There’s a subtle difference between subtly and subtlety

The subtle difference between subtly and subtlety

Independent subtlety v subtly

There’s a subtle difference between subtly and subtlety, sadly the indy100 from the Independent didn’t get it! At least they don’t misspell it as sublety – an un-real estate variation. When mocking Donald Trump be certain your own copy is error-free first.

What is the difference between them? Well, that’s more about grammar than meaning, however, the Middle English word has been around the early 14th century.

Definition & Etymology

Subtle – from the Latin subtilis via Old French sotil, can depict something “so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyse or describe” or someone “capable of making fine distinctions”. The indy certainly lacks delicate precision capability!

In its earliest usage, it could also mean “cunning, wise, skilled, adept, crafty”, hence, its use of the Serpent in the book of Genesis, in the Bible.

“Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made” – King James Bible, Genesis 3:1

In later English translations, this is translated as “astute, clever, cunning, crafty, shrewd”.

Grammar lesson

Subtle Adjective Describes a noun
Subtly Adverb Modifies a verb or adjective
Subtlety Noun The state of being subtle

“The Jimmy Carter library is subtly mocking Donald Trump”

The headline was eventually corrected after several days but not before some not so subtle mocking from commenter, Bertrand Russell:

Indy100 is not so subtlety mocking Donald Trump.” – Bertrand Russell

Indy100 is not so subtlety mocking English grammar.” – ibid.

Independent subtly before and after

Where have all the sub-editors and proofreaders gone?

It is noticeable on a daily basis, if not on a page by page basis, that proofreading has ceased to be paid for in-house as a skill to save time and money. The immediacy of news and the struggle to keep print media afloat have meant cuts on both counts. Those that did work in the profession have gone freelance and struggle to set rates that are attractive to speed and cost-conscious daily publications.

“Managements had decided it [proofreading] was an expense they could do without, that copy editors could do the proofreader’s job as well as their own. And computers were in the newsroom with Spell Check! Are we going to get proofreaders back? No. And that’s sad. Sloppy writing has become the norm, even though readers don’t like it and complain loudly about it.” – Jerry Peterson

What is inexcusable is the lack of proofreading after the fact, taking days to make corrections. Furthermore, some people don’t even seem to use spell checkers and grammar assistants like Microsoft Word‘s or Grammarly‘s.

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, not dead, not spelled Phillip

Duke of Edinburgh, not dead yet, but retires at 95

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and Queen’s husband, aged 95, today announced his retirement from public engagements, after appearing at Lord’s cricket ground the day before in fine health. Perhaps, this was to avoid having the Prince and the Donald (Trump) play golf or upset the Internet together later this year.

Buckingham Palace kept the web and social media on tenterhooks overnight for the 10am announcement which turned out to be an anti-climax and with the alternate fake news pronouncements funnier than either the real thing or anything the Duke ever said.

“I declare this thing open, whatever it is” (1969) is probably the only repeatable quip of the Duke’s in this politically correct and legitimately zero-tolerance-of-racism age. For more, see the Guardian‘s list.

Prince Philip becomes Phillip

HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh retirement aged 95After decades of practice spelling his name right every time he makes a humorous, cringeworthy or sometimes racist gaffe, the press should not have been gaffe prone themselves adding an extra ‘l’ to his name. In fact, so many people on Twitter misspelt it that the wrong spelling was trending on Twitter above the correct spelling!

Some people went so far as to prematurely miss-announce the Duke’s death at 95!

Hall of Shame

From USA Today to The Independent and The Poke, numerous news organisations spelt the Duke’s name wrong:

Is it Among or Amongst or either? Origin, Usage & Difference

Among and/or Amongst?

It is common among English users to hesitate in speech, and even more in writing, when about to utter or write ‘amongst‘. Our second instinct, if ‘amongst’ is our first, is to autocorrect and switch to ‘among‘ – indeed many online or built-in spellcheckers encourage us to do so, as if ‘amongst’ was actually wrong. But is it? And, if it isn’t, what’s the difference, if any? (Pedants can save the debate of whether to start two consecutive sentences with conjunctions for another time!)

'Among' - Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology 1966

‘Among’ – Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, 1966

Definition of Among and Amongst?

