English spelling – Why different options?

The English language spread throughout the world when the British Empire established overseas trading posts and colonies between the late 16th and early 18th centuries.

In every country the language developed in different ways. In the United States, English acquired a substantially different accent, the use of words changed, and so did the spelling. South Africa, Australia, and Canada still follow British spelling, but in each country the language is spoken with a different accent and has unique local terminology.

The major spelling differences

  South Africa and UK USA
ou / o Favour, flavour, harbour, arbour, labour, colour, humour, neighbour Favor, flavor, harbor, arbor, labor, color, humor, neighbor
s / z Preferred version: Organisation, organise, realise, apologise, recognise, analyse, paralyse

The Z-version is also used, in SA mainly in government documents.

Organization, organize, realize, apologize, recognize, analyze, paralyze
re / er Centre, theatre, metre, litre, fibre Center, theater, meter, liter, fiber
mme / m Programme, although program is also used in a computing context Program
ll / l Travelled, travelling, traveller


Traveled, traveling, traveler


ae or oe / e Leukaemia, manoeuvre, oestrogen, paediatric Leukemia, maneuver, estrogen, pediatric
ogue / og Analogue, catalogue, dialogue Analog, catalog, dialog

How to get it right

The easiest way to avoid the “wrong” English spelling is to go to the MS Word menu, select Review, select Language, select Set proofing language and choose the applicable English version. It also takes care of the squiggly red lines under words that you know you’ve spelt correctly.

What to watch out for

If you quote text from a publication of another country, then it must be quoted with its original spelling.

South African spelling is still very much in line with British spelling. But there are a few words where we have options. Choose one and stick with it:

  • advisor or adviser
  • focused or focussed
  • judgment or judgement
  • enquiry or inquiry

That takes care of spelling. The use of grammar is another kettle of fish.


Theoretically the rules of grammar are the same in every country, regardless of how they pronounce or spell words. But bad grammar is spreading rapidly.

Many people learn English by watching television. To make stories realistic, fictional characters speak the way people speak in real life – slang, bad grammar and all. Then people who watch the shows copy what they hear on TV. And the next TV series still has characters speaking the same way people do, and the cycle continues.

In books you can see the contrast between the use of language in the narrative (which should follow correct grammar rules) and that of characters. A much better way to learn a language.

Some of the bad habits that are evident in today’s spoken English are the use of adjectives instead of adverbs, plural verbs with singular nouns (see Collective nouns and verb agreement), and incorrect use pronouns (see Me, Myself and I – the personal pronoun puzzle).

© Andrea Paulsen

How to write numbers

Words or numerals

In words from one to nine and in numerals from 10 onwards. Exceptions:

  • Chapter 1
  • Grade 2
  • Fractions: 3.4 or 8½
  • Age groups: 2-3 years old
  • Dialogue: “I turned twenty-three.”
  • In fiction: She was twenty-three when…
  • Numbers next to each other: 50 ten-metre poles
  • At the beginning of sentences: Two hundred and twenty people attended the event.

Thousand separators

  • In South Africa, except for the accounting profession, we write thousands with a space before the last three digits: 10 000
  • For a global audience (websites etc) use commas as thousand separators: 10,000

Hyphens in numbers

  • Twenty-one (21)
  • Two hundred and fifty-four (254)
  • Three thousand four hundred and fifty-seven (3,457)
  • Twenty-five thousand seven hundred and eighty-two (25,782)
  • Fifty-two million two hundred and ninety-seven thousand three hundred and fifty-two (52,297,352)

Percentages and fractions with a full stop

13.4% (use either % sign or write out percent – be consistent)

Amounts have no space after the denomination

  • ZAR100 or €100 or US$100
  • If your website or documents are for a South African audience use R, and ZAR for international use
  • In continuous text use the word “rand” – all lower case
  • Only write R10 000.50 if there are cents; don’t write R10 000.00 – too much clutter


  • Add a space before km, kg, or pm: 5 km, 2 kg, 6 pm
  • No plurals: 200 km not kms


Choose one option and stick with it throughout a document:

  • 9.30 am and 6 pm
  • 9h30 and 18h00
  • 9:00 and 18:00

Telephone and fax numbers

  • Locally: 011 888 1234
  • Internationally: +27 11 888 1234


  • Contemporary style: 30 September 2019
  • Don’t use, it’s old-fashioned: the 30th of September 2019
  • American: September 30, 2019

© Andrea Paulsen Communications

Acronyms and abbreviations – alphabet soup?

