn’t care less what my ex thinks!”

180-degree turn NOT 360-degree turn

I do words. I don’t do maths. But I do know that if you start at point A and do a 360-degree turn, you’re still at point A.

When you want to express the fact that you started off thinking one thing but now think the complete opposite – in other words, you did a complete U-turn – that’s a 180-degree turn.

“I didn’t like the new album at first but I’ve done a complete 180 and now love it.”

Dog-eat-dog world NOT doggy dog world

The phrase ‘dog-eat-dog’ means brutal, ruthless and competitive. Apart from a track by Snoop Dogg, doggy dog world is not a thing. I just wish it was.

“It’s a dog eat dog world out there, so you’d better up your game.”

Chest of drawers NOT Chester drawers

That unit in your bedroom where you keep your socks is a chest of drawers. Unless you bought the drawers from Chester, in which case, I won’t argue with you.

“Please put your clothes away in your chest of drawers.”

Moot point NOT mute point

‘Moot’ means arguable, or subject to debate. As well as thinking it’s ‘mute’, another common mistake is to think it means that something isn’t up for debate.

Someone once told me they thought it was ‘a mute point’ because it meant ‘stop talking nonsense’. Makes perfect sense – particularly if you don’t know what ‘moot’ means.

Friends fans will remember the scene where Joey called it a ‘moo point’. “It’s like a cow’s opinion. It doesn’t matter. It’s moo.” Watch it here.

“Whether or not it should be enforced by law is a moot point.”

While we’re on the subject of comedy mishears, this clip from The IT Crowd – which covers damp squib/damp squid and pedestal/peddle stool is equally brilliant… Watch it here.

11 more commonly confused phrases  

  • Old wives’ tale NOT old wise tale
  • Off your own bat NOT off your own back
  • Go-getter NOT goal-getter
  • Scapegoat NOT escape goat
  • Alzheimer’s Disease NOT old timers’ disease
  • Chickenpox NOT chicken spots
  • Nerve-wracking NOT nerve-wrecking
  • Eton mess NOT eaten mess
  • Card sharp NOT card shark
  • Pass muster NOT pass mustard
  • …and, of course, white as a sheet NOT white as a sheep

My favourites are doggy-dog world and escape goat. What’s your favourite commonly confused expression? Have I covered it here?

*The word mondegreen comes from a 1954 article in Harper’s Magazine in which Sylvia Wright mentioned misinterpreting the words of a 17th century Scottish ballad, “‘They have slain the Earl of Moray and laid him on the green’ as ‘They have slain the Earl of Moray and Lady Mondegreen.’

** The word malapropism comes Mrs Malaprop, a character in Sheridan’s 1775 play, The Rivals

***The most recent of the three terms, eggcorn refers to a misinterpretation of the word acorn. Its first recorded use was earlier this century.

Ten grammar jokes for word nerds and language lovers

Did you hear the one about the dyslexic who walked into a bra?

Here are ten of my favourite grammar jokes for word nerds and language lovers.

Wish I could take the credit for coming up with these, but I can’t. Anyway – enjoy!

Grammar jokes for language nerds

Ten grammar jokes for word nerds and language lovers