Few would struggle with the definition of ‘among‘ meaning “in the midst of…, a member of…, occurring within…”. ‘Amongst‘ means exactly the same, and so is a variant spelling/direct equivalence synonym.

“Among is the earlier word of this pair: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it first appeared in Old English. The variant form, amongst, is a later development, coming along in the Middle English period. With regard to their meanings, there’s no difference between among and amongst.” – Oxford Dictionaries

Origins and Etymology of Among/st

Old English ongemang (from on ‘in’ + gemang ‘assemblage, mingling’). The –st of amongst represents –s (adverbial genitive) + –t probably by association with superlatives (as in against). – Oxford Dictionary

among (prep.) 
early 12c., from Old English onmang, from phrase on gemang “in a crowd,” from gemengan “to mingle” (see mingle). Collective prefix ge– dropped 12c. leaving onmong, amang, among. Compare Old Saxon angimang “among, amid;” Old Frisian mong “among.” – Online Etymology Dictionary

among (prep.)
mid-13c., amonges, from among with adverbial genitive. Parasitic -t first attested 16c. (see amidst). It is well established in the south of England, but not much heard in the north. By similar evolutions, alongst also existed in Middle English. – Online Etymology Dictionary

So, ‘among’ is a 12th century Old English word which, over the 13th-16th centuries, added an ‘-s’ and then a ‘-t’. A word meaning “mingling” thus got a mangling, which has led to our modern muddling of the two.

What we have then is no difference in meaning, and while/whilst (yes these two words, while and whilst, have similar issues and origins, though ‘whilst’ has a more limited range of use) both ‘among’ and ‘amongst’ are old words, one is simply older. Again and against, however, developed separate meanings by the 16th century, despite similar developmental paths. Amid and amidst are further examples of ‘-st’ adding as a linguisitc or literary flourish, as are along and alongst, although it seems that adding ”st’ to unbeknown (1824), creating unbeknownst, is a Victorian addition (1848), which became the more frequent of the two words in US English.

Frequency/Occurrence of Among

The word ‘among’ sits amid the top 1000 most commonly used words – depending on who you ask – but not ‘amongst’.

Comparative Usage of Among and Amongst

With* American English users ‘among’ is more common, whilst amongst British English users, instances of ‘amongst’ increase. In the Oxford English Corpus (OEC) there are 11.54 times as many instances of among compared to amongst (8.36x in British English and 30.42x in US English). [* yet another sentence beginning with a conjunction – as synonyms for ‘among’ are few and far between, other than ‘amid’, ‘with’, ‘in’.]

At peak popularity, nearly 400 years ago, the ratio of usage was around 1 ‘amongst’ to every 3-4 ‘amongs’.

In American English, the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) reveals that back in 1810 the ratio was like that of British English – around 9x or 1-in-10 occurrences. By 1980 that ratio was over 66x, but around 1950, 1970, 1990 there was some resurgent usage in literature. It has fallen in popularity again, since, now that web documents make up the bulk of statistical analysis. records 155 million web page hits for ‘amongst’ to 1,090,000,000 of ‘among’, so ‘amongst’ is not going to die away without a fight.

Amongst Pretentious and Old Fashioned?

Despite the older origins of ‘among’ it is ‘amongst’ that is considered “old fashioned” and even pretentious by US English aficionados [from the Spanish aficionar “inspire affection”].

“Amongst” and “amidst” are perfectly fine words, listed in dictionaries and everything, but they fall a bit on the “I know big words” scale of writing. – Columbia Journalism Review

Style Guide

Even British newspaper style guides recommend against the usage of ‘amongst’, among them – The Times Online Style Guide: “amid, not amidst; similarly among, not amongst”, and the Guardian Style Guide: “among not amongst”.

Christopher Daly, “the Better Editor“, says:

amidst, amongst, and whilst are all pretentious affectations and should never be used in your writing if you want to be taken seriously.”

Daly goes to analyse and point out that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) uses ‘amongst’ 7x to ‘among’ 17x, probably one of the closest ratios over time. Meanwhile Charles Dickens never uses any ”-st’ form of the words under discussion – or at least his editor and publisher didn’t.

Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage describes ‘amongst’ as “more tolerable in British English” but “pretentious” in American English.

