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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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In his entry on ‘try and do’, Fowler calls it “an idiom that should not be discountenanced, but used when it comes natural”.

What interested me was his use of ‘natural’ as an adverb. Oxford Online gives the example ‘keep walking—just act natural’, which sounds OK to me, if idiomatic.

There are examples from Dickens and Walter Scott of ‘comes natural’  in dialogues, where ‘natural’ is being used as an adverb, but Fowler’s use here sounds strange to me. Any thoughts?

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Will words like fæces, archæologist, fœtus disappear from our language or should they be preserved?

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When I was brought up in England we used to say things like “it’s the put-er-on-er-er” for the brush used to put the polish on, and the “taker-off-er-er”. Or later, the “mover-out-er-er” for the spouse who must move out. 

Is this “real” English? Why don’t we use it in writing? Why are there two “er” at the end? Is there any description of this in any grammar? How widespread is this construction?

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I should probably count myself fortunate that I almost reached my allotted three score and ten without having come across this dreadful word.

But alas my belief that a mentor has a protégé has now been cruelly shattered.

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A) Must we have fish for dinner again?

B) Shall we have to have fish for dinner again?

C) Will we have to have fish for dinner again?

D) Do we have to have fish for dinner again?

Accepting that (D) is by far the commonest utterance and would express annoyance or lament. roughly the same as “I wish we weren’t having fish again”, my concern is with the other options, particularly (B) which looks “grammatical” but just sounds odd to me. (A) is less common today but seems to go back a long way whereas “have to” is relatively modern, so which sound “normal” to you?

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Two scenarios:

  1. You are an antipodean cricket commentator and during a broadcast you realise that your Indian co-commentator is pronouncing some words/names differently from you.
  2. You are at a social gathering and notice that everyone else pronounces words/names differently from you.

The words/names in question could be for or example:

  • Tendulkar with a soft ‘oo’ sound as opposed to your hard ‘u’ (as in dull).
  • Nepal with “paul” as opposed to your ‘pal’.
  • Debut as ‘dehbyew’ as opposed to your ‘dayboo’.

In each situation how do you react?

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Recently seen on a standardized assessment for elementary students: “Which fraction of the fruit are apples?” Shouldn’t it read: “Which fraction of the fruit is apples?” Doesn’t the subject verb-agreement rule dictate “is” apples since fraction (singular) is the question’s subject?

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I have noticed recently that the phrase “admits to” keeps popping up in contexts where the “to” is obviously redundant.

“He admits to the offence” 

“He admitted to the charge”

Is this a new fad or has it been going on for some time?

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When you Google “What does curb your dog mean?”, you find three different answers.

  1. Control your dog.
  2. Pick up dog poop.
  3. Take the dog to the curb to pee or poo.

I always understood it to mean #2, so even when I saw a sign that said “Curb your dog,” I would let my dog poo there but I picked it up afterward. I figured the person who put the sign there would be satisfied with that. But if #3 is what is meant by the sign, s/he would not be happy.

What is confusing is the word “curb” itself. It can mean “control” or “edge of street” which are two completely different definitions, and I would assume that they came from completely unrelated etymological roots. The expression is so vague and confusing that it is ineffective.

The only one that actually makes sense is #1 as “curb” means to control.

#2 doesn’t really make sense. The word “curb” has no definition that means to pick up after something, although it can indirectly imply cleaning up after the misbehavior of your own dog. (i.e., Since dogs cannot control themselves, you need to control the aftermath for them.) It’s too vague. You should just say, “Pick up after your dog.”

#3 is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, “curb” in this context should be used as a noun. I seriously doubt that “take your dog to the curb” was what was meant when the signs first started appearing in public. If you are the first person ever to create this sign, and if you meant to say, “take your dog to the curb”, then you would not write “Curb your dog.” You could not expect other people to understand what you meant by that, as there was no such use of the word “curb” in a verb form. You would have written: “Take your dog to the curb.” My second problem with #3 is that it implies it’s fine to leave the poo as long as you take the dog to the curb.

My theory is that “Curb your dog” originally had only one definition: “Control your dog.” And, the sign originally was introduced because many dogs were not kept on leash, and would cause trouble, like attacking kids, starting a fight with other dogs, barking uncontrollably, and running into the traffic. Ideally, they wanted to say, “Keep your dog on leash”, but at the time, this probably felt too extreme, so they just wanted to ask dog owners to responsibly control their dogs’ behavior. Then, in big cities like New York, some people started interpreting the word “curb” to mean the edge of the street/sidewalk, although it’s a bit of a stretch, given that “curb” in this case should not be used as a verb.

This is my theory of how the expression was originally introduced and evolved to include all three definitions. What do you think?

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Can you please comment on a trend that I have noticed recently. More and more people seem to be pronouncing words that contain the letters “str” as if they were written “shtr”. Strong sounds like shtrong, strange sounds like shtrange, and so on. I have noticed even my favorite NPR journalists mispronouncing these words. I first noticed this pronunciation in one of Michelle Obama’s early speeches. I’d appreciate any insight that you might have.

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Latest Comments

On Tomorrow

  • JBS
  • January 16, 2017, 2:22pm

This is an old world English term sometimes trapped in areas of Appalachia, like many other old German, Scottish, Irish and English phrases (or variations thereof). It's commonly used among religious African American folks in Georgia and Alabama from my experience. The reason so many comments have referenced NE Georgia, Kentucky, and North Carolina etc.. is the Appalachian connection.

An extension of solecism?

Actress instead of Actor

I have long found referring to both male and female thespians as "actors" extremely distasteful, as in PC gone amok. When I waited tables, I had no problem with the term "waitress." Then again, I have no problem with the term "comedienne" for a female comedian. The stewardess/steward thing which is now deemed offensive seems patently absurd to me, but well, "flight attendant" it is! However, reading all the comments with historic connotations does help me make a bit more sense of it all. Personally, I have no problem with the masculine and feminine forms of words/professions, and in fact I do buck against changing all of that, but appreciate the perspectives offered. I totally get that a female MD is not called a doctoress in English, but she would be called "la doctora" in Spanish, and a male "el doctor."

Usually a brand name or a play on words, used in advertising. Like the old pop brand, "Hi Klas" rather than "Hi Class" I want to say what that is called. Would an advertising agency know, I wonder? Or a college course in advertising maybe?

Pronunciation: aunt

I'm Mexican native American from Los Angeles California and I use Ant not aunt but I have heard my cousins say aunt before. Personally I prefer ant.

In general, the noun/verb distinction is accurate, but not completely so.

If I were a lobbyist, I might say "I advocate lower taxes."

But if the Republican Party retained me (with or without pay) as an advocate for lower taxes, I could say "I am an advocate (noun) for the Republican Party" or "I advocate (verb) for the Republican Party."

A mouse is a mouse and mice are mice - whether electronic or furry !

To report “there is an accident just prior to the Erindale Rd turn-off” is correct from the perspective of the listener, who judges distances in time as well as linear distance. A driver thinks in terms of duration between landmarks, and may be as likely to consider an exit 2 miles away as 2 minutes away.

Resume, resumé, or résumé?

Sorry to correct Jun-Dai, however "anyways" is not an English word!

“You have two choices”

  • GILL
  • January 7, 2017, 2:01am

This drives me bananas. "You have two choices." You can't have one choice. It's not a choice. You have a choice means you have two options. If there are three to choose from, you have three options. Doesn't matter who said it in history or in respectable places. I still roll my eyes when I hear it. Ah trivial... doesn't matter... I should get some sleep...