Errors of our ways

Not sure when to use “practice” and “practise” or “discrete and discreet”? Graham Hopkins explains.

On reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Bristol-born physicist Paul Dirac (1902-84) said: “It is nice, but in one of the chapters the author made a mistake. He describes the sun rising twice on the same day.”

This is the plague on the bane of writing: while you think that what you’ve written is solid, safe and effective, someone out there will put you right. This article aims to help in spotting the swagger of small slip-ups.

As a verb affect means “influence” or “have an effect on” (which explains the frequent confusion) as in “This policy has affected the way we work with service users”. As a verb effect means “accomplish” or “make something happen” as in “This policy has effected change.” But it is rather bland, formal usage – hence its popularity among senior management. As a noun, effect is the word you want to describe the result, outcome or influence: “The policy had a big effect on the quality of life of users.”

Can means something is possible. May carries the weight of permission. “You can drive a car while drunk, but you may not.”

Managers enjoy unleashing phrases such as “discreet service” – which might do well in a West End phone box. They mean, one presumes, “discrete service”. Discreet means “careful” while discrete means “distinct”.

Despite what most of the social care world seems to think, this does not mean “bored” or “uninterested” but rather means “objective” or “impartial”. Such is the misuse that its proper use could cause confusion or offence. For example: “Thank you for your complaint. As I have complete disinterest in your complaint I will investigate it.”

Sorry to distribute disillusionment but “fortuitous” does not mean “fortunate”. It actually means “accidental” or “by chance”. A fortuitous meeting, therefore, may not be all that fortunate.

No problems for this in the US as there’s only the one spelling – “practice” (and not “practise” as is commonly assumed). However, in the UK, there is a distinction. “Practice” is the noun – as in “social care practice”, while “practise” is the verb – as in “Ipractise medicine”. It might be helpful to think of “device” and “devise” to crack the problem.

Both words co-exist but as “preventive” has one less syllable it has much more to commend it.

“The principal officer believes in the principles of social care and this was the principal point he made in his report.” Sorted. In principle, at least.

On probation…

– “Probation officers have to deal with a wide range of people who vary in sex.”

– “Probation’s main aim is to help offenders dissolve their crime habits.”

– “Probation officers are half male and half female.”

Thanks to Clare Seymour, senior lecturer in social work, Anglia Polytechnic University. Contributions welcome. Please send them to  

Empower corrupts….

– A social worker was visiting a service user with a home care manager in order to carry out an assessment. The home care manager said: “We aim to provide a service which empowers you to make your own decisions”, to which the service user replied: “That’s very kind of you, but I don’t need to be empowered as I’ve just signed up with British Gas.”

Thanks (again) to Clare Seymour

Please send in examples of jargon, gobbledegook and management-speak to  

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