Abbreviations and acronyms are shorter versions of words or phrases.


Acronyms are formed by using the first letters of an organisation, a device, or phrase to create a new word. They’re usually written in capital letters. If an acronym has four letters or more and you can pronounce it, then you can use upper and lower case. But if it’s a company or product name, be guided by how they write it.

When acronyms are pronounced as words, like Unicef, leave out the article and refer to them as Unicef not “the Unicef”. Even though you might refer to them as the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund when written in full.

Acronyms that have become words in their own right are written lower case:

  • radar (radio detection and ranging)
  • sonar (sound navigation and ranging)
  • scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus)
  • laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation)
  • modem (modulator-demodulator)


Names of organisations are often abbreviated by using the first letter of each word. If you have an international audience, be aware that these can mean different things in different countries. For example, RAF. In the UK this stands for Royal Air Force, in South Africa it means Road Accident Fund.

Therefore, it’s best to write all words out once with the abbreviation in brackets the first time: British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). But don’t use quotation marks for the letters in brackets. It’s often done in legal documents, but has no place in articles, on websites, in brochures, or other marketing material.

The contemporary style is to write acronyms and abbreviations without full stops.

  • ASAP/asap – as soon as possible
  • ADD – attention deficit disorder
  • ATM – automated teller machine
  • B&B – Bed and breakfast
  • CAPTCHA – completely automated public turing test to tell computers and humans apart
  • DOB – date of birth
  • DIY – do it yourself
  • DVD – digital versatile disc
  • ETA – estimated time of arrival
  • FAQ – frequently asked questions
  • GIF – graphics interchange format
  • ID – identification document
  • Inc – Incorporated
  • IQ – intelligence quotient
  • mph – miles per hour
  • NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • OTC – over the counter
  • Prof – Professor
  • PS – post script
  • St – street
  • SUV – sports utility vehicle
  • TBA – to be announced
  • UFO – unidentified flying object


Just add an “s”:

  • Ts & Cs
  • DVDs
  • CVs
  • NGOs

Often people add an apostrophe before the “s”, but that’s wrong. Find out more about when to use apostrophes here.

©Andrea Paulsen


Compound nouns

A noun is a word used to identify people, places, or things. A compound noun has the same function but is made up of two or more words. It could be a noun plus another noun, or a noun plus a verb, adjective, adverb, or preposition, or a prepositional phrase. Or it can be a verb plus an adjective, adverb, or preposition. 

cat food


cat (noun) + food (noun)



home (noun) + work (noun or verb)

swimming pool


swimming (verb) + pool (noun)



soft (adjective) + ware (noun)



on (preposition) + looker (noun)



off (preposition) + spring (verb)



dry (adjective) + cleaning (verb)



draw (verb) + back (adverb)



mother (noun) + in-law (prepositional phrase)

tennis shoe


tennis (noun) + shoe (noun)

The first part of the compound noun tells us the type or purpose; the second part specifies what the object or who the person is.

The first word describes or modifies the second word.



police (type) + man (who)

swimming pool


swimming (purpose) + pool (what)

A compound noun can be written as a single word, hyphenated, or as two words. Most of them are written as one word, but there are no rules. When it’s an established compound noun, your dictionary or spellcheck will provide guidance. But new compound nouns are continuously created – try writing them as one word and if that doesn’t read well, keep them as two words.


There’s a difference between a compound noun and an adjective plus a noun. In a compound noun, the emphasis is usually on the first syllable.

