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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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I’ve been seeing and hearing people use “based out of” more and more, when they mean simply “based in.” The phrases at first glance would seem to mean opposite things, as if being “based out of New York” would imply one is not actually in New York. But it’s clear people use them with the same intention. 

Case in point: At the U. S. Small Business Administration website a paragraph about Home-Based Businesses includes this: “In fact, more than half of all U.S. businesses are based out of an owner’s home.”

I see this phenomenon as yet another example of what is to me a peculiar affection for a term or phrase longer than one with the same meaning that’s been considered standard for a long time. Folks no longer plan, they pre-plan. We take preventative steps, not preventive. But “based out of” seems worse, because to me it’s just bad usage.

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I’m not sure when it started, but at some point, servers in restaurants, when coming around to your table to check on you, started asking “how’s everything tasting?”, rather than the formerly prevalent “how is everything?”. It seems as if a universal email went out to all wait staff everywhere, with the decree that this is now the proper way to phrase the question. But while it’s no longer a new practice, it still grates on my ears whenever it’s asked of me. I mean, this is FOOD: When asking about someone’s satisfaction regarding food, isn’t the sense of taste implied? Are they otherwise expecting someone to reply, “Well, it TASTES great, but it looks disgusting and smells terrible”? To me, asking “how’s everything” instead would imply not only the food, but also the congeniality and promptness of service, the atmosphere... ie, the overall experience. By narrowing the inquiry down to taste only, it seems to make the statement that the establishment doesn’t much care about the patron’s OVERALL satisfaction! I think this is the aspect of it that disturbs me: I can prepare all sorts of wonderful food in my kitchen, and for a fraction of the price of eating out. What I feel I’m paying for when dining out is the experience as much as the food, and it is my satisfaction with that experience that this new question (besides its annoying redundancy) seems to deliberately avoid.

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I’ve always believed that, especially with clothing, that there are stripes (vertical) and bands or hoops (horizontal) but I hear more and more people describing bands or hoops as stripes, and even as horizontal stripes. Another evolution?

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I came upon this on their website: “The Senior Management Team at Fettes College have day to day responsibilities for the running of The College. They meet regularly throughout the year and feedback to staff and Governors as appropriate.”

Leaving aside the rather Germanic employment of capital letters on some, but strangely then not all, of the nouns in this statement, and the wholly gratuitous ‘as appropriate’ tacked on to fill up some space, I find most irksome the use here of ‘feedback’ as a verb. I would use two words: ‘feed back’ (a compound verb), or I would insert a verb and say ‘provide feedback’ (noun + verb). In fact I would much prefer to avoid this ugly expression altogether and use a term such as ‘report back to’ or ‘report to’. Am I alone in finding this whole thing rather disappointing for a major British school?

It’s like the sign at Gatwick airport which directs passengers to do something along the lines of ‘check-in here’ where what is meant is ‘check in here’ because ‘check in’, being what you do, is a compound verb, and ‘check-in’, being the name of the place where you do it, is a noun. 

It is very elementary grammar, as taught to me at about the age of eight, noun! verb! and I find it almost incredible that a renowned Scottish public school can be so sloppy, and that a major airport in England, an English-speaking country, does not proof-read what is to be painted in huge letters on its walls. 

On the other hand, one’s reaction to seeing in Phnom Penh, in Cambodia, the “PRINCESSS HOTEL” in huge pink neon lights ranged in a column above the door, has to be mirth, and wondering what the extra S cost the management. It is not as though they could not afford an apostrophe, as in the foyer are life-size photographs of a number of these estimable ladies, so the ‘princesss’ are plural. So it was an ‘e’ which proved beyond budget, then, or a proof-reader. But that of course is forgivable, as it is not in an anglophone country.

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On ESL websites I sometimes see instructions to students of the type ‘Tell about an experience you had this week’. To me, and I think other speakers of British English, this sounds a bit strange: we normally tell somebody about something or talk about something. I’ve checked six standard British dictionaries and can find no examples of ‘tell about’. My (British) teacher colleagues also find it odd.

At first I tended to put it down to the fact that these instructions were usually written by teachers who are not native speakers. Then I found some examples in American crime writing, and wondered if it could be a dialect thing. But I’m now finding examples in academic texts, and am beginning to assume that this is absolutely standard North American English. This one’s from a Canadian non-fiction book - Be Good, Sweet Maid: The Trials of Dorothy Joudrie - by Audrey Andrews:

“O’Brien asked Dorothy to tell about incidents that were not physical. He prompted her by suggesting she begin by telling about an incident that occurred in Glacier National Park … . She told about how Earl had frightened her to the point of hysteria …” 

This one’s from a book on social psychology -  Knowing People: The Personal Use of Social Psychology -  by Michael J Lovaglia:

“Would people rate the man as less mentally healthy if he kept personal information to himself  than they would if he told about it. They did not. In contrast to the way people rated a woman who told personal information about herself, people rated the man less mentally healthy when he told about his personal problems than when the man kept silent about his personal problems.”

