157. Tricky Word Contrasts 5


It can be useful to analyse similar-looking English expressions in order to prevent or stop their confusion


Most users of English have encountered expressions that are easily confused because they resemble each other in spelling and/or meaning. A well-known example – often explained in English language coursebooks – is principle versus principal. The problem is that many of these expressions are never highlighted and can remain completely unrecognised, or at least not fully differentiated.

It is expressions of this kind, especially ones that are likely to occur in professional writing, that are the focus of the present post, just as they are of various others with a similar title (see 48. Tricky Word Contrasts 1 for a complete list). Other Guinlist posts about vocabulary confusions include 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words,  44. Troublesome Prepositional Verbs,  94. Essay Instruction Words and 129. Differences between Necessity Verbs. For some grammar confusions, see 133. Confusions of Similar Structures, and for some pronunciation ones 144. Words that are Often Heard Wrongly.



1. “No Doubt” versus “There is No Doubt”

Either of these expressions could begin a sentence, as in this example:

(a) No doubt flood victims take years to recover.

Paradoxically, dropping there is before no doubt like this suggests the absence of certainty: that the speaker has no proof of the accompanying statement’s truth and is merely making a guess. The words I have could be added at the start without changing the meaning. This opinion-showing feature means no doubt is quite similar to undoubtedly (see 121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs and 107. The Language of Opinions).

Beginning with there is, on the other hand, does establish the accompanying statement as a fact. It means “proof has been obtained”. It needs a following that, either explicit or implicit (see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that”).


2. “At the Moment”, “Nowadays”, “Today” and “Now”

These look like synonyms but are not. At the moment suggests an ongoing temporary situation, often in contrast with the future, like this:

(b) At the moment exchange rates are favourable.

The implication here is that exchange rates may be different tomorrow.

Nowadays, on the other hand, contrasts a current situation with one in the historical past, like this:

(c) Nowadays tobacco smoking is out of fashion.

The suggestion here is that tobacco smoking was more fashionable historically.

Today could be used in both (b) and (c) instead of the underlined words: it makes no contrast with any particular other time.

Now could also be used like today, but it has other uses too. One is to suggest that a current situation has come about very recently, like this:

(d) The plane has now landed.

Now can also be used with brief present-time actions, for example in sports commentaries (Now Jones passes …) and as a “signpost” expression to indicate a new topic:

(e) Now it is necessary to consider the consequences.


3. “Emergency” versus “Emergence”

The first of these tends to be the more familiar to learners of English, no doubt because it is more common in both English as a whole and everyday usage. It refers, of course, to a situation that needs an urgent response, such as a sudden serious illness or an imminent disaster.

Emergence, on the other hand, is an “action” noun derived from the verb EMERGE (see 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns). It just means “appearing”, as in this example:

(f) Measles are confirmed by the emergence of a rash.

It quite often happens that emergence is understood as emergency. The reason may be more than just unequal familiarity. The fact that the single different letter is the very last one could be significant. Moreover, the multi-consonant ending of emergence is likely to be a problem for speakers of languages that rarely have consonant combinations, such as Swahili, Japanese or Italian: they may be tempted to imagine that there is a spoken vowel at the end, so that they are even more likely to think the word is emergency (for more on this kind of error, see 144. Words that are Often Heard Wrongly).


4. “In the First Place” versus “In First Place”

In the first place is an adverb-like expression normally associated with the whole of its sentence rather than any part (see 121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs). It has the “signpost” function of introducing the first item in a multi-sentence list (see 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists). It is similar in meaning to firstly or to begin with (but not to first – see 20. Problem Connectors).

In first place, on the other hand, can be used like either an adverb or an adjective, in the manner of most preposition phrases (see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions). It means “in the first position in a competition”. Here is a verb-partnering adverb use:

(g) Candidates who finish in first place will be selected.


5. “Energy”, “Power” and “Strength”

I was alerted to the confusion potential of these words on hearing a Scandinavian acquaintance incorrectly say they had no “power” to walk beyond 20km, when energy or strength would have been more appropriate. In general, power cannot be associated with human physical activity, except metaphorically in sports contexts to mean “exceptional energy/strength”. More often, it means “electricity” or “control”.

The difference between energy and strength in the context of human activity is that the former refers to an amount of physical activity (an energetic person is active for longer than the average), the latter a level (a strong person can perform tasks that average people cannot). It is often the case that strength allows people to be energetic, but not always. The contrast between efficient and effective (114. Tricky Word Contrasts 3) is a similar physics-related one.


6. “By all Means” versus “By Every Means”

The first of these is sometimes used where only the second is correct, such as the following:

(h) The Government aims to alleviate poverty by every means.

The message here is that the Government will use every possible means (= “way”) of alleviating poverty. The word possible is often present just before means.

By all means, on the other hand, is more likely to be found in speech than writing. It says nothing about how something is done, but instead expresses the speaker’s happiness with a requested or suggested course of action. A typical sentence might be:

(i) By all means use the library.

This means “I am very happy for you to use the library”.

The two expressions differ in grammar as well as meaning. By all means is a “sentence” adverb, relating to the whole of the rest of its sentence (see 121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs), while by every means is a “means” adverb, relating just to the verb (see 73. Saying “How” with “By” and “With”).


7. “In the End” versus “At the End”

As with the two previous expressions, the first of these is more likely to be a sentence adverb than the second.  However, both can have this use, and that is where I wish to distinguish them. Consider this:

(j) Rome and Carthage fought for supremacy. In the end, Rome was victorious.

The suggestion here is that the end did not come easily: it followed numerous twists and turns or a great deal of effort. A suitable synonym might be eventually. A point to note is that no suggestion of happiness is made about the end being reached – at last is more suitable for that (see 20. Problem Connectors, problem #7).

By contrast, at the end just signals a final action or situation, without any suggestion of preceding struggle. Here is a sentence where only it is possible:

(k) The exhibition was held in Seville. At the end, the site became a business park.

Note how at the end must be followed by an event or situation. If you are merely naming the last item in a list, you should use lastly or finally instead (see 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists).


