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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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Is it really correct to say such  a thing as, “We are waiting on your mother,” when referring to the anticipation of the arrival of someone’s mother?  It would seem to me that it would be more appropriate, if not more comfortable (at least for the lady), to “wait for your mother.”

One can wait on the corner, and one can wait on a table (if that is his profession), but does one really want to wait on his dinner? 

It seems to me that the preposition “from”  has been replaced by “on” when used in conjunction with the word “wait.”

It makes me cringe! Lately, I’ve heard it so often, I must look like a victim of St. Vitus Dance!

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Does this
“The flu is going around. In order to keep from catching it, you should gargle and wash your hands regularly”
Make sense? I’ve never heard. “In order to keep from catching it.” used in a sentence before.

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One hears this phrase more and more from sports commentators. A typical example would be a commentator at a sports event referring to an injured player or perhaps some celebrity as “watching on from the grandstand”.

Makes one wonder if, and why, “looking on” has suddenly become passé; or is it just an affectation started by someone trying to be different for the sake of being different and which has then been adopted by those who are inclined to participate in fads? Shall on-lookers now be known as on-watchers? Somehow it just doesn’t sound right.

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I have recently received a number of emails where the phrase “Thank you for reaching out to ___” is used instead of what I would expect to be the normal expression “Thank you for contacting ___”.

These emails are from companies in the USA.

Is “reaching out” now the in vogue expression for the simple act of contacting someone?

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Googling for “use my brain” (singular) returns 16 million results whereas “use my brains” (plural) returns 11 million. “Rack my brain” returns 792,000 results, and “rack my brains”, 312,000.

Why do we even consider using “brains” (plural)? What are we trying to say by adding the “s”? Is there any difference in connotations?

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My wife (from northern Virginia) uses “up top” where I would use “up on top”. For example, where I (from Wyoming) would say that “the box is up on top of the refrigerator”, my wife leaves out the word “on”, and she would say that it is “up top of the refrigerator”. She (and her family) are the only people I know who do this, and this leads me to believe that it is a regionalism. Is it?

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When I was brought up in England we used to say things like “it’s the put-er-on-er-er” for the brush used to put the polish on, and the “taker-off-er-er”. Or later, the “mover-out-er-er” for the spouse who must move out. 

Is this “real” English? Why don’t we use it in writing? Why are there two “er” at the end? Is there any description of this in any grammar? How widespread is this construction?

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I have noticed recently that the phrase “admits to” keeps popping up in contexts where the “to” is obviously redundant.

“He admits to the offence” 

“He admitted to the charge”

Is this a new fad or has it been going on for some time?

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When you Google “What does curb your dog mean?”, you find three different answers.

  1. Control your dog.
  2. Pick up dog poop.
  3. Take the dog to the curb to pee or poo.

I always understood it to mean #2, so even when I saw a sign that said “Curb your dog,” I would let my dog poo there but I picked it up afterward. I figured the person who put the sign there would be satisfied with that. But if #3 is what is meant by the sign, s/he would not be happy.

What is confusing is the word “curb” itself. It can mean “control” or “edge of street” which are two completely different definitions, and I would assume that they came from completely unrelated etymological roots. The expression is so vague and confusing that it is ineffective.

The only one that actually makes sense is #1 as “curb” means to control.

#2 doesn’t really make sense. The word “curb” has no definition that means to pick up after something, although it can indirectly imply cleaning up after the misbehavior of your own dog. (i.e., Since dogs cannot control themselves, you need to control the aftermath for them.) It’s too vague. You should just say, “Pick up after your dog.”

#3 is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, “curb” in this context should be used as a noun. I seriously doubt that “take your dog to the curb” was what was meant when the signs first started appearing in public. If you are the first person ever to create this sign, and if you meant to say, “take your dog to the curb”, then you would not write “Curb your dog.” You could not expect other people to understand what you meant by that, as there was no such use of the word “curb” in a verb form. You would have written: “Take your dog to the curb.” My second problem with #3 is that it implies it’s fine to leave the poo as long as you take the dog to the curb.

My theory is that “Curb your dog” originally had only one definition: “Control your dog.” And, the sign originally was introduced because many dogs were not kept on leash, and would cause trouble, like attacking kids, starting a fight with other dogs, barking uncontrollably, and running into the traffic. Ideally, they wanted to say, “Keep your dog on leash”, but at the time, this probably felt too extreme, so they just wanted to ask dog owners to responsibly control their dogs’ behavior. Then, in big cities like New York, some people started interpreting the word “curb” to mean the edge of the street/sidewalk, although it’s a bit of a stretch, given that “curb” in this case should not be used as a verb.

