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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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What does “tooing and frowing” mean? And why these words cannot be found in any dictionary (at least in those I looked at?) Is it a corruption of “to and fro?” Is “frowing” a word and could it be used separately and if so would it mean differently than that of the phrase?

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If Hillary Clinton is elected as the president of the US, what should Bill Clinton be called? I’ve seen both “first husband” and “first gentleman.” Wikipedia seems to think that it should be the latter.

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Is this correct? As in “in response to some of the most problematic issues of nowadays business”? To me it sounds strange, although it seems to have a couple hundred entries in Google. I’d opt for “today’s business”.

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When we say, “Don’t mind if I do,” what is the subject we are omitting? Is it:

I don’t mind if I do.

or

You don’t mind if I do.

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My children frequently say they did something, or someone else did something “on accident,” where I would say “by accident.” The “on” version not only sounds wrong to me, but it makes no semantic sense (what about the normal meaning of “on” could make it appropriate here?), but despite my having corrected them many times, they persist in this usage, which suggests it is entrenched in their subculture (Southern California Public Schools). I also came across the “on accident” form on the web recently. Is this idiom taking over? Would anyone care to defend it, or to suggest how it might have originated?

Also, as a college teacher in Southern California I have noticed a construction that might be related in quite a few student essays. This is “study on,” where I would just write “study.” For example: “Galileo studied on astronomy for many years.” Admittedly, this almost always occurs in essays that are poorly written in all sorts of other respects, but it is clearly not a simple mistake, as it occurs quite frequently, sometimes several times in the same paper. Clearly it is done intentionally. (Perhaps it is worth adding that many of my students are Hispanic and bilingual in Spanish and English. Could it be that “study on” reflects some construction or idiom in Spanish? Could that be the case for “on accident” too?)

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I’ve just come from a thread debating the relative correctness of “all of a sudden” vs “all the sudden” and would like to submit another evolving phrase that annoys me:

Use of “a couple... ” in lieu of “a couple of...”. “A couple drinks”, or whatever. While I find the question of “all of a sudden” vs “all of the” merely interesting, with this one I am inclined to assume laziness.

Any thoughts?

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To me, “and how...” is one of those phrases that trails off when the responder doesn’t have much left to say about a certain statement (e.g. “times like these...”, etc.). I know it is to emphasize or strongly agree with a statement that has just been made, but when you think of it literally, it doesn’t make too much sense. Can anyone explain?

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If Methodology means “they study of different methods” (in the same idea as Biology or Geology) then why do people always say “Let me explain our methodology” instead of just saying “Let me explain our methods”?

Am I wrong or do I have the right to be annoyed!

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So someone I work with is giving me hell about the word “unforecasted.” Microsoft’s built-in dictionary doesn’t recognize it, and I’ve checked a couple of on-line dictionaries to no avail. However, a Google search shows relatively common usage in business, defense, and academic writings. I stand by it - it sounds correct to my ears and it seems to alleviate a void in nuance that is not filled by unanticipated, unpredicted and the like.

Can anyone validate or refute my stance?

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I’m interested in the origins of “I’m just saying” used postpositively. (Also its variant: “I’m not saying, I’m just saying.”) An example: “Have you ever noticed how many people end statements with qualifiers? I’m just saying.” It seems to be an update of “With all due respect,” or perhaps something I’m not thinking of. Is it an East Coast expression? I’m from California and have never heard it in speech, but have noticed it frequently in blog titles and posts.

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Latest Comments

Someone else’s

The grammar patterns of Courts Martial, Judge Advocates General, etc. would seem to agree. In example, those who pass flatulence would be "gas passers" or passers of gas, just as passers by, which is short for an entire phrase "passers by the side of [implied or mentioned object]" is different. However, "someone else" appears to hearken back to a more Germanic form of grammar, rather than the French Norman with its Latin influence. If this is the origin of the phrase, then using the entire phrase as a single noun or idea would be appropriate. In this case, where both words originate from the Germanic, it would be "someone else's". The Germans frequently abbreviate such phrases where they become excessively long, but in their original were written as one word using their cursive. In school I studied French, Classical Latin, and German enough to become aware that our aggregatenous language has so many exceptions because of those origins. (I have dabbled with Gaelic which is as far as I can tell the source of split infinitives.)

Someone else’s

The easiest way to avoid the use of "someone else's" (which is grammatically incorrect), is to put the NOUN, with which you are linking the possessive, FIRST in the sentence.
For example: "It was someone else's fault." (incorrect)
"It was the fault of someone else." (correct)
This works every time when you write, but for conversational speech, "someone else's" is the common usage. However, if you are quoting what was spoken by someone else, then you would want to quote it exactly.

@Lisa: biennial

What happens if you skip a year?

I'd say that when using the % sign it would be "between 40% and 50%" but when spelling it out "between 40 and 50 percent" would be adequate.

It depends on what you are writing. In a legal document one might spell it out unambiguously as "between forty percent and fifty percent". Elsewhere omitting the first percentage sign may well be clear enough.

There is a good explanation of mixed conditionals here:
http://random-idea-english.blogspot.co.nz/2011/...

If I remember correctly, there is a comment in Michael Lewis's "Lexical Approach" (1993) that in conditional sentence one just uses the appropriate tense and modal. If we construe "would" as a modal subjunctive indicating a counter-factual situation, and "have been" as a perfect infinitive indicating the situation is in the past, then this does not sit well with the time adverb "today".

However, I do believe that in some areas, such as Quebec, usage may be different, so there may be some wiggle-room here.

Where are the commas?

  • dionne
  • March 21, 2017, 1:35pm

I was lead to believe it was Sally.

As far as I can discern, it is neither impolite nor polite. However, it is incorrect. "Can I get [something]?" implies that the person is asking whether it is possible that they, themselves, are able to go and fetch or obtain something e.g. "Can I get petrol there?" or because they are asking whether another person would like something that they could obtain on their behalf, for example "Can I get you a drink?"

If they are asking a waiter, bartender, shop assistant or other person serving if they would go and fetch something for them on their behalf, they should ask the question "May I have/can I have/could I have" and similar variants preferably with "please" in there somewhere!

I am wondering how you say this percentage in words:
.00011 percent.
Is it something like:
One hundredth and one thousandth of one percent??

I am trying to show how SMALL 1100 parts per billion is...

Thank you,

Joanna