8. “Wrong” versus “Wrongful”

The adjective Wrongful is particularly used in legal and religious texts. It usually means “intentionally illegal” or “intentionally immoral”. Accompanying nouns tend to be of the “action” kind (see 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns, use #1). Typical examples are act, behaviour, conduct, dismissal, entry, interference, neglect, omission and removal.

Wrong, on the other hand, is more neutral about intentions.  It just communicates the undesirability or incorrectness of what it is describing. It will sometimes describe a noun that wrongful can also describe, but not very often. Consider this:

(l) It was a wrong decision to carry a weapon.

Wrongful here would suggest law-breaking, while wrong merely indicates an error of judgement. Nouns that could only have wrong include answer, diet, turning, understanding and way.

156. Mentioning What is Known Already


Uninformative information is often necessary but must be phrased appropriately


It may seem strange that anyone would want to mention an idea that they expected their reader to know already, but in fact it is a normal aspect of communication. It can happen when something new needs to be said about the familiar idea or, as in the cartoon above, to prove that the speaker has recognised something already known by the listener. Mentions of the familiar are even encountered in elementary English courses, where a standard example is the use of the before previously-mentioned nouns (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”).

Throughout this blog, mentions are made of other ways in which English can acceptably mention something that the reader is expected to know already. One of the earliest is in the post 24. Good and Bad Repetition, where it is shown that repeating a previously-mentioned point or idea can, if done correctly, facilitate such objectives as linking, reminding and clarifying. Some ways of repeating are illustrated in that post; others are in 5. Repetition with Synonyms and 37. Subordination: Grammar for Good Repetition.

In this post, I wish to collect together all of the different familiarity-suggesting expressions that I have identified elsewhere, so that anyone interested in studying them as a topic in its own right will be spared the trouble of tracking them down. Most of them involve information that is assumed to be familiar not so much because of an earlier mention in the same text as because it is simply common knowledge, or the sort of thing that the writer of the text would not unreasonably expect target readers to know already.



The following words and structures can suggest that a point or idea is expected to be already familiar to a reader.

1. Subordination

Subordination gives a verb in a sentence a lower rank than other verbs. It often suggests that the sentence is not “about” what that verb is helping to say (see 37. Subordination). Subordination is a very likely location for familiar points and ideas because they too are by definition unlikely to be what a sentence is “about”. The underlined words in the following example are subordinated:

(a) Automation may cause a rise in the number of the unemployed. As unemployment increases, wages will tend to fall.

The subordination here is recognizable from the presence of the “subordinating conjunction” as. The idea of lesser importance is particularly likely to exist when such conjunctions start a sentence, as here. Relative pronouns (who, which etc.) are another important kind of subordinator. Some other grammatical categories (prepositions, “action” nouns, adjectives) are not technically subordinators but can have the same effect. For full details, see the relevant post.


2. “(Un)like”

These two prepositions accompany a familiar idea or point that a new one is being compared to. Like shows a similarity, unlike a difference. Comparisons do not have to be with familiar ideas, but many are (see 149. Saying How Things are Similar). Because like and unlike are prepositions, they need the familiar idea to be a noun or equivalent. Here is an example of their use taken from the Guinlist post 56. Comparing with “Like” and “Unlike”:

(b) Like motor vehicles, coal stations pollute.

This suggests the reader already knows that motor vehicles pollute. That knowledge is being used to make coal station pollution more understandable.


3. “Just as”

This conjunction resembles like in enabling a familiar idea to be included in a similarity statement. It differs in that, being a conjunction, it needs to be followed by a statement with a subject and verb, rather than by a simple noun or noun equivalent. It can be used either at the start of a sentence, before the two compared ideas, or in the middle between them. In the former case, there must be a so in the middle (see 64. Double Conjunctions). Here is an example from the post 149. Saying How Things are Similar:

(c) Just as water travels to the lowest possible level, so heat transfers to cooler substances.


4. “Not only”

These words are normally combined with a later but also to make a double conjunction. As such, they signal the first of two listed items or statements, rather as both does before a later and. The familiar information is the first of the two statements, and is what rules out the use of both. The negative of not only is any more than (combined with a preceding negative). Full details of all these options are in the post 64. Double Conjunctions.


5. “That is why” and “of course”

Unlike the other expressions, these suggest the reader’s familiarity with everything said by the rest of their sentence. The reason is that they are sentence adverbs – more associated with whole sentences than with the sentence parts like verbs that adverbs often partner (see 121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs).

That is why additionally suggests that the accompanying familiar information is a consequence of the statement before (the involvement of a previous statement makes that is why a sentence adverb of the “connector” variety – see 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors). Consider the following:

(d) It is becoming harder to exercise regularly. That is why so many people are overweight.

The underlined consequence here is expected to be familiar to the reader because it is visible to all. That is why communicates this expectation (along with the use of so instead of very – see below). The suggestion of familiarity is the main difference between that is why and other consequence connectors like consequently and for this reason (see 20. Problem Connectors).

Of course, on the other hand, is not a connector, and merely implies that the reader is already familiar with the point stated next to it.


6. “So” before an adjective or adverb

This usage may be illustrated as follows:

(e) The country is so poor because it cannot engage in agriculture.

A writer who did not expect the reader to be already aware of the poverty in question would probably write very instead of so (see the footnote in 98. “Very”, “Much” and “Very Much”). Note that this use of so + ADJ is different from the one with a following that, as illustrated in 32. Expressing Consequences, where reader familiarity seems less easily assumed.

A less clear-cut usage is so in thanking expressions like Thank you so much. The alternative of using very seems to be disappearing, particularly in the USA, probably as a result of politeness conventions. Perhaps the feeling of greater politeness is a logical consequence of implying the hugeness of the thanks to be obvious.


7. Attention-Focussing “What” Sentences

This kind of sentence is extensively analyzed in the Guinlist post 145. Highlighting with “What” Sentences. An example is:

(f) What causes the most stress is noise.