Autocorrect and Spellcheck

What can be confusing, is that spellcheckers and autocorrect features, even with British English dictionaries, will often mark ‘amongst’ as just plain wrong or suggest correction to ‘among’, making users less confident in its use and driving down its frequency. In the end, it’s a question of choice and taste over style, not right over wrong. Amongst, is almost as old as among, but cannot be called the more antiquated or pretentious of the pair. If anything, the true professional pedant should feel free to redeem its use with a flick of floriate flourish in conversation, and feel confident enough to argue for its antiquity and authentic use, so long as you don’t mind sounding like Mr Darcy!


A Historic Anomaly or is that An Anomalous use of ‘A’?

A Historic Anomaly

In our popular post on “Dispatch vs Despatch” we questioned whether its (not it’s!) usage was a historic anomaly. Some have questioned, indeed, whether it was “an historic anomaly“.

An Anomaly

The usage of ‘A‘ versus ‘An‘ before words beginning respectively with a consonant or a vowel should be fairly straightforward. What if, however, the word begins with a silent ‘h’ (Aitch) or the word following that, which it qualifies, begins with a vowel?

HW Fowler, A Dictionary of English Usage

HW Fowler, A Dictionary of English Usage

Silent ‘H’ Aitch

The French homme is pronounced ‘omme but English ‘home’ is pronounced howme, unless we’re talking about being on our way ‘owm now. History and historic lead with an ‘h’ but many speakers pronounce them ‘istory and ‘istoric. It’s (not its) enough to give one an ‘ernia, though Hermione would say ‘hernia’.

As one grammar site says of ‘h’:

“The problem is that the h is a bit of a wuss as a consonant. When it occurs in an unaccented syllable and is followed by a vowel, it tends to soften to a vowel-like mushiness.”

Some, therefore, base the usage of ‘a’ and ‘an’ on pronunciation and not spelling. What sounds best in speech may not be what looks best written when it is not aspirated out loud.


A house or an house?

A heir or an heir?

Now, those are easy ones, but what about happy, hereditary, historic, hotel, hungry, or, as cited by Fowler, hysterical and habitual?

HW Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage

Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 1926

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 1926

In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler, and by “Modern”, we’re talking 1926, Fowler says that ‘an’ was:

“formerly used before an unaccented syllable beginning with h and is still often seen and heard (an historian, an hotel, an hysterical scene, an hereditary title, an habitual offender). But now that the h in such words is pronounced, the distinction has become anomalous and will no doubt disappear in time. Meantime, speakers who like to say an should not try to have it both ways by aspirating the h.”

Nearly ninety years later and his prophecy that it would “no doubt disappear in time” has not come to pass, or else we would not be having this discussion and people searching Google for grammar tips and writing style rules.

Fowler was, of course, most emphatically, not a pedant – which might explain why the 1926 first edition was reprinted in 1930 and 1937 “with corrections“.

Josephine Turck Baker, The Correct Word

Baker, Josephine Turck, The correct word - A, An

Baker, Josephine Turck, The correct word – A and An.

Writing before Fowler, and of American rather than British English usage, Josephine Turck Baker writes:

“In the case of words beginning with h, an is always required when h is silent; as “an heir;” when h is aspirated, a is required, unless the accent is on the second syllable, when an is used; as “a history;” “an historian.” Some speakers prefer to use a even when the accent is on the second syllable; in consequence, both a and an are recorded as used before h; that is, when the accent is on the second syllable.”

As Bill Walsh, Copy desk Chief at The Washington Post and author of Lapsing Into a Comma points out, “things appear to have evolved“.

Modern Style Guides

The Guardian and Observer

a or an before H?
Use an before a silent H: an heir, an hour, an honest politician, an honorary consul; use a before an aspirated H: a hero, a hotel, a historian (but don’t change a direct quote if the speaker says, for example, “an historic”).

The Daily Telegraph

a/an: an hour, heir; a hotel, historian (if the H is pronounced, use A).


Perhaps the simplest summary comes from Tina Blue, after a lengthy debate on primary, secondary, and tertiary stressed syllables:

If you speak and write British English, you can probably keep using an before historical, hysterical, habitual, etc. I doubt that you will be challenged by your own countrymen, and if Americans challenge you, just point out that British usage and American usage often differ.

