Words Often Confused:

Your readers want to trust you as a writer, and one way to win their trust is to avoid misusing words. Here are some common examples.

(1) less/fewer

The word less is used with uncountable objects; fewer is used with countable objects:

I don’t want that many potatoes: please give me fewer.

I don’t want that much gravy: please give me less.

(2) effect/affect (noun)

The word effect as a noun means the impact something causes; affect as a noun means someone’s appearance or psychological state:

The crash had a major effect on his life.

His affect was one of polite friendliness.

(3) effect/affect (verb)

The word effect as a verb means to bring about, or cause something to happen; affect as a verb means to change something:

Prescribed medication may effect her recovery (ie. cause her to get better).

Continued drinking may affect his recovery (ie. slow down his recovery or prevent him from getting better).

(4) among/between

The word among is used for a group, without differentiating between them; between is used with individual, named items or people:

Asked if she had one best friend, she couldn’t decide among all the people she knew.

Asked if he had one best friend, he couldn’t decide between Vic and Bob.

(5) infer/imply

To infer is to read a meaning into a statement which has not been explicitly stated; to imply is to suggest or to hint at something (usually something negative):

She asked if I had joined a gym yet. I inferred that she thought I needed to take more exercise, and I resented what she was implying.





Words You Can Do Without

For lean, clean, spare prose, ditch the words you can do without.

(1) Had

Most fiction writers use the past simple tense to tell their stories: He rang the doorbellshe answered the doorthey had a drink… But writers sometimes describe events from an earlier period, using the past historic tense with had to mark a previous timeframe. If your character is remembering events from their past, you might write: He recalled that historic night when he had first visited her flathe had rung the doorbellhe had waited anxiouslyshe had answered the door
The trouble is, all the hads make for clunky writing. You might continue: When she had opened the door, she had been wearingHe recalled that they had had a drink together… So your prose can get choked up with clumsy structures like had been wearing and had had.


The solution? Drop the hads! Just use one or two to mark the previous timeframe, and then go back to the past simple tense. Your reader will know you’re describing a time before the main story, because of that first had: He recalled when he had first visited her flat … he rang the doorbell … he waited anxiously… and so on. The reader will follow your drift, knowing you’re talking about an earlier period because you’re describing the character’s memories. Your prose may not be grammatically flawless, but it’ll flow more smoothly: it won’t be clunky or clumsy. For the reader it will be more like paddling in a stream, less like wading through treacle.


(2) That
The word that often functions as a conjunction to introduce a noun clause: He said that he was a writer. But you can often convey your meaning without it – He said he was a writer – and in spoken English it’s normally left out. Likewise, you can excise it from your writing: as with had, it can make your prose cluttered and constipated. For free-flowing language, leave out that, as well as had, wherever you can. Just use that where it’s essential. For example, in the section above you don’t have to say Your reader will know that you’re talking about a previous period. Ditch that, so the sentence reads: Your reader will know you’re talking about a previous time period. However, you do need that in the sentence He recalled that they had a drink together.

Intuition: How do you know when that is essential, and when you can delete it? Use your intuition as a writer. Does the sentence look right without that? Or does it feel odd without? This reminds you to keep re-reading and rewriting your work. The best solution is to get your text edited by Betterwrite. We’re trained to know about these things!

And we’ll do a macro-level development edit for you, as well as a micro-level copy-edit.


Five Questions About Your Dialogue:

1 Does it have a Purpose?
If you get your characters talking, their talk should (a) provide important information for the reader, or (b) reveal more about the characters, or (c) move the action of your story forward. Dialogue shouldn’t be just interesting, or just a relief from the action or description, or just to fill the page.

2 Is there some Conflict?
In real life we like nice chats about nothing much, but in your writing there should be characters with different aims, both determined to achieve them. The result is conflict: the conflict drives your story, and that’s what keeps your reader turning the pages.

Does it flow3 Does it Flow?
Dialogue tags (she saidhe replied) are useful, but soon get repetitive and boring. Leave them out, as long as it’s clear who’s talking. And don’t use too many adverbs, as in Jim said angrily. If Jim says ‘I’ve had enough!’, get him to punch the wall. That will show your readers what he’s feeling, without you telling them.

4 Is it Concise?
In real life, conversations go here, there and everywhere … in your writing, dialogue needs to move the story along. Someone said ‘Dialogue is like a rose bush – it improves after pruning.’ Keep rewriting your dialogue until it’s as brief and to-the-point as you can make it. Read Elmore Leonard, the master of spare dialogue. And the stories of Somerset Maugham. Editors had a hard time with his writing: it’s so lean, there’s no excess to trim.

5 What’s the Speaker’s Agenda?
In real life we may just chat, but often we talk for a purpose: we want to get something out of a conversation. Likewise with one of your characters: he/she might approach the key point indirectly: start by talking about the weather, and eventually say they’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Summary: Be a reader of your own writing. Keep re-reading your dialogue, with these five questions in mind: and be prepared to rewrite it, so it’s the kind of writing you’d like to read yourself.