In sentences like this, attention is being drawn to the wording after is at the end – here noise – in order to leave no doubt that it is the main information. The part that is implied to be familiar to the reader hence comes earlier, and is underlined above. A more normal wording of (f) would be Noise causes the most stress.


8. “Whether”

Of the three uses of whether examined in the Guinlist post 99. When to Use “whether … or …”, it is that resembling either that can imply familiarity to the reader. Consider this:

(g) Please write clearly, whether in ink or pencil.

This seems to suggest that the choice between ink and pencil is already familiar to the addressees, perhaps because it has been previously discussed. If this familiarity was absent, the speaker would probably use either instead of whether.


9. Complements Starting with “the fact that”

Complements are normally subject-referring expressions after a link verb such as BE. Not many can start with the fact that like the following:

(g) The problem is the fact that nobody takes responsibility.

For the fact that to be possible, the subject of the sentence (here problem) must be of the right kind: not one of saying or thinking, such as idea, message or word (which all need that by itself), but from a rather select group that also includes advantage, clue and curiosity (see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that”).

Most complements starting with the fact that can also start with that by itself. Choosing the fact that seems particularly to suggest that the reader already knows the subsequent information.


10. Grammar for Altering Word Order

In the absence of anything else, word order gives a clue about what the writer expects the reader to know already. The tendency is for familiar information to be placed at the start of a sentence. What happens, then, if a writer thinks of a possible sentence, but finds it requires the familiar information to be at the end?

One way to change the word order is by replacing vocabulary but keeping the grammar the same. Examples of how this can be done are in the Guinlist posts 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs and 113. Verbs that cannot be Passive. Another way is by changing the grammar. The following table shows grammar structures that mean more or less the same but require different word orders:


[1] See 126. Verbs with an Indirect Object.

155. Silent Consonants


75% of English consonant letters sometimes appear in the spelling of a word without being pronounceable


One of the many peculiarities of English spelling is its occasional use of consonant letters that are not pronounced when the word is spoken. This phenomenon is likely to be encountered by learners of English even at very elementary levels, in such words as knee, night and talk. A common reason for it is that the unexpected spellings once did represent the way their word was pronounced, but they stopped doing so because the pronunciation of the word changed as a result of the natural evolution that all languages undergo. The spellings of the words have not changed because spellings in general tend to be kept the same.

Some words with a silent consonant actually do not seem to be much of a learning problem. However, many others are, the usual manifestation being erroneous pronunciation of the consonants in speech. In this post I wish to survey and classify the wide variety of words that contain one or more silent consonants, in the hope that raised awareness might assist some readers to improve their pronunciation of English.

Other Guinlist posts touching on consonant pronunciation include 90. The Greek Impact on English Vocabulary and 135. French Influences on English Vocabulary. For information about unexpected pronunciations of vowels, see 29. Illogical Vowel Spellings and 86. The Pronunciation of “e” and “i”.



It is important to distinguish silent consonants from a variety of other consonant letters that are not pronounced in their typical way. Of these latter, an important group is consonant letters that combine with a neighbouring letter either to make a sound that neither would make by itself or to remove ambiguity about how the other letter should be pronounced. If this other letter is a vowel, the indicated sound will also be a vowel; otherwise it will be a consonant.

Typical consonant letters that combine with a vowel in this way, so that they cannot be considered silent, are “h”, “w” and “y”, as in oh, cow and toy. The letter “r” is also one in Australian and Southern British English, for example in cart and term (it only ever has the /r/ sound at the start of a syllable), but is clearly pronounced in the USA, Ireland and Scotland. Two consonant letters that commonly combine with particular other consonant letters in this way are “h” in words like choice, phrase, show and think, and “k” after “c” (back, check, ticket etc.).

Another type of consonant letter that is not silent despite being pronounced in an unexpected way is, in certain positions, the letters for the so-called “plosive” consonants (/p, t, k, b, d, g/). These letters are often only partially pronounced before other plosive sounds (as in stop doing and log cabin) and at the end of sentences (see 91. Pronunciation in Reading Aloud). It is easy to think they are completely silent in such situations when in fact they are not.

Thirdly, I am not including as silent consonants letters that contribute to doubling within words (e.g. beginning) or that are located at the end of a word before a repetition of themselves at the start of the word after, as in can never, while looking and turned down. Although the two identical letters in these latter are pronounced as a single sound, they need more time to be pronounced than if they were just a single letter (see “lengthening” in 91. Pronunciation in Reading Aloud). Doubled letters are also considered to include combinations like -nm- and -db- in environment and handbag, where the first letter is not absent but becomes the same as the letter after it, and then combines with it to make a single long consonant.



I have been able identify the following categories of silent consonant:

1. The Letter “k”

This seems to be silent only and always at the start of words (whether alone or within longer words) where there is a following “n” (knack, knead, knee, breadknife, knight, knock, know, knuckle etc.).


2. The Letter “h”

At the start of a word, this letter is silent in honour and its derivatives (honourable, honorific, honorarium etc.) and also honest. In addition, there are hour and heir.

Inside words, a common occurrence is in -ham at the end of place names like Birmingham, Cheltenham, Tottenham and Nottingham. The word vehicle has no /h/ sound, being pronounced/’vi: jә kl/, and nor do shepherd and silhouette. The “h” in Thames can also be called silent because it does not alter the /t/ to /θ/. Similar is “h” after “r” in words of Greek origin like rhyme, rhino and diarrhoea.


3. The Letter “p”

Words of Greek origin beginning “ps-”, “pt-” or “pn-“ tend to be pronounced without the /p/ (see 90. The Greek Impact on English Vocabulary). Examples are combinations with psych- (psychology, psychic) and pseudo- (pseudonym, pseudopod), as well as psalm, pterodactyl and pneumatic.

Elsewhere, three notable words are receipt (/rɪ ‘si:t/), coup (/ku:/) and corps (/kɔ:/), the latter two being borrowings from French.


