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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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My question is about the verb “to sift”. I know that I can sift flour, cocoa powder and all sorts of solid cooking ingredients. My question is: Can I sift liquids? Let’s say I make some homemade orange juice and want to take the pulp out of it. Do I sift my juice? If I don’t, what do I do to it? Help me! : )

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I am hoping you can help me settle a debate at work. One colleague suggests that using the term ‘literally’ in spoken conversation is incorrect, and that you should use something more appropriate, such as ‘actually’.

I would argue that if I were to mention that I had just bumped into John at the lift, this would typically mean that I had met him at the lift. However, if I were to say that I had literally just bumped into John at the lift, it would imply that I had in actual fact bumped into him.

I would also argue that when speaking with someone if I wanted to explicitly state a fact, for example, ‘literally, all the houses on my road have a red door’, I would use the term ‘literally’ to mean that every door, without exception, was red.

Please could you help settle this debate?

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Is “advocate for” redundant? For example, does one advocate human rights, or advocate for them?

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Yet another antipodean oddity?

Found these examples of an unusual use of “trespassed” in a New Zealand newspaper:-

“It is up to the landowner to have them trespassed,”

“The next day she received a letter from her bosses telling her she had been trespassed and not to return.”

“....had been banned from rugby in the Bay of Plenty for five years and had been trespassed by the rugby club. ”

“The notice asked the dozens of residents to cease camping in the area by 8pm tonight, or be trespassed from the area in the “wider interest of the community”.

“Homeless Hamiltonians are expecting to be trespassed when the Rugby World Cup starts - but the evicted men say they will still give a warm welcome to tourists. ”

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Has the word ‘notoriety’ lost its negative connotation? Nowadays, it seems to be synonymous with ‘fame’ but without the negative meaning to it.

He got his notoriety as a WWF wrestler in the 90′s. (even though he played a ‘good guy’)

He gained notoriety as a sharpshooter in his rookie year. (skilled hockey player)

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Can a lie simply be not telling the truth or must you intend of deceiving someone? Is deception or motive necessary in it? All of OED’s make reference to deception as a requirement. My Webster’s New World Dictionary also makes repeated references to deceit with one possible exception: “a false statement or action, esp. one made with intent to deceive.” I’m not sure if the especially used there is meant to negate the necessity of motive in the definition or not, considering all of the other definitions requiring it.

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When did perpendicular lose its verticality? I have always understood perpendicular as being “at right angles to the plane of the horizon” ie: at right angles and vertical.

OED:- 1. perpendicular, adj. and n. ...Situated or directed at right angles to the plane of the horizon; vertical....

The wall is at perpendicular to the floor but the floor is at right angles to the wall.

But more and more I hear it being used as meaning at right angles regardless of the plane. I have even seen such a reference in print. Once again our good friend Jeffrey Deaver:- “I took a chair perpendicular to his.” Another example of evolution?

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Is it actually correct to use “American” when referring to residents of the United States? I was traveling in Peru last summer and to my surprise realized for the first time that people down in South America consider themselves to be “Americans” too. After all, South America is as “America” as North America, right?

So to be clear, for a technical publication I’m working on, what’s the best way to refer to residents of the US? Is “American” still acceptable? The study I’m quoting uses “US residents,” but there are times when that phrase becomes unwieldy.

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“Under urgency”? I recently came across this phrase for the first time in my life. The context was:- “Parliament passed the Copyright Amendment Act into law under urgency last night” Can’t really put my finger on why, and I can’t at the moment come up with an alternative, but it just doesn’t sound right. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

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Why does sports media persist in the use of the phrase “hone in” instead of “home in”. Traditionally, a missile homes in (not hones in) on a target. Hone means “to sharpen.” The verb home means “to move toward a goal” or “to be guided to a target.”

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Latest Comments

Salutations in letters

In email to someone familiar, I open with "Hi" and sign off with "Cheers" or "Slàinte mhath". Otherwise I use "Good day" and "Regards".
In letters it's normally "Dear ......" and "Yours sincerely".
I agree that "Yours truly" and "Yours faithfully" now seem to be considered passé.

How about, "The rent has doubled.", or "The rent is now twice what it was."
Both "two times higher" and "two times as high" sound like phrases used by primary school kids.

Trust me, when you get to my age, mid 60s, you will start complaining when you hear words spoken which you have grown up with all your life, being given totally different meanings and you are supposed to calmly accept these new meanings without having a clue why they have been changed. If someone comes up to me and says hey as a greeting, then for me I am waiting for them to finish. Even when I just hear it in plays or films, it makes me feel very uncomfortable. I'm not writing here to say it's right or wrong just to make folk understand that it can be very unsettling for some of us.

The team has access to multiple sources

On Tomorrow

  • JBS
  • January 16, 2017, 2:22pm

This is an old world English term sometimes trapped in areas of Appalachia, like many other old German, Scottish, Irish and English phrases (or variations thereof). It's commonly used among religious African American folks in Georgia and Alabama from my experience. The reason so many comments have referenced NE Georgia, Kentucky, and North Carolina etc.. is the Appalachian connection.

An extension of solecism?

Actress instead of Actor

I have long found referring to both male and female thespians as "actors" extremely distasteful, as in PC gone amok. When I waited tables, I had no problem with the term "waitress." Then again, I have no problem with the term "comedienne" for a female comedian. The stewardess/steward thing which is now deemed offensive seems patently absurd to me, but well, "flight attendant" it is! However, reading all the comments with historic connotations does help me make a bit more sense of it all. Personally, I have no problem with the masculine and feminine forms of words/professions, and in fact I do buck against changing all of that, but appreciate the perspectives offered. I totally get that a female MD is not called a doctoress in English, but she would be called "la doctora" in Spanish, and a male "el doctor."

Usually a brand name or a play on words, used in advertising. Like the old pop brand, "Hi Klas" rather than "Hi Class" I want to say what that is called. Would an advertising agency know, I wonder? Or a college course in advertising maybe?

Pronunciation: aunt

I'm Mexican native American from Los Angeles California and I use Ant not aunt but I have heard my cousins say aunt before. Personally I prefer ant.

In general, the noun/verb distinction is accurate, but not completely so.

If I were a lobbyist, I might say "I advocate lower taxes."

But if the Republican Party retained me (with or without pay) as an advocate for lower taxes, I could say "I am an advocate (noun) for the Republican Party" or "I advocate (verb) for the Republican Party."