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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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Just what does “You have two choices” actually mean? Since “You have a choice” indicates that more than one option exists, what is “You have two choices” meant to convey?

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Why do we nowadays have to pre-book or pre-order items? Surely we always used to book or order them, and they would be delivered when ready.

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To preface, I have been studying conditionals for the last few days because the grammar book that I used barely mentioned it. Now as the title suggests, I have a question about modal remoteness and tense. My question deals with stories, which are typically in the past tense, and when modality occurs which I should use: second (present time remote) or third (past time remote) conditional. I am unsure of which but am leaning towards third conditional. Which would be used?

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While doing some homework for literature, I constructed these two sentences and was wondering if they can be interpreted differently. The original sentence was the synopsis of “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Poe and started in the present tense, which will also be included because there is a question I have about it.

A1) The narrator arrived at the house of his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, who had sent him a letter that had requested his presence.

A2) The narrator arrived at the house of his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, who had sent him a letter that requested his presence.

What is the difference in meaning between the above sentences?

The original sentence was:

B) The narrator arrives at the house of his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, who had sent him a letter that requested his presence.

In the sentence, the narrator is currently arriving at the house because he received a letter that requested his presence, which had been sent by Roderick Usher. Does that coincide with the above statement?

For a timeline: Usher sent the letter—> the letter, through Usher’s words request the narrator’s presence—> the narrator’s arrival.

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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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@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

Over exaggeration

This is as egregious as "exactly right." It's either right or wrong with no gray area.

Past tense of “text”

  • Debe
  • August 18, 2016, 6:42pm

I used to use "texted" but it sounds all wrong, so I went to "text", and i do believe for me the explanation from Tranaut suits me just fine.