The Better English category features all blog posts related to improving your English. There are tips on spelling, grammar, syntax and punctuation.

Homonyms: we found this humerus!

Homonyms: prevent shampooing your hare, we found this humerus

Homonyms: prevent shampooing your hare!

Homonyms Galore, we found this humerus

The English language is bursting with homonyms: words that are spelled and pronounced the same way but have different meanings. It can get a tad confusing at times if you’re new to English [as a foreign language], but it usually helps when one understands the context the homonym is in to differentiate it. Trying to think of a homonym on the spot can be frustrating.

Here’s a few to get you started…

  • Patient: A doctor likes to have a patient patient
  • Crisp:I like to eat a crisp crisp!
  • Polish: I use Polish polish for my shoes
  • Mass: The pope said mass to a lot mass of people yesterday. It was a mass mass.

Not just a homonym but rather, a capitonym!

You have probably come across this one before: telling the difference between Polish and polish. I’ve seen many ads in newspapers and magazines use it as a punchline. Although it’s only comical when it’s written or typed out. If you were to pronounce the two words […] the difference is clear. We’re here to talk about homonyms but Polish / polish isn’t a true homonym. Rather, it is a capitonym. That is, a word that shares the same spelling but has a different meaning when it’s capitalised. March / march is another popular capitonym.

Here are some that’ll refresh your memory, as we’re sure you know many more.

  • change
  • book
  • match
  • cool
  • duck
  • block
  • light

These words are known to be true homonyms as they share the exact same spelling and pronunciation, and their meanings differentiate regardless of capitalization.

Then There’s Bark

Bark (the skin of a tree) and bark (the sound a dog makes) are both homonyms (same but different meanings), homophones (sound alike) and homographs (spelled the same). Unlike rain and reign which are known as just homophones, not homonyms. It helps if you take the combining form -phone in homophone, meaning sound or voice in Greek. While the combining form -graph in homograph means written or in writing.

Some familiar homophones are…

  • sail / sale
  • flee / flea
  • be / bee
  • bear / bare
  • know / no
  • buy / by
  • toe / tow

Wait! There’s More

What about those kind of words that are spelled the same way but have a different pronunciation and meaning? Think of bass (meaning both a fish and denoting a sound with a low pitch)? Or how about desert (to abandon or an arid region)?

We call these guys heteronyms or heterophones. We’ve put together a list of common heteronyms for you to have some fun with.

  • dove (A dove flew past my window) / (I dove into the sea)

Can you work out the rest?

  • ellipses
  • sake
  • resign
  • read
  • putting
  • present
  • record
  • wind
  • row
  • bow

Can you guess the meanings of each of them? We’ll leave the pronunciation to you.

Remember to leave a comment in the comment box below if you know any more homonyms.

The STAR Team

Criminal Lawyers

Law and order, criminal lawyers

Law and order / Stock photo

Do you know any criminal, criminal lawyers?

No. The above isn’t a typo. Here is something I love about the English language: how pronunciation can change the context and meaning of a sentence.

Last night, I was watching Breaking Bad and I caught a great line from Jesse Pinkman (one the protagonists in the series). When discussing lawyers, he turns to Walter White and says, “If you need a criminal lawyer, you should hire a criminal lawyer, to make sure you get off.” Smart sentence! But difficult to translate into other languages and keep the same humour and meaning because of its context.

Context is very important in the English language, especially in translation. It’s one of the most difficult challenges for translators.

Have you ever come across any similar play on words?

The STAR Team


The Greatest Mistake In Translation

Caution: bad translation — greatest mistake in translation
Caution: bad translation

Everyone has read or heard a story about mistakes in translation, humorous mistranslations or badly translated documents. Although what is the greatest and probably most lethal mistake in translation?

Strangely enough, the answer is quite simple. My experience from working in the industry for over 30 years has shown that the single biggest mistake in translation is being careless with short translation. As it sounds, short translation is the translation of a few words or a single sentence. Small or short translation projects are the ones with the highest rate of errors!

The reason behind it is simple: laziness and the pressure to meet a deadline. You have to put the same amount of work, perhaps even more, into small projects than you do with bigger ones.

To understand this, you need to think about the types of errors that can happen.

The Author-Designer Mistake

Most software developers, web designers and marketing managers are always under pressure to deliver on tight deadlines. It is fairly common that a last minute change to a document, file or brochure copy will mean a few words being added here and there — now you have a dilemma — you have to send this text to your professional translators. You might have to raise a purchase order or get approval to spend the extra money. You then have to get the text back from the translation agency, answer their questions and then put the text back in to your files. This process might take a day or so and it has to be shipped right away.

