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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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Why, for a task, can we take it on, or put it off But for clothing we take it off and put it on?

(background: I am an American living in Hungary, so teaching/correcting English comes up a lot, and many here learn British English, so even I learn new words. People here often mix up the words for “put on” your clothes or “take off” clothes. They’ll say put off your jacket, or take on your shoes, etc. This became an embarrassingly awkward situation yesterday when I had to get an x-ray and ultrasound, and the tech didn’t speak very good English. She told me to undress everything, but then said I could take on my trousers, or put off something, and I really had no idea how “undressed” I had to get. I was thinking of how to explain it, that putting should be away from you, and taking should be towards you... but when it comes to clothing, we use the opposite - put ON and take OFF. Unless we’re taking it OUT of a closet and putting it AWAY. aaahh!!!)

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I’m all for the metric system, and I’m sure a lot of British schoolchildren would be well pissed off if UKIP’s idea of restoring the imperial system ever came to fruition. But I do find sentences like this, in a item on the BBC website, rather strange and unnatural:

Mr Teller says the first question is not “How can we make a tonne of money?”

I know that tonne is our unit of measurement now, but does it have to take over our idioms as well, especially as this is probably more of an American idiom anyway (I think we Brits would be more likely to say ‘ton(ne)s of money’)?

The following idioms are all listed in British dictionaries with ‘ton’ or ‘tons’:

They came down on him like a ton of bricks.

That bag of yours weighs a ton!

I’ve got tons of work to do.

We’ve got tons of food left over from the party.

I don’t know why the BBC insist on using tonne in idioms. Perhaps they think young people won’t know what a ton is. I say keep the idiomatic ton, and leave tonne for weights. After all people don’t say they’re off to spend a new penny, do they? (Actually I’m not sure anyone says that anymore anyway!)

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I have always believed, probably in common with most Scots, that the pronunciation of “gill” varies depending on whether one is referring to the organ of respiration in fishes and other water-breathing animals ( /ɡɪl/ ), or a measure of liquid (/dʒɪl/ ), or even one of the many other variations of the word. I was therefore somewhat surprised recently when watching an episode of QI to hear the erstwhile Stephen Fry and his guests use /ɡɪl/ for both the fishy organ and the liquid measure..

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As a kid in the ’50s I pronounced the word ‘often’ with the ‘t’ sound until I looked it up and found preferred pronunciation ‘of-en’. Now I always hear it with the ‘t’ pronounced. Did I imagine the change?

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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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Capitalizing Directions

I love skiing out west. Would west be capitalized? Out?

This would suggest -ies is more common:

http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=th...

could be avoided by: ".... you will receive four issues of the SGS Quarterly this year."

Plural of name ending in Y

The glass collecting club I belong to has a quarterly publication called the SGS Quarterly. I am continually seeing it in various articles in the publication referred to (for example) as ".....you will receive four Quarterlies this year." I contend that since it is being used as a proper noun, it should only have an "s" rather than changed to "ies." Which is correct?

Plural of name ending in Y

The glass collecting club I belong to has a quarterly publication called the SGS Quarterly. I am continually seeing it in various articles in the publication referred to (for example) as ".....you will receive four Quarterlies this year." I contend that since it is being used as a proper noun, it should only have an "s" rather than changed to "ies." Which is correct?

Might could

  • Dwaro
  • December 6, 2016, 9:27am

I see nothing wrong with this term. Normal daily expression. How about Used to could as an expression. We use that also.

Resume and CV are far more common than the rest in print. There are keyboard issues with entering accents for many users.

Copy this to your browser address line for the evidence:
http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=re...

Resume, resumé, or résumé?

  • Brus
  • December 5, 2016, 2:16pm

My English dictionary, which has the word with both accents as in French, nevertheless gives the pronunciation as res- as in bet, and the emphasis on the first syllable, which is more natural. Someone suggested emphasising the final syllable, which would be like doing so to the English resumED which would be hard to do, indeed, and frankly quite daft.
I say that if you choose to use a French word as in this case, then pronounce it as in French, or why use it at all? Or use curriculum vitae, much better.

Resume, resumé, or résumé?

  • Brus
  • December 5, 2016, 12:25pm

Pronouncing this word as otherwise than Ray-zoom-ay is just plain wrong. Sandymc44 tells us that he or she was taught at college to pronounce the first syllable as long "a" (so RAH!! Rah-zoom-ay, then? Oh dear!). If long "a" means as in English then Ay, then Ray-zoom-ay, as we are insisting, which is indeed correct. You tell us you were taught it at college, but that it is wrong. Well it isn't: it is correct!

Resume, resumé, or résumé?

  • Brus
  • December 4, 2016, 5:13am

If we think it is pronounced 'resume-ay' we must think it means 'picked up where we left off' rather than 'summary' or 'summarised', and we are wrong then, no? That is why we need two accents, one on the first, another on the final syllable.

Resume, resumé, or résumé?

  • Brus
  • December 4, 2016, 5:09am

A glance in your French dictionary makes it clear that the first and last syllables have acute accents, so the word means 'summary' or more exactly 'summarised'. It is pronounced Ray-zoom-ay, after all.