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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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In his entry on ‘try and do’, Fowler calls it “an idiom that should not be discountenanced, but used when it comes natural”.

What interested me was his use of ‘natural’ as an adverb. Oxford Online gives the example ‘keep walking—just act natural’, which sounds OK to me, if idiomatic.

There are examples from Dickens and Walter Scott of ‘comes natural’  in dialogues, where ‘natural’ is being used as an adverb, but Fowler’s use here sounds strange to me. Any thoughts?

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I suppose this more of speculation and bit of a question. I have noticed some quotations of ‘nor’ paired with ‘not’ (typically a comma follows not and whatever it is negating), for example:

“Battery D did not stop at the first, nor the second, but halt was made at what was ...”

“These bonds did not give their owners the privilege of using them as a basis for bank-note circulation, nor was there any other privilege...”

“... meaning of its message so clearly, so simply, and yet so earnestly, and with such a passionate longing that from York Hill there should indeed radiate “Peace and good will towards all men,” that not the stupidest nor the most frivolous girl but was touched to a sense of higher ideals and...”

All quotes are provided by dictionary.net in the quotations for ‘nor’.

Is it possible that this could become a correlative conjunction paired with ‘not’ or possibly a substitution for ‘neither’ in the “neither-nor” pair? Or maybe, has ‘not’ been a viable substitute for ‘neither’ for years without notice?

This idea tenuously excites me.

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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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Latest Comments

@jtu
In answer to your two previous posts.
1.
Education
2.
Family is and always will be a collective noun.

I would also like your analysis of whether "family" is a collective or plural noun in the following extract taken from Pride & Prejudice, Chapter VI of Volume II (Chap. 29):
"...and it was but the other day that I recommended another young person, who was merely accidentally mentioned to me, and the family are quite delighted with her."

@HS So how can we tell that "cattle" is plural but "herd" is a "collective" noun?

@jayles the unwoven

There are nouns which are recognised as having only a plural form and as such are not relevant to a discussion on collective nouns.
These include police, cattle, oats, tweezers, pants, remains.

@HS Could you please complete the following:
a) Quick! The police ___ coming!
b) The cattle ___ lowing, the baby awakes.

Please also explain how, in your world, we can tell which nouns are "collective" and which are not.

“It is I” vs. “It is me”

"It is I," and "It am I," are both stiff for the same reason; they are illiterate, for both attempt to mix first and third person pronouns and "to be" verbs.

Another way to answer the question, only this time with the word "me," would be with an appropriate preposition in front of it. For example, one could say, "This is the voice of me." Or if someone asked whose picture this is, one could answer, "It is an image of me."

One could drop the use of pronouns altogether and say, "It was my knocking you heard. May I come in?" Clearly, all the person on the other side of the door just needs to hear is the knocker's voice to know who it is.

My apologies for the typo in my previous post.
I should of course have used plurality instead of pluralism.

Resume, resumé, or résumé?

Just what I was looking for. I think it could also be useful for everyone to know how and where to merge documents online. BTW, if anyone needs to merge PDF/PNG files online, I found a service here <a href="http://www.altomerge.com/" >altomerge</a>.

@JonRich
With you 100% on this one.
However, I've no doubt the usual naysayers will present some spurious contrary arguments.

This keeps popping up, and there are those who will insist on using a plural verb for certain collective nouns.
IMHO a collective noun gets a singular verb. End of story.
Despite arguments to the contrary, "family" is a collective noun, and I don't care how many family members there might be, it therefore gets a singular verb.
Similarly team, government, IRS, etc etc are all collectives and get singular verbs.
No doubt Warsaw Will and Jayles will now climb in with contrary positions based on some spurious concept of pluralism.