Rob Matthews
Betterwrite Managing Editor



The Cambridge online dictionary distinguishes between ‘strong movements of the muscles of the womb that help to push the baby out of the mother’s body during the process of birth’, and ‘short forms of words often used instead of the full form’. These are both contractions. The type we’re interested in, as writers and editors, are shouldn’t, didn’t and haven’t. In this context, contraction means shortening. The contraction is marked by the n’t which is joined to the verb, as a short form of not (the apostrophe stands for the missing ‘o’). The full form is should not, did not and have not. But in real life we’re always cutting corners. We don’t  say:

‘You should not play in the road’ but ‘You shouldn’t play in the road’

‘She did not come to work today’ but ‘She didn’t come to work today’

‘No, I have not seen that film’ but ‘No, I haven’t seen that film’.

Birthing mothers have my full sympathy: I’m sure their contractions are painful. If you write dialogue with do not instead of don’t, you won’t cause physical pain: but you will  irritate your reader, because your dialogue will be flat, unrealistic and unconvincing. Using the full form is just not how people speak in real life. As an editor, I often have to change full forms into contractions, shunting n’t on to the verb.

The exception would be when a character is using formal or emphatic speech, for example ‘Did you come late?’ ‘I did not!’ If you’re writing dialogue, any scene where characters talk to each other informally, or even where a character is talking or thinking to him/herself, the words would be ‘I didn’t‘, not ‘I did not’. If you’re writing dialogue, always ask yourself: ‘How are my contractions?’

Which is shorter, the clock-tower in the picture, or the plane flying over it? I’ve got no idea, to be honest. But I know ‘I’ve got’ is shorter than ‘I have got’, and it sounds better in a conversation.

Anyway, take heart: I have before me ‘a wonderful book’ (Literary Review) which is ‘beautifully written’ by an award-winning writer. But he puts in one character’s mouth the words ‘we are nowhere near’ instead of ‘we’re nowhere near’, and ‘do you think there is any room left?’ instead of ‘do you think there’s any room left?’ Blame the editor for those lapses: most of the dialogue is convincing and lifelike because contractions are used, not full forms. Maybe the editor had a lapse of concentration. Just goes to show we are all human, does it not? Or, as I’d prefer to write, we’re all human, aren’t we? I mean, it shows that, doesn’t it? And that’s true, isn’t it?

Rob Matthews
Betterwrite Managing Editor


What is a Writer?

I went to an English grammar school. That’s where I learned about English grammar. We had a great English teacher (doesn’t everyone who loves the English language have at least one great English teacher?). I borrowed a battered copy of 1984 from Mr Clarkson’s class collection and I’ll never forget being mesmerised by George Orwell’s gripping story as I sat on a bench at the edge of the reservoir, when I should have been getting the bus back from school… a spotty teenager, I knew this was fiction, but in a profound and alarming way it was also about Real Life. So, affected by books, I wanted to read English at university, and chose the trendy ‘new’ University of East Anglia, whose staff included famous writers Angus Wilson and Malcolm Bradbury. They were knighted after they set up the original Creative Writing Course: Sir Angus and Sir Malcolm. The former told us he got into a tight spot on a desert expedition, and gave away part of his working manuscript to get rescued… the latter wrote in a caravan, and fought depression. Later, during a dark time in my own life, my literary saviour was Bill Bryson: his comic writing, reflecting his love for this country and crafted with all the skill of an excellent journalist (he was a subeditor on The Times) made me laugh and gave me hope. I wrote to thank him, and he wrote back with such grace and humility. They haven’t knighted him yet as far as I know, but he should be Sir Bill Bryson.

What’s my point? Writing isn’t easy, and most writers don’t become famous, or get a title. But if you write, you don’t know how your writing will affect your reader. Yes, reader, singular, because every reader is one person, with a unique reaction to your writing. As a writer, you can help, support, encourage, enthuse, amuse or delight someone. Or rescue them. And usually, you don’t know you did it.

If you’ve been affected or rescued by something you read, email us. At Betterwrite we help writers to affect and rescue readers.

Rob Matthews
Betterwrite Managing Editor


My website guru said "I know enough about language to get annoyed when I'm listening to the radio. You're the expert!"

Actually, I'm far from expert (that's David Crystal), but I sometimes annoy other people by drawing attention to their, shall we say, "idiosyncrasies" of language.

I was recently rambling - literally, physically, in the countryside, not just verbally - with a friend who said: "blah-di-blah...different to...blah-di-blah...".

I took the liberty of pointing out that if they were writing, not speaking, I would edit different to, changing it to different from, which is more acceptable in standard written English. So is different to a mistake, a linguistic boo-boo, or an acceptable deviation from the linguistic norm? After all, lots of people say it.


Luckily my friend was gracious enough to continue our conversation, along the lines of "spoken English follows different rules from written English, doesn't it?", rather than dismissing me as an offensive pedant. We enjoyed our conversation and the rest of the walk, but later I had two thoughts (quite a breakthrough for me, as one thought is often a struggle):

When, and with whom, is it acceptable to point out verbal mistakes, deviations from standard English or infelicities (other than in circumstances when you are wearing an editor's hat, and being paid by a client), and when is it impolite or even grossly rude?

When is a "mistake, deviation from standard English or infelicity" acceptable in the spoken medium, but not in the written?

What are your thoughts?

Rob Matthews
Betterwrite Managing Editor