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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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Consider the following sentence: “Last year, the rent was $500, but now it’s risen to $1,000. The rent is two times higher than it used to be.”

To me, this sentence is misleading, since “two times higher” would mean starting with a value of $500 and duplicating it, twice (in other words, $500 + $500 x 2 = $1,500). It seems the correct sentence should read:

“The rent is two times as high as used to be.”

Are both forms acceptable? Unfortunately, it seems that the more confusing form (”two times higher”) has become more common.

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Whilst I appreciate that it is increasingly less common to write or receive a letter these days - and that traditional usage has been Dear Sir/Madam->Yours truly/faithfully or Dear Mr Smith ->Yours sincerely - the few letters rarely follow these “rules”.

I have had (1) Dear Mr Smith without any closure from the UK Pensions Service, (2) Dear Mr Smith->Yours sincerely from the local power board, and (3) Hi Mr Smith->Until next time from my bank. Personally I have never used ‘Yours faithfully’ (which smacks of subservience) since the turn of the century, even when applying for a job. I do still use “Sincerely” in a few emails (particularly when making a complaint). 

For the life of me, I cannot see why bygone formalities are still required for examinations such as the International English Language Test. 

As to emails, it seems more difficult to be formal. Mostly I use “Hi + first name” and end with “Cheers”. 

My question is what are  other people in English-speaking countries experiencing? Is stuff like “Yours faithfully” “Yours truly” now passé? If so is there any reason to teach them?

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This sentence:

“By securing a permanent US commitment to the defence of all its members from 1949 onwards, Nato changed the calculus confronting potential aggressors.”

appeared in this Daily Telegraph article.

I think I grasp what the author is getting at, but it does seem a most unusual and perhaps incorrect use of “calculus.”

Or am I behind the times once again?

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The definitions of “go figure” that I found in various dictionaries do not match what I thought it meant. Is it just me?

Here are what I found:

“said to express the speaker’s belief that something is amazing or incredible.”

“used when you ​tell someone a ​fact and you then ​want to say that the ​fact is ​surprising, ​strange or ​stupid”

“Expresses perplexity, puzzlement, or surprise (as if telling somebody to try to make sense of the situation).”

I thought “go figure” meant the same as “duh!” or “just my luck”. That is, it’s obvious after the fact. It implies “I should have known.”

Let’s take some of the examples that appear in these dictionaries:

“The car wouldn’t start yesterday no matter what I did, but today it works just fine. Go figure.”

My interpretation of this is that, given how unlucky he is in general, in retrospect, it’s obvious that this happened to him again. It’s just part of being unlucky in general.

“She says she wants to have a conversation, but when I try, she does all the talking. Go figure.”

My interpretation for this is that she is already known to the speaker as a talkative person, but since she claims to want a conversation, the speaker gave her another chance, but again, all she does is talk not listen. Duh! The speaker should have known. It should not be a surprise to the speaker.

“The paint was really good, so they stopped making it - go figure, right?”

Again, what is implied here is not something surprising or unexpected; it’s the exact opposite. The speaker is being sarcastic. Because consumers have no appreciation for good products, they all fail, and bad products like Microsoft Windows thrive. “Duh! I should have known that they would stop making it.”

When people are genuinely surprised and puzzled about something, and they want someone to go figure it out. I generally hear people say, “figure that one out.” I find this very different from “go figure”. The latter has a sense of irony or sarcasm that the former does not have. It almost means the opposite. That is, “forget it, don’t even bother trying to figure it out because it’s just my luck,” or “don’t bother figuring it out because people are just stupid.”

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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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Latest Comments

As of

  • Piper
  • January 22, 2017, 7:17am

Can we say: I'll send the minutes of the meeting as of 5 pm?

First annual vs. second annual

  • Burt
  • January 19, 2017, 11:51pm

If I am correct and an annual event requires 2 years prior to an event for it to be considered an annual event. Then isn't the term "second annual" incorrect as well? Actually it should be referred to as consecutive meaning second? Looking forward to feedback!

I disagree with Dyske's answer.
In the first example, you are saying something that you know is not true.
In the second example, that is a subjective opinion. They can truly believe they have the best pizza, just like you hear people say they have the greatest wife or kids. It's a subjective opinion that they may truly believe in.
In the third example, that would be a lie because once again you are saying something that is not true even though it's hyperbole.
The way I under the definition of "lie" is that it wouldn't be a lie if I say something I BELIEVE to be true, but is factually wrong. If the police ask me to describe a suspect from memory I could truly believe I'm giving the correct description from memory and be factually wrong, but wasn't my INTENT to deceive the police.

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."