Wordplay – language usage tips, and traps to avoid

Word selection and language usage convey their own message and can sometimes even change the meaning of what you meant to say. Make sure you’re on top of your game, presenting a professional image and not inadvertently undermining your own credibility, with these useful tips for effective language usage and some traps to avoid.

One of the traps that most frequently catches users of English is a verb that doesn’t ‘agree’ with its subject. That simply means that if the sentence is about a single thing, the verb must be singular form. If it’s about multiple things, the verb is plural.

For example:

The two best things about the party was the food and the music. (Incorrect)

The two best things about the party were the food and the music. (Correct)

We’re talking about the two best things (plural), so we need to use ‘were’, not ‘was’.

An important part of my life have been the people who stood by me. (Incorrect)

An important part of my life has been the people who stood by me. (Correct)

In this second example, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because we’re talking about people, we should use a plural. But the subject of the sentence is ‘An important part of my life’, (singular) so the verb is also singular.

That/Which Vs Who

Below you’ll see the rules for when to use that and when to use which. The third part of the trifecta is ‘who’ – but that, luckily is a lot simpler. The rule is, ‘if it’s a person, you always use ‘who’. Whereas ‘that’ and ‘which’ depend on the structure of the sentence, and whether the phrase is in commas, ‘who’ is used for people in both cases.

The woman, who had black hair, was very tall.

The woman who had black hair was taller than the blonde.

Which or That?

This is a tricky one and confuses a lot of people, even those who are generally pretty knowledgeable about usage, and who would never fall into some of the more obvious traps in the English language. Many people think they are interchangeable, but in fact they do have different meanings.

The easiest way to sum it up is that ‘which’ is used for information that is not essential to the sentence. It is information that adds detail or ‘colour’. If you removed this information, the meaning of the sentence would not change. The information may have a comma in front of it, or could be put in brackets.

On the other hand, ‘that’ is used when you are introducing essential information that adds meaning to the sentence.

Let’s use an example to illustrate:

1. My office that is in Melbourne is very small.

2. My office, which is in Melbourne, is very small.

The first sentence implies I have more than one office and that the others are not small. The fact that this office is in Melbourne is essential to the meaning.

In the second sentence, the location is simply additional information, or ‘colour’. The ‘which is very small’ is in commas and could be in brackets.

A good way to remember the usage difference is that ‘which’ contains a ‘c’, and a sentence with ‘which’ adds colour and can use commas.

Ensure vs Insure vs Assure

Similar in sound and often confused, ensure and insure do nonetheless have different meanings. Assure gets in on the act too.


To ensure is to make sure something does (or doesn’t happen) – for example:

“He locked the door to ensure no-one could get in.”

“She got her report finished by 5pm, ensuring she could go out for dinner.”

Generally, ‘to ensure’ could be replaced in a sentence by ‘to make sure’. “He locked the door, to ensure/make sure no-one could get in.”


To insure, on the other hand, is to protect the monetary value of something, by arranging financial compensation. So:

“She insured her new ring against loss or theft.”

“Is he insured to drive your car?


The third part of this trifecta is assure, which is also sometimes confused with ensure or insure.

To assure is to remove doubt or to provide confidence. We assure a person, so it is usually followed by a name, role or pronoun.

“She assured me that the invoice would be paid on time.”

“The club doctor assured the coach that the striker was fit to play.”


All three could potentially appear in the same (albeit somewhat contrived) sentence:

“He assured her that the car was fully insured, to ensure no big repair bills in the case of a scrape.”


It’s vs Its

This perennial linguistic trip hazard is the number one grammatical error and source of confusion in written English.

The rule is quite simple:

1. When you mean ‘it is’ or ‘it has’, use an apostrophe. “It’s raining” (It is raining) or “It’s started to rain” (It has started to rain).

2. When you mean ‘belonging to it’, there is no apostrophe. “The dog wagged its tail”.

The confusion arises because apostrophes are generally used in two ways:

Firstly to show a contraction (or shortened form), showing that there are missing letters, as example 1 above, or as in ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’, ‘I’ll’

Secondly to show possession, as in ‘the sun’s rays’ or ‘Susan’s car’.

