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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.”

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!

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Latest Comments

Someone else’s

Who said consistency had anything to do with English¿

It's possible that the origin of the greeting, "hey" goes back a very long time ago, like maybe the 1600s -- to the Native American Navajo greeting, "Yata Hey"

mines

  • Obi
  • May 21, 2017, 12:53am

You may want to ask yourself why non-standard = lazy in your mind.

I'm still looking for the proper method. Everyone states something different. English can be difficult sometimes.

Who ever started the expression Reach Out ( I WILL REACH OUT to you,) sbould be shot along with everyone that uses this stupid saying. I don't reach out to anyone. I call or contact you.

Someone else’s

I was taught that it is someone's else, not someone else's.

So why does the Merriam-Webster just use this meaning of "put sth. off"? While it might not be a phrasal expression in your area, it seems to be used in parts of USA.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/put%...

The point of creating and using grammar rules is to facilitate communication - to avoid being misunderstood. For example, to say, "I do not want a hamburger" does NOT mean that I want to avoid a hamburger; it merely means that I have no desire to possess one - I do not WANT one, but I would accept one. However, to say, "I want to not have a hamburger" means that I wish to avoid hamburger possession. I am a substitute teacher, and I hear sloppy statements all the time from teachers and students alike; these speakers run the risk of being misunderstood. If I were in a spaceship and was receiving instructions from NASA, I would hope the speaker on Earth would adhere to my standards, regardless of what is common vernacular.

Can the word percent ever be written as two separate words? Do the people in the UK write it as per cent?

gifting vs. giving a gift

  • Janer
  • May 16, 2017, 9:08pm

Historic reference or not, "gifted" is yet another step on the road to the destruction of language and definitions. (Anyone consider that the Mary Levinston quote was in error?) Most concerning is that there seems to be a world-wide adoption of bad American word usage. Even BBC reporters, and many people they interview sound like Valley Girls with a British accent, and they use words such as, gifted, transitioned, etc., and everyone, it seems, is "going forward," even if they are in reverse. All nouns simply cannot become verbs. But what is the appeal of dumbed-down American English? I don't understand. I'm not suggesting that usage does not change, but I cAn't stAnd it.