A greenhouse is a place where you grow plants. (compound noun)

A green house is house that’s painted green. (adjective plus a noun)

©Andrea Paulsen


Why every company needs a writing style guide

A style guide, or “house style”, is the way your company presents written communications. This includes visual elements such as layout and font type. But also grammar and spelling, uniform ways of writing dates and words that have different spelling options, and much more.

It looks unprofessional and reflects badly on a company when clients receive emails and letters from various staff members and, bar the logo, you wouldn’t know they came from the same organisation. Because they all look different, with layout and font left to the various writers’ preferences.

What needs to be done?

The agency that designed your logo will have made recommendations on how it should be used on your building signage, printed material, your website, your email signature, corporate gifts – really on anything with your logo on it.

But it doesn’t stop there. Your writing style needs to be aligned, too. Collect a sample of every type of document you send out: letters, pitches, reports, newsletters, emails, etc.

A marketing professional can then assess the best style for each document: when to use which fonts and heading styles, what line spacing should be applied, etc.

In addition, you need rules on spelling and grammar. Here are a few examples:

  • How to write and abbreviate your company’s name
  • Capitalisation of words unique to your industry or your company that would usually not be capitalised in the English language
  • The type of bullets and punctuation to be used for lists
  • Whether to write abbreviations with or without full stops
  • How to write dates and time (18h00 or 18:00 or 6 pm)
  • Which way to spell words that have alternative spelling options (judgment or judgement; focused or focussed, etc)
  • How to write numbers, when to use italics, and more…

The key is consistency

Once your house style is in place, communicate it to everyone – and make it non-negotiable. It must be used and applied to all your communications: inhouse and to clients. And that includes newsletters, brochures, and your website.

Another important issue when it comes to writing marketing material is your firm’s tone of voice: Your own, distinctive writing style. Of course, it may depend on your industry and target audience as to how formal or casual this should be.

The design elements, your house style, and your organisation’s tone of voice are all part of your corporate identity. These are important for every company, regardless of its size. Even if you’re just starting out, if you position yourself in the market from the outset with these elements in place, it’s easier to transition smoothly into becoming a bigger company.

© Andrea Paulsen

Marketing in times of uncertainty

Beginning of last year, I recommended to start the year with a marketing plan. But the year turned out so different to anything we could have imagined, and many marketing plans and ideas were shelved. Some for good reason. With reduced income, the marketing budget also shrinks. But the bigger problem was that nobody knew what would work in our constantly changing world. So, many of us did the best we could with what we had; others had a “wait and see” approach.

The tumultuous year of 2020 presented us with unprecedented crises and challenges. It was a year of constant change, of learning new ways to do business amidst ongoing uncertainty. We were stretched to the limit in our ability to cope and to overcome.

But we’ve learnt to adjust, to improvise, to innovate, to work remotely, and to meet online. Many of us have learnt more in the past 10 months than we have in the past 10 years. And many of us were probably surprised by our resilience in the year that was.

My take-away from 2020: The only thing we can be sure of is that uncertainty is going to be our new way of life. How we operate our businesses and how we market our services will have to remain flexible. But:

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
Albert Einstein

Marketing in 2021

A new year – a fresh start?

Although we’re still in a season of uncertainty, it’s time to get your marketing back on track if you want to retain and grow your client base. As David Ogilvy, one of the advertising greats of our time, said:

Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you’re doing, but nobody else does.”

Marketing is one of the most important aspects of business survival. You’ve got to have a marketing strategy to promote your brand. If your budget is limited, prioritise digital because that’s where you’ll get the most bang for your buck.

Expand your digital presence

The most cost-effective way to get you message out is via social media and email.

Keep in touch with your existing client base through regular updates. They need reassurance of your ongoing availability to deliver your services. Prospective clients also need to see your consistent presence to develop confidence in your ability to provide continuity of service.

