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Confused Engineering Words: Part One

Confused Engineering Words: Part One

In fear of being accused of racism towards kettles; engineers are not famed for their proficiency with the written word. This poses a bit of a problem when you consider that 19% of civil engineering is writing reports. So, following from my last key skills post, here is the first of a two part series on a few of the common writing mistakes that the spell checker cannot save you from.

it’s or its?

We can talk about possession and abbreviation, but frankly there’s an easy test for this one: Take out the apostrophe. If the sentence makes sense with “it is” then you want “it’s”, if not, you want “its”. Anyway, you shouldn’t be using contractions in formal reports.

principal or principle?

This one catches me out more than it should, but over time I’ve adopted the following strategy for deciding between them: If there is normally more than one, it’s a principle, if there’s usually only one, it’s a principal. In engineering, typically, we have many¬†principles that we use to design a project, which is likely to have only one, principal, aim…

program or programme?

The wonderful thing about being British is that we get to look down at other English speaking countries for not including arbitrary letters in their words for the sake of etymology. This means that whilst there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’ there is a silent ‘me’ in programme. In short, everything thing to do with computers is a program, everything to do with project management is a programme. Just remember, however, that you can never programme anything; the verb is to program.

stationary or stationery?

I’ve actually only seen this mistake once, but it made me chuckle imaging a bridge covered pencils and rubbers; “stationery” loading. In engineering, however, you can get around ever learning the difference by falling back on ‘static’ and visiting the ‘office supplies’ cupboard.

assure, insure or ensure?

These three get used more interchangeably then they should. If you assure a client, you are (normally verbally) dispelling any doubt. If you ensure a client, you guarantee that you’ll get someone a client. If you insure a client, you promise to protect them against (typically financial) losses. It is much cheaper to assure a client than to insure one; but most will ensure you do the latter.

enquire or inquire?

It doesn’t matter. Most Brits will enquire, most Americans will inquire. Technically the former (think enquiry) is used to ask, whilst the latter (think inquiry) is used to cause a formal investigation.

imply or infer?

If you lived in a Michael Bay film your Dad would take you out with a pigskin and analogously imply a ball for you to infer (until the government came to steal your Transformer). People imply things by suggesting them indirectly; people infer things by deducing what has been implied to them. As an engineer if you find yourself inferring something, you should probably get the client to stop implying what they want and specify it properly- or else you’ll end up arguing about it in arbitration later.

advise or advice and practice or practise?

In defiance of all helpful mnemonics: ‘c’ makes a noun, ‘s’ makes a verb. Of course, once you’ve worked out one, you’ve worked out the other. Personally I remember that ‘c’ is closer to the start of the alphabet than ‘s’, as ‘n’ (for noun) is closer than ‘v’ (for verb)- but I admit it’s no big elephant.

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