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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries
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Elegant English: Sounds familiar

Given that homophones concern words with the same pronunciation, errors would not get detected when speaking but can be obvious in writing, and thus impart inadvertent awkwardness as they rarely get caught by a spellchecker.

In previous articles in this column, we have already looked at some errors concerning homophones. The article on hyphens explained that risk-bearing capital 
doesn’t bear a resemblance to risk-baring capital. The article on apostrophes highlighted noticeable errors in writing among these groups of words: it’s and its; you’re and your; who’s and whose; there’s and theirs; and they’re, their and there.

A common pitfall is between pairs of words such as practice and practise, and licence and license. The words with the penultimate letter as ‘c’ are nouns while the ones with ‘s’ are verbs. One can form an actuarial practice, get it licensed, practise there and provide actuarial advice (differentiated from the verb advise).

The examples that follow provide other instances of pairs of words that get confused in writing. Certain words carry more than one meaning; however, it is only the meaning that is most relevant to actuarial work that is given in these examples.

A report stating “Bored members meet once a month” is likely to impart a rather different image to that of Board members meeting, although it may be true that the meeting participants are indeed bored.

Complement as both a noun and a verb alludes to an accompaniment that improves, enhances or completes. Compliment as both a noun and a 
verb refers to praise and admiration. 
A powerful server can complement 
the running of a stochastic model, 
but regardless of how powerful it may 
be, it does not have the ability to compliment anything. A consultant proposing services to complement a 
firm’s model is rather different to one suggesting services to compliment the model.

Note also the difference between the adjectives complementary (enhancing) and complimentary (free of charge). 
A policyholder purchasing complementary contents insurance with buildings insurance is one buying contents insurance along with buildings insurance to get a more comprehensive product. On the other hand, a policyholder who has complimentary contents insurance with buildings insurance is one who has been given the contents cover for free when buying the buildings insurance.

Discrete means separate or distinct, whereas discreet means careful or prudent. Thus, a level of discretion is advisable when deciding on whether to describe probability distributions as discrete (for example, non-continuous) or discreet.

Principal is usually used as an adjective denoting main, primary or fundamental. 
As a noun, it refers to the most senior person in an organisation. Principle relates to belief or system of thought. A major assumption in an actuarial analysis can be referred to as a principal principle on which the analysis is based. An impartial headmaster can be said to be a principled principal.

Stationary means not moving or static, while stationery refers to writing materials such as pens. A stationery cupboard is usually a stationary cupboard. A stationery price index (if one were to exist) may be stationary or variable.

A variable that is weakly correlated to another suggests an insubstantial relationship between the two variables. A variable that is weekly correlated to another may suggest a connection that is discernible when both are observed at intervals of a week.

Finally, two pairs of words that seem to cause much confusion, even though they are not homophones as they are not pronounced in the same way, are affect and effect, and adverse and averse. Affect is usually a verb signifying making a difference. Effect is used as both a noun and a verb: as the former, it means a result; as the latter, it means to bring about a result. Thus, in these sentences, it would not be meaningful to use ‘affect’ in place of ‘effect’ and vice versa:

• Bad weather affects driving conditions
• The effect of bad weather is poorer 
driving conditions
• Bad weather effects poorer driving conditions.

Adverse means unfavourable or harmful. To be averse to something is to have a dislike for that thing. Averse is often used in conjugations such as ‘not averse to’ when expressing an inclination towards something. An example of the use of these words is: an insurer would be averse to adverse claim movements.

It pays to proofread so as to avert homophone mishaps when putting 
words to paper. As Rudyard Kipling said: “Words are, of course, the most powerful drugs used by mankind.”


Sonal ShahSonal Shah is a general insurance actuary currently working as an independent consultant on Solvency II documentation