If you are American, you probably should use a rather than an, even in a historic occasion or a historical reference. Most of us are comfortable with a historic occasion, because the word historic has fewer syllables than historical, so the h is more fully pronounced. But if, like me, you are old enough to find a historical reference a tad uncomfortable, then go ahead and say an historical reference.


Dispatch or Despatch, which is the correct English spelling?

Difference between Dispatch and Despatch

Whilst browsing an online auction site, okay so it was eBay, I spotted an ad that irked me. It was for yet another rival parcel delivery service or postal services aggregator/comparison site – competition is certainly keeping the prices down, especially of sending high heeled shoes through the post, the Royal Mail has recently specifically discounted a shoe box sized parcel! The ad in question was for, named to sound like eBay rather than PirateBay one assumes – since the latter might suggest the stealing of goods rather than their dispatch, and the alternate meaning of dispatch – “to kill with quick efficiency” (Merriam-Webster, attested since the 1520s).

Despatch BayPerhaps they chose Despatch Bay over Dispatch Bay because the latter was already in use, by The Dispatch Bay, a UK-to-Pakistan specific courier business:

The Dispatch BayAlthough, I doubt they give it much thought, given how badly punctuated the website of the brand-owning company, The SaleGroup, is. Their tagline is “The Benchmark For Online Business” and yet we spotted half a dozen errors on a single page alone. They “eat, sleep and breathe the internet”, but I think they were ‘sleeping‘ during their proofreading.

This brings me to my professional pedant‘s persnicketiness (a much better word than pernickety, the extra ‘s’ in there, added around 1915, sounds so much more sinister and sneaky). My issue is that ‘despatch‘ just looks and sounds wrong, compared to (or with?) the more traditional, and so I thought, correct, ‘dispatch‘. So I went on an authoritative and exhaustive examination of the facts, i.e., I googled it.

Despatch a variant spelling of Dispatch?

My initial inquiry – or rather enquiry in British English to be ever so slightly pedantic, led me to believe that ‘despatch‘ was just a less common variation of ‘dispatch‘ and more typically British, in about a third of its millions of uses. So says the usually excellent Grammarist, anyway – the comments on their post are worth reading alone for how the discussion got into whether ‘despatch‘ was a noun or verb in some instances and for the commendable digression onto “a box of frogs and a shipment of drugs” whilst on “whacky baccy”! But I was not convinced.

Despatch Box

The specific use of the phrase “Despatch Box” when referring to the UK and Australian Parliamentary speaking lecturn lectern/rest and documents boxes (though now containing a Bible used for oaths) dates from the 17th century in Britain (although the current boxes were gifts from New Zealand after the existing ones were destroyed by a German bomb in 1941) and as a gift from King George V to Australia in 1927. I’ve not been able to prove a consistent early provenance of Despatch over Dispatch Box, but Despatch Box seems to have stuck in the British Parliament now. A historic anomaly, perhaps? What not “an historic anomaly” – well that is another grammar, style, and usage question entirely!

Dispatch and Despatch according to the Dictionary

A user on the StackExchange English Language & Usage site writes: “The OED lists both spellings with equal status. ‘Dispatch’ is by far the more common spelling, uniquely so in the 16th, 17th, and 18th-century examples. ‘Despatch’ seems to have become fashionable in the late Victorian period.”

I would place the fashion as late 18th century though, due to the influence of the lexophile, Dr Samuel Johnson. Allegedly, the variant spelling arose due to a printing error in Dr Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which brought both spellings into wider usage by adding legitimacy to the des- spelling. Prior to that, spelling was hardly rigidly enforced.

Of the digital entries transcribed so far in an online version of the dictionary, ‘dispatch‘ occurs 8 times to a singular occurrence of ‘despatch‘ when used to define other words. As a dictionary entry itself, it only occurs under ‘despatch‘, there being no entry for ‘dispatch’ at all.

Dr Johnson's Dictionary entry - despatchUpon reviewing Johnson’s examples of the use of ‘despatch‘ in Shakespeare’s King Lear and the King James Version Bible (1611) it appears it was Johnson’s spelling, not the original’s he was citing, for though he has ‘despatch‘ in Ezekiel 23:47, the original KJV had:

“And the companie shall stone them with stones, and dispatch them with their swords: they shall slay their sonnes and their daughters, and burne vp their houses with fire.”

