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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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Is “She was wearing the exact same outfit” grammatical? And if so, what part of speech is “exact”?

People use that phrase all the time, and seem to think it’s correct, so from a descriptive viewpoint it is correct. “Same” is clearly an adjective, and “exact” modifies “same”, so you would expect it to be an adverb.

So what’s the problem? Well, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition) doesn’t list “exact” as an adverb. It can only be an adjective (or a verb, with a different meaning). The adverb form is “exactly”. So if you take Webster as an authority, you should say “She was wearing exactly the same outfit” instead.

What’s the verdict? Do you think the first version of the sentence is grammatical or not?

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Why is it, when using the construction ‘only then’, do we reverse the verb order that follows? i.e. We must acquire funding. Only then can we achieve our goals.

A friend suggested it was for emphasis, but I thought I’d put it to the masses, too. I had a student put this question to me and could not come up with a grammatical reason. Is it just ‘English is that way’? Does anyone know of any other situations where this occurs without a question? Is there a name for this?

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Several people I know felt that this use of “concern” was correct: “She felt concern, but not enough to sacrifice...” I felt that it should be “concerned”. Two of them are professional writers, so I can’t argue much, but if “concern” is also correct, what is its function? Noun or adjective? If it’s a noun, shouldn’t it be “a concern”? If it’s an adjective, shouldn’t it be “concerned”? In dictionaries, “concern” is either a noun or a verb, not an adjective.

Oddly enough, the same people felt that “She felt scare” was clearly wrong. If “scare” is wrong and “scared” is correct, then shouldn’t the same hold true for “concern” and “concerned”?

On the web, I do see many people using “feel concern” although it is slightly less common than “feel concerned”.

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In linguistics, is there a term that refers to words (like “format”) that can function as either verb or noun?

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In the sentence, “I met him drunk,” couldn’t the adjective apply to either party, the “he” or the “I”?

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I work in the legal field and it is necessary to write out percentages. I need help. Is this the correct way? For 4.975% - would it be written “Four and Nine Hundred Seventy-Five Thousands percent”.

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Nouns describing activities don’t normally take an article in English e.g. I go running, I play cards, I hate tennis, etc.

Why then do many domestic activities take the definite article? e.g. I do the dishes, I do the hoovering, I hate doing the housework, etc.

Can somebody explain to me the rules that govern this type of construction? Are there any other examples of this kind of usage outside of the domestic sphere?

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This question came up a couple days ago at work, and spurred a lively, if puzzled, debate:

In the following sentence, what is the function of the word “black”?

The barista served the coffee black.

“Black” doesn’t seem to be adjectival, modifying “coffee”, because of the position: there’s a semantic difference between “served the coffee black” and “served the black coffee.” But it hardly seems adverbial, describing the manner in which the serving was done.

The same question applies to “painting the wall blue” and other similar constructions.

It seems to me that the adjectives here act like a kind of double accusative, but I thought double accusatives were typically used with verbs like “make.” So I really don’t know what kind of construction it is; I just know that I use it a lot.

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I’m accustomed to hearing people make grammatical mistakes, but occassionally I’ll start hearing new and painful trends that are so pervasive that I wonder if someone changed the rules while I was asleep. Case in point: how to negate constructions containing the words “all” or “some”. A few months ago, I was looking at some magazines at the grocery store and saw an ad asserting that “all insurance policies are not the same”. I’ve been hearing that kind of construction from high school kids for some time, but always attributed it to poor language skills. A few minutes later, I went to use the store’s bathroom and saw the following sign on the door: “All unpaid merchandise not allowed in restrooms”. Now those of you who grew up in the America that I grew up in know that prior to the George H.W. Bush administration, such locutions would have read “Not all insurance policies are the same” and “No unpaid merchandise allowed in restrooms”. What has happened here? I now hear this “all...not” construction constantly and I’m not sure what to make of it. When I hear a teacher lament, “All of my 8th-graders didn’t finish their chapter test on time.”, what does she mean to communicate by that? Does she mean to say that NOT ONE of them finished (supported by literal deconstruction)...or that some did and some didn’t (supported by a higher likelihood of being the case)?

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A common example is the phrase “This is she.” used to answer a telephone. ‘She’ is the nominative form of the word, so it cannot be used to describe somebody who is the object of a sentence (in this example, ‘this’ would be the subject). The correct way to phrase the example would be “This is her.”, though most people prefer the familiar businesslike shorthand “Speaking.”


From another site, this was the response:

“This is she” is grammatically correct. The verb “to be” acts as a linking verb, equating subject and object. So this is she and she is this; “she” and “this” are one and the same, interchangeable, and to be truly interchangeable they must both play the same grammatical role—that of the subject.


I am quite confused! I believe “This is her” is correct because it is understood that “speaking” is simply omitted; thus, we know the speaker is implying “This is her speaking” when she answers “This is her.” After all, we ask to speak to her. When she answers that she’s the one who had answered the call, she’s (obviously) speaking at the time. Therefore, it is her speaking.

What is your opinion on the matter?

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Latest Comments

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!

The exact origin of the continuous aspect in English is debatable. The theory that I find most useful is that it corresponds to the dialect German eg: "Sie war am Buegeln" = She was an-ironing. This exists in English in phrases like:
"A-hunting we wil go"; "The cocks were a-crowing"; and so on.
The "a-" prefix was, as I understand it, originally a preposition as in "asleep", "awake", "abed", and so forth. In time the prefix fell by the wayside to form the continuous aspect, but the meaning of being in the process/activity remained.
The reason I favor this explanation is that it makes sense of the so-called "present perfect continuous" - "What have you been doing? I've been hunting. (cf I've been a-hunting.) The root idea behind the continuous is still to this day about being engaged in an activity or process.
Thus if one could say:
"How's the burger, Rastus?" "I'm a-loving it"
then it would all make sense. That it does not quite - as "loving" is not really an activity unless it involves bodily movement - demonstrates the underlying meaning of the continuous.

The whole thrust of the original question is misguided. Why do we need "a word" for "intentionally incorrect spellling". Surely the "word" is "intentionally incorrect spelling" if that is what one means. Why bury the meaning in some obscure word that few know or understand? Where does this mentality come from? We seem to do it all the time; for example "arachnophobia"? Who are we kidding? It's just very Stephen Fry and snobby. What's so wrong with "fear of spiders" - or even "spider-dread" or something that a normal person would understand. After all, isn't language for communicating with normal people? Why make it so esoteric?

@HS Why are you resorting to Greek? Why do you think that we must find and borrow a Greek/Latin word in order to make up a "proper" word for something? Why not just use an English expression like "willful misspelling" or something?
BTW "cacography" would just mean "bad writing" IIRC - 'kakos' means 'bad' and 'graphein' is to write cf 'cacophony' = bad sound