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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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Selfie becomes a word!

The selfie – defined as ‘a photograph that one has taken of oneself’ – has taken off to such a degree in 2013 that the term was last week named Word of the Year by the Oxford English Dictionary.

Progress indeed!

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The Latin plural for neuter nouns ends -a  (in the nominative case which is the case we use when adopting Latin nouns into English). The singular ends with -um, in many examples, but not all (caput - capita as in per capita which should really be per caput as it means ‘per’ head, not heads). In English we follow this rule with words we realise are borrowed from Latin, so we have errata for plural erratum, data for plural datum (given ‘thing’, but no one seems to notice that even data is used in the English singular), crematoria for plural of crematorium, corrigenda for things which need correcting, gerundive of obligation of corrigere = to correct. One error needing correcting: corrigendum. These, when they were born, were of course Latin words. 

Sometimes not -a, however, for no particular reason. This was mentioned in a recent Daily Telegraph letter to the editor, by a James Wraight of Kent, mentioning mausolea (or mausoleums?). Apparently students at the Royal Military College of Science told their tutor “we have finished the experiment with pendula, have done the sa and are sitting on our ba sucking winega”. 

Why pendula? Not pendulums? Pendulum is neuter Latin. Just usage? The other plurals here are of course facetious, (as they are not from Latin), but make the point that the students thought pendula was a bit over the top. Like the story of the charabanc parking spot by Magdalene College at Oxford, signposted “charsabanc”, because technically it was the chars not the banc which were plural (although there were more than one row of bancs in each vehicle the term banc here was used adjectivally, describing how the chars were arranged - in a row, or rows. But the chars in each vehicle were plural too, so perhaps each vehicle should have been called a charsabanc, leaving the pedants nonplussed when it came to pluralising it, as the good bursar’s department of the college must have been doing. So they renamed the vehicle an omnibus, Latin meaning “for all” (ablative masculine/feminine neuter plural) soon abbreviated to ‘bus, as it is spelled in books published up to the Second World War, now just bus, plural buses, not busses because that means kisses. 

English isn’t hard, is it?

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Where or how did the term “my bad” originate? I hear it more frequently all the time and it really annoys me. Bad is an adjective, not a noun or verb.

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How can backwards be a word if backward is as well? Forwards and forward? Beside and besides?

I can’t turn a light switch ons, can I? Go outs the door?

Nouns can be plural, and verbs have tense, but prepositions? 

When did we start pluralizing those?

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Hey

Why, in English, do we say ‘hey’ as a conversation starter? Why not hello? According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, hey is “used especially to call attention or to express interrogation, surprise, or exultation”. It does not mention any connection to the word hello. Why then, do we so often hear hey substituted for hello? Whether talking on the phone, texting, or just trying to make small talk in person, everyone always seems to begin with hey, even when you are already talking to the person and you don’t need their attention. My best guess is that is probably another development in our ever-changing language that came about over time, but does anyone know how this connotation came to be?

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If you’re over a certain age, you will probably be familiar with the expression - ‘If that’s what you think, you’ve got another think coming’. But if you’re a bit younger than me, you might well have heard it as - ‘You’ve got another thing coming’, especially if you’re a heavy metal fan. While I can understand that the saying could have changed through mishearing (an eggcorn?), I am puzzled as to how people who use the newer version understand it’s meaning. The original has a perfect logic to it (if not perfect grammar) which seems to me to be completely lost in the newer version.

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What’s the difference in meaning between ‘-ic’ and ‘-ical’, for example, as in ‘horrific’ versus ‘horrifical’, ‘comic’ versus ‘comical’ ‘fantastic’ versus ‘fantastical’, ‘Eucharistic’ versus ‘Eucharistical’, ‘feministic’ versus ‘feministical’, ‘ecclesial’ vs ‘ecclesiastic’ vs ‘ecclesiastical’, etc? 

The more informative the answer(s), the better.

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The word “hack” has two distinct definitions. One means “to cut or sever with repeated irregular or unskillful blows.” This must be the origin of the word “hack” as used in the world of computers, i.e., to “hack into” a computer. You keep trying different tactics and passwords until you succeed.

But the word “hack” also means to cope with something, to make do with what you have and forget about the details, even if it’s not the proper way to do it, as in a “hack job”. This is a very different definition from the first but the two are often used interchangeably in a confusing way.

“Hackathon” for instance does not mean what many people assume it does. It’s not an event where a bunch of computer hackers try to hack into a system. The term “codefest” better describes what “hackathon” really is, where a bunch of computer programmers get together and collaborate on software applications. They are using the second definition, not the first.

I’m wondering which definition came first. And, where did the second definition come from? Did it exist before the days of computers?

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I am playing rooster in a production of Annie and I need some terms of endearment that were used in the 20s and 30s. I use the term “blondie” but the woman I say it to isn’t blonde. How about “sweet cheeks”? Any help?

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While/among/amid vs whilst/amongst/amidst 

Which of the foregoing variants is older?

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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

hanged vs. hung

  • Maya
  • March 20, 2017, 11:48pm

I want to know , which is the correct sentence to use when your laptop freeezes. Like , " My laptop hung up or my laptop hanged or my laptop is hung

fill in the blanks!

I have a release of all claims and above the notary & witness signatures, there is this statement:
WITNESS___________ hand and seal this ______ day of _________, 2017; what is put in after WITNESS?

Past tense of “text”

Spelt: texed
Pronounced: texd or text... as one can't really hear the difference.
Easy way to get over that troublesome t thing.

Past tense of “text”

Spelt: texed
Pronounced: texd or text... as one can't really hear the difference.
Easy way to get over that troublesome t thing.

Past tense of “text”

So would you use text or texts for multiple text messages. For some reason it bothers me to hear/read "texts". What's appropriate?