So it’s natural that when we are talking about possession by ‘it’, we feel there should be an apostrophe to show the ownership.

However, ‘its’ falls into the same category as ‘hers’, ‘his’, ‘yours’, ie. you are using a pronoun instead of the person or thing that is the owner. The ownership is already implied in the meaning of the word, and no apostrophe is needed. That’s why we have ‘The car is Susan’s’, but ‘The car is hers’.

A good sentence to memorise to help you always get this right is ‘My dog is really happy – it’s always wagging its tail’

‘White paper’ vs ‘Whitepaper’

When I started to research this question, I was amazed at the depth of research into the ‘correct’ answer.

The best article I came across was ‘White paper or whitepaper – the final word (or two), which looked at historical use, dictionary listings, google searches and common usage.

To save you from suspense, I’ll tell you that this article came down on the side of ‘White paper’, and I’ve summarised the research below.


The term originated in 19th century Britain, where Parliament called official reports ‘Blue Papers’ (for their blue covers) and less formal reports, with their white covers were ‘White Papers’. The term went from Government (in several countries) to the public sector, to technology companies, as two words. The joining together of the two words into a single compound word is a more recent phenomenon. So from a historical perspective – ‘White Paper’ wins.


Dictionary listings favour 'White Paper' over 'Whitepaper'

Dictionaries capture current, as well as historical usage, including the many, many examples of compound words that were originally two words (think ‘web site’ or ‘e-mail’).  A search of seven dictionaries showed all listing ‘White Paper’, but only two with ‘Whitepaper’. On the dictionary test, ‘White Paper’ wins again.

Style Guides

Style guides set the languages standards for the media and many other organisations and often reflect trends before dictionaries do. Many style guides are based on the AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style, both of which come down on the ‘White Paper’ side.  But the style guides of many technology companies, including HubSpot and Google, list ‘Whitepaper’ as their preference. Based on the influence of technology companies, the article comes down on the side of ‘Whitepaper’ in this category.


Language is ultimately a question of what people are actually using – and a check on Google searches shows ‘White Paper’ taking the lead, with 34m searches, compared to 6.7m for ‘Whitepaper’. ‘White Paper’ wins that round.

Usage trends show both 'White paper' and 'Whitepaper' declining, but with 'Whitepaper' staying ahead

Usage trends

The final check was on usage trends, again using Google. That showed that both search terms were in decline, but with the numbers for ‘White Paper’ still staying ahead of its competitor.

The verdict – ‘White Paper’ wins!

‘Less’ vs ‘Fewer’

This one gets so many people confused – even supermarkets, with their lanes for ‘baskets with 12 items or less’.

The rule here is pretty simple (once you know it!):

If you can count it, use ‘fewer’; if you can’t count it, use ‘less’

(If you’re interested in the grammatical detail, it’s because all nouns fall into two categories – mass nouns and count nouns).

“There are fewer tomatoes in this sandwich than that one” – we count ‘one tomato, two tomatoes’

“There is less meat in this sandwich than that one” – we don’t count ‘one meat, two meats’

“There are fewer cars on the road than yesterday”

“There is less traffic than yesterday”

‘Wonder’ vs ‘Wander’

I read this recently in a travel blog “I had heard there was a great street market on a Sunday, so I wondered down to take a look”.

Of course the writer meant that he ‘wandered’ i.e. walked in a leisurely way, to find the market.

But this is yet another example of the cruel tricks the English language plays on us with spelling and pronunciation.

The word ‘wonder’ (i.e. to desire to know something) has ‘on’ in the middle of it, yet is pronounced ‘wunder’.

The word ‘wander’ has ‘and’ in the middle of it but is pronounced ‘w-on-der’.

Pretty confusing – and not picked up by spell check, so there’s nothing for it but to learn these oddities of English!

‘Affect’ vs ‘Effect’

It’s easy to confuse these two – so here’s a clarification….

Affect is a verb meaning to influence something – as in ‘The cold weather affected tourist numbers this year’.  Affect is only ever a verb – if you saw ‘the affect’ (noun), you’d be looking at incorrect usage.

