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Discussion Forum

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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As a kid in the ’50s I pronounced the word ‘often’ with the ‘t’ sound until I looked it up and found preferred pronunciation ‘of-en’. Now I always hear it with the ‘t’ pronounced. Did I imagine the change?

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Selfie becomes a word!

The selfie – defined as ‘a photograph that one has taken of oneself’ – has taken off to such a degree in 2013 that the term was last week named Word of the Year by the Oxford English Dictionary.

Progress indeed!

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The Latin plural for neuter nouns ends -a  (in the nominative case which is the case we use when adopting Latin nouns into English). The singular ends with -um, in many examples, but not all (caput - capita as in per capita which should really be per caput as it means ‘per’ head, not heads). In English we follow this rule with words we realise are borrowed from Latin, so we have errata for plural erratum, data for plural datum (given ‘thing’, but no one seems to notice that even data is used in the English singular), crematoria for plural of crematorium, corrigenda for things which need correcting, gerundive of obligation of corrigere = to correct. One error needing correcting: corrigendum. These, when they were born, were of course Latin words. 

Sometimes not -a, however, for no particular reason. This was mentioned in a recent Daily Telegraph letter to the editor, by a James Wraight of Kent, mentioning mausolea (or mausoleums?). Apparently students at the Royal Military College of Science told their tutor “we have finished the experiment with pendula, have done the sa and are sitting on our ba sucking winega”. 

Why pendula? Not pendulums? Pendulum is neuter Latin. Just usage? The other plurals here are of course facetious, (as they are not from Latin), but make the point that the students thought pendula was a bit over the top. Like the story of the charabanc parking spot by Magdalene College at Oxford, signposted “charsabanc”, because technically it was the chars not the banc which were plural (although there were more than one row of bancs in each vehicle the term banc here was used adjectivally, describing how the chars were arranged - in a row, or rows. But the chars in each vehicle were plural too, so perhaps each vehicle should have been called a charsabanc, leaving the pedants nonplussed when it came to pluralising it, as the good bursar’s department of the college must have been doing. So they renamed the vehicle an omnibus, Latin meaning “for all” (ablative masculine/feminine neuter plural) soon abbreviated to ‘bus, as it is spelled in books published up to the Second World War, now just bus, plural buses, not busses because that means kisses. 

English isn’t hard, is it?

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Where or how did the term “my bad” originate? I hear it more frