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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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?
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’?
Something has happened to the spellings of “into, onto” and “in to, on to”: they seem suddenly to feature in newspapers spelled wrong more often than right. It is a quite new phenomenon. These examples might serve to show what I mean, although they are made up by me, typical nevertheless:
He went onto become president. He got in to bed. He climbed on to a chair. The firemen went into rescue a cat from the burning building.
Now, how do we go about explaining to folk when these should be two words, and when one word? To my mind it is simple enough: the “to” which is separate is part of the infinitive form of the following verb: to become, to rescue. When the following word is a noun the preceding preposition is ‘into’, ‘onto’. There are other situations, too: “....he carried onto Rome” instead of “Instead of going back home he carried on to Rome” where ‘on’ goes with carried, and ‘to’ goes with Rome. Any rules to help those who are suddenly getting it wrong everywhere? Politicians not excepted.
You don’t see these errors in books, which have been proof-read by literate editors. Why then are they suddenly everywhere in newspapers, and even signs in public places? At Gatwick there is a huge, expensive sign telling people where (or is it when?) they should check-in (sic). Check-in is the name of the place where you check in, surely? (noun/verb).
Any thoughts, anyone? I shall supply, tomorrow, examples gleaned from the UK Sunday Telegraph, one of the more prestigious newspapers in this country.
I had always wondered about a construction (of conjugation within a sentence) but never could write it down properly. I have since found that construction. This is a quote from “The Day It Happened” by Rosario Morales.
A) “I wouldn’t have known anything about any of this [if Olga next door hadn't rung our doorbell and banged on the door just when Mami was too deep in prayer to hear and Maria was leaning out over the sill with her eyes bugging out].”
Specifically the verbs in that clause. My question here is why is “when Mami was... and Maria was...” past tense instead of past perfect. I’m perfectly aware that the actions of Mami and Maria are happening simultaneously with Olga’s banging of the door. I concluded that it was because that it would be interpreted further in the past than Olga’s banging. But I have supposed I’m looking for a logical consistency similar to math.
Does that grate on anyone else’s ear? Is there, say, a “simplistic” analysis that is OK, but go a step beyond that and you have “over-simplistic”? Here’s an expert on computing platforms quoted in a NYTimes blog (6 Sep 2013) on Google’s cloud-computing expectations: “It’s an admission that their original vision was over-simplistic....” And that’s hardly a rare instance.
At my current favorite online dictionary, thefreedictionary.com, there’s a note to their definition saying, “Usage: Since simplistic already has too as part of its meaning, it is tautologous to talk about something being too simplistic or over-simplistic.” That doesn’t seem to stop folks from using it, though!
I know there are other similar tautologies in use today, so maybe other posters can bring some up.
Please look at the following examples:
a) The plants died. ( an event - intransitive verb)
b) The plants were killed. ( event -passive verb)
c) The plants were dead. ( state - adjective)
d) The plants were withered (state? - adjective?)
e) The plants were withered by the sirocco. (event? - passive)
f) The plants shrank. (event - intransitive verb)
g) The plants were shrunk by the dry wind (event - passive)
h) The plants were shrunken. (state - adjective)
i) “I was bored” - is this a passive or an adjective, an event or a state?
Is it ambiguous, context-dependent or a case of “unmarked-grammar”?
Aside from being accurate in quoting from Highlander I had never really given much thought to the construction of this phrase, but I recently overheard a discussion in which one of the protagonists was adamant that there is a subtle difference in meaning between the two versions.
His reasoning was beyond me and I will not repeat it here for fear of tainting your views, however it did pique my curiosity.
This word has been driving me crazy. Figuratively speaking, I have been having an argument with my Word program about whether the adjective can act attributively or not. The sentence I had was something like this:
“The chary receptionist refused to permit the man into the offices upstairs.”
To begin, my Word program underlines chary with the green squiggle and states adjective [mis]use. I ran it through another grammar checker and it came back as commonly confused words. After a little research, I found that that word was wary. I consulted several dictionaries:
My Concise Oxford English Dictionary: chary- cautiously or suspiciously reluctant.
The dictionary program on my computer: chary- cautiously or suspiciously reluctant to do something.
Wiktionary: chary- Cautious; wary; shy
The first two dictionaries, specifically my computer’s, noted the phrase “chary of”. I then proceeded to see if there was an entry in my Webster’s Usage Dictionary. Luckily it was there, but all that it revealed to me was chary being molded into “chary+preposition”. Receiving no help, I tracked down another site that stated that the difference between wary and chary is “very slight”. However, I returned and checked wiktionary’s quotes and found two of Shakespeare using it in the way that I did but with the word’s superlative form:
“The chariest maid is prodigal enough
If she unmasks her beauty to the moon.”
My first more germane question is are chary and wary interchangeable? Or does chary simple live in the restricted phrase “chary + preposition”. This leads to my second question. Do certain adjectives only live within certain, restricted phrases?
I’d like to ask your opinion on the following sentence:
“I have gone to X High School since I was fifteen years old.”
A student recently asked me whether or not this sentence was grammatically correct. I said that it sounded correct to me, but I couldn’t answer with confidence.
I understand that, if we are talking about our experiences and completed trips, we use (the past participle) ‘been’ instead of ‘gone’. (For example, ‘I have been to California.’)
But what about ‘go’ in the sense of ‘to attend’? For example:
A: What school do you go to?
B: I go to X High School. I have gone to X High School since I was fifteen years old.
I understand we could phrase it a different way, for example:
“I have been at X High School since I was fifteen.”
“I have been going to X High School since I was fifteen.”
But I am specifically interested in the use of ‘have gone’ here. (Not least because there are situations when ‘been at’ might be inappropriate. For example, the below sentence sounds wrong to me:
“I have been at cookery classes since I was a child.”
I think here I would prefer to say:
“I have gone to cookery classes since I was a child.”)
I’ve been thinking about this type of sentence for far too long today, and now I have no idea at all whether it’s correct or not. I tried searching the internet for the answer, but couldn’t find any posts discussing this usage of ‘to go’. I’d very much appreciate your opinions on this matter.
Thank-you in advance!