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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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I have seen to-day and to-night used in literature up to the 1920′s. When and why did this become obsolete?

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How popular is the word stymie? Is it possible that it derives from the word stifle?

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Has anyone come across “Anglish”? Anglish or Saxon is described as “...a form of English linguistic purism, which favours words of native (Germanic) origin over those of foreign (mainly Romance and Greek) origin.”

Does anybody have an opinion or thoughts on “Anglish”...

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I’ve noticed the phrase “oh wait” being used insincerely/sarcastically, to make a point. For example: “DOW 10,000!!!! Oh Wait, Make That 7,537.” What is the origin of this sort of usage of “oh wait”?

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I hear people make the word “mine” plural as in, “The book is mines.” This drives me crazy! Has anyone else had this experience and where did this word come from? I have been teaching for over 20 years and it seems to have surfaced in the last 6-8 years or so. Is it just people being lazy?

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My 4-year old daughter haven’t learned about irregular verbs and nouns yet, so she often uses the regular versions like “hided”, “breaked”, “mouses”, “fishes”, etc.. Obviously kids learn the rules and try to consistently apply them instead of learning the usage of every word case by case. So, they face the same exact frustration that ESL students do, which was a bit of a surprise to me. I thought kids learn in a more empirical, case-by-case manner, rather than relying on logical patterns.

This lead me to look up the history of irregular verbs and nouns. If native speakers of English have a hard time learning it at first, how did irregular verbs and nouns come into existence in the first place? It’s as if some sadistic English teacher invented them so that he would have more things to test his students on.

I found this entry on Wikipedia about Indo-European ablaut which explains the history of it. Not being a linguist, I didn’t quite get some of the things explained there, but I understood that the irregular verbs and nouns came from different linguistic systems within which they were perfectly regular. In other words, the English language has incorporated different systems of inflection, and now we are stuck with them.

But I feel that this is something that we could all agree to change, just as the whole world (except for the Americans) decided at one point to adopt the metric system. We just have to deal with the grammar Nazis cringe and squirm uncontrollably for several years until they get over it. We would have one less thing we have to study at school, and the same time and effort can be used to learn something more meaningful and useful.

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I have now found the phrase “pi the type” in two different books and have an idea of the meaning from the context. I would hope to learn more about the meaning and how it might have originated.

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Can anyone explain why the short forms or the nicknames for Robert and Richard are Bob and Dick?

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Ass

Why is the word “ass” considered a curse word inappropriate for children? “Fuck” for instance is understandable because it refers to an act inappropriate for children to engage in. (I personally don’t care, but I understand why other parents would care.) For similar reasons, I understand why any words that refer to our sexual organs would be considered inappropriate for children. “Bitch” is also understandable because it degrades women by associating them to dogs.

When I look up the etymology of the word “ass”, all I see are references to buttocks and rear end. So, who decides or decided that “ass” should not be used by children?

It appears to me that some people at some point in history started using “ass” to mean a sexual object, and the usage gained in popularity. Suppose some famous comedian or writer starts using the word “buttocks” to mean the same, and it gains in popularity. Are we then to classify it as a curse word and prevent children from using it? Does it make sense to give into that kind of arbitrary forces?

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I can understand the need to shorten commonly used terms in technical language, but how did they get x from trans?

e.g.

transmit --> xmit transfer --> xfer

“Trans” in this sense indicates a relocation from one thing to another. My only guess is that x is a graphical interpretation of a path crossing from one side to another.

Any suggestions?

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Latest Comments

eat vs. have breakfast

To " have " breakfast is to " eat " and "drink" something.
To " eat" breakfast is to only eat something.
Thus, have is more convenient and makes more sense to use, especially when you're teaching ESL students.

@jtu
I rest my case.

@HS I don't recall being taught anything about collective nouns plus singular verbs at school; perhaps it was taught and I was so busy daydreaming about our French conversation mistress at the time and worrying about my sinful thoughts that I missed it. Presumably your syllabus was different or you were more attentive.

@jtu
I just have one more question:
Do you, and those who share your thoughts on issues like this, believe that those of us who attended schools and universities prior to 1965 should forget all that we learned about the English language in that time and adopt the various fads and errors that have become commonplace since then?

@jtu
That is a typical descriptivist cop out.
Your use of "different to" illustrates that you are firmly in the camp of those who just like to be different for the sake of being different and who have absolutely no respect for the language.
No doubt you will soon be advocating the use of "should of" as a correct alternative to "should have" and that perpendicular just means at right angles with no regard to plane.
How do you stand on mixing up past tense and past participle?

Whether it is "correct" or not would hinge upon the criteria used. However if "people who are apparently reasonably well educated" persistently and knowingly use words such as "family" with a plural verb, despite "what has been taught for decades in schools in the UK and elsewhere", there must be a good reason, they must feel comfortable doing so, and editors do not automatically edit such constructions out. If you feel uncomfortable with this, then your eduction or background or thinking must be different to theirs.

@jtu
"@HS It's not just Jane Austen:
http://www.google.co.nz/search?q=%22the+family+...

Does that makes it correct?

@jtu
Are you saying that Jane Austen could not have been wrong?

You know, it really surprises me that people who are apparently reasonably well educated seek to gainsay what has been taught for decades in schools in the UK and elsewhere.
It's a bit like the old lady watching troops marching past and exclaiming, "They're all out of step bar our Willie".

@HS You have not actually explained Jane Austen's use of 'family' - a "collective" noun - with a plural verb, which seems contrary to your opening post: 'Despite arguments to the contrary, "family" is a collective noun, and I don't care how many family members there might be, it therefore gets a singular verb.'