Effect can be a verb or a noun, but with different meanings.

Effect as a noun means outcome or result – as in, ‘The effect of the cold weather was a reduction in tourist numbers’. Think of it as a pair with Affect – Affecting something causes an effect.

Effect as a verb means to bring about, or produce (usually a change), as in ‘without a majority, the committee will be powerless to effect new regulations’

Punctuation – more than a ‘nice to have’

“Anti-human trafficking symposium” –  So read the advertising for an event sponsored by a US university and a leading consultancy firm.

The use of a hyphen between the words 'anti'and 'human' in 'anti-human trafficking', changes the meaning of the phrase

As well as being amusing, it is a good illustration of the fact that punctuation isn’t just a ‘nice to have’, it also carries meaning.

In this case, I am sure that attendees didn’t really go along expecting to discuss the trafficking of anti-humans, so you might argue that I’m being overly picky.  Luckily in this case the topic that is technically being advertised doesn’t make logical sense, so there’s no real chance of confusion. But the point still holds true that punctuation – in this case something as tiny as a hyphen – has the power to completely change meaning.


‘Undergo’ vs ‘forgo’

“Products are selected by our technical specialists and forgo a vigorous testing/trial period before having our brand name allocated to them”

Reading this in a brochure recently reminded me that getting our words mixed up can actually deliver a message that is directly opposite to what we meant.

To forgo = to do without

To undergo = to be subjected to

I assume the writer of the brochure meant the latter, but ended up undermining the company’s quality process!

‘A while’ vs ‘Awhile’

‘While’ is a noun meaning “a short time.” It has been a while since I went to London

‘Awhile’ is an adverb meaning “for a short time”, It is much less frequently used in modern English, but would be used with a verb to indicate that you will only be doing that action for a short time. “Let’s wait awhile” or “After the run, I needed to rest awhile”

‘You’ vs ‘Yourself’

“Can I meet with yourself?”

“I believe my colleague met with yourself last week”

This is often used when the speaker thinks they are being polite. But in fact ‘yourself’ should only be used when the same person is both doing the action and receiving the action i.e. doing something to themself.

So, “Can I meet with you?” (I am holding the meeting; you are attending the meeting) but

“You buy yourself a drink” (you buy the drink you receive the drink).

The other way to check is to think of ‘you’ and ‘yourself’ as a pair – if you have used ‘yourself’ it should be preceded with you.

‘Licence’ or ‘license’?

The answer is both, but at different times.

In Australian and British English, ‘licence’ is a noun, as in “he passed his test and now has his driver’s licence”

Whereas ‘license’ is a verb – for example “she’s licensed to run the pub”, “the department that licenses taxis”

A good way to remember the difference is that ‘noun’ comes before ‘verb’ in a dictionary, and ‘c’ comes before ‘s’.

In US English, there is no difference between the spelling of the noun and the verb, so it is ‘license’ for both.

‘Eluded’ vs ‘alluded’

‘As John and Peter have eluded to, we need someone with your skills…’ so read an email I received, which served to highlight the potential confusion between ‘eluded’ and ‘alluded’.

To ‘elude’ is to escape from, or avoid (usually danger, or a pursuer) – ‘he was on the run, eluding police for several weeks’.

What the writer of the sentence in the email meant was ‘alluded to’. To allude is to refer to, often indirectly, or briefly – ‘he alluded to the incident, but never went into detail’.  A good test is that allude can be replaced with ‘hinted at’ or ‘mentioned’.

‘Formerly’ vs ‘formally’

It can be hard to choose the right written form when two words are pronounced identically: ‘formerly’ and ‘formally’ are two that trip up many people.

‘Formerly’ refers to an earlier time. A good test is whether you could substitute the word ‘previously’. e.g. ‘Istanboul, formerly Constantinople, is the largest city in Turkey’

‘Formally’ means ‘in a formal, or official, or conventional way’, e.g. ‘He attended the opening very formally dressed, in a dinner jacket and black tie’.









Sign up for 'Tips, Tricks and Traps' newsletter, opinions and tips on business writing delivered to your inbox.