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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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On ESL websites I sometimes see instructions to students of the type ‘Tell about an experience you had this week’. To me, and I think other speakers of British English, this sounds a bit strange: we normally tell somebody about something or talk about something. I’ve checked six standard British dictionaries and can find no examples of ‘tell about’. My (British) teacher colleagues also find it odd.

At first I tended to put it down to the fact that these instructions were usually written by teachers who are not native speakers. Then I found some examples in American crime writing, and wondered if it could be a dialect thing. But I’m now finding examples in academic texts, and am beginning to assume that this is absolutely standard North American English. This one’s from a Canadian non-fiction book - Be Good, Sweet Maid: The Trials of Dorothy Joudrie - by Audrey Andrews:

“O’Brien asked Dorothy to tell about incidents that were not physical. He prompted her by suggesting she begin by telling about an incident that occurred in Glacier National Park … . She told about how Earl had frightened her to the point of hysteria …” 

This one’s from a book on social psychology -  Knowing People: The Personal Use of Social Psychology -  by Michael J Lovaglia:

“Would people rate the man as less mentally healthy if he kept personal information to himself  than they would if he told about it. They did not. In contrast to the way people rated a woman who told personal information about herself, people rated the man less mentally healthy when he told about his personal problems than when the man kept silent about his personal problems.”

And finally advice for job interviewees at About.com:

“So, when asked to tell about yourself, don’t spend too much time on the predictable answers.”

So I’d just like speakers of North American English to confirm that this use of “tell about something” without a personal object is absolutely standard for you, and speakers of British English (and similar) to confirm that I’m not alone in finding this construction strange, and that you would “tell somebody about something” or “talk about something”. 

Just another example of being “separated by a common language” perhaps.

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How widespread is the misuse of the word “lay”? I’m quite sure one “lies down” and does not “lay down” (except when laying down a carpet, the law or a challenge) This is prevalent in Australia, and I’ve recently found it to be very common in the USA. It irritates me no end...is it in danger of becoming ‘accepted usage’?

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Does that grate on anyone else’s ear? Is there, say, a “simplistic” analysis that is OK, but go a step beyond that and you have “over-simplistic”? Here’s an expert on computing platforms quoted in a NYTimes blog (6 Sep 2013) on Google’s cloud-computing expectations: “It’s an admission that their original vision was over-simplistic....” And that’s hardly a rare instance.

At my current favorite online dictionary, thefreedictionary.com, there’s a note to their definition saying, “Usage: Since simplistic already has too as part of its meaning, it is tautologous to talk about something being too simplistic or over-simplistic.” That doesn’t seem to stop folks from using it, though!

I know there are other similar tautologies in use today, so maybe other posters can bring some up.

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This word has been driving me crazy. Figuratively speaking, I have been having an argument with my Word program about whether the adjective can act attributively or not. The sentence I had was something like this:

“The chary receptionist refused to permit the man into the offices upstairs.”

To begin, my Word program underlines chary with the green squiggle and states adjective [mis]use. I ran it through another grammar checker and it came back as commonly confused words. After a little research, I found that that word was wary. I consulted several dictionaries:

My Concise Oxford English Dictionary: chary- cautiously or suspiciously reluctant.

The dictionary program on my computer: chary- cautiously or suspiciously reluctant to do something.

Wiktionary: chary- Cautious; wary; shy

The first two dictionaries, specifically my computer’s, noted the phrase “chary of”. I then proceeded to see if there was an entry in my Webster’s Usage Dictionary. Luckily it was there, but all that it revealed to me was chary being molded into “chary+preposition”. Receiving no help, I tracked down another site that stated that the difference between wary and chary is “very slight”. However, I returned and checked wiktionary’s quotes and found two of Shakespeare using it in the way that I did but with the word’s superlative form:

“The chariest maid is prodigal enough

If she unmasks her beauty to the moon.”

My first more germane question is are chary and wary interchangeable? Or does chary simple live in the restricted phrase “chary + preposition”. This leads to my second question. Do certain adjectives only live within certain, restricted phrases?

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Here in Kiwiland the word “overbridge” is used when the majority of English speakers would use the word “bridge”. Not sure of the source or the reason for this, and I’ve yet to see an “underbridge”.

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Is there a difference between “further” and “farther”? David Attenborough (age 86, I think) says “farther”. I have never, ever, used that word. What’s the difference, if there is one? My dictionary does not say they are synonyms, but their definitions are identical. “Nothing could be farther from my mind” sounds to me a bit over the top, like saying ‘looking glass’ when you mean ‘mirror’. Views?

