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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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Googling for “use my brain” (singular) returns 16 million results whereas “use my brains” (plural) returns 11 million. “Rack my brain” returns 792,000 results, and “rack my brains”, 312,000.

Why do we even consider using “brains” (plural)? What are we trying to say by adding the “s”? Is there any difference in connotations?

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a) “Could I borrow your pen please?”  “Of course.”

b) Teacher: “Did you do your homework?”  Student: “Of course.” 

c)  Interviewee: “May I sit down?”   Interviewer (thinking: what a twit!): “Of course.”

d) Police: “Do you have ID, and license?” Driver: “Of course, officer. Good of you to ask”. 

e) Called from the shower: “Is it raining out?” Spouse: “Of course.” 

f) In hallway to home-comer: “Is it raining out?” Dripping home-comer: “Of course.”

g) At party: “Could I borrow your wife for a quickie?” “Of course.”

h) After party: “Are you coming?” Only sober car-owner/driver: “Of course.” 

i) Boss: “Can you have that report on my desk by 2300?” “Of course.”

Of course it may depend on how it is said, but where would it be dangerously ambiguous?

What alternatives are there which are safer?

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“William and Kate had earlier attended a civic reception hosted by Perth and Kinross provost Liz Grant, where they were gifted an ancient map of Strathearn.” 

So we are told by the internet news service in Britain today. What is wrong with ‘they were given as a gift’ ... or ‘they were presented with the gift of ...’? “They were gifted [something]...” sounds to me about as attractive an expression as the noise of fingernails scraped down an old-fashioned blackboard. Am I too sensitive? Should I wear earmuffs and eye pads?

Then we are told that ‘they also visited Glasgow’s Emirates Arena, a key venue in this summer’s Commonwealth Games.’ 

Now, can someone tell me what the difference is between a venue and a key venue? How on earth did this bizarre word ‘key’ come to be bandied about, a meaningless cliche word everywhere? Who thought it up? What is the history of its etymology? What does its inclusion into a sentence add to its meaning? I had a boss once who talked at meetings of his ‘staff’ for weeks in advance about he would give a ‘key speech’ somewhere, and his audience would fall into a state of despond and despair upon hearing of this, for we thought we might have to listen to this ‘key’ speech, or pretend to, when the time came, and we never could understand what was to be ‘key’ about it; neither before nor after its rather hysterical delivery. Can anyone tell me, what does ‘key’ in this context mean? To me it just sounded like a puffed up, self-important and pompous description by a poop of his imaginary high status in the order of things, and I cannot reconcile this notion of what ‘key’ means with its use as a description of a venue in the forthcoming games. Does it mean ‘important’ or ‘main’, for if so, why not say so in the first place?

The English language as it is being published in the press is crumbling around us, and this short glance at the news tonight, one item only, is enough to prompt this contribution to your pages.

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My wife (from northern Virginia) uses “up top” where I would use “up on top”. For example, where I (from Wyoming) would say that “the box is up on top of the refrigerator”, my wife leaves out the word “on”, and she would say that it is “up top of the refrigerator”. She (and her family) are the only people I know who do this, and this leads me to believe that it is a regionalism. Is it?

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Why do some people, especially pseudo eloquent corporate types, insist on substituting “I” for “me” under the misplaced guise of speaking formal English: “Between you and I, the meeting was substandard”, “Thanks for taking Julie and I for dinner”. I know there’s not much to discuss here. It’s simply wrong but it represents a deeper misunderstanding of the use of nouns/pronouns. Personally I tolerate the incorrect use of “me” as the subject to a much greater extent (“me and Geoff went to the beach”) because although grammatically incorrect, it is acceptable to many in colloquial English. The use of “I” as the object is neither grammatically correct nor colloquial or formal. It is in a sense a clumsy grammatical over compensation. Besides people who make this error usually (but not always) over rate their own eloquence.

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Many years ago using the prefix co- and co meant two different things. Now they are used interchangeably, but is this correct? I was taught if you used co- you were a subordinate and if you used co you were equals. An example. A co-pilot is subordinate to a pilot, however coauthors means both writers were equal in the endeavor. Once upon a time, a co-chairwas subordinate to the chair. Now co-chair and cochair are used flagrantly to mean the same thing, they are equally sharing the duties of chairperson. What are your thoughts on this?

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All of a sudden spectators are not “looking on” but “watching on”. Does that make them onwatchers?

They no longer say “welcome to” but “welcome along to”.

“Early on” has become “early doors”.

Players now “contest for” the ball.

They now “update you” with the latest scores.

To me all of that is rather more idiotic than idiomatic.       :-))

I’m sure there are many more examples that I have (thankfully) missed.

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The media in English speaking countries seems to be developing a tendency toward using a country’s name as an adjective.

eg:-

Syria crisis instead of Syrian crisis

France fullback instead of French fullback

Another is the anglicising of some country names and nationalities:-

Argentina becomes Argentine and Argentinians becomes Argentines.

Thoughts?

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In Britain the the winners of the Bad Grammar Awards have just been announced, and the prize has gone to Tesco, partly for a label on its toilet paper which said ‘More luxury, less lorries’, so I thought this might be a good time to reflect on the ‘fewer / less’ question.