This is my theory of how the expression was originally introduced and evolved to include all three definitions. What do you think?

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Why, for a task, can we take it on, or put it off But for clothing we take it off and put it on?

(background: I am an American living in Hungary, so teaching/correcting English comes up a lot, and many here learn British English, so even I learn new words. People here often mix up the words for “put on” your clothes or “take off” clothes. They’ll say put off your jacket, or take on your shoes, etc. This became an embarrassingly awkward situation yesterday when I had to get an x-ray and ultrasound, and the tech didn’t speak very good English. She told me to undress everything, but then said I could take on my trousers, or put off something, and I really had no idea how “undressed” I had to get. I was thinking of how to explain it, that putting should be away from you, and taking should be towards you... but when it comes to clothing, we use the opposite - put ON and take OFF. Unless we’re taking it OUT of a closet and putting it AWAY. aaahh!!!)

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Latest Comments

Overhead yesterday in a coffee shop:
Customer: Excuse me; I was wondering if I could trouble you for a side salad.
Waitress: Side salad?

Slight mismatch of styles!

How should a waiter or bartender address a customer?
"Do you want .........................?"
"Would you like.....................?"

When you say, "Can I get..?" in the UK, it's generally considered a f**king rude Americanism. Happy Thanksgiving, though.

She and her father look alike
Her and her father look alike

age vs. aged

Which is correct? aged 45 years or over OR aged 45 years or more


Your apology is noted.


Although the addition of "got" may not follow the strictest syntax rules I believe it's use can be justified here because it serves as an intensifier that emphasizes the need to act is greater than the use of "have" alone connotes.
Also, when the contraction "I've" is used then the addition of "got" improves the word structure sonically by preserving the normal rhythm of a sentence because the contraction works as a single word that serves as the noun, or rather, pronoun of the sentence and leaves a need for another verb.

@WW Sorry, I assumed 'cacography' was just a made-up word - it's all Greek to me ;}

@jayles - OK, let's deal with cacography first. Yes, literally, in Greek, it means what you say, and that seems to be the standard dictionary definition, but it also seems to have taken on a new meaning, at least in linguistics:

"Cacography is deliberate comic misspelling, a type of humour similar to malapropism ... A common usage of cacography is to caricature illiterate speakers." Wikipedia.

Languages are creative like that, giving new meanings to adopted words, and so HS was perfectly correct.

You ask HS why he is resorting to Greek. But I could also ask why these (for me, at least) weird Anglish-inspired words have been noticeably creeping back into your own comments recently ("spider-dread" - come on, get real!). For me they have even less to do with natural English than Greek loan words, and I very much doubt that "normal people" have much time for them either.

English is a glorious mix - and I relish it. I have no objection to keeping things simple, but personally I hate this idea of language purism as much as I hate pedantry. Leave the language alone, it's just fine as it is!

I wouldn't have mentioned this if you hadn't brought the subject up :). And as for Stephen Fry, he has made one of the best commentaries on English I've ever seen:

mixing semicolon and em dash

Not an answer, but a comment on the use of dashes in British English. As far as I know BrE doesn't talk much about em-dashes, for example you won't often see -- (substituting for an em-dash) from British contributors to forums etc. We simply use a dash, in writing the same length as a en-dash, (but on a computer just using a single hyphen), and we put spaces either side - like that, for example. And they don't seem to be used nearly as much as in American English.

From one website on British grammar:

'The double dash encloses supplementary information in the same way as round brackets –
"Alaska – purchased from Russia in 1867 and granted statehood in 1959 – comprises some 586,000 square miles and 624,000 people."
But brackets are preferred in formal scripts.'

This is from the Chicago Manual of Style Online:

"note that it is also the common British practice to use an en dash with a word space on either side where American publishers would use an em dash closed up to the surrounding words"

But I've noticed that the Economist has recently started using M-dashes without gaps. In the online version they are obviously M-dashes, and there's no real problem, but in the print edition they don't seem to be as wide. This is really confusing my students (and me, to be honest), who think they are hyphens, reading the two separate words as one hyphenated word. It turns out that Polish, like British English always uses gaps. I'm beginning to wonder about other European languages. WW will have to investigate!