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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 had never thought I would ever wonder what “width” is until my 12-year old daughter came home one day and told me that her math teachers (not just one but two) told her that “width” in geometry is the vertical side of a rectangle. That to me was like saying up is down and down is up. How could this be?

It turns out that her teachers are not alone. Take a look at this page I came across while Googling on the topic. It says:

In the case of a square or a rectangle, the expression length (1) is commonly used instead of base and width (w) instead of height. In the case of a circle the expression diametre (d) is used.

“Width instead of height” is very much like saying up is down. Where did this come from?

And, what is even more disconcerting is that the teachers are not aware of this ambiguous nature of “width.” Two other teachers told me that width is always the horizontal side, and another told me that she has heard others call the vertical side “width.” So, apparently, each is teaching their students in an authoritative manner their own definition of “width.” If a 12-year old is told by her math teacher that “width” in geometry refers to the vertical side, why should she doubt it? Unless, of course, she was also told that “width” can be vertical or horizontal (i.e. direction neutral, like “length”). But that is apparently not what is happening at school in New York City.

If we teach our kids that a triangle has three sides, we don’t want them thinking that the definition of “triangle” could be flexible as if it could have four or five sides. If the definition of “width” is not universal, they need to know that. Here is a case in point. The following question was in 2016 Common Core Math Test for Grade 6.

“A carpenter built three bookcases, A, B, and C, to stand next to each other along a wall. The total length of the wall is 456 centimeters. The carpenter will build two more bookcases, D and E, along the same wall. These two bookcases will have equal widths. The widths of bookcases A, B, and C are shown in the table blow.”

Now, if you were taught that in geometry, “width” means the vertical side and “length” means the horizontal side, you would have to be confused reading this question. The correct response would be, “But why should the ‘widths’ of the bookcases have anything to do with the ‘length’ of the wall in fitting the bookcases?”

My daughter tried to figure this out by drawing a bunch of bookshelves with different heights, and eventually gave up because the question made no sense to her.

In Merriam-Webster, the word “width” has no ambiguity: “the horizontal measurement taken at right angles to the length.” After all, the word “height” has no ambiguity, so why should we think “width” would?

But looking at the Oxford dictionary gives us a slightly different answer: “The measurement or extent of something from side to side; the lesser of two or the least of three dimensions of a body.”

In other words, in a rectangle, “the lesser of the two” sides would be called “width” regardless of the orientation. So, it appears that this is an American-versus-British issue, or is it? (Note the spelling of “diametre” on the page from fao.org quoted above.)

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I have searched the forum and not found any reference to this matter. More and more, I’m hearing this kind of construction: “The fact of the matter is is that we need to...” or “The biggest problem is is that we don’t have...” I’ve even heard President Obama use it. At first blush, it bothers me. There’s no need for the second “is,” and no grammatical precedent. That is to say, I don’t know what it might spill over from. Furthermore, it seems like a fairly recent arrival. What do you think? Is this something we should eschew or embrace? Has anyone else heard and taken note of this?

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What is the origin of the phrase “I’m just saying”?

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Can anyone tell me when and how the adding of “ish” to the end of words got started? Do we lack such confidence in ourselves that we need to add “ish” like a disclaimer to our own words? When has the word become not word enough?

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When did “issue” come to mean “problem” ?

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When an why did “exactly the same” become “the exact same” and more recently “the same exact”?

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There exists a claim that the word “man” originally only referred to people of unimplied sex. To restate, “man” always refereed to both male and female people.

The claims I found were made by sources known by some to be categorically highly unreliable, so I turn to you.

There are claims that “wer” or “were” was used at least for adult males.

The most reliable sources I’ve found to support that are

http://www.etymonline.com/...

http://www.collinsdictionary.com/...

What evidence can you provide of the use of “were” or “wer” in english and the use of “man” and whether “man” changed over time with respect to gender or whether there was always ambiguity?

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I just have the impression that the old proverbs that I heard as a child aren’t heard as much today. People just don’t seem to use them much anymore. 

Of course this is hard to prove: maybe I am not mixing in the right circles; maybe there are newer proverbs that have replaced the older (proverbs change with each generation); maybe the media and/or gurus have picked up some and ignored others; maybe few make into print outside the tabloids and popular magazines. 

As far as the printed word goes, of those I have looked at some seem to peak around the 1930′s and then trail off, only to recover somewhat over the last decade or two. “Actions speak louder than words” was the commonest one I found, 3:1 against “Beggars can not be choosers”.

What is your impression? Is proverb use declining or just new ones becoming popular?

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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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Will words like fæces, archæologist, fœtus disappear from our language or should they be preserved?

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Latest Comments

“I’ve got” vs. “I have”

@Jim - Sorry, dude - but where did you learn English?

"have (present tense) and got (past tense) do not belong next to each other
period"

That is sooooo incorrect.

