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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 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

“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 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,, 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

Most-Populous vs. Most-Populated

You would not hyphenate "most-populous" just as you wouldn't hyphenate "she is the most popular girl in school." You would however hyphenate something like "Honolulu is an ultra-populous urban epi-center."

Really cute website. Very clever.

Actress instead of Actor

As far as I am concerned females who act are actresses, as was always known in the past. I disagree with Whooping Goldberg. An actress can play any role as needed, there is no need for her to be called an actor. This is similar to calling the chairman, " the chair", absolutely unnecessary, what is wrong with madam chairman? A chair is something one sits on!

Resume, resumé, or résumé?

Sorry Jun-Dai, but you are wrong, If we are going to use accents, let's use the ones that make sense. In current English resumé is pronounced REH-zue-MAY. There is no need for the accent ague on the first e, because that would indicate it should be pronounced RAY, not REH. My personal preference is to avoid these accents carried over from the French original, as we do for cafe. Another way to avoid the issue, in a document title for example, is to use all caps when appropriate, such as RESUME; then in even for proper French spelling no accents are required. Finally, don't take my word for it: per Wiktionary: "In Canada, resumé is the sole spelling given by the Canadian Oxford Dictionary; résumé is the only spelling given by the Gage Canadian Dictionary (1997 edition)." Oxford rules for those who wish to speak and write English; Americans are welcome to use their Webster's as long as they keep it south of the border.

Typo in previous entry; typed fact instead of facet. :)

That was a somewhat petulant and insulting post.
I am certainly not trying issue you with any fiats or diktats, but merely pointing out that there are those of us whose views differ from yours.
You are of course entitled to your opinions, as am I.
I also like to question many things; among these are the way our language has been and is being bastardised and the laissez faire attitudes of those who consistently trumpet the dubious virtues of common usage.
As for my education being founded in a "Victorian" view; that premise is not even worthy of comment, let alone discussion.
I do not cling unquestioningly to any fact of the English language, but it does seem that there are those like yourself who are quite happy to see the language sullied in support of common usage.

What is the "chronological position" of man Mohan Singh as a prime minister

people like she/he are...

The word "like" is a preposition, and the pronoun is its object. Objects take the accusative case: 'him', 'her', etc.
The correct form of the pronoun is 'her.'

people like she/he are...

The word "like" is a preposition, and the pronoun is its object. Objects take the accusative case: 'him', 'her', etc.
The correct form of the pronoun is 'her.'

Computer mouses or computer mice?

  • antoine
  • October 14, 2016, 11:59am