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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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This mispronounciation of the words like strong, and destroyed, by Michelle Obama has been so annoying and distracting and in my opinion really so unbecoming of a first lady. It also seems to me, that other words, like America, for example, are said with a tone of complaint or disdain. It is so distracting that I have trouble following the context of her remarks on a given occasion. As a role model for the youth of this nation, and speaking publicly as the First Lady, it surprises me no one ever counseled her on the inappropriateness of mispronounciation of these words that in my opinion, diminishes what she was trying to say in any given speech.

Past tense of “text”

  • Garuda
  • August 26, 2016, 9:59am

I was just looking this up, but have not found anything "conclusive". I prefer to use "text" for present and past tense though most of my friends use "texted". To me "texted" sounds ignorant and childish. I was hoping to find support for my view, but so far have not.

@gary Curiously, translating English into French usually makes the text at least fifteen percent longer:

http://www.media-lingo.com/gb/faqs/will-the-tra...

The use of 'got' in a clause describing possession of something, such as 'I have got a pen', is superfluous. 'I have a pen' is just fine and indicates a brevity and clarity of thought that eludes many people. It may also indicate the influence of other languages. In French 'I have' is normal. I'm not sure how you would say 'I have got' in French. In fact in French you don't need the addition of 'got' to convey meaning or emphasis. French does seem to have a brevity that English has lost over the years. Around 60% of the English vocabulary originates from French. The Norman invasion of 1066 established French as the language of nobility and government, Latin was the language of the Church and Anglo-Saxon was for the commoners. 
I am an Englishman who has spent many years learning English so I feel I am entitled to criticise the language and especially those who use it badly. Perhaps it's the Germanic influence on English that has caused the gradual creep of 'got'. American English has certainly been a big influence  on the language. A good example of how American English has been a positive influence eludes me at the moment but I do know they exist. The German language had a big influence on American English and in my opinion this comes through in expressions such as 'gotten'. It's a natural progression on the word got but it definitely grates on the British ear. 
The next time I watch a British movie of the 1930s or 1940s I will note the use of the word 'got', although the scripted dialogue may not be a good indicator of common usage. 
Grammar is the set of rules used to govern the use of spoken and written words. As with all rules, some are so rarely enforced that they wither on the vine of principles until extinct. 

Resume, resumé, or résumé?

  • Nana2
  • August 24, 2016, 3:46pm

The accent is called an accent aigu and is usually put on both e's so the reader does not confuse résumé with resume - meaning to start working again on what you were doing previsously

I would call it "native speaker error"

It seems to me that the natural way to write figures as words would be the same way as we say them. So 65.25476% would be sixty-five point two five four seven six percent. If the decimals only go to two or three places then we might talk about hundredths or thousandths but rarely beyond that.

Writing out percentages correctly

10% or ten percent (in a legal contractor)? Not at the beginning of a sentence.

Over exaggeration

Over-exaggeration sounds like taking a sweet cute dump in the deep end of the pool or something. Seems to much like not manning up to your sins or errors.

The fact of the matter is is that

  • JLC
  • August 22, 2016, 4:14am

is is simply redundant