Got is the 3rd form of get (get, got, got) in British English (aka world English)

'Have got' is actually the present perfect. It explains that I got something in the past and I still have it now.

End of - Mike drop!

One thing I like about the www is no matter what they subject, somebody's discussing it. Glad I found this page.
I don't necessarily mind when the word is used verbally- "Hey there, how are you doing?" or "Hey Bob, over here!!" but it sets my teeth on edge when it's used to address someone in emails, on forums, and in texts, and from my experiences it always comes from individuals who are not known to the recipient.

Capitalizing Directions

  • rm
  • November 18, 2017, 2:58pm

Which is correct:

"Under the stairs by south hall. South hall was make-out central."
OR
"Under the stairs by South Hall. South Hall was make-out central."

South hall being a specific hall on a school campus. There is no reference in the text regarding signage or official title.

On Tomorrow

I'm a school teacher in Macon, Ga. I had never heard the usage of the preposition "on" in this context until I started teaching at an inner-city school. My principal, vice-principal, academic coach, and the superintendent of school all use this vernacular. It is very common in the educated African American community of middle Georgia. It drives me nuts. It changes an adverb into the noun of a prepositional phrase modifying a verb. If I had hair, I'd pull it out.

Street Address vs. Mailing Address

  • tonya
  • November 17, 2017, 11:46am

I work pre filling forms for different types of insurance. We have had this same debate. Does “street” mean the street you live on and therefore your home? I say no and here is why:

A company always wants an address they can mail your mail to, unless they ask for a "home", "residence" or “legal”. That being said, every address no matter PO or not has a: street, city, state, and zip. Most people will go on to say a PO box is not a street but I will always add, NOT EVERY town or person has a PO box at a Post Office. For example, I use to use a PO box at "Mail Boxs Etc." a small po box location and store with Kinkos type services. Very large cities have more than one main post office. Therefore, those people still have a "Street" address. "Street address" simple means the number and street name, it is the first part of every address “street, city, state, and zip”. For example my address at the Mail Box Etc. was: 6565 La Sierra Ave. PO BOX 144, Riverside CA, 92505. "6565 La Sierra PO BOX 144" is my "street". If I did not have to list a number and street name because my PO box is the main post office or my post office has shown me my address is only listed as PO BOX 144 then my "PO BOX 144" would be my "street address".

So if you see just “street address” They are simple asking for your “address” and your address should ALWAYS be your mailing address unless otherwise asked. They only want your home, resistance, or legal address for legal matters (all 3 of those are the same address asked in different ways) and ALWAYS want to mail you something. If they need your home they will ask, otherwise mailing address is the default. So imagine it says “address. “street”_________. They placed the word “address” behind street instead of placing in separated as “Address: “street, city, state, zip”. Get it?

Do you agree? Or should I still be debating this with co workers? lol

Ass

If you could point to a measurable benefit that has arisen by allowing children to act like unruly adults, what would it be?

On Tomorrow

  • jayles
  • November 9, 2017, 2:25pm

@ Chrissy

Since you are college educated at least get the facts straight:

http://random-idea-english.blogspot.co.nz/2014/...

On Tomorrow

I am 29 from North Jersey and college educated. I too cringe when I hear "on tomorrow". There was a time when I only heard it while visiting the South but it is spreading. I just heard a NY politician use it twice on television.

To anyone who has a problem with their principal: It is NOT your place to ever correct the grammar of your superior at work. "On tomorrow" is not something learned in school, obviously it is picked at home. Most people I confront really do not notice their error and are terribly embarrassed.

To say that this is exclusive to Black people might sound a little racist but it is unfortunately true. I feel embarrassed when other Black people jack up English in front of White people. After reading all of your comments my worst fears have been confirmed. You guys hear a black person speak a little differently and automatically assume we've had a subpar education. Smh! Even if the person is your boss, you still question their intellect! Sad.

Teachers! : While it is highly inappropriate to correct a colleague it is Your job to properly educate your students. Teach them! This is exactly why HBCUs are so important. White "teachers" giving up on their Black students grammar??? Allow me to insert another Black colloquialism here, "where they do that at?" Shame! You may not have to take an oath like a doctor but you too have a duty, to educate!

I will no longer roll my eyes when I hear Black people say "on tomorrow" or "axe". I will correct them at the appropriate time. Now, which of you is going to teach my landscaper to stop saying "yous"? ! That's an uneducated white Jersey thing, right? ?

gifting vs. giving a gift

"we can sleep six at a pinch but we can only eat twelve." James Thurber commenting on adverts for houses that "sleep six".
I'm sure he would agree that you give a gift and not the other way round.

On Tomorrow

You are absolutely correct. I believe it is something that was in the southern region and has found itself in the northeastern region. It is somewhat redundant to have a preposition indicating when and then use a word indicating when.