According to the OED, people have been using less for countable nouns since the dawn of English, and it only seems to have become a golden rule after certain grammarians latched onto the observation of one Robert Baker, who in 1770 remarked that ‘No fewer than a hundred seems to me not only more elegant than No less than a hundred, but more strictly proper.’, while admitting that less ‘is most commonly used when speaking of a number’.

And it was used like this in at least two influential nineteenth century grammars - ‘less hopes’, ‘less parts or portions’ -  Lindley Murray’s English Grammar, Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners, and ‘No less than five verbs’ - William Cobbett’s A Grammar of the English Language.

It obviously annoys a lot of people. One woman wrote on Tesco’s Facebook page that she ‘was unable to purchase’.

But I can’t help wondering why. There is absolutely no danger of ambiguity, and many of us use ‘less’ with countables informally. (And for many of us ‘Ten items or less’ sounds much more idiomatic than ‘Ten items or fewer’). Does this rule really have any functional basis, (we don’t need any distinctions for ‘more’ - more luxury, more lorries) or is it simply a rule for the sake of having a rule and just another excuse for finding fault with others?

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More and more lately I’ve been hearing and seeing a change in the prepositions used in common phrases.

I’ve already commented on PITE about the use of “deal to” instead of “deal with” in NZ, and of course we have the age old debate about “different from/to”.

Recently I noticed some others creeping in:-

“what do you make to....” instead of “what do you make make of .....”

“I have no intention on.......” instead of “I have no intention of......”.

I’m sure there are others.

While there may be nothing grammatically wrong in this, it does sound a little strange and raises the question of why and how such usage arises.

Does it stem from a desire to be different just for the sake of being different?

Is it down to some kind of narcissism?  

. when saying “what reading

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Latest Comments

Horizontal Stripes?

We just had this very discussion in the office which brought me here... the boss believes they are Hoops, however, 6 colleagues in the office, 1 of the colleagues wives and even the bosses 13 year old daughter all agree... definitely... Stripes. Some say that for clothing Stripes implies vertical and that they would call them Horizontal Stripes... but all agree that Hoops is not the correct term for it.

Might could

  • vgb
  • June 29, 2016, 9:53pm

I am from all over, but my parents are from Idaho, so I'm not sure the regions identified in previous posts have a monopoly on the form. Anyway, I inherited "might could" from one of parents, and find it very useful. The way I use it, it deflates the less cooperative "might," alone as in "I might do that," which sounds like a teenager challenging an authority figure.

"I might could do that" suggests a willingness to try rather than an insouciant "I might," as in "if I feel like it."

I have a BA in English and an MA in teaching English as a Second Language. If one of my international students used "might could," I would be over-joyed. There are so many worse "infractions" with modals. Believe me, I see them every day.

all _____ sudden

  • vgb
  • June 29, 2016, 8:11pm

I hear "all the sudden" in interviews on NPR. I agree with asheibar that such colloquialisms emerge because they are heard and passed on, but not seen in written text. It reminds me of the occasion someone had written on the blackboard, "It's a doggy dog world." Clearly, whoever wrote this had never seen the written version, "It's a dog eat dog world." Well, marzy dotes and dozey dotes and little lambsy divey" !

It does not bother me that colloquialisms emerge and colonize the language; what bothers me is that it seems that reading is becoming a quaint, anachronistic habit performed by backward looking people who haven't caught on that it's all in the tweet.

The term "First" or "Second Generation", omits the obvious, first or second generation "American". If we say that those who immigrated are the 1st, then by definition their children are 2nd. But that poses a problem, not everyone who immigrates becomes an "American" (11 million are not even legal residents). Although a bit confusing because many of them (I am one of them) do end up becoming American, for clarity, we need to start calling only those who are born here the First Generation.

It's always been LEGO to me (caps or not). I see people who use "Legos" as casual consumers of the product, and should have no business writing about LEGO for public viewing.

Did I get an earful on a "Hey!" when I was in London!!

The concierge in my apartment really took offence when I casually greeted him - "Hey!"

I got something on these lines:
"That's very disrespectful of you. How dare you 'hey' me?!"

So I have been ever so careful when using "hey" over a "hi" or a "hello". I thought this was a very English thing, but quite surprising to find quite a few English folks on this page to be okay with "hey".

Hey, what the heck!

Might could

  • jeb
  • June 26, 2016, 3:08pm

I might could say something about snobby grammarians...bless their hearts...but I won't.

As a well educated native of southern Appalachia (BA in English; PhD in Education), I can say with confidence that might could is mighty useful modal construction that conveys nuance and a sophisticated appreciation of the historical English, at least as spoken by the Scotch Irish settlers who populated these parts.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appalachian_English

Indirect Speech?

Oops.
Forgive the extra line in my previous post.
A thought that died at birth.

:)

Indirect Speech?

We could call it "oblique speech", or even "roundabout speech", or we could use a derivative of euphemism, metaphor, or allegory.
I am sure there a a number of terms that could be used to avoid the inevitable confusion caused by the use of the term "indirect speech" in this context.
.
Perhaps a simpler solution would be to refer

Someone else’s

  • Don
  • June 25, 2016, 3:04pm

An adverb, such as else, cannot be made possesive. That is reserved for nouns and pronouns. Else cannot be made in a possesive form. If used, it is poor English.