4. The Letter “b”

A major context for the silence of this letter is after “m” at the end of a word, as in bomb, climb, crumb, dumb, lamb, limb, tomb and womb. The “b” remains silent even after the addition of -ing, -ed or -er (bombing, dumbing, lambed, dumber), but not in the verbs crumble (which is like humble and tumble) or limber (like timber).

In addition, there are some words where a silent “b” is followed by “t”, e.g. debt, doubt and subtle.


5. The Letter “l”

The main locations of this are inside the three modal verbs could, would, should; between “a” or “o” and “k” in words like stalk, talk, walk, folk and yolk; and between “a” and “m”, e.g. calm, palm, psalm and salmon.


6. The Letter “s”

A few words of French origin have a silent “s” at the end (corps, debris, rendezvous). Words with it in the middle include isle, aisle, island and viscount. The “i” is pronounced /ɑɪ/ in all of these (see 86. The Pronunciation of “e” and “i”).


7. The Letter “t”

This letter is usually silent when sandwiched between “s” and “le”, as in bustle, castle, epistle, pestle, rustle and thistle, and often silent between “f” or “s” and “en” in words like often, soften, listen, glisten, fasten and hasten.

Words that end in “-et” tend to be borrowings from French. Some must be pronounced in the French way without the “t”, some not (see 135. French Influences on English Vocabulary). The former include ballet, bidet, bouquet, buffet (= self-service food), cachet, chalet, croquet, duvet, ricochet, sobriquet, tourniquet and valet.


8. The Letter “w”

There are two striking contexts for this silent letter. One is words beginning “wr-”, such as wrestle, wring, wrong, wrought and wry. The other is a few words (usually place names) ending in “-wich” or “-wick”, for example Greenwich and Harwich (but not Midwich) and Chiswick and Warwick (but not Gatwick or Northwick).

Another notable place name is Southwark (pronounced /’sʌ ԺƏk/), and “w” is also silent in two and sword.


9. The Letter “c”

One silent use of this letter is after “s” in words like crescent, irascible, miscellaneous, nascent, reminisce and visceral.  This group does not include rescind because the “c” there is changing the pronunciation of the neighbouring “s” into /∫/. Another use is before unstressed “es” in such British place names as Leicester, Worcester, Bicester and Gloucester. One other notable silent “c” is in indict.


10. The Letter “g”

This letter is commonly silent between “i” and “n” in words like align, benign, deign, feign, sign and malign. However, it is not silent in poignant (since it changes the following /n/ to /nj/) nor in benignant and malignant. Other notable words are champagne, gnu and phlegm. Recognise seems to allow a choice about pronouncing the “g”.


11. The Letters “gh”

These are well-known silent letters before “t” in words like bright, fight, might, tight, brought, caught, taught, thought, eight, height and weight. They also occur without the “t” in though, through, plough, high, weigh, neighbour etc. (however, they are less “silent” in cough and tough because the consonant sound /f/, though unexpected, exists where they occur).


12. Other Letters

There is a silent “n” at the end of autumn, column, condemn  and solemn, while at the start of mnemonic it is the “m” that is silent. In iron, the “r” is silent, in yacht the “ch” and in Wednesday the first “d” (along with the following “e”). Some borrowed French words, such as laissez-faire and rendezvous, contain a silent “z”.


It is probable that some interesting examples of silent consonants are missing from these lists. Readers who are aware of any are invited to mention them via the comment facility below.

154. Lone Prepositions after BE


Some prepositions can be used like an adverb after BE to express a very idiomatic meaning


English prepositions normally need a partner noun or pronoun, e.g. on time, across the sea (see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions). However, some can also be used rather informally after the verb BE with no partner word. I am not referring here to sentences like the flight that they are on, where a partner pronoun (that) is placed first, but rather to expressions like the match is on and the time is up. It is this usage without a partner noun that the word “lone” above refers to.

In fact, this kind of usage is probably not prepositional at all, since prepositions must always have a partner word. Instead, the positioning after BE – which imposes the sentence role of “complement” – indicates a noun, adjective or adverb usage (see 113. Verbs that cannot be Passive).

It is most likely that lone “prepositions” after BE are actually adverbs. A major clue is their resemblance to the preposition-like adverbs in so-called “phrasal verbs” like set out and turn on (see 139. Phrasal Verbs and 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs): they tend to be made from the same limited group of prepositions.

Moreover, the meanings of lone “prepositions” are not always obvious. Usually this is because they extend the base preposition meaning in a metaphorical way, as described in the Guinlist post 7. Metaphorical Meanings. My primary aim here is to survey the variety of preposition-like words that can be used by themselves after BE, and to analyse some of the more idiomatic meanings that they can express.



The following prepositions can be used by themselves after the verb BE to express an idiomatic meaning:


Reflecting one of the meanings of the phrasal verb PUT ON, a frequent meaning of on by itself is “scheduled”. A typical use might be:

(a) There are six matches on in the evening.

Another common meaning – “operating” – is found with devices that we SWITCH ON, like lights and engines. Thus, saying that they are on means lights are shining, engines running.



This can be an opposite of on, meaning either “postponed” or “not operating”. A related meaning is “unavailable” to describe an item on a restaurant menu.

In addition, there is a meaning similar to that in the phrasal verb SET OFF, i.e. “starting” or “leaving”. It is common, for example, to hear racing commentators mark the start of a race with the words they’re off. In the film The Wizard of Oz, a song marking the start of a journey to meet him begins with the words We’re off to see the Wizard.

A third meaning is “no longer edible”. Sour milk, for example, may be referred to as off.



Probably the most common usage is to say that somebody is “present within their home/workplace”.

However, in certain restricted situations other meanings are found. In the games of cricket and baseball players are in when it is their turn to try and amass points on the field (see 137. Words that Reflect English Culture). In the context of a communal plan or decision, a person who is in has agreed to be involved in it (cp. the phrasal verb JOIN IN).



The main meaning of this word after BE is probably “absent on an errand”. The absence will be brief and could be from home or the workplace. An alternative is not in. Out can also be used in a variety of more restricted ways:

1. Lights can be described as out instead of off when they are no longer providing illumination (cp. TURN OUT/OFF).

2. Workers on strike are sometimes said to be out (cp. WALK OUT).

3. In the games of cricket and baseball, a player is out when s/he is forced to give up the points-scoring role on the field.