Isn’t that what Google Translate does? Why not type the short text into Google Translate, copy the translated text and insert it in the body itself? Surely translation isn’t that difficult? Big mistake!

Google Translate and other machine translation tools are just gist engines. This means that they are good at giving you a general or equivocal translation rather a precise one — they are not accurate — far from it actually.

Taking a translated word from a machine translation tool such as Google Translate is like picking a translated phrase in a language you don’t understand, applying it and hoping it is correct.< ?p>

Language Errors:

Languages are all very different and so are their structures. A number of words in Spanish have male and female versions — so you should know which word you are copying.

If you are working with Chinese or Arabic, you should not cut and paste text on an English language machine as it will corrupt the text if you have the wrong language fonts / keyboard installed on your machine.

Polish and German have different hyphenation rules than English. You cannot move the next word to a new line if it does not fit. Some words / phrases have to stay together such as compound words.

The Context Mistake

Finally, the big one is context errors. You cannot translate a single word unless you know the context of where and what the text is being used for. Especially what linguists refer to as homonyms.

Let’s look at the word press. What does it mean?

  • Press the button
  • Press as in a press beside your bed
  • Press as in a printing press
  • Press as in the written press i.e. newspapers, media et cetera

Google will never translate this word correctly unless it knows more information about the context. A professional translator will always ask the client what the text they are translating is for. There are lots of examples of this. Take the homonym arm, for instance…

  • Arm, a human arm
  • Arm, an ARM chip (Advanced RISC Machines)
  • Arm as a verb, to arm something like an alarm
  • Arm as a verb, to give someone a weapon

Need I continue? It is very easy to take a machine translation of a single word and apply it no matter what.

Where can we find this?

We find that these misused words appear on website menus and widgets. Often the major work is done on the Website and then after review with the client there might be a few minor changes undertaken.

Most website menus are coded in what are called widgets. These widgets normally only have a few words in them. So it is easy for someone to do exactly what we have outlined above.

Some may think: ‘there are only a few words to translate’. Why spend weeks with translators over just a few menu descriptions? Instead of spending the last three days working on the menu or straplines for it, just use a machine translation or ask a friend [who speaks that language natively] to do a quick and dirty translation of it.

At STAR, we will often check our customers’ websites a few weeks after we have translated them to make sure no extra strings were added after we completed the official translation: to ensure its quality.

The Funny Bit

I’ll leave you with this one. Strangely enough comedians and writers use this problem to great effect in sketches. Miscommunication and out of context understanding are the key to many jokes.

Having returned from Newcastle a friend of mine was asked, “Why did you fly to Newcastle?”* “Because it was too far to walk”, he replied.

*For the record, there are multiple answers to the question depending on the context and connotation implied.

For more information on why short and cheap translation can be very expensive, see the following links.

Article by Damian Scattergood, Managing Director of STAR Translation. Damian has over 30 years of experience in the translation and localization industry.

The STAR Team

Know your Roots

Root words tree illustration

Like people, languages and words have roots.

For many European languages, Latin is a common root language, as it is for the Romance languages which Latin gave birth to. Spanish, Portuguese, French and of course, Italian and Romanian wouldn’t exist as they are today if it weren’t for Latin or what was once called Vulgar Latin. It is useful to note that “vulgar” does not relate to the pejorative meanings like ‘tasteless’ or, ‘indecent’ but rather to its original meaning: ‘common’ or, ‘vernacular’.

With the then widely growing Roman Empire, classical Latin became an influential language. It is from Latin that we derive such words as ‘Salary’ and ‘Sausage’. These two words actually have a common origin having entered the English language in the 14th century. Salary derives from the Latin ‘salarium’, which meant ‘salt-money’.

To Roman soldiers of the time, salt was an important commodity, as it was a mineral used to preserve foodstuffs.

‘Sausage’ was another addition to English in relation to salt with its root Latin word ‘salsicium’, which meant ‘meat made with salt’ or, ‘salted meat’. Let’s break them down: both words begin with ‘sal’, which means ‘salt’. Other words such as salsa and salata are Latin for ‘salted’. But today they take on entirely different meanings, as a salsa is a sauce and salata is a salad.

How about some true English words. There are words like ‘silly’ and ‘nice’ that had very different meanings in the past. When ‘silly’ was first used about a thousand years ago, it meant something or somebody that was happy or blessed. As time passed, it adopted the definition of being innocent. Once again it changed to mean a person who one should feel pity because there is something “wrong” with them, and a silly person was once a feeble-minded one.