  • Your website. Your website is your No 1 priority. It’s your calling card. If you haven’t got one, get one. If you have one, refresh the design if the look is outdated. Replace existing content with updated information and upload new items regularly.
  • Social media. People are more active on social media than ever. You can’t afford not to be seen. Have a schedule for regular posts of newsworthy information, and posts around holidays and other events.
  • Newsletters. Write articles that you can send out in an email newsletter, post on your website and on social media, and submit to relevant publications. One article gets multiple exposures – that’s time well-spent.
  • Brochures, pitch templates, emailers. Update design and content. Email is your main method of direct communication with clients.
  • Webinars. Seminars used to be a good place to provide valuable information and network with clients. The same can be done online, just differently.

Ensure what you put out is presented in a professional manner with a consistent brand identity and voice. Your messaging cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. Be discerning in what you send out. Quality over quantity. Customise, personalise, and follow up.

Marketing is not only done by marketing people. We advise on the way forward, put a marketing plan in place, and do the groundwork by preparing your marketing tools. Telephonic follow-up by the people who provide the service you’re offering is crucial. People do business with people, not companies.

The right mindset

We’re not alone in how we experience living and working in our changed reality. How we deal with people, whether clients, suppliers, or staff, is more important than ever.

  • Focus on what you can do, not on restrictions and limitations.
  • Be flexible and open to suggestions. Do things differently.
  • Be solution-oriented. See how you can fix a situation, not who’s to blame for what went wrong.
  • Cooperate with others. Focus on what you have in common not on what divides you.
  • Be supportive, encourage rather than criticise. Kindness and understanding will go a long way. People rise to expectations given half a chance.
  • Be patient with others. We’re all still finding our bearings in our new way of life.

A last thought

Yes, you still need a marketing plan. When things change, adjust your plan. If your marketing activities last year didn’t give you the desired results, be bold and try something new.

 “When obstacles arise, you change your direction to reach your goal, you do not change your decision to get there.”
Zig Ziglar

 © Andrea Paulsen

Hyphens – making a connection

A hyphen is a punctuation mark that joins words or phrases. Here are some examples of its uses:

Compound adjectives

Joining two or more words to form an adjective:

  • Door-to-door selling
  • Business-to-business marketing
  • School-going children
  • Easy-to-use recipe
  • Long-term insurance
  • Bullet-proof vest

Compound nouns

  • Editor-in-chief
  • Son-in-law
  • Get-together


  • Ex-wife
  • Non-executive
  • Co-worker


Hyphenate before the noun but not after:

  • A 70-year-old woman (an adjective phrase).
  • My son is three years old.


  • Compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine.
  • Fractions: three-quarters, two-thirds.
  • Numbers that are part of compound adjectives: 500-metre race; 40-hour working week.

Avoid ambiguity

The meaning of words can be different with or without a hyphen:

  • I need to recover the money my brother borrowed from me (get it back) before I can afford to re-cover my dining chairs (put on new covers).


  • Hyphens are used to indicate the division of a word at the end of a line.
  • Hyphens can also indicate a missing element: medium- to long-term.

The evolution of words: Sometimes hyphenated, sometimes not

The prefix “e” stands for “electronic” in e-book, e-reader, and e-mail. But writing changes. The contemporary way to write “email” is without the hyphen.

  • Many new words transition from two words, to hyphenated, and then to one word: online, website, worldwide.
  • Sometimes they even skip the hyphenated phase: data base/database; health care/healthcare.
  • Often both options are still used: co-operation and cooperation.

When there are different spelling options, decide which one you prefer and use it consistently.

© Andrea Paulsen

What do sand and news have in common?

They are uncountable nouns.

“Switch the TV on. The news is starting in a few minutes.”

Often wondered why the word “news” is used with a singular verb? It’s got an “s” at the end, so it sounds like a plural noun. But it’s actually an “uncountable noun”. Uncountable nouns have no plural form and always take a singular verb.

Uncountable nouns are substances or abstract concepts or qualities that cannot be quantified without adding an explanation, or a measurement. Like water or money or information.

You can’t count water; you can count bottles of water. Same with money; you have to add a denomination and an amount: U$500.

You can’t use “a” or “an” with uncountable nouns. To express quantities, you can add words or phrases like any, some, a lot of, much, a bit of, a great deal of, etc:

Have you got any money?
I have some information for you.

