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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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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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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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This mispronounciation of the words like strong, and destroyed, by Michelle Obama has been so annoying and distracting and in my opinion really so unbecoming of a first lady. It also seems to me, that other words, like America, for example, are said with a tone of complaint or disdain. It is so distracting that I have trouble following the context of her remarks on a given occasion. As a role model for the youth of this nation, and speaking publicly as the First Lady, it surprises me no one ever counseled her on the inappropriateness of mispronounciation of these words that in my opinion, diminishes what she was trying to say in any given speech.

Past tense of “text”

  • Garuda
  • August 26, 2016, 9:59am

I was just looking this up, but have not found anything "conclusive". I prefer to use "text" for present and past tense though most of my friends use "texted". To me "texted" sounds ignorant and childish. I was hoping to find support for my view, but so far have not.

@gary Curiously, translating English into French usually makes the text at least fifteen percent longer:

http://www.media-lingo.com/gb/faqs/will-the-tra...

The use of 'got' in a clause describing possession of something, such as 'I have got a pen', is superfluous. 'I have a pen' is just fine and indicates a brevity and clarity of thought that eludes many people. It may also indicate the influence of other languages. In French 'I have' is normal. I'm not sure how you would say 'I have got' in French. In fact in French you don't need the addition of 'got' to convey meaning or emphasis. French does seem to have a brevity that English has lost over the years. Around 60% of the English vocabulary originates from French. The Norman invasion of 1066 established French as the language of nobility and government, Latin was the language of the Church and Anglo-Saxon was for the commoners. 
I am an Englishman who has spent many years learning English so I feel I am entitled to criticise the language and especially those who use it badly. Perhaps it's the Germanic influence on English that has caused the gradual creep of 'got'. American English has certainly been a big influence  on the language. A good example of how American English has been a positive influence eludes me at the moment but I do know they exist. The German language had a big influence on American English and in my opinion this comes through in expressions such as 'gotten'. It's a natural progression on the word got but it definitely grates on the British ear. 
The next time I watch a British movie of the 1930s or 1940s I will note the use of the word 'got', although the scripted dialogue may not be a good indicator of common usage. 
Grammar is the set of rules used to govern the use of spoken and written words. As with all rules, some are so rarely enforced that they wither on the vine of principles until extinct. 

Resume, resumé, or résumé?

  • Nana2
  • August 24, 2016, 3:46pm

The accent is called an accent aigu and is usually put on both e's so the reader does not confuse résumé with resume - meaning to start working again on what you were doing previsously

I would call it "native speaker error"

It seems to me that the natural way to write figures as words would be the same way as we say them. So 65.25476% would be sixty-five point two five four seven six percent. If the decimals only go to two or three places then we might talk about hundredths or thousandths but rarely beyond that.

Writing out percentages correctly

10% or ten percent (in a legal contractor)? Not at the beginning of a sentence.

Over exaggeration

Over-exaggeration sounds like taking a sweet cute dump in the deep end of the pool or something. Seems to much like not manning up to your sins or errors.

The fact of the matter is is that

  • JLC
  • August 22, 2016, 4:14am

is is simply redundant