As you may know, one can be silly but intelligent. A silly person to me is one who lacks common sense or good judgment.

And what about someone being described as ‘nice’, I hear you say. Well, nice arrived in the English language during the 1300s. It referred to a person who was ignorant or foolish. Having shift to another negative side with definitions as ‘lazy’, ‘fussy’ or ‘showy’ as the centuries moved. Before the 1700s, ‘nice’ was associated with well-dressed people, careful persons and, also, those who were particular. One could say that being particular is similar to being fussy, though.

Post 1700 and the word ‘nice’ was an indicator of a large number of positive traits, as opposed to its negatively defined roots. Isn’t that nice?

The STAR Team

A Brief History Of The English Language

English Language History

English is a West Germanic language. Its history and origins are divided into three stages:

  • Old English
  • Middle English
  • Contemporary English

A Brief History Of The English Language

Old English

Otherwise known as Anglo-Saxon, was formed between the years 700 and 1100 AD. The first English words arrived in England during many invasions from people in neighbouring lands such as the Jutes from Denmark, the Angles and Saxons from what is now modern day Germany, the Frisians from what is now the northern Netherlands & parts of Belgium and the Nordic Vikings from what is now Norway and Sweden. There are still a great number of Anglo-Saxon words used today, as a result of the communication between these various Germanic peoples. Take the English word call: its origins lie in the Viking word, “caellian” meaning, to call or to scream.

Scandinavian and German influences are felt today, but Old English is very far from the current English you and I know well — its alphabet is almost unrecognisable.

Middle English

From 1100 AD onwards, and into the dark ages, signified an important advancement of the English language. It was from the late 12th century to the late 15th century that Middle English was predominantly spoken throughout the island of Great Britain. When William I of Normandy, also known as William the Conqueror, won the battle for England against the Anglo-Saxons, he was crowned as William I, Norman King of England. Norman-French became the court language and 65,000 emigrant French scholars brought their language influences with them, too. The common people of England still spoke Old English, however, over time French words gradually made their way into the slowly evolving Middle English dialect. To this day, many French words are still in use, as they were mostly new words without an English equivalent.

One English word of interest is ‘dandelion‘. Having arrived in Middle English during the late middle ages; anglicised from the Old French word ‘dent-de-lion‘, it literally means ‘lion’s tooth‘. There is no record of this plant having an official name in old English. Although it has had many colloquial names attached to it throughout early Mediaeval European history. Perhaps you may have heard of ‘piss-a-bed‘ or ‘blowball‘ or, ‘Irish daisy‘.

Contemporary English

From the late 15th century, the humble inception of Contemporary English began. Just before the initial stages of the Renaissance in the Italian states, English began to have a real grammatical structure. There is a strong influence of Greek and Latin with words like maternity, skeleton, vacuum, explain & system. The English representative of this period of ‘rebirth’ was William Shakespeare (1564-1616), one of the World’s most famous writers. Shakespeare was known for bringing new life into ancient classical words and even creating some of his own. The word ‘moonbeam‘ is one such example of his clever contractions of already existing words, but by placing them together he gave them new meaning.

Even today, one can see minor changes that countries like the United Sates, Canada, Australia & New Zealand have made on English. All Languages continue to evolve over time, especially the English language because it is so widely spoken. Who knows what English will look and sound like in one hundred years time.

To Be Continued.

The STAR Team

How Wordy Are You?

How wordy are you?

Question Time / Clip art

Word Games

Think you’ve got a broad vocabulary? Consider yourself a wordsmith? Test your knowledge here!

We’ve put together an interesting test for you. We’ve compiled six questions plus a bonus 7th question to test your maths skills. Just for good measure!

  1. What 5-letter word reads exactly the same when you turn it upside down?
  2. Can you name a 15-letter word with no repeat letters, otherwise known as an ‘isogram’?
  3. What is the only word in the English language with three consecutive sets of double letters?
  4. What is the only word in the English language with one vowel occurring five times?
  5. Therein: a seven letter word in the English language that contains nine words within it. Can you find all nine words without rearranging any of the letters as they appear in the word? Note: do not count the word itself!
  6. What two words in the English language use all of the vowels, in the correct order. Hint: both words end with a ‘y’?
  7. What is the value of 1/2 of 2/3 of 3/4 of 4/5 of 5/6 of 6/7 of 7/8 of 8/9 of 9/10 of 1,000?


