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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

As a full stack developer who speaks/writes several coding languages with direct consequences for syntactical errors, I will say that I appreciate the more liberal view of how to apply rules to human language. Also, somehow, I got here after being curious about hypercorrective phonetic overcompensation vs overregularization. (What a mouth full.)

If we approach this philosophically, the rules of language are helpful for standardizing communication in order to create clarity and reduce mistakes. When they are overly formal or held too tightly, they seem to do the opposite. While I will certainly concede that, "this is she," is correct based on the consensus of today's experts I would simply like to point back to the valid arguments of context describing English as a largely Germanic language greatly impacted by the French and Victorian English and thus take a slightly more fatalistic perspective. If the exact evil powers of colonial imperialism which conquered the west didn't envelop and permeate so much of modern academia, the technically right mode could very easily be, "this is her." The language is a mishmash, mutt of a thing anyway.

Please ask yourself why the rules "need" to be upheld. Are they moving us towards a beautifully absolute linguistic truth? I think not. They have been forged and derived, refined and convoluted by a lot of people with a lot of opinions and experiences over a lot of time. When viewed with actual humility and a little bit of perspective, these debates are interesting, but their importance is a bit over-inflated. It really is lovely how language evolves with us as a dynamic aspect of animal interaction.

Besides considering all the chance that went into the correct rules, might you also ask yourself how so much pedantry drives socioeconomic polarization and then reassess how the rules are impacting clear, error free communication as well as the oppression of entire communities of human beings. If the dominant results are derision and confusion instead of clarity, maybe further revision is in order. Are your lingual loyalties based in the fear of societal decline or simple change. Are you afraid of not being able to distinguish yourself socially or economically by the content of your character and quality of your thoughts? Essentially you're ferociously defending a system that was created by other imperfect humans. Have some flexibility and please refrain from the slippery slope arguments about complete deconstruction. That is the most absurd bit I I read in this long list of comments. I dislike the word "conversate" as much as the next girl, but the fundamentals of language suggest that if enough people use a word or phrase, it will become part of vernacular and then proper diction. It will creep up on some scholar and start popping into peer reviewed articles and everyone will stop caring and it will be normalized...

By the way, for bruschetta, how many of you say brew-shedda and how many of you say brew-skate-ah? The second one is correct...at least according to formal Italian. I can't tell you how many intelligent people I meet who just don't know what they don't know.

In the end, if you're too attached to your high horse, do some reading about the theory of multiple intelligences and expand your understanding of the human experience in order to breed empathy and better guide your heart in these situations. Being ruled by your ego, insecurity, fear, and even sense of tradition makes you sound far more infantile than any simple colloquial telephonic reception.

Be well,
Eliza

As a full stack developer who speaks/writes several coding languages with direct consequences for syntactical errors, I will say that I appreciate the more liberal view of how to apply rules to human language. Also, somehow, I got here after being curious about hypercorrective phonetic overcompensation vs overregularization. (What a mouth full.)

If we approach this philosophically, the rules of language are helpful for standardizing communication in order to create clarity and reduce mistakes. When they are overly formal or held too tightly, they seem to do the opposite. While I will certainly concede that, "this is she," is correct based on the consensus of today's experts I would simply like to point back to the valid arguments of context describing English as a largely Germanic language greatly impacted by the French and Victorian English and thus take a slightly more fatalistic perspective. If the exact evil powers of colonial imperialism which conquered the west didn't envelop and permeate so much of modern academia, the technically right mode could very easily be, "this is her." The language is a mishmash, mutt of a thing anyway.

Please ask yourself why the rules "need" to be upheld. Are they moving us towards a beautifully absolute linguistic truth? I think not. They have been forged and derived, refined and convoluted by a lot of people with a lot of opinions and experiences over a lot of time. When viewed with actual humility and a little bit of perspective, these debates are interesting, but their importance is a bit over-inflated. It really is lovely how language evolves with us as a dynamic aspect of animal interaction.

Besides considering all the chance that went into the correct rules, might you also ask yourself how so much pedantry drives socioeconomic polarization and then reassess how the rules are impacting clear, error free communication as well as the oppression of entire communities of human beings. If the dominant results are derision and confusion instead of clarity, maybe further revision is in order. Are your lingual loyalties based in the fear of societal decline or simple change. Are you afraid of not being able to distinguish yourself socially or economically by the content of your character and quality of your thoughts? Essentially you're ferociously defending a system that was created by other imperfect humans. Have some flexibility and please refrain from the slippery slope arguments about complete deconstruction. That is the most absurd bit I I read in this long list of comments. I dislike the word "conversate" as much as the next girl, but the fundamentals of language suggest that if enough people use a word or phrase, it will become part of vernacular and then proper diction. It will creep up on some scholar and start popping into peer reviewed articles and everyone will stop caring and it will be normalized...

By the way, for bruschetta, how many of you say brew-shedda and how many of you say brew-skate-ah? The second one is correct...at least according to formal Italian. I can't tell you how many intelligent people I meet who just don't know what they don't know.

In the end, if you're too attached to your high horse, do some reading about the theory of multiple intelligences and expand your understanding of the human experience in order to breed empathy and better guide your heart in these situations. Being ruled by your ego, insecurity, fear, and even sense of tradition makes you sound far more infantile than any simple colloquial telephonic reception.

Be well,
Eliza

We use the plural of the animal from which they were named. Mice is no less awkward than calling it a mouse in the first place.

equivalency

  • jayles
  • July 21, 2017, 1:27pm

http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=eq...

Even in American books, equivalence is far more common.

equivalency

I think 'equivalency' is mostly used in America. Even the ngram view of 'equivalence' and 'equivalency' makes it clear that the use of the former is widely prevalent. There is no specific reason to add 'equivalency' to the existing 'equivalence'.

February 10-16, 2014

or . . .

. . . from the 10th to the 16th of February, 2014.

We may SAY ordinals, but we do not WRITE them.

Past tense of “text”

Just say 'texd' sounds like text but when written denotes past tense.

Past tense of “text”

Past tense should remain the same as present tense. "Text" is much more smooth since the "t" sound at the end can have a "d" sound...almost redundant to add another.

I text you today. I text you yesterday.

Past tense of “text”

Text past tense stays the same. He text mr today. He text me yesterday.

10 Head of Cattle

  • chris1
  • July 19, 2017, 8:41am

Have you tried counting the hooves of cattle? Easier to do a head count .... ergo head of cattle! 3 cows is 3 cows 1500 head is a herd of cattle.