Or you can use an exact measurement like a cup of, a bag of, a litre of, a handful of, a pinch of, etc.

If you want to know the quantity of an uncountable noun, you ask “How much?” or “How many …?”

I have no time for this now.
Q: How much time do you have?

I don’t think we have enough water for everyone.
Q: How many bottles do we have?

Other examples of uncountable nouns:

Advice, air, art, beauty, butter, coffee, currency, electricity, evidence, fear, furniture, gas, happiness, knowledge, love, luggage, music, news, power, research, rice, safety, sand, sugar.

© Andrea Paulsen

Prefixes – a few letters that change everything

A prefix is a word or syllable added at the beginning of another word that changes its meaning. Some negate the original meaning, some change the word to mean the opposite, others expand on the meaning.

Here are some examples:



a not amoral, asymmetric
anti opposite, against anti-inflammatory, antibiotic
auto self automobile, autobiography
bi two biweekly
co together cooperation, coexist
contra against contraindicate
de reverse, undo degrade, deactivate
dis opposite of disappear, disagree, disconnect
down reduce downgrade, downshift
dys negative dysfunction
ex out, previous ex-boss
extra greater extraordinary
fore before foresight
hemi half hemisphere
hetero different heterosexual
homo same homophobia
hyper more hyperactive, hypertension
hypo less hypoglycemia
il not illegal, illogical
im lack of, not imbalance, impossible
in not, without inactive, injustice, invisible
infra below infrared
inter between interactive
intra within intracellular
ir without irregular, irreversible
mal bad malodorous
mega large, superlative megastore, megaphone
micro small microscope
mid middle midterm, midseason
mis incorrect, wrong misunderstand, misplace
mono same monotone
non not nonfiction, nonsense
over too much overcook, overdone
pan all pan-African
para beside, beyond paranormal, paramilitary
post after postoperative
pre before preassembled, preschool
pro for, before proactive
re again reconsider, re-evaluate, rewrite
self acting by itself self-cleaning
semi half semi-retired
sub below subzero, sub-Saharan Africa, submarine
super above, more supermarket
trans across, change transatlantic
ultra beyond ultraviolet, ultramarathon
un not, opposite unhappy, unkind, unusual
xeno foreign xenophobia

© Andrea Paulsen

Prepositions – the basics

Prepositions connect nouns or pronouns with the rest of a sentence. They’re short words that yield a lot of power. Prepositions expand on what you’re saying by specifying time, place, and direction.

The most used prepositions are: as, at, but, by, for, from, in, next, of, off, on, out, over, since, than, to, until, up, with.

Other common prepositions are: about, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, because of, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, close to, down, during, except, inside, instead of, into, like, near, on top of, onto, out of, outside, past, through, toward, upon, within, without.

There’s no formula or method that tells you which preposition to use. They are also very tricky to translate, because most languages use different prepositions in the same context. When it comes to knowing the right preposition, you just have to learn by reading good quality writing and memorising them.

  • You’re as tall as your brother. You’re older than your sister.
  • You’re just in time for a meeting, when you arrive at the last minute. You’re on time for a meeting when you have some time to spare.
  • You tell your dog to get off the couch. (not “off of”)
  • You can die of a disease, but you recover from it.
  • You can be embarrassed for somebody or be ashamed of their behaviour and feel superior to them because you don’t behave like that.
  • You can do something differently than somebody else, because their methods are different from yours.
  • You emigrate from a country and immigrate to another country.
  • You estimate the cost of a project to be about $5 million (never around), but not more than $8 million (never over).
Some prepositions can change the meaning of a phrase
  • You meet people at a restaurant, and if they’re late you’ll have to wait for them. Once everybody’s there, a waiter will wait on you. (Never say you’re waiting on somebody unless you are a waiter.)
  • You’re excited about something and excited for someone. Nowadays, many people say they are excited for something, which is wrong. Correct use: You’re excited about your next holiday. And you’re excited for your friend who has just landed her dream job.

©Andrea Paulsen