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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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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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Recently seen on a standardized assessment for elementary students: “Which fraction of the fruit are apples?” Shouldn’t it read: “Which fraction of the fruit is apples?” Doesn’t the subject verb-agreement rule dictate “is” apples since fraction (singular) is the question’s subject?

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”?

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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?

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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!

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Latest Comments

eg, e.g., or eg.

Just come across this site as I was taken to task for NOT including stops in eg and wanted to definitively know what's the formal line on this.
[Waaah! EeeeK! Your website wouldn't allow me to write eg. It wanted e.g. !! A subtle ploy to MAKE me do it?]
I have not used stops in dates and abbreviations in years. I agree that it looks cleaner without; the time for old-fashioned flowery style has gone. Even official documents are no longer in this style so we do we need to be? Language, spoken and written evolves. As for saving time: does it? I don't think in this day of fast keyboards that it does but it just looks simpler – and that does it for me.

I stumble over it more and more often, using tumblr. As a non-native speaker it's really annoying. Because we wade into the deep waters of english internet communications to strengthen our language skills. But while I understand that nobody outside of English class speaks Oxford English, I noticed that nowadays it is pretty unlikely to keep your English on an acceptable level for job applications using the internet. Most English and American tumblr bloggers, Goodreads reviewers and Facebook users seem to be worse in writing English than I am. And even though my college ranked me as 'native speaker level' I simply do not understand what they are trying to tell me. While I can communicate with French, Russian and Indian citizens (and mostly Brits as well) in English, especially writing with Americans becomes more and more difficult. Even though I read novels in English and watch most TV shows in original version as well.
So while all those little quirks might seem like natural language evolution to those who use them, they are making it harder to communicate. In a time when English is spoken (or at least written) by almost everyone on the planet and the internet brings us all together, those people segregate themselves again.

Newfoundland Expression

I cook a batch of salt beef 2-3 times a year and make enough to have leftover peas pudding and corned beef hash. The latter is a mix of the leftover meat and vegetables mashed up and fried for breakfast with eggs and bacon, nothing in world like it. ummm. The leftover peas pudding is great cold or hot and good for lunches (nasty side effect though if you get my drift, LOL).
But back to my intended response, the comments on what beef to use.
The salt beef used in "Corned Beef N Garbage" was indeed, salted beef in watery brine, this was a preservative in days gone by. I do not know the cut of the beef but it was low quality and fatty, hence the need to cook it for such a long period. As a boy in St. John's Nfld I remember just about every corner store would have a big wooden barrel full of brine and salt beef. The brine kept it preserved. The store used a big hook to pick out pieces and often the customer would say, not that one, too fatty, etc. There were always complaints about quality LOL. The purchased piece of meat would be weighed and wrapped in paper.
Fast forward to today. You can get salt beef in a few supermarkets but in small pails (4-10 lb sizes). Up until a few years ago most of what I saw in supermarkets was made by Maple Leaf foods but lately there are other brand names, i.e Best Meats.
Yesterday I made a batch of Corned Beef and Cabbage, oops, a Jiggs dinner, and will have leftover corned beef hash for breakfast tomorrow, yeah!!.
What you buy today. I purchased a 4 lb pail ($16.95 cnd), labeled “cured navel beef packed in brine” after cutting off the major fat it yielded less than 2 lbs of fatty raw meat and some with bone in so the meal is no longer an affordable staple meal. This does not seem to be a negative to the brand, it is just what you get these days when you purchase it. I have yet to find a place to buy the salted meat without paying for the brine. Another note, as a boy, the fat was never removed, we burned it off in work and play. Also note the commercial purchased pails now say “keep refrigerated” so I guess the brine is no longer a reliable preservative.
Alternatives. The meat flavor from the salted brine cannot be beat so if you can afford it that is the best way to go. But if you want to increase the meat proportion and keep the cost down a little try adding some pre-packaged “Corn beef brisket”. I say adding because making the meal with just “Corned beef brisket” is good but produces a different meal, not the typical corned beef and cabbage flavour.
This time, I also purchased 2 lbs brisket at $5.4 lb cnd and it yielded no bone and very little fat. I mixed the 2 lbs of brisket with the 2 lbs salt beef from the pail and got a good result. Caveat; wash the brisket really well to get the spices off as much as possible. I like to wash the salt beef but I do not soak it anymore as it is not as salty as it used to be. But that depends on your affinity for salt in your food and the proportion of meat to other vegetables. I use a lot of vegetables to have left overs for corn beef hash. I also cook the meat longer than most suggested 4-5 hours (with peas pudding) adding the vegetables and cabbage at the end.

Pronunciation: aunt

I'm 55 and from Long Island. Ive pronounced it like "ant" my whole life and I refuse to change. And while we're on the subject, i can't stand when people pronounce "anna" as "on a". I mean the two sounds for the letter a is long a as in "acorn" and short a as in "accurate"

Computer mouses or computer mice?

  • Jelal
  • March 11, 2018, 8:40pm

Hello all,

I have just read through 12 years of comments lol. It has thoroughly entertained me.

I studied Computer Science at Uni and the lecturer advised the students that the correct term was "mouses". It could have been his own opinion though.

I wish you all the best and thank you for the lovely read.

Surprise!!!! Both are wrong you can't say she or me for the first person. The answer is " Yes that's me".

Writing out percentages correctly

  • jayles
  • March 4, 2018, 12:08am

Four and seventy-three thousandths per cent ??? (4.073%)

i am stuck on a legal document: how to express "four whole seventy-three thousand percent"

Now mine and my sons glasses are going to cost me a little over $400

Neither is or neither are

  • Gerald
  • February 27, 2018, 2:24pm

What if you were to recast it as "neither one"? I think "is" sounds more natural there.