  1. SWIMS
  2. Well done if you answered any of the 4 possible words below
    • Subdermatoglyphic (17)
    • Uncopyrightables (16)
    • Dermatoglyphics (15)
    • Troublemakings (14)
  3. Bookkeeper
  4. Indivisibility
  5. There are nine words excluding the word ‘therein’ itself: the; there; he; in; rein; her; here; ere; herein.
  6. Abstemiously and facetiously
  7. 100. Below is a table of the process of how we worked it out

Subdermatoglyphic isn’t an official word, but it’s used by skincare professionals; it cannot be found in any English dictionary. Perhaps if the word were hyphenated it could then be used correctly i.e. sub-dermatoglyphic

Start Fraction Answer
1000 x 9/10 900
900 x 8/9 800
800 x 7/8 700
700 x 6/7 600
600 x 5/6 500
500 x 4/5 400
400 x 3/4 300
300 x 2/3 200
200 x 1/2 100

The STAR Team

What is the difference between to let and to rent?

What is the difference between to let and to rent?

To let or to rent?

Difference between to let and to rent

You see these signs everywhere you go: To Let, To Rent, For Sale, etc. But what’s the difference between to let and to rent? Isn’t letting the same as renting?

To Let

To let is only used by the owner of a property. For example, the owner of a house or an apartment may want to give the possession and use of it to somebody else for a fixed period. The owner then receives periodic payment in return for letting out the property.

To Rent

The infinitive verb to rent can be used in the same situation as to let, but with a more general sense. The verb to rent can be used by someone who will allow somebody else to use whatever it is that they are giving. Be it a house, a bicycle, a video, etc. Another example: we want to rent a car for a holiday. As you can see, it’s very easy to use this verb in different situations.

Rent is also a noun for the payment a tenant dispenses to their landlord / landlady.

Another view on this (in terms of property) is that a landlord / landlady lets and a tenant rents.

These are easy to confuse with one another; however, you now have the guidelines for their proper use.

The STAR Team

What’s the difference between crocodile and alligator?

Difference between crocodile and alligator

Am I an alligator or a crocodile? / Stock photo

Difference between crocodile and alligator

A crocodile is the name we use to talk about a family of crocodilians such as the Nile crocodile, Caiman etc.

What is the difference…?


Crocodiles are predatory reptiles that live in the tropical regions of the world; their heads are thin and pointed, their legs short and they have long tails.


Alligators come from the crocodilian family alligatoridae, which inhabit mainly Mexico, the United States and China. Alligators are large semiaquatic reptiles similar to crocodiles except that they have broader and shorter heads.

All alligators are crocodilian, but not all crocodilians are alligators!

When we use the word crocodile, we really mean to say crocodilian. There are three main families of crocodilian and twenty-three species of them.

Does the photo above feature an crocodile or an alligator?

Wikipedia has more info on the Alligatoridae family and on the Crocodilia family.

Answer: Alligator

The STAR Team

What is the difference between ghost and ghoul?

Difference between ghost and ghoul

Ghost or ghoul? / Stock photo

Difference between ghost and ghoul

Halloween is upon us. But do you know the difference between ghost and ghoul?


A ghost, or spectre or phantom, is an apparition of a dead spirit or a soul. The descriptions of this apparition varies from invisible presence to a translucent, albeit visible shape.

In many traditional accounts, ghosts are out for revenge or have to stay on earth because of the bad things they did during their lifetime as mortals.


A ghoul is an undead monster which eats human flesh. It’s an evil demon who is able to take the form of an animal often a hyena, but also the form of the most recent person whom it has eaten.

Even though it can change its shape, it has one unchanging feature: donkey’s hooves for feet. This creature also drinks blood and steals coins.

There are big differences between these two supernatural creatures. Watch out when you’re trick or treating!

The STAR Team

What is the difference between distributor and agent?

What's the difference between distributor and agent?

Difference between Distributor and Agent / Stock photo

Difference between distributor and agent

When people discuss export sales, they often have to think about what type of legal entity to have abroad. Should you have an office, a distributor or a sales agent?

But what is the difference between distributor and agent?

The Distributor

A distributor sells a supplier’s products to their customers. The distributor assumes liability for the products so it can be a very high risk for them. Moreover, the contract of the sale is only between the customer and the distributor. The distributor isn’t permitted to create a contract between the supplier and customer. Therefore, any deal a distributor makes with a customer is short-lived.

The Agent

A sales agent is employed by a company with the task to negotiate and sell goods on their behalf. An agent acts as a medium between a supplier and a distributor and has the authority to sell products in the name of the supplier. They tend to create contracts directly for the supplier with whom they work.

In a nutshell, an agent is a person who acts on behalf of another person, group or organization.

The STAR Team

Source: Oxford English Dictionary