It will no doubt remain a debate for some time to come, even if it was at first an error, it is now a common error, and perhaps more peculiarly British. Though one forum commentator described seeing it “in Australia, where in New South Whales [sic], I encountered ‘despatch‘ everywhere, and in Queensland and Victoria, the ‘common’ spelling was ‘dispatch‘.”

Even users of a business discussion forum got heated on the subject and no closer to a conclusion, each claiming dis- or des- was more British and dis- definitely American, and thus to be discouraged! In the end, their solution was to use ‘send’ or ‘post’ instead.


It is alleged by many sources that the words both have legitimate but distinct origins, that ‘dispatch‘ came from the Italian word dispacciare and ‘despatch‘ from the Spanish word despachar. For example, the website entry which, unfortunately, misspells one of them to confuse the situation further:

“The origins of both words are also different. ‘Dispatch‘ came from the Italian word ‘dispacciare’. On the other hand, ‘dispatch’ came from the Spanish word ‘despachar’.”

They correct themselves in their summary:

“‘Despatch‘ came from the Spanish ‘despachar’ while the Italian ‘dispacciare’ formed the basis and formed the modern word of ‘dispatch‘.”

To call the word ‘dispatch“modern” is blatantly not true given the King James Bible and Shakespeare examples cited above and erroneously by Dr Johnson.

The second part of the word ‘-patch‘ is consistently spelt but variously attributed:

The exact source of the second element has been proposed as Vulgar Latin *pactare “to fasten, fix” or *pactiare, or as Latin -pedicare “to entrap” (from Latin pedica “shackle;” see impeach); and the Spanish and Italian words seem to be related to (perhaps opposites of) Old Provençal empachar “impede.”

Whatever the Latin root, the Spanish ended up with despachar “expedite, hasten” and the Italians dispacciare “to dispatch”, with little difference between des– and dis-, other than spelling.

Despatch, South Africa

As an aside, Despatch is also a small town in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa situated between Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage, from where its main product was ‘dis-‘ or ‘despatched‘. Its name was derived from the late 1800s brick industry it became renowned for, and with which its bricks were imprinted.


It would seem in an international commerce age prudent to go with the more internationally and internet acceptable majority of ‘dispatch‘, particularly if some people’s reactions to seeing ‘despatch‘ is to think mistake or typo and thus give off a less professional image. Even if the OED says both are acceptable, it is impression and opinion that matter as much as legitimacy and a dubious history. For business purposes the 10-50x as many web searches and results done for ‘dispatch‘ over ‘despatch‘ would indicate that the former is a better SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) choice. To anyone who disagrees, may they be dispatched overseas!

For all you’re (oops! “your”) proofreading needs

The front of our Professional Pedants minicard designIt’s never too late to proofread copy

Fed up with spotting typos too late, after your work has gone to print? Well we spot them straight away, albeit after several read-throughs, and save you the shame and dent to your professional pride, customer respect and financial bottom line.

Print failures affect professional image

We notice mistakes in print every single day, in mainstream broadsheet newspapers such as the Times, Guardian and Telegraph amongst others – despite up-to-date modern spell-checking. If, anything, they have got worse over time with an over reliance on technology and reduction of in-house checking and editing.

Another place we find them frequently is in restaurant menus – and not only the struggling foreign menus done in faltering English whilst you are abroad, these are at home British restaurants!

Professional Pedants business card (back)We even had to send back our first batch of business cards, because the printers made a mistake. Not a bad one, but a colour was off substantially. Some errors are visual.

One of the first proofreading jobs one of us had was in a PR company, and they spotted a logical blunder – “a talking newspaper for the deaf” – which should of course have read “for the blind”! Nobody else noticed it.

Don’t trust, Triple check

So trust us, because we don’t even trust ourselves, or Microsoft Word, or Google – we triple check everything! Another set of eyes, alternate educational background, different cultural or language perspective can pick up a whole raft of type, print, visual or logical inaccuracies or inconsistencies that the first (and/or second) reader may not have noticed.

Proud to be professional pedants!

We positively pride ourselves on being persnickety pedants, picking at everything, painstakingly precise and punctiliously point-perfect until it is of peerless quality and professional appearance. Did we mention that we love words, alliteration and can offer copywriting skills too? Not to mention translations, publicity, SEO and social media marketing, ebook creation, and design, through sister businesses.