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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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“His being chosen as a headmaster have surprised us.”

Is the sentence above right? Do I have to change the gerund to:

“His having been chosen as a headmaster have surprised us.”

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When one has rendered a female animal unable to bear young, one spays the animal. If it happened last week, the animal was spayed. Over and over, including in vets’ offices, I have seen references to “getting an animal spade,” and even worse, “We had our cat spaded.” I don’t know what that would be: Hit over the head with a small shovel-like object?

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I’d love to know your take on the plural form of sense of humour. Is it sense of humour or senses of humour?

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In the following sentence, would “me” or “myself” be correct and why?

Serious gardeners like my wife and me/myself always use organic fertilizer.

Since the person talking is also a gardener and has referred to himself once already in the sentence as being in the group serious gardeners (”we gardeners”), it seems as if he should use “myself” in the reflexive. Yet this sounds wrong.

Please help! The horrid trend of using “myself” in place of “me” is starting to wear me down and confuse me.

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I’m stuck on the correct use of “un-” (as in “reverse action”) and “de-”. Specifically, I want to write that a student should change an incorrectly capitalized word to the lower case. Should he “uncapitalize” it or “decapitalize” it? It’s true that the word should be uncapitalized, but since he incorrectly capitalized it in the first place, must he now decapitalize it?

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“It has a great construction” sets my teeth on edge every time a writer I work with uses the phrase in written English. Is this correct/standard usage? It sounds so wrong to me, but I can’t point to the rule it violates.

Am I simply biased against... A perfectly acceptable construction?

These sound/seem so wrong:. My t-shirt has a durable cotton construction.

That house has a great construction.

With a construction of 100% cotton, her dress...

I think you omit the indefinite article.

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When using the word prohibits... which is correct?

...which prohibits fences 4 ft in height from being erected ... or ...which prohibits fences 4 ft in height to be erected

...which prohibits any fence from being constructed... or ...which prohibits any fence to be constructed

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Apart from the fact that convention is clearly “Table of Contents”, is there a grammatical reasoning for “Table of Content” vs “Table of Contents”?

I guess it comes down to whether the noun “content” is one that can be counted, i.e. several contents, or not.

My instinct is that in fact, content is not an enumerable noun, i.e. it should be Table of Content. But does that mean that MS Word, LaTeX and all other Desktop Publishers out there are just wrong?


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Good Day All,

I live in Trinidad and Tobago and for the last 46 years there’s been an argument about a point of grammar in our National Anthem. The last line is (what we learn in kindergarden):

“Here every creed and race FIND an equal place”

Some say this is grammatically correct. Others argue that it should be, “Here every creed and race FINDS an equal place”. Thousands of Letters to the Editor have been written arguing about this issue. Anyone care to help us solve this dilemma?

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On the DC Metro, we are told: “The next stop will be X”.

When will the next stop be x?

I’m pretty sure the next stop *is* X!

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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!