Access - assess - excess

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Access and excess are sometimes confused. In careful speech the two words are pronounced differently; in rapid or loose speech, they can sound identical. A spellchecker can allow you to confuse assess with access, both of which can be verbs.

  • Assess (say 'ass-ESS', IPA: /ə (or æ)ˈsɛs/), which is always a verb, means to judge (the need for, or the worth of). Don't confuse this with the plural of the animal 'an ass' asses, which is stressed on the first syllable - the spellchecker can.
  • Access is most usually a noun (when it is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable: 'AX-ess', IPA: /ˈæk sɛs/).
  • As a verb, 'to access' (also 'AXE-ess' /ˈæk sɛs/) means 'to get to', or (especially on the world-wide web) 'to gain admission to' [some form of knowledge]. The verbal use is more frequent in US, and US-influenced, English - most commonly in the fields of Information Technology and Libraries, where one can access a book, program or website etc. Traditional formal British English more commonly uses the construction gain (or have, etc.) access to.
  • Excess, which spellcheckers may confuse with either 'access' or 'assess', is an adjective or a noun. (The verb is to exceed.) The noun means, roughly, 'a surplus of': 'There was an excess of high spirits among the students.' The adjective means 'too much', e.g. 'The aeroplane has excess capacity.' Here the word is neutral; if there is a pejorative (disapproving) meaning, use the adjective excessive. In both forms, the stress is on the second syllable: 'ex-ESS', IPA: /ɪ(or ɛ or ə)k ˈsɛs/.
Old-fashioned academic English in Britain would prefer the nominal construction 'an excess of something' to the adjectival 'there was excess something.'