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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 have a question about when to use hyphens. For example, do I have a five-year-old dog or a five year-old dog?

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Working from a textbook, one exercise requires students to find the error in different sentences. Can anybody find the error in the following sentence?

*The painting of the Buddha, that has nine figures, made the religion more concrete to believers in 13th-century Tibet.*

The sentence refers to a picture in the book of a painting of a Buddha with several other figures (bodhisattvas) around it.

Sections of the sentence is underlined. I will use square-brackets to indicate the underlined sections. The error should be with one of these underlined sections. Here is the sentence again:

The painting of the Buddha[, that has]{A} nine [figures,]{B} made the religion more [concrete]{C} to believers in [13th-century Tibet.]{D}

The Teacher’s Edition of the textbook says that the error is with {A}. If this is correct, what is wrong with it?


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I need to list the people in a photo, below the photo. The picture will be framed, not in a magazine, etc. What is the proper punctuation? The way I originally typed the names follows but I am ready to finalize the layout and want to know the proper format. The way I have it now:

1. Catherine, March 11, 1874; 2. Alice Bell, July 8, 1875; 3. Birdie Alberdine, February 14, 1877; 4. Mary Adella, November 15, 1879… and so on for eight people.

If I number each person, is additional punctuation required between the names as I have typed it or do the numbers stand alone? Should the individual names even be numbered? I am really not certain what the proper format is.

I am on a deadline to complete this restored photo and layout for a client so a prompt reply would be greatly appreciated.

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So, for a last name like “Stachewicz”...would it be The Stachewiczs or the The Stachewiczes?

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Is it appropriate to use a bulleted list in a question? Example:

Which type of flour would you use for the following items: - bread - cake - cookies

Would you put a question mark at the end of each bullet? Would you only use a question mark at the end of the last bullet? Does the sentence need to be re-worded?

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If our organization is called Help for Kids and we want to use the abbreviation HFK . . . is this correct usage in this sentence: HFK’ activities will start in the summer. With the K standing for Kids and Kids being plural, would this be correct use of the apostrophe at the end of HFK’?

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I have a sentence with which I am struggling because I am not sure if I can use both a colon and semi-colon in it. However, I want everything in one sentence and cannot figure out what other punctuation I should use. Here’s the sentence with names and details altered for anonymity.

“I am indebted to my family, especially my cousins: Jane Smith, my first teacher, without whom I would not be where I am today; and John Smith, my second teacher, who taught me more than he could have possibly imagined.”

The colon is setting up a list and the semi-colon is separating items in the list that contain commas. Thoughts? Thanks in advance.

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I recently gave a class of six year olds a spelling test and saw that many of the children were spelling words with the correct letters but had used capital letters at the beginning, middle or end of a word. Is a word that has the correct letters but some of them are in capitals still considered to be correctly spelled?

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“Do’s and Don’t's” is a popular phrase, but the punctuation of it seem to vary for “don’t's”. What should it be?




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While waiting for the subway to arrive, I noticed this mysterious symbol between “PRINCE” and “ST.” This is not a mistake of any kind. All of the signs at the station had this little triangle, and whoever created these signs put a significant amount of effort in inserting it. (Just look at how it is tiled.) Obviously this was something important for the artist who created this mosaic sign. What could it mean? It could not be a dash. Firstly, a dash would be inappropriate for this context. Secondly, if it were meant as a dash, it would have been much easier to draw a straight line out of these square tiles (instead of a triangle).

(FYI: This is New York City.)

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Someone else’s

The grammar patterns of Courts Martial, Judge Advocates General, etc. would seem to agree. In example, those who pass flatulence would be "gas passers" or passers of gas, just as passers by, which is short for an entire phrase "passers by the side of [implied or mentioned object]" is different. However, "someone else" appears to hearken back to a more Germanic form of grammar, rather than the French Norman with its Latin influence. If this is the origin of the phrase, then using the entire phrase as a single noun or idea would be appropriate. In this case, where both words originate from the Germanic, it would be "someone else's". The Germans frequently abbreviate such phrases where they become excessively long, but in their original were written as one word using their cursive. In school I studied French, Classical Latin, and German enough to become aware that our aggregatenous language has so many exceptions because of those origins. (I have dabbled with Gaelic which is as far as I can tell the source of split infinitives.)

Someone else’s

The easiest way to avoid the use of "someone else's" (which is grammatically incorrect), is to put the NOUN, with which you are linking the possessive, FIRST in the sentence.
For example: "It was someone else's fault." (incorrect)
"It was the fault of someone else." (correct)
This works every time when you write, but for conversational speech, "someone else's" is the common usage. However, if you are quoting what was spoken by someone else, then you would want to quote it exactly.

@Lisa: biennial

What happens if you skip a year?

I'd say that when using the % sign it would be "between 40% and 50%" but when spelling it out "between 40 and 50 percent" would be adequate.

It depends on what you are writing. In a legal document one might spell it out unambiguously as "between forty percent and fifty percent". Elsewhere omitting the first percentage sign may well be clear enough.

There is a good explanation of mixed conditionals here:

If I remember correctly, there is a comment in Michael Lewis's "Lexical Approach" (1993) that in conditional sentence one just uses the appropriate tense and modal. If we construe "would" as a modal subjunctive indicating a counter-factual situation, and "have been" as a perfect infinitive indicating the situation is in the past, then this does not sit well with the time adverb "today".

However, I do believe that in some areas, such as Quebec, usage may be different, so there may be some wiggle-room here.

Where are the commas?

  • dionne
  • March 21, 2017, 1:35pm

I was lead to believe it was Sally.

As far as I can discern, it is neither impolite nor polite. However, it is incorrect. "Can I get [something]?" implies that the person is asking whether it is possible that they, themselves, are able to go and fetch or obtain something e.g. "Can I get petrol there?" or because they are asking whether another person would like something that they could obtain on their behalf, for example "Can I get you a drink?"

If they are asking a waiter, bartender, shop assistant or other person serving if they would go and fetch something for them on their behalf, they should ask the question "May I have/can I have/could I have" and similar variants preferably with "please" in there somewhere!

I am wondering how you say this percentage in words:
.00011 percent.
Is it something like:
One hundredth and one thousandth of one percent??

I am trying to show how SMALL 1100 parts per billion is...

Thank you,