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Discussion Forum

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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“ask the gays”

Technically the grammar is ok; it is just that by using "the" one almost tends to suggest that all gays are one homogenous group who think alike. There is a discussion about this here:
http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=26223

I'm not at all surprised that no one cited from Oscar Horace's second (1913) publication, "Word and Phrase Sources and Usage: Adjectival and Advebial Etymologies and Preposition Connectors," which he dedicated to his father, Horatio, and his daughter, Amelia.

Horace explains the French usages, as for instance ), "Je suis amoureaux d'Amelia.," of which the English translation is, "I am enamored of Amelia."

He was greatly surprised that, born of the English casual pronunciation of that phrase, an artisan created a tiny glazed bird he called the "Enamor Dove," to be used when words fail the suitor who wants her to be apprised of the depth of his love for her. (In marketing the artisan, at fairs, emphasized that the Enamor Dove exemplifies a a level of courtship that is far beyond the turtle dove stage).

Anyway, the Enamored Dove was oft-bought throughout the British Isles.

And, explains Horace, the product increased the popular usage of "I am enamored of."

Ultimately, Horace's 13 volumes of his word-usage explanations were replaced by more recent books authored by others beginning in the 1880s. Nothing replaced the Enamored Dove, and it was soon forgotten. Foolishly, Horace was against copyrighting and his volumes were not reprised. Libraries, always in need of shelf space, discarded the Horace 13 volumes or stacked them in their basement. Apparently, none of them now exists, either.

Luckily, a friend from Cambridge U, Divad Saratla, visited Washington, DC and was introduced at a party to a huge defensive lineman and they became fast friends. When David learned about his new friend's verbal deficiencies caused by dyslexia, he showed one of the Horace volumes to him, of which the football player became enamored. David gave to him all 13 of the Horace volumes.

I have no idea if any volumes are extant. After years of contacting the usual suspects (forgive me, Sam), and as I now unable to continue, I suppose that Horace's works, to the extent some still may exist, are lodging in a few private homes.

Cheers,
JuTep

Resume, resumé, or résumé?

  • doug
  • July 19, 2016, 6:12pm

Speedwell - I understand "affected overcorrectness" and "we don't use accent marks in English." But it's nice to have a clear difference between "re-zoom" and "rez-oo-may," and the accents clearly eliminate any ambiguity.

Pled versus pleaded

In court, it is common for attorneys and judges to state someone "pled guilty" in the past. I was a criminal prosecutor as well as defense attorney for years and I rarely heard the utterance, "pleaded," in oral discourse. I'm not sure what global marketplace carries more weight than daily use in the courtroom.

Hi all vs. Hi everybody

I have never understood why we address "Dear". I prefer using it only for personal mails only. Like family and friends. Refering to the discussion here may I suggest "Hello xyz team" on professional mails. Usage of "Hello all" is certainly not the correct way but a more assimilated and tolerated approach.

Is “much” plural?

please

Past tense of “text”

  • Melony
  • July 14, 2016, 8:45pm

I can not bring myself to say "texted". It sounds grammatically incorrect. I use "text", in past, present and future conversations. It may not be correct, but I have not found anything to say what "is" grammatically correct. I will continue my way until it is proven wrong!

The word for an intentional incomplete sentence is ellipsis, and the word for 'writing in an accent' (ex: ya'll) is diction, if I remember correctly. Not sure if there is a term for intentional improper spelling, though...

So if our parents are from other contry (mexico)& we are born in the U.S. (americans)then our kids will be Caucasian???

and so...

The velocity enhancers are frictionally contact with the inner side of the tube wall, and they extend the contact surface of the water flowing through them, so, they reduce the plate temperature.