4. A person who has lost consciousness is sometimes said to be out.

5. A recently-released prisoner could also be labelled out.



Usually, saying that somebody is up means they are no longer in bed (cp. GET UP). In East Africa, there is an alternative meaning of “in a higher part of a building”, but Standard English prefers to say this with upstairs or, if the speaker is in a lower part of the same building, (up) above (see 26. One Word or Two? and the technical article Should East African university students change the way they speak English?).

Buildings can also be described as up, meaning that their construction has just been completed (cp. PUT UP). The expression time is up means that a deadline has been reached.



One use of down means the opposite of up in the “constructed” sense, i.e.  “dismantled” (cp. PULL DOWN). Related to this is a use with computer systems meaning “failing to operate”.

BE down could also describe someone who has recently moved from a higher part of a building to a lower one. Recent descent is also suggested, in a more metaphorical way, when down describes either someone “visiting the south from the north” (the speaker being also in the south – see 151. Ways of Using Compass Words), or body temperature that is “lower than before”. 

However, to say that someone is just in a lower place, without suggesting recent movement, it is better to use downstairs. A speaker higher up in the same place could also use (down) below.

One other meaning of down after BE is “unhappy” or “depressed”.



The basic meaning of this word (which is never actually a preposition) is similar to the “absent on an errand” meaning of out. However, it conveys a more extended absence: sleeping somewhere else for at least one night. A person on a foreign holiday, for example, might be described as away.

Less commonly, reflecting the meaning of GET AWAY, people can be labelled away after escaping the efforts of others to restrict them, for example on a sports field. Escapees from prison, however, would not normally be described as away.



A drill or boring machine can be described as through when it has reached the far side of what it is being used on (cp. BREAK THROUGH). A metaphorical extension of this meaning is “in telephone contact” (cp. GET THROUGH). A very informal usage, often applied to two people ending a romantic relationship, means “finished”.



There does not seem to be much difference between this word and the more adverbial nearby. Near is perhaps preferred with travellers rather than places, suggesting that the nearness is a result of movement.

The opposite of both words in the use after BE is rarely far but far away or far off. Far by itself seems more likely with ordinary verbs, particularly those that express movement rather than position, as in journeyed far.



A very frequent meaning of this after BE is “finished” (e.g. work is over). In addition, over can mean “here” or “visiting”, but only with a suggestion that the visitor has crossed some kind of barrier, such as the sea. For example an American in Europe might be asked:

(b) How long are you over for?



To describe someone as under is often to say that they are unconscious as a result of anaesthesia.


This completes my list of the more idiomatic meanings. In addition, there are prepositions that seem to be usable alone after BE without a particularly idiomatic meaning, such as after, above, before, below, inside, opposite and outside.

Prepositions that seem unable to be used at all by themselves after BE include across, beside, by, for, from, of, to, until, upon and with.

153. Conjunction Uses of “that”


Imagining that …

.“That” is actually five different words spelt the same, of which one is a multi-use conjunction


The word that is very much “multi-use” – variable in its grammar as well as its meaning (see 3. Multi-Use Words) and can easily cause confusions as a result (see 68. How Computers Get Grammar Wrong 1). Its main uses may be illustrated as follows:

(a) Caesar took control of Rome. That led to his assassination.

(b) Caesar marched on Rome. That step changed history.

(c) Any changes that appear should be noted.

(d) Learning languages is not that difficult.

(e) Doctors BELIEVE that exercise IS vital.

In (a), that is an ordinary pronoun like it or themselves: it represents either a nearby noun or one understandable from the context of the sentence (see 28. Pronoun Errors). It can be put into the plural form those. Grammar books call it a “demonstrative” pronoun, reflecting its attention-drawing meaning.

In (b), that is like an adjective: adding to the meaning of a directly-following noun (step). It again has the plural form those. Grammarians give it the technical name “determiner” (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”), further sub-classifying it as “demonstrative”.

In (c), that is again a pronoun, but this time “relative”, in other words replaceable by which. It is pronounced differently from the other two uses: with the soft vowel /Ə/ instead of the normal “a” one /æ/. More can be read about it within this blog in the post 34. Relative Pronouns and Commas.

In (d), that is an informal adverb meaning “as much as that”. In Standard English, it usually needs to follow not, hardly, rarely or scarcely.

In (e), finally, that (again with /Ə/) is a conjunction. It resembles the relative pronoun use in its need for a following verb (is above), but is distinguishable by the fact that it cannot be replaced by which. It is this use that I wish to examine more closely in the present post, since it takes a number of different forms and raises some interesting questions.

A useful term for discussing the conjunction uses of that is “that clause”. This means the combination of that with the following verb plus all of the other words that that verb necessitates, such as its subject and adverbials. The underlined words in (e) are a that clause.



This kind of that clause can occupy the main noun positions in sentences (object, subject, complement, partner of a preposition). It is the kind that is in (e) above. The status of that as a conjunction is what overcomes the normal impossibility of a verb with a subject, like is in (e), to be in these positions (see 30. When to Use a Full Stop and 70. Gerunds).


1. Object “that” Clauses

The that clause in (e) is of this more specific kind, being the object of the verb believe. A characteristic of object that clauses is that that can be left unsaid – though its presence will still be “understood”. When it is present, it cannot normally have a comma before or after it (see 50. Right and Wrong Comma Places).

Not all verbs can have a that clause as their object. A type that commonly does expresses saying or thinking, like believe in (e). The resultant combinations are likely to be either indirect or quoted statements (see 127. When to Use Indirect Speech and 79. Grammar Problems in Quotation Writing). They cannot be indirect questions or commands (see 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing). Some other verbs also allow object that clauses. One is illustrated by the following sentence from the Guinlist post 65. Verbs that Mean “Must” or “Can”:

(f) Using a spell check will ensure that most errors ARE FOUND.