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I love to read Victorian era mysteries and novels. Can you tell me the meaning of “ton” as used in that era? By context it appears to refer to members of high society. Is this accurate? What is the origin of the term? Thanks for your help.

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Is there any difference between “bad” and “poor.” I always thought that bad implied a moral tone whereas poor simply implied low quality. Has this ever been true? I now look both words up in the dictionary (AHD and Merriam-Webster) and they are synonyms of one another and carry very similar meanings. Have these two words always been essentially the same in their meaning? Or has popular usage of “bad” made them converge toward one another?

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My evening of horror transpired as follows:

While sharing a bottle of wine with my girlfriend I was stupid enough to posit why it was that I had taken such a huge interest in blues music. 

“Why, because it’s accessible to your mediocre guitar skills,” she said, “and when your skills improve you switch to real music, like classical guitar”.

“Well then, I hope, once your skills improve in belly dance you’ll switch to real dance,”  I responded, “besides it is a misnomer that blues is ‘simple music’!”

Now,  my meaning here was that blues music has been historically labeled and designated as “simple music” in order to mislead people into thinking that African-Americans, from whom the music generated, are not capable of anything complex and so somebody will say, “I love blacks because they play ‘simple music’!”

My girlfriend claims English superiority because she went to college and has been told she has a greater grasp on the language than it’s inventors, so she informed me that I had incorrectly used the word “misnomer”. According to her, what I should have said was that ‘simple music’ was a ‘misconception’ and not a ‘misnomer’. I can see the angle she is coming from and, in all honesty, I barely graduated high school, but I am sure that in this instance I am correct. My point was that blues was “misnamed” or “mislabeled” in order to mislead and not if it is actually simple music (I obviously believe that it is not and I am improving at guitar, so hopefully one day I will be able to tell).

In any case, I am currently sleeping on the couch. Is she correct or is it my “belly dance isn’t real dance” that has me on the couch?

Please help me.

Mr. On the Couch Blues

I beg you not to yell at me about any grammar mistake I may have just made. I finished the bottle of wine by myself and I really just want to be right about this one thing.

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Since when did “concerning” become an adjective meaning “causing concern?” I first noticed it in the New York Times sometime earlier this year. Now it’s being used both in the media and in everyday conversation as if it had been around forever. Yet the usage is not mentioned in either my 1971 abridged edition of the OED or my trusty 1980 New World Dictionary. Should we just accept this new word as an example of the English language moving on? Or is it concerning?

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Latest Comments

Pled versus pleaded

We are not talking connotation and de oration here. Plead is plead and the past is pleaded, end of discussion. There is no pled!

Oh, that didn't seem to work very well.
The main point is the verb to use with 'small talk' is 'make'. Eg We made small talk while waiting for the bus to come.
'I had a small talk with someone' to me suggests that there is some issue or grievance which needs to be settled in private; but possibly it is not used in this way in the US (or, who knows, by presidential candidates of the non-presidential variety ).

It would be relatively unusual to make 'small talk' countable; one could say "She gave a small talk on ....", but that would be using the phrase in its literal meaning.
"Small talk" usually means talking about the weather, some football game, the latest shade of lipstick (or whatever women consider inconsequential) , or some other non-weighty matters.
http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=+*+small+talk&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t2%3B%2C*%20small%20talk%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bof%20small%20talk%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bthe%20small%20talk%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Band%20small%20talk%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bin%20small%20talk%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bmake%20small%20talk%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bfor%20small%20talk%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bno%20small%20talk%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bmaking%20small%20talk%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bmade%20small%20talk%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Bwith%20small%20talk%3B%2Cc0

Pronunciation: aunt

"Aunt" should rhyme with "Haunt;" therefore I say ont.
Born in Arkansas but raised in California.

wtf? Maybe it's better, I prefer, then I would..

should this be of any help????

Pled versus pleaded

{t may be "old-fashioned, but then so am I. I go with "pled."

Nope

Would Nancy Reagan's Just Say No To Drugs campaign been more successful if it was Just Say Nope To Dope?

As comedian John Mulaney noted, In porn movies you hear lots of "Yea", "Oh Yeah","Uh-Huh","Mm-hmm","Yes YES!" but never "Yep"

age vs. aged

One of these areas included young adults and middle aged adults.

graduate high school simply goes against the grain , the structure of the language, that is why it sounds so illiterate ! It has nothing to do with idiomatic expressions. Whenever I hear it , as i did today on NBC News , it's a shock !!

With friend, the adverb form matches the adjective form. Both are "friendly".