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This is a forum to discuss the gray areas of the English language for which you would not find answers easily in dictionaries or other reference books. You can browse through the latest questions and comments below. If you have a question of your own, please submit it here.

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Nowadays one routinely reads such sentences as...

 “The situation transformed into something quite different.”

“That translates as ‘Beware Greeks bearing gifts.’”

It’s a curious phenomenon that the passive is so often ditched. What’s going on?

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a) “Could I borrow your pen please?”  “Of course.”

b) Teacher: “Did you do your homework?”  Student: “Of course.” 

c)  Interviewee: “May I sit down?”   Interviewer (thinking: what a twit!): “Of course.”

d) Police: “Do you have ID, and license?” Driver: “Of course, officer. Good of you to ask”. 

e) Called from the shower: “Is it raining out?” Spouse: “Of course.” 

f) In hallway to home-comer: “Is it raining out?” Dripping home-comer: “Of course.”

g) At party: “Could I borrow your wife for a quickie?” “Of course.”

h) After party: “Are you coming?” Only sober car-owner/driver: “Of course.” 

i) Boss: “Can you have that report on my desk by 2300?” “Of course.”

Of course it may depend on how it is said, but where would it be dangerously ambiguous?

What alternatives are there which are safer?

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Why do some people, especially pseudo eloquent corporate types, insist on substituting “I” for “me” under the misplaced guise of speaking formal English: “Between you and I, the meeting was substandard”, “Thanks for taking Julie and I for dinner”. I know there’s not much to discuss here. It’s simply wrong but it represents a deeper misunderstanding of the use of nouns/pronouns. Personally I tolerate the incorrect use of “me” as the subject to a much greater extent (“me and Geoff went to the beach”) because although grammatically incorrect, it is acceptable to many in colloquial English. The use of “I” as the object is neither grammatically correct nor colloquial or formal. It is in a sense a clumsy grammatical over compensation. Besides people who make this error usually (but not always) over rate their own eloquence.

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Many years ago using the prefix co- and co meant two different things. Now they are used interchangeably, but is this correct? I was taught if you used co- you were a subordinate and if you used co you were equals. An example. A co-pilot is subordinate to a pilot, however coauthors means both writers were equal in the endeavor. Once upon a time, a co-chairwas subordinate to the chair. Now co-chair and cochair are used flagrantly to mean the same thing, they are equally sharing the duties of chairperson. What are your thoughts on this?

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All of a sudden spectators are not “looking on” but “watching on”. Does that make them onwatchers?

They no longer say “welcome to” but “welcome along to”.

“Early on” has become “early doors”.

Players now “contest for” the ball.

They now “update you” with the latest scores.

To me all of that is rather more idiotic than idiomatic.       :-))

I’m sure there are many more examples that I have (thankfully) missed.

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I should probably count myself fortunate that I almost reached my allotted three score and ten without having come across this dreadful word.

But alas my belief that a mentor has a protégé has now been cruelly shattered.

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Two scenarios:

  1. You are an antipodean cricket commentator and during a broadcast you realise that your Indian co-commentator is pronouncing some words/names differently from you.
  2. You are at a social gathering and notice that everyone else pronounces words/names differently from you.

The words/names in question could be for or example:

  • Tendulkar with a soft ‘oo’ sound as opposed to your hard ‘u’ (as in dull).
  • Nepal with “paul” as opposed to your ‘pal’.
  • Debut as ‘dehbyew’ as opposed to your ‘dayboo’.

In each situation how do you react?

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I’m all for the metric system, and I’m sure a lot of British schoolchildren would be well pissed off if UKIP’s idea of restoring the imperial system ever came to fruition. But I do find sentences like this, in a item on the BBC website, rather strange and unnatural:

Mr Teller says the first question is not “How can we make a tonne of money?”

I know that tonne is our unit of measurement now, but does it have to take over our idioms as well, especially as this is probably more of an American idiom anyway (I think we Brits would be more likely to say ‘ton(ne)s of money’)?

The following idioms are all listed in British dictionaries with ‘ton’ or ‘tons’:

They came down on him like a ton of bricks.

That bag of yours weighs a ton!

I’ve got tons of work to do.

We’ve got tons of food left over from the party.

I don’t know why the BBC insist on using tonne in idioms. Perhaps they think young people won’t know what a ton is. I say keep the idiomatic ton, and leave tonne for weights. After all people don’t say they’re off to spend a new penny, do they? (Actually I’m not sure anyone says that anymore anyway!)

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Discussion on appropriate use of these two phrases came up on another forum. I believe it depends on context. Would be interested in hearing other views.

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Another oddity from my favourite source, The New Zealand Herald:

“Perhaps it’s time to deal to the ads that are just plain downers?”

It may be an undetected error or a misprint, but knowing the Herald, I’m sure the author, the proof readers, and the editors, all thought that “deal to” made perfect sense in the given context.

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Latest Comments

Overhead yesterday in a coffee shop:
Customer: Excuse me; I was wondering if I could trouble you for a side salad.
Waitress: Side salad?

Slight mismatch of styles!

How should a waiter or bartender address a customer?
"Do you want .........................?"
"Would you like.....................?"

When you say, "Can I get..?" in the UK, it's generally considered a f**king rude Americanism. Happy Thanksgiving, though.

She and her father look alike
Her and her father look alike

age vs. aged

Which is correct? aged 45 years or over OR aged 45 years or more


Your apology is noted.


Although the addition of "got" may not follow the strictest syntax rules I believe it's use can be justified here because it serves as an intensifier that emphasizes the need to act is greater than the use of "have" alone connotes.
Also, when the contraction "I've" is used then the addition of "got" improves the word structure sonically by preserving the normal rhythm of a sentence because the contraction works as a single word that serves as the noun, or rather, pronoun of the sentence and leaves a need for another verb.

@WW Sorry, I assumed 'cacography' was just a made-up word - it's all Greek to me ;}

@jayles - OK, let's deal with cacography first. Yes, literally, in Greek, it means what you say, and that seems to be the standard dictionary definition, but it also seems to have taken on a new meaning, at least in linguistics:

"Cacography is deliberate comic misspelling, a type of humour similar to malapropism ... A common usage of cacography is to caricature illiterate speakers." Wikipedia.

Languages are creative like that, giving new meanings to adopted words, and so HS was perfectly correct.

You ask HS why he is resorting to Greek. But I could also ask why these (for me, at least) weird Anglish-inspired words have been noticeably creeping back into your own comments recently ("spider-dread" - come on, get real!). For me they have even less to do with natural English than Greek loan words, and I very much doubt that "normal people" have much time for them either.

English is a glorious mix - and I relish it. I have no objection to keeping things simple, but personally I hate this idea of language purism as much as I hate pedantry. Leave the language alone, it's just fine as it is!

I wouldn't have mentioned this if you hadn't brought the subject up :). And as for Stephen Fry, he has made one of the best commentaries on English I've ever seen:

mixing semicolon and em dash

Not an answer, but a comment on the use of dashes in British English. As far as I know BrE doesn't talk much about em-dashes, for example you won't often see -- (substituting for an em-dash) from British contributors to forums etc. We simply use a dash, in writing the same length as a en-dash, (but on a computer just using a single hyphen), and we put spaces either side - like that, for example. And they don't seem to be used nearly as much as in American English.

From one website on British grammar:

'The double dash encloses supplementary information in the same way as round brackets –
"Alaska – purchased from Russia in 1867 and granted statehood in 1959 – comprises some 586,000 square miles and 624,000 people."
But brackets are preferred in formal scripts.'

This is from the Chicago Manual of Style Online:

"note that it is also the common British practice to use an en dash with a word space on either side where American publishers would use an em dash closed up to the surrounding words"

But I've noticed that the Economist has recently started using M-dashes without gaps. In the online version they are obviously M-dashes, and there's no real problem, but in the print edition they don't seem to be as wide. This is really confusing my students (and me, to be honest), who think they are hyphens, reading the two separate words as one hyphenated word. It turns out that Polish, like British English always uses gaps. I'm beginning to wonder about other European languages. WW will have to investigate!