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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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Does anyone know who first used the expression “retail therapy”. How would one go about finding the first time this expression was published?

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I’m German, but work in an American company. So the expression “Hi all” is pretty popular as a salutation for email messages. Now, an American English native speaker told me that this is Southern accent, and I should use “Hi everybody” instead. (same with “Dear all”)

What do you think?

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Is it correct to say “over exaggerate”? or is exaggeration by nature already over emphasizing? Surely you either exaggerate or you don’t? It just drives me mad when people say this all the time!

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So I am a university English Lit student of about three years, and I have to admit, I don’t exactly know the meaning of this phrase. I came across it while reading “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and was reminded how much this phrase has always annoyed me, because I have a general idea of what it means, but couldn’t specifically define it. I am also curious as to where this phrase originated from. Any ideas?

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I recently used the phrase (?) “thisclose.” A friend asked me what it’s called when the literal writing matches the meaning. Is there a word for that? What is it?

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What does it mean when someone says you have cow eyes? I’ve heard a bunch of answers but I don’t know which is right. I have been told it means:

- Your eyes kind of stick out (like Steve Buscemi) - Your eyes are different colors (I guess this is common among cows? I know it’s common among certains dogs and cats) - Your eyes have a sad look to them (cause cows look sad?) - You have a stare that suggests you are “hot to trot” - You have a blank, empty stare.

Any ideas what this really means?

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Does a phrase exist (english or other) that describes a situation in which something that normally would not occur takes place, solely because the circumstances surrounding it (themselves possible anomolies) make it possible.

Example: A “perfect storm” can take place because wind speeds reach the correct speed at the correct moment, water temperatures are at the right temperature at the correct time, etc., etc.

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as dry as a bone as cold as ice as sick as a dog as wet as ??? a fish? water? what’s right?

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Am I not right in thinking that the phrase “discussion forum”, as often used to refer to bulletin boards on websites, is a tautology?

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I have heard the expression “Ha Ha, charade you are” in the pink floyd song pigs, and also in a southpark episode. In the episode cartman used it like you would use the phrase “touchee” in an argument. Does anyone have any input as to what this phrase means and an example of using it.

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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