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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 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

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

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"


  • 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.

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.

I lean toward mouses for the plural. First, it grates on my nerves to refer to two or more computer mouses/mice as mice. All I can think of is real rodents. Second, a great deal of computer jargon has been invented, if you will, by computer geeks who weren't very good at English grammar or syntax--or meaning. However, the many goofy terms have become well-accepted. In keeping with that goofiness, I definitely prefer the goofiness of "mouses."