November 6, 2013  •  Hairy Scot

Horizontal Stripes?

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?

October 27, 2013  •  Brus

“feedback” and “check in”

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.

October 18, 2013  •  Warsaw Will

Tell About

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 “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.

October 15, 2013  •  Jasper

“as” clause and tense

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.

October 12, 2013  •  Hairy Scot

in that regard

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?

October 2, 2013  •  Brus

Plural forms of words borrowed from Latin

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?

October 1, 2013  •  SpeakEnglandverydelicious

Misuse of “lay”

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 it in danger of becoming ‘accepted usage’?

September 21, 2013  •  Brus

“into” vs “in to” and “onto” vs. “on to”

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.

September 13, 2013  •  Jasper

Past vs. past perfect

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.

September 12, 2013  •  providencejim


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,, 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.

August 27, 2013  •  jayles

“The plants were withered” Adjective or passive?

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) and finally: 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”?

August 2, 2013  •  Missy Sosler

If ... were/was

Which is correct; If the current owner WERE allowed to have an auto body shop of if the current owner WAS allowed to have an auto body shop? I am questioning whether Owner should be with WERE or Owner should be with WAS?

July 15, 2013  •  Hairy Scot

“There can be only one” or “there can only be one”?

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.

July 5, 2013  •  Jasper


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?

July 2, 2013  •  roland_butter

have gone to

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.” or “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!

July 1, 2013  •  jayles

Five eggs is too many

A: What are you cooking? B: An omelette. A: How many eggs are you putting in ? B: Five. A: Five eggs is too much. Or “Five eggs is too many” Or “Five eggs are too many” (which sounds weird to me)

June 27, 2013  •  Hairy Scot

When is a bridge not an overbridge?

Here in Kiwiland the word “overbridge” is used when the majority of English speakers would use the word “bridge”. Not sure of the source or the reason for this, and I’ve yet to see an “underbridge”.

June 24, 2013  •  Patrick James McKee

I’ve vs I’ve got

“I’ve (You’ve) to go swimming” vs. “I’ve (You’ve) got to go swimming”  and “I’ve (You’ve”) the Frisbee”   vs.  “I’ve (You’ve) got the Frisbee”  vs.  “I have the Frisbee” They could all be correct or not, but the ones I believe are wrong, at least the ones that  sound wrong, are when there is a contraction used without “Got”. Anyone know a definite answer to which is correct grammatically, and if it is grammatically correct, whether it is correct common usage.

June 4, 2013  •  Margee

“my bad”

Where or how did the term “my bad” originate? I hear it more frequently all the time and it really annoys me. Bad is an adjective, not a noun or verb.

May 25, 2013  •  Warsaw Will

“reach out”

I’m not usually a peever, but I do make an exception for business buzzwords. A recent survey in Britain found that many office workers felt ‘management-speak’  to be ‘a pointless irritation’. Up to now my least favourite has been ‘going forward’, an expression Lucy Kellaway at the Financial Times campaigned against when it first appeared, but to no avail: everyone uses it now, from Obama to Beckham. But the one that I’m increasingly noticing is ‘reach out’.  Apart from its physical meanings, my dictionary gives this meaning for ‘reach out’: reach out to somebody - to show somebody that you are interested in them and/or want to help them - “The church needs to find new ways of reaching out to young people.” Which is fine. But increasingly it seems to be being used simply to mean ‘contact’, especially on tech sites, for no good reason that I can see other than trendiness. Some examples: ‘If you would like any other suggestions or need help with transitioning your current Google Reader RSS feeds, please reach out to a Library’ ‘Wired has also reached out to Google for additional comment.’ ‘If you want to follow up, feel free to reach out to me by phone.’ I know I’m just an old fuddy-duddy, and these expressions are harmless, but they do niggle a bit. Any comments? Or anyone for Buzzword Bingo?

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