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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 the dialect expression “He was sat ...” in place of “He was sitting ...”, which is quite common in the UK, also found in US English? When I first arrived in England I was astonished to hear a teacher tell his class to “stay sat” when they had done whatever it was they were doing. Now it is like an epidemic, heard on the radio and television too, used by people speaking otherwise standard English. US dialect is very rich and diverting, but I wonder if this one features?

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I’ve come across the following dependent clause that has piqued my grammar interest, and I’m not sure if said clause is grammatically correct:

“...with the exception of a roast beef sandwich, a protein-dense smoothie from Jamba Juice, and 500 million dollars!”

In this case, should the word “exception” be plural since it’s referring to a list (and subsequently the preceding “the” should be dropped as well)?

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Do we change tenses on common expressions when writing fiction? “God only knew” sounds bizarre, but I find it difficult to let “knows” persist when writing...

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I need you help explain this structure to me: “prefer/want it that way”. I have heard it the first time in the song “I want it that way” of Backstreet Boys. But I think the complete sentence could be: “I want it in that way”, is it right? Is “in” left out in this sentence? Thank you in advance.

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What is the meaning of “I dove my hat”?

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Is there not a redundancy in the use of “got” with “have”? Why say “I have got” or “I’ve got” when “I have” conveys the exact meaning? The same would be true of its use in the second or third person.

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Can the term ‘self-confessed’ be correct? I read it last week and it’s been bugging me ever since. Surely the only way to confess is to do it personally? Can someone else confess to my crime or secret? The ‘self’ part is redundent.

Then I thought it might come from a police background. If someone is about to be questioned and they confess without any probing I can see how ‘self-confessed’ could make sense, as they were not forced to confess by interrogation. But it still feels like saying ‘cold ice’ to me!

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I’m looking for a phrase or idiom that conveys the same sense of wild goose chase or false lead as a red herring, but that is not placed intentionally. A red herring is necessarily an attempt to mislead. I’m looking for a phrase that can apply if the distraction is unintentional.

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The first time I heard the phrase “went missing” was a few years while watching a national news broadcast. The new reporter interviewed a midwestern sheriff about the case of a missing girl. He said she “went missing eight days ago”. I assumed it was a colloquialism (and very poor grammar). Now I hear it and read it quite frequently. Where did this strange expression come from? How can someone “go” missing? Shouldn’t it be “disappeared”? Or perhaps, “has been missing”?

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It sounds to me as if this term is descended from “What it is”, a Black-American expression that goes back to the 1960s. Then it meant, “It’s part of The System”, or “It’s just part of how African-Americans have to live in the USA”, implying restriction, being the object of racism and prejudice, and adopting a philosophical and pragmatic way of living under pressure. “What it is” seemed to come from late 1960s black culture, including the Black Panthers, so-called “soul music” and more. It might come from a song. I only heard black people say it, never anyone else, and it was an expression of positive resignation, as if it also meant, “We can’t change that but we will move forward anyway.” Now, 45 years later, “It is what it is”, sounds like a more vague descendent. I think it’s weaker and less compelling because it sounds artificial, as if a movie screenwriter created it. Again, I dislike the vagueness of it, especially because wen people say it, they seem to imply it explains something, which it does not. It seems to be a weak vulgar shrug uttered by those who don’t know what else to say, and are baffled or confused themselves. I’d accept it from African-Americans, who might catch a subtlety or a meaning I don’t. But now I’ve heard it from 2 highly educated white friends, and it sounds phony coming from them. WHAT DOES IT MEAN AND IS IT EVER VALID OR WORTHWHILE?

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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!

The exact origin of the continuous aspect in English is debatable. The theory that I find most useful is that it corresponds to the dialect German eg: "Sie war am Buegeln" = She was an-ironing. This exists in English in phrases like:
"A-hunting we wil go"; "The cocks were a-crowing"; and so on.
The "a-" prefix was, as I understand it, originally a preposition as in "asleep", "awake", "abed", and so forth. In time the prefix fell by the wayside to form the continuous aspect, but the meaning of being in the process/activity remained.
The reason I favor this explanation is that it makes sense of the so-called "present perfect continuous" - "What have you been doing? I've been hunting. (cf I've been a-hunting.) The root idea behind the continuous is still to this day about being engaged in an activity or process.
Thus if one could say:
"How's the burger, Rastus?" "I'm a-loving it"
then it would all make sense. That it does not quite - as "loving" is not really an activity unless it involves bodily movement - demonstrates the underlying meaning of the continuous.

The whole thrust of the original question is misguided. Why do we need "a word" for "intentionally incorrect spellling". Surely the "word" is "intentionally incorrect spelling" if that is what one means. Why bury the meaning in some obscure word that few know or understand? Where does this mentality come from? We seem to do it all the time; for example "arachnophobia"? Who are we kidding? It's just very Stephen Fry and snobby. What's so wrong with "fear of spiders" - or even "spider-dread" or something that a normal person would understand. After all, isn't language for communicating with normal people? Why make it so esoteric?