And finally advice for job interviewees at About.com:

“So, when asked to tell about yourself, don’t spend too much time on the predictable answers.”

So I’d just like speakers of North American English to confirm that this use of “tell about something” without a personal object is absolutely standard for you, and speakers of British English (and similar) to confirm that I’m not alone in finding this construction strange, and that you would “tell somebody about something” or “talk about something”. 

Just another example of being “separated by a common language” perhaps.

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From “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin:

“She sat with her head thrown back upon the cushion of the chair, quite motionless, except when a sob came up into her throat and shook her, as a child who had cried itself to sleep continues to sob in its dreams.”

At the ‘as’ clause, why is it fine for the verb to be conjugated in the present tense (continues), instead of past tense? I don’t believe it’s wrong, but I would like an explanation.

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Some people think that there is a difference in meaning between “in that regard” and “in that respect”, some believe that a lot of phrases using “regard” or “regards” are in fact making inappropriate use of the word, and of course some think there is nothing wrong with such usage.

Does anyone else think that the phrase “In that regard” is overused and misused?

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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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How widespread is the misuse of the word “lay”? I’m quite sure one “lies down” and does not “lay down” (except when laying down a carpet, the law or a challenge) This is prevalent in Australia, and I’ve recently found it to be very common in the USA. It irritates me no end...is it in danger of becoming ‘accepted usage’?

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Latest Comments

Might could

  • vgb
  • June 29, 2016, 9:53pm

I am from all over, but my parents are from Idaho, so I'm not sure the regions identified in previous posts have a monopoly on the form. Anyway, I inherited "might could" from one of parents, and find it very useful. The way I use it, it deflates the less cooperative "might," alone as in "I might do that," which sounds like a teenager challenging an authority figure.

"I might could do that" suggests a willingness to try rather than an insouciant "I might," as in "if I feel like it."

I have a BA in English and an MA in teaching English as a Second Language. If one of my international students used "might could," I would be over-joyed. There are so many worse "infractions" with modals. Believe me, I see them every day.

all _____ sudden

  • vgb
  • June 29, 2016, 8:11pm

I hear "all the sudden" in interviews on NPR. I agree with asheibar that such colloquialisms emerge because they are heard and passed on, but not seen in written text. It reminds me of the occasion someone had written on the blackboard, "It's a doggy dog world." Clearly, whoever wrote this had never seen the written version, "It's a dog eat dog world." Well, marzy dotes and dozey dotes and little lambsy divey" !

It does not bother me that colloquialisms emerge and colonize the language; what bothers me is that it seems that reading is becoming a quaint, anachronistic habit performed by backward looking people who haven't caught on that it's all in the tweet.

The term "First" or "Second Generation", omits the obvious, first or second generation "American". If we say that those who immigrated are the 1st, then by definition their children are 2nd. But that poses a problem, not everyone who immigrates becomes an "American" (11 million are not even legal residents). Although a bit confusing because many of them (I am one of them) do end up becoming American, for clarity, we need to start calling only those who are born here the First Generation.

It's always been LEGO to me (caps or not). I see people who use "Legos" as casual consumers of the product, and should have no business writing about LEGO for public viewing.

Did I get an earful on a "Hey!" when I was in London!!

The concierge in my apartment really took offence when I casually greeted him - "Hey!"

I got something on these lines:
"That's very disrespectful of you. How dare you 'hey' me?!"

So I have been ever so careful when using "hey" over a "hi" or a "hello". I thought this was a very English thing, but quite surprising to find quite a few English folks on this page to be okay with "hey".

Hey, what the heck!

Might could

  • jeb
  • June 26, 2016, 3:08pm

I might could say something about snobby grammarians...bless their hearts...but I won't.

As a well educated native of southern Appalachia (BA in English; PhD in Education), I can say with confidence that might could is mighty useful modal construction that conveys nuance and a sophisticated appreciation of the historical English, at least as spoken by the Scotch Irish settlers who populated these parts.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appalachian_English

Indirect Speech?

Oops.
Forgive the extra line in my previous post.
A thought that died at birth.

:)

Indirect Speech?

We could call it "oblique speech", or even "roundabout speech", or we could use a derivative of euphemism, metaphor, or allegory.
I am sure there a a number of terms that could be used to avoid the inevitable confusion caused by the use of the term "indirect speech" in this context.
.
Perhaps a simpler solution would be to refer

Someone else’s

  • Don
  • June 25, 2016, 3:04pm

An adverb, such as else, cannot be made possesive. That is reserved for nouns and pronouns. Else cannot be made in a possesive form. If used, it is poor English.

“Rack” or “Wrack”?

  • OJ
  • June 23, 2016, 11:59am

Doesn't look good on proofreading site to find: "tends ton go along" (on this page)