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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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I have a question to ask of you. A professor of English Usage said the next expression is incorrect:

(a) She is not what she was ten years ago.

He insisted that this sentence should be corrected like:

(b) She is not who she was ten years ago.

In my opinion, both sentences are correct but there is some difference between them:

(a) implies that she changed her habit or attitude, or lost her physical strength etc.,

but (b) implies that she became ill and lost her physical ability etc.

Do you agree with my opinion? I examined the following examples:

who he was

(1) ‘I believe he was a massive influence on the pitch when we played against them. He was United’s football brain, he was highly motivated and he was a quality player. At 34 he is not what he was in central midfield aged 28. But he is still a top Premier League player and a loss for United.’ — The Independent (London, England), November 19, 2005

(2) Mr Wolff added: “Murdoch is an 80-year-old man. He obviously is not what he was five years ago. He is in the midst of an enormous legal situation and lawyers have taken over. He is under an emotional strain as great as any in his life. This is incredibly painful for him.” — The Evening Standard (London, England), February 17, 2012

what he was

(1) All this is understandable. Arenas is returning from an interminable rehabilitation process. He is not who he was. And getting back to who he was will not be easy on him or his teammates, not when he has the ball in his hands so much of the time. — The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 23, 2009

 (2) Parkinson’s disease has kidnapped my wife. It is in the process of killing her. I hug and kiss what is left of her, hang photographs of the old, strong Milly throughout the house, and talk to her. We hold hands. We make love. But she is not who she was. She cannot walk, and now she can barely speak. She is being carried into an abyss, and I am helpless to rescue her. — Morton Kondracke, Saving Milly: Love, Politics, and Parkinson’s Disease (2001) p. xix

I am looking forward to your comment on this!!!

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When I first heard the lyrics, “Wake up to reality, use your mentality” I thought that Cole Porter was joking. You don’t use your mentality. You use your mind.

Here’s a list:

Medicine » Medication
Document » Documentation
Reason » Rationality
Mind » Mentality
Transport » Transportation

The list is seemingly endless when one starts looking. My point is that ‘document’, for example, is an official piece of paper. ‘Documentation’ is the furnishing or provision of that piece of paper. ‘Medication’ is the application of medicine.There are those who think it is classy to say “I took the medication” Oh dear me, no. Words have meanings.

Americans tend to believe that the British dislike of ‘transportation’ to mean ‘a bus’ is based on our guilty consciences about shipping convicts to Australia. Actually no, that was a pretty good policy. Where better to send them? ‘Transportation’ was the policy, not the ships.

No doubt there are, legitimately, grey areas but...no, I take it back. I’m not weakening.

So there we are, fellow-pedants. The battle-lines are drawn.

May I finally say how pleasant it is to find this forum, the only place I know of where one can sound of on such subjects without being told to take an aspirin and lie down in a darkened room.

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When speaking about wish statements, why is it okay to give the short answer form for an action verb (e.g. snow), but not for be + adjective (e.g. to be sunny).

For example, we say “It won’t rain tomorrow, but I wish it would.”

But, “It won’t be sunny tomorrow, but I wish it would be.”

What is the distinction we make here, or is it just an arbitrary rule that we use be?

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It’s one I had not encountered before moving to NZ. Now I hear it and read it almost daily. Yet a Google seach shows 843,000 hits for NZ out of a total of 267,000,000 so it is obviously not restricted to the antipodes.

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What diacritic would I use over the word YANA to accent the first a as an “ah” (short o) sound. It is pronounced Yahna. Thanks!

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In NZ I have often seen in print and heard people say “it caught on fire” instead of “it caught fire”. Is this a regional thing or does it occur elsewhere?

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I have heard the president hypercorrect personal pronouns as in “he gave it to Michelle and I.” Is this common now even in the highly educated? Would this have been heard by a highly educated person 30 years ago?

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Another interesting phrase from The Independent:

“nearby to where he lives”

This journalist must be paid by the word. Wonder what was wrong with “near where he lives”?

Link to the article »

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The phrase “liquid water” seems to have become very much in vogue with science correspondents in the media. Does the fact that most of us probably view water as being liquid not render this particular neologism redundant, and reveal it as another example of members of the fourth estate, or perhaps the people they interview, trying to be ultra clever? Shall we all now be required to start referring to ice a “solid water” and steam as “gaseous water”?

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English (other than American English) has a clear differentiation between the two words. Both are about moving something. In “bring” the something of somebody is moved to where the speaker is currently situated. “Take” is used to indicate moving something or somebody to a place that the speaker is not currently at. I have heard and read examples of these two verbs being confused in a number of American movies and TV shows, and in a number of books by American authors. Jeffrey Deaver is one author guilty of this along with other flaws like misuse of perpendicular, another is George R R Martin in his Song of Ice and Fire series.

For example, in the UK a boy will say to a girl, “May I take you home”. Meaning “may I escort you to your home”, not “would you like to come back to my place”. Whereas in the US “May I bring you home” would be be more common. Similarly, a UK girl might say “Would you take me home please” as opposed to “Would you bring me home please”. Why does this confusion exist and persist?

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Latest Comments

eat vs. have breakfast

To " have " breakfast is to " eat " and "drink" something.
To " eat" breakfast is to only eat something.
Thus, have is more convenient and makes more sense to use, especially when you're teaching ESL students.

@jtu
I rest my case.

@HS I don't recall being taught anything about collective nouns plus singular verbs at school; perhaps it was taught and I was so busy daydreaming about our French conversation mistress at the time and worrying about my sinful thoughts that I missed it. Presumably your syllabus was different or you were more attentive.

@jtu
I just have one more question:
Do you, and those who share your thoughts on issues like this, believe that those of us who attended schools and universities prior to 1965 should forget all that we learned about the English language in that time and adopt the various fads and errors that have become commonplace since then?

@jtu
That is a typical descriptivist cop out.
Your use of "different to" illustrates that you are firmly in the camp of those who just like to be different for the sake of being different and who have absolutely no respect for the language.
No doubt you will soon be advocating the use of "should of" as a correct alternative to "should have" and that perpendicular just means at right angles with no regard to plane.
How do you stand on mixing up past tense and past participle?

Whether it is "correct" or not would hinge upon the criteria used. However if "people who are apparently reasonably well educated" persistently and knowingly use words such as "family" with a plural verb, despite "what has been taught for decades in schools in the UK and elsewhere", there must be a good reason, they must feel comfortable doing so, and editors do not automatically edit such constructions out. If you feel uncomfortable with this, then your eduction or background or thinking must be different to theirs.

@jtu
"@HS It's not just Jane Austen:
http://www.google.co.nz/search?q=%22the+family+...

Does that makes it correct?

@jtu
Are you saying that Jane Austen could not have been wrong?

You know, it really surprises me that people who are apparently reasonably well educated seek to gainsay what has been taught for decades in schools in the UK and elsewhere.
It's a bit like the old lady watching troops marching past and exclaiming, "They're all out of step bar our Willie".

@HS You have not actually explained Jane Austen's use of 'family' - a "collective" noun - with a plural verb, which seems contrary to your opening post: 'Despite arguments to the contrary, "family" is a collective noun, and I don't care how many family members there might be, it therefore gets a singular verb.'