Continuing my series unpicking some of the most commonly confused words in the English language…

Faze / Phase

Faze is a weird word in meaning and usage as well as spelling. To faze means to disturb, worry or confuse. Examples:

When asked to give an example, he was completely fazed.

Would it faze you if I brought my pet tarantula to your dinner party?

Faze is often used in the negative, eg:

Bertha was not fazed by public speaking.

Actually, people might say those things, but what they often write is something like: Bertha was not phased by public speaking. Don’t make this mistake! (Bertha is a formidable woman, and she won’t like it, because it’s wrong.)

You might remember to use faze because it rhymes with amaze. Something that amazes you might faze you too! They are both spelt with a Z. (OK, I’m clutching at straws here.)


A phase is a period of time or a stage in development, eg:

We’re not worried about his green hair – it’s just a phase he’s going through.

Phase 2 of the project will begin in 2059.

When used as a verb (an action), to phase means to do something in gradual stages (usually to phase in or phase out). Eg:

The council plans to phase in a new waste collection service.

The old system will be phased out over the next year.

I trust these examples will stop you being fazed by faze and phase.

Fewer / Less

Like who / whom and practice / practise, there will be no confusion if you use less in the ‘wrong’ way. But there are plenty of people who will spot it, and some of them may point it out to you, so you might like to know the ‘rules’.

Technically, less is meant for things that are not being counted. For example:

less air; less bother; less material; less money

(Obviously we can count money. But what we are actually counting is coins or dollars or pounds etc. We don’t count the word ‘money’. We wouldn’t say, ‘One money, two money, three money…’ It’s just itself. You can’t have two or three of it.)

Other correct examples:

Jack Spratt eats less fat than his wife.

We are beginning to use a lot less plastic.

Vlad the Impaler was much less trouble than his little sister.

If you can count the things you are talking about, technically you should use fewer (not less). Few means not many, and fewer means not as many or a smaller number. Eg:

London had fewer visitors than last year.

The runner up had six fewer points than the winner.

Cats have fewer legs than centipedes.

The Oxford English Dictionary (12th edition, 2011) says: ‘The use of less with a count noun (eg, ‘less words’) is wrong in Standard English, although a very common error.’ The thing is, though, ‘very common errors’ eventually become the new standard, especially if there is no confusion caused by that ‘error’. As mentioned above, no-one will misunderstand you if you always use less.

But you want to make appropriate choices with your language – that’s why you’re here. If you come across the word fewer where you might use less, I hope this has helped you understand why.

Flaunt / Flout

It’s possible that these get mixed up in writing because people aren’t sure how to say the word flaunt. It certainly looks similar to flout, but it is pronounced very differently.

Flaunt rhymes with haunt and gaunt. It means to make a big flashy show of something.

Whereas flout means to openly go against convention – it rhymes with out.

So you flout the rules / law (not flaunt them). Examples:

Bertha flouts the ‘black ink’ rule by using a scarlet pen on all official documents.

If nobody flouted convention, so many things would never change.

If you write or say ‘flaunt the rules’, it’s probably wrong. That means drawing attention to the rules in a very big way. If someone in full Rio Carnival costume (sparkly bikini, lots of rhinestones and a huge feather head-dress) was waving a rule book in your face, you could say they were flaunting the rules. But is that really what you mean?

Here’s flaunt used the way it should be:

The Duchess lived modestly – she had no desire to flaunt her wealth.

Jim knew loads of facts about goldfish, and flaunted his knowledge whenever he could.

Flaunt and flout are both good words. They sound interesting, which is why we like to use them, and they look similar, so the confusion is understandable. They are also both connected with doing something openly. But don’t flaunt your misunderstanding by using the wrong one.


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