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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 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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Are “whensoever” and “whenever” really the same? 

In some of the dictionaries I checked, “whensoever” is defined “whenever”; but I disagree.

For instance, I think “The students may leave whenever they so choose” can be written “[...] whensoever they choose” because “so” is already part of “whensoever”.

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Latest Comments

On Tomorrow

I live is south Louisiana and I hear it more and more. It's driving me nuts.

attorneys general vs. attorney generals

  • jdjay
  • September 28, 2016, 1:04pm

Isn't "General" a rank rather than an adjective. The AG is the top ranking government attorney and not some general purpose "JACK-OF-ALL-TRADES" . Are we really supposed to say Postmasters General, etc.?

It seems to me that the premise of this assertion is entirely false. The British do use plurals where North Americans tend to use singulars. Words such as family and staff are commonly construed as being plural in Britain. This is not a new phenomenon. I think the import part is to be consistent and to be attuned to one's audience.

No Woman No Cry

It's a purely political song about the subjugation of Jamaica by the British. "Woman" is "Queen".

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and so...

I like to use 'and so' in certain forms. I would never use it in an academic paper but I would in poetry and some others as well. Correct or not, it is understood and I have accepted much less elegant words or terms under the premise that a living language changes

The letter o is silent in the name phoebe(feebee, not fobe)

What about vowels? I have a list:

Silent A:In "ea" words when it makes the short or long e sound:Leaf, head, bread, stealth, read, knead

Silent O:In "ou" words where it's pronounced like a short or long u:Couple, you, cousin, rough, coupon

Silent U:Build

Does anyone have any more? I can't think of any.

eat vs. have breakfast

To " have " breakfast is to " eat " and "drink" something.
To " eat" breakfast is to only eat something.
Thus, have is more convenient and makes more sense to use, especially when you're teaching ESL students.