The verb ENSURE does not imply indirect speech (it does not express a kind of saying or thinking), but it can have an object containing a verb (capitalised) and it must then have that.

Unfortunately, there are also English verbs that may similarly have another verb inside their object but need a different joining device from that: either the to (infinitive) form of the object-based verb, or -ing (see 70. Gerunds). For example, if enable replaces ensure above, the next words have to be … most errors to be found; and if facilitate is used, the verb after it has to be being found. Another verb needing that in (b) would be mean.

The problem that this creates for learners of English, of course, is to know which verbs need which joining devices. There are not many clues. Indirect speech verbs like THINK fairly reliably take that (though exceptions exist – see 79. Grammar Problems in Quotation Writing). The properties of other verbs often just have to be memorised individually.


2. Subject “that” Clauses

That clauses also sometimes act as the subject of a verb, like this:

(g) That air pollution kills is obvious.

However, such uses sound very formal, and are usually rejected in favour of beginning the fact that. More common is a use at the end of an it sentence, as in this example from the Guinlist post 103. Using “it” for a Subsequent Verb:

(h) It is not surprising that antibiotics are becoming less effective.

This kind of that clause is a subject placed after its verb (is) and anticipated by a “dummy” pronoun it. For details of when this is appropriate, and when other joining devices are necessary, see the above-mentioned post.


3. Complement “that” Clauses

Complements are typically nouns, pronouns or adjectives placed after a link verb like BE (see 113. Verbs that Cannot be Passive). The situation where they are most likely to comprise that and a following verb seems to be when the subject of the link verb is a noun of saying or thinking:

(i) THE BELIEF is that success will come eventually.

Other common nouns of this kind include argument, claim, concern, expectation, hope, hypothesis, idea, implication, indication, message, news, point, report, suggestion, theory and word.

Some nouns that are not of saying or thinking can still have a that complement. They include advantage, arrangement, characteristicclue, curiosity, custom, future, likelihood, outlook, plan, possibility, probability, problem, prospect, risk and situation. Their use with that may be illustrated as follows:

(j) THE PROBLEM is that nobody takes responsibility.

Many other subject nouns can have a complement containing a verb, but only with a joining device other than that – either the to form of the verb (see 119. BE before a “to” Verb) or -ing.

It is interesting that the non-reporting sentence (j), unlike (i), allows the fact that as well as that. I would suggest that the meanings are slightly different: the fact that implies the reader’s previous familiarity with the fact after it (so that the sentence is just about its equivalence to the subject noun), while that implies no such familiarity. For more about how information familiarity affects language choices, see 156. Mentioning What the Reader Knows Already.

Some of the other nouns like problem allow the same choice. They are underlined above. Exceptions include nouns referring to the future, probably because the future is not a fact.


4. “that” Clauses after Prepositions

It is also possible to use a that clause instead of a noun after a preposition – lone or within a prepositional verb. However, it must normally go with the fact, e.g.:

(k) Smoking is made attractive BY the fact that it looks “cool”.

(l) The spread of the cold virus mostly DEPENDS ON the fact that people sneeze it out.

An exception to this need for the longer phrase after a preposition is after in showing how two ideas or points are similar or different (are similar in that : see 82. Common Errors in Making Comparisons).

Verbs after a preposition can also be in the -ing (gerund) form, but usually the meaning will differ. In (l), for example, the fact that indicates sneezing always happens (it is a fact), whereas -ing suggests that it may sometimes not happen.



That clauses can act in some of the ways that adverbs can. In one, that must be part of a longer introductory phrase, like this:

(m) IN THE EVENT THAT THE RAINS FAIL, stored water will maintain irrigation.

This is an adverb-like that clause because it is not in any of the main noun positions in its sentence (see 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs). It resembles adverbs of the “sentence” kind (see 121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs. Other phrases usable in the same way include assuming that, given that, granted that, in order that, now that, on condition that, on the understanding that, provided that, seeing that, so that and supposing that.

One other adverb-like use adds to the meaning of a preceding adjective, as in happy that force was unnecessary. Not all adjectives can be used with that in this way, and even those that can may also be usable with other verb-linking devices (to, -ing or a preposition + -ing, e.g. happy about force being unnecessary) or even without any following verb at all (e.g. happy with the situation – see 134. Words with a Variable Preposition).

Predictably enough, some adjectives of saying and thinking, such as convinced, emphatic and insistent, allow that, and so do many emotion adjectives, e.g. angry, delighted, disappointed, happy, hopeful, jealous, keen, pleased and sad. In addition, that can follow certainty adjectives like accurate, certain, correct, conclusive, definite, indubitable and sure.

The final use of that clauses is adjective-like – combining with a noun just in front, like this:

(n) The DENIAL that God exists is no less a belief than its opposite.

Nouns allowing this use tend to be the same as those that combine with a complement that clause, as in (i) and (j) above. One other is no doubt after there is (see 157. Tricky Word Contrasts 5, #1). Nouns that allow that can also normally be used with a preposition and no verb, e.g. the denial of God (without exists).

152. Agreeing & Disagreeing in Formal Contexts


Agreement and disagreement can be shown in numerous ways in formal writing


Agreement and disagreement are common in those kinds of professional writing where opinions are common, such as discussions of hypotheses and theories. This is not surprising, given that the possibility of agreement and disagreement is a defining feature of opinions (see 107. The Language of Opinions). Agreement and disagreement by definition imply the opinions of at least two people, which means that texts containing them will have multiple “speakers” (see 22. Multiple Speakers in a Text).

The language of agreeing and disagreeing tends to be very different in academic and professional writing from that used in everyday spoken English, where these types of statement are of course also common. Special care must be taken with disagreeing in writing in order not to sound impolite. This post presents a variety of common ways in which agreement and disagreement can be expressed in formal writing.



The main indicators of a writer’s agreement with an opinion seem to be verbs, adjectives and adverbs.

1. Use of Verbs

It is verbs of a certain reporting kind that can show agreement. The agreement will be with the opinion reported with the verb. Here is an example:

(a) Smith (2010) shows that film censorship is justified.

Using SHOW implies agreement because it suggests confirmed truth in a way that SAY or ARGUE does not. Other report verbs with a similar effect include DEMONSTRATE, ESTABLISH, INDICATE, MAKE IT CLEAR, NOTE, OBSERVE, POINT OUT and PROVE. Some can also be made into “action” nouns with a similar use, e.g. demonstration, indication, observation and proof (see 131. Uses of Action Nouns).


2. Use of Adjectives

Sometimes agreement adjectives describe the holder of the opinion:

(b) Murphy (2016) is convincing in arguing that social benefits can end poverty.

Other possible adjectives here include accurate, compelling, correct, credible, effective, persuasive, right and reasonable. All can be made stronger with completely or wholly and weaker with up to a point. Two longer expressions are (very) difficult to contradict and (very) easy to agree with/believe.

Agreement adjectives may also describe report nouns rather than people, like this:

(c) Arguments supporting social benefits are convincing.

(d) A persuasive case for social benefits is made by Davis (2013).

In (c), the adjective is placed after its noun and separated from it by a linking verb (are), whereas in (d) it is placed directly before. These two positions are the two normal ones in English (see 109. Placing an Adjective after its Noun).

Most of the adjectives that can be used with an opinion holder can also be used with a report noun. Of those listed above, correct is perhaps an exception, while right and the two longer phrases are unlikely in the pre-noun position illustrated by (d). On the other hand, some adjectives are more likely to describe report nouns than opinion holders, e.g. conclusive, encouraging, impressive, incontrovertible, irrefutable, powerful, strong and undeniable.

One other use of agreement adjectives is after a starting it is, like this:

(e) It is true (to say) that social benefits can end poverty.

True here is describing the pronoun it. However, since it corresponds to the words after true (see 103. Using “it” for a Subsequent Verb), these words – which state the opinion being agreed with – are what true really describes. The adjective true seems to fit much better into sentences like (e) than into the other kinds. Alternatives include accurate to say, convincing to say, correct to say, credible (to say), easy to believe/agree, hard to disagree, obvious and undeniable.


3. Use of Adverbs

Practically all of the adjectives listed above can be made into adverbs with -ly and combined with a report verb to show agreement, like this:

(f) Jones (2010) writes convincingly of the benefits of globalisation.



Most of the ways of showing disagreement are equivalents of the agreement-showing ones above.

1. Use of Verbs

As with agreement verbs, it is certain reporting verbs that can show disagreement. A common one is CLAIM: in sentence (a) claims instead of shows would suggest that the writer did not support film censorship. Other verbs like this include ALLEGE and ASSERT (there is also an informal expression GO AROUND SAYING). The derived nouns allegation, assertion and claim carry the same suggestion.

Verbs that are simply opinion-indicating, such as ARGUE, MAINTAIN and THINK (see 107. The Language of Opinions) can also hint at disagreement. This is because their very highlighting that the reported point is not a fact suggests disagreement is possible.


2. Use of Adjectives

Disagreement-showing adjectives seem not to be used very often to describe an opinion-holder, perhaps because they might sound impolite. Two of the more polite-sounding possibilities are difficult to agree with and unconvincing.

On the other hand, adjectives describing a report noun are quite numerous. Examples are bogus, contentious, debatable, erroneous, extreme, fallacious, feeble, flimsy, hard to accept/believe, limited, ludicrous, misconceived, misguided, misleading, misplaced, mistaken, mythical, naive, overstated, poor, questionable, scanty, shaky, simplistic, speculative, unconvincing, unsupportable and weak. Many of these can also be used after It is (some with to say, some without it). Exceptions are poor, scanty and weak.

One adjective to avoid is unbelievable (see 114. Tricky Word Contrasts 3, point #7). For more on negative words generally, see 13. Hidden Negatives and 146. Some Important Prefix Types.


3. Use of Adverbs

Many of the adjectives listed above can be made into adverbs with -ly and combined with a report verb to show disagreement. Those in the list that cannot do this are underlined.


4. Use of “may … but …”

This is a more complicated way of showing disagreement that is analysed in depth in the Guinlist post 51. Making Concessions with “May”. Consider this example:

(g) Coal MAY be a cheap fuel, BUT it harms the environment.

Superficially there are two opposing facts here about coal. However, the use of may suggests the first is used by supporters of coal fuel to justify it, while but suggests that the second fact has more importance for the writer, and hence is a reason for disagreeing with coal supporters and opposing the use of coal.

The same contrast can be made with numerous synonyms of may and but. Especially interesting are adverb equivalents of may such as certainly and indeed. More can be read about them in the relevant post. A much less formal equivalent, common in spoken interactions and frequently mentioned in English courses, is You have a point, but … .


PRACTICE EXERCISE (Agreement and Disagreement)

Interested readers are invited to classify each statement below as either agreeing, disagreeing or neutral.

1. Mathieu (2010) points out that vegetarian diets deprive the human body of essential nutrients.

2. All roads are said to lead to Rome.

3. The popular image of a terrorist used to be that of a scruffy bomb-thrower.

4. Some artificial intelligence specialists allege that every function of the human brain will eventually be replicated by machines.

5. The important point has often been made that large automobiles do not always cause more harm to the environment than smaller ones.

6. It is encouraging to hear that drug laws should be relaxed.

7. According to Sim (2015), political situations may provide a greater incentive to save money than interest rates.

8. A train is sometimes defined simplistically as a collection of wagons pulled along rails by a locomotive.

9. Nuclear accidents are certainly possible. Nevertheless, nuclear power stations are the most efficient means of generating electricity.


ANSWERS: 1 = Agreeing (positive report verb points out);  2 = Neutral;  3 = Neutral;  4 = Disagreeing (negative report verb allege);  5 = agreeing (positive adjective important);  6 = Agreeing (positive adjective encouraging);  7 = Neutral;  8 = Disagreeing (negative adverb simplistically);  9 = Disagreeing (paraphrase of may … but … ).

151. Ways of Using Compass Words



Compass words like “North” are usable with various confusing partner words and adjective endings


“Compass words” is a suitable cover-all term for North, South, East and West, used both alone and in combinations like North-West and South-South-East, and for derived adjectives ending in -ern/-erly, such as southern and southerly (for the pronunciation of which, see 41. Unexpected Vowels in Derived Words). Compass words may be written either with or without a capital letter (see 62. Choices with Capital Letters). They can easily occur in academic and professional writing because geographical statements are quite common there.

There are a number of ways in which compass words can be used in English. The aim here is to describe, illustrate and explain as many of these as possible, and to offer some general guidelines for avoiding errors with them that are sometimes made by speakers of other mother tongues.



Compass nouns can be the subject or object of a verb with no accompanying words except the, like this:

(a) The north is wild and uninhabited.

In such cases, the reference is usually to the relevant part of a particular country or area whose identity has already been established. The reason for the is that compass nouns are normally countable – and hence always require the or a or equivalent (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”) – and the is better than a because a “unique” concept is being expressed (there is only one north, south, east and west in any particular place).

However, compass nouns without a preposition are also sometimes used without the to express the ultimate compass points of the whole world, such as the North Pole, e.g.:

(b) (The) West is where the sun sets.

In addition, compass nouns without the can be used as adverbials, like this:

(c) Global warming means the Sahara is moving south.

If south here was truly a noun, it would be the object of moving – naming something being moved – and would hence say nonsensically that the movement was of south rather than of the Sahara. The true meaning of south here is the adverb concept “in a southward direction” (see 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs).



It is quite common for compass nouns to be combined with to the. However, the meaning is not always the same. The following are different ways of interpreting to the south:

I) IN A SOUTHERLY DIRECTION (directional adverb). This is the meaning in (c). It indicates movement, not into a specific place but just “closer to the South Pole”.

II) INTO THE SOUTHERN REGION (directional adjective and adverb). This indicates movement into a different part of a specific area. Examples are:

(d) ADJECTIVE) Routes to the south (of Europe) are likely to meet mountains.

(e) (ADVERB) Young people are going to the south (of their country) to find work.

An informal alternative to these is down south, though normally the sentence has be spoken in a more northern part of the same area. Similar expressions are up north (spoken in the south) and out east/west.

III) JUST BEYOND THE SOUTHERN BORDER (positional adjective and adverb). This identifies an external area, as in these examples:

(f) (ADJECTIVE) A country to the south of Turkey is Syria.

(g) (ADVERB) The main Silk Road passes to the north of Afghanistan.

We understand here that Syria and The main Silk Road are respectively just beyond the borders of Turkey and Afghanistan. This understanding could also be an alternative one of (d): instead of referring to routes going into the south of Europe, (d) could be about routes existing just beyond that south. The fact that the positional usage of to the is about the outside of a particular region, rather than the inside that the directional usage involves, is a key point to remember.

Besides to, other common prepositions usable before the + compass word are from, in and out of. They have their normal meanings. In the, like directional to the, can be replaced by the more informal up or down if the speaker is in the opposite part of the same region. Up and down are also usable by themselves without a compass word to mean “visiting from the south/north” (see 154. Lone Prepositions after BE).

In addition, when compass words are combined with a following of, adding or omitting an earlier the makes an important difference. With it, e.g. the South of France, a noun phrase is created and of means “inside”. Without the, however, an adjective or adverb phrase is created and of means “somewhere beyond”, as in this example:

(h) Algeria lies directly south of France.

The meaning here is similar to, but not the same as, that of the positional to the south (of) illustrated in (f). The difference is that with to the the two regions are suggested to be touching, while without it, as in (h), the distance between them is unclear. It would be wrong to add to the to (h) because Algeria and France are separated by sea.



Some adjective-like uses of compass words require the adjective forms with -ern or -erly, while others keep the base forms, rather like nouns acting as adjectives (see 38. Nouns Used like Adjectives). Readers are invited to analyse the following common expressions in search of a rule for choosing between the different possibilities:

a north wind

a southerly breeze

an easterly direction/course

East London

Southern Ireland/France/Italy

South Germany/China

New South Wales

Southern Europe/Africa

South Africa/North Korea

West(ern) Africa

North/South America

The West Indies

Western Samoa

The South Pole/The North Star

The Southern Cross

My feeling about these is that no definitive rules can be given because there are so many anomalies and exceptions. However, I offer the following observations. The -ly ending indicates direction, either towards or away from the compass point. A southerly breeze is usually understood as coming from the south, but an easterly direction would likely be towards the east (unless it had from in front).

The absence of -ly before wind is interesting. I suspect that it indicates generality – no link with a particular place or time, like this:

(i) A/The south-west wind brings rain.

Conversely, -ly words might be preferred when talking about a wind in a specific place at a specific time:

(j) A northerly wind was blowing when the ship set sail.

For more on the difference between general and specific meaning, see 89. Using “the” with General Meaning.

East London in the list above is part of a city. Most cities seem to prefer basic compass words to those with -ern, though exceptions can probably be found.

Some clue to the use of -ern is perhaps obtainable from the difference between South Africa (the country) and Southern Africa (the whole of Africa south of the Equator, including South Africa). The names of countries and groups of countries usually seem to have the basic compass word, while parts of countries and of continents prefer -ern.

Exceptions to this trend can usually be explained away. The countries of Southern Ireland and Western Samoa perhaps have -ern because they originated (in colonial times) as parts of larger countries. On the other hand, the country parts of South China and South Germany may lack -ern because they are large enough to be countries in their own right (indeed South Germany was once very like one). Alternatively, these regions may have some political as well as geographical status, just as New South Wales does. The reason for not saying *Northern (and *Southern) America might be that these regions are thought of as whole continents, not parts of one.

Finally, the trend of using basic compass words for wholes and -ern words for parts (except in cities) also seems evident in The South Pole and The North Star. These are not just in the south/north, they are those ultimate points. On the other hand, the star constellation known as The Southern Cross is just a feature of the sky in the Southern Hemisphere.