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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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I had always wondered about a construction (of conjugation within a sentence) but never could write it down properly. I have since found that construction. This is a quote from “The Day It Happened” by Rosario Morales.

A) “I wouldn’t have known anything about any of this [if Olga next door hadn't rung our doorbell and banged on the door just when Mami was too deep in prayer to hear and Maria was leaning out over the sill with her eyes bugging out].”

Specifically the verbs in that clause. My question here is why is “when Mami was... and Maria was...” past tense instead of past perfect. I’m perfectly aware that the actions of Mami and Maria are happening simultaneously with Olga’s banging of the door. I concluded that it was because that it would be interpreted further in the past than Olga’s banging. But I have supposed I’m looking for a logical consistency similar to math.

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Please look at the following examples:

a) The plants died.        ( an event - intransitive verb)

b) The plants were killed.   ( event -passive verb)

c) The plants were dead.  ( state - adjective)

d) The plants were withered  (state? - adjective?) 

e) The plants were withered by the sirocco. (event? - passive)

f) The plants shrank. (event - intransitive verb)

g) The plants were shrunk by the dry wind (event - passive)

h) The plants were shrunken. (state - adjective)

and finally:

i) “I was bored” - is this a passive or an adjective, an event or a state?

Is it ambiguous, context-dependent or a case of “unmarked-grammar”?

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Which is correct; If the current owner WERE allowed to have an auto body shop of if the current owner WAS allowed to have an auto body shop? I am questioning whether Owner should be with WERE or Owner should be with WAS?

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I’d like to ask your opinion on the following sentence:

“I have gone to X High School since I was fifteen years old.”

A student recently asked me whether or not this sentence was grammatically correct. I said that it sounded correct to me, but I couldn’t answer with confidence.

I understand that, if we are talking about our experiences and completed trips, we use (the past participle) ‘been’ instead of ‘gone’. (For example, ‘I have been to California.’)

But what about ‘go’ in the sense of ‘to attend’? For example:

A: What school do you go to?

B: I go to X High School. I have gone to X High School since I was fifteen years old.

I understand we could phrase it a different way, for example:

“I have been at X High School since I was fifteen.”


“I have been going to X High School since I was fifteen.”

But I am specifically interested in the use of ‘have gone’ here. (Not least because there are situations when ‘been at’ might be inappropriate. For example, the below sentence sounds wrong to me:

“I have been at cookery classes since I was a child.”

I think here I would prefer to say:

“I have gone to cookery classes since I was a child.”)

I’ve been thinking about this type of sentence for far too long today, and now I have no idea at all whether it’s correct or not. I tried searching the internet for the answer, but couldn’t find any posts discussing this usage of ‘to go’. I’d very much appreciate your opinions on this matter.

Thank-you in advance!

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A: What are you cooking?
B: An omelette.
A: How many eggs are you putting in ?
B: Five.
A: Five eggs is too much.

Or “Five eggs is too many”
Or “Five eggs are too many” (which sounds weird to me)

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“I’ve (You’ve) to go swimming” vs. “I’ve (You’ve) got to go swimming” 


“I’ve (You’ve”) the Frisbee”   vs.  “I’ve (You’ve) got the Frisbee”  vs.  “I have the Frisbee”

They could all be correct or not, but the ones I believe are wrong, at least the ones that  sound wrong, are when there is a contraction used without “Got”. Anyone know a definite answer to which is correct grammatically, and if it is grammatically correct, whether it is correct common usage.

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In the third conditional, the structure uses the past perfect with the if clause (e.g. “If I had studied...” and the conditional modal + present perfect in the second clause (...I would have gotten a good grade.”)

When and why is it also acceptable to say “If I had studied, I would have a good grade,” where “have” is used as a possessive auxiliary instead of a conditional modal?

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Is this correct?

“I so appreciate you taking mine and Gregg’s child to school today.”

Is it correct to use “mine” or should I say “my”?

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Can clauses be misplaced because I always thought that they were superordinate of that. While searching for math accuplacer questions, I was given a set of problems, which I did not want, and, in boredom, did the first one and was wrong. The question was this:

Select the best substitute for the parenthesized parts of the following ten sentences. The first answer [choice A] is identical to the original sentence. If you think the original sentence is best, then choose A as your answer.

Question 1:

Although she was only sixteen years old, (the university accepted her application because of her outstanding grades).

  A. the university accepted her application because of her outstanding grades.

  B. her application was accepted by the university because of her outstanding grades.

  C. her outstanding grades resulted in her application being accepted by the university.

  D. she was accepted to study at the university after applying because of her outstanding grades.

I chose A, but it said D was the correct answer on these grounds:

The clause Although she was only sixteen years old describes the characteristics of the female student. Remember that clauses always need to be followed by the name of the person or thing they are describing. Therefore, “she” needs to come after this clause.

So, to reiterate, is there such a thing as misplaced clauses?

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I’d like to go back to an old question which was discussed here in 2011. What is the correct preposition to use with “different?” 

Every time I hear the BBC’s “different to” it grates on me. I distinctly remember my 6th Grade teacher, Mrs. Murphy, explaining to us that “different” takes “from” because in arithmetic, when you subtract one number from another you obtain a difference. Her analogy was faulty, of course; but her grammar was correct. The abuse she was trying to correct was “different than.”  I never heard “different to” until relatively recently, on the BBC World Service.

The consensus of the 2011 discussion seemed to be that “different to” is British usage and “different from” is American. 

Well – yes and no. I’ve gone through some quotation websites looking for 19th and early 20th century British examples and could find not one “different to.” They all use “different from.”

I did also find this, however, from the 1908 edition of Fowler’s “The King’s English.”

“. . .’different to’ is regarded by many newspaper editors and others in authority as a solecism, and is therefore better avoided by those to whom the approval of such authorities is important. It is undoubtedly gaining ground, and will probably displace ‘different from’ in no long time; perhaps, however, the conservatism that still prefers from is not yet to be named pedantry.

Well, that was prescient – if you concede that 100 years counts as “no long time” when it comes to the English language. 

(In response to some of those 2011 posts which mentioned “more different than” as an acceptable use of “different than”: in that case “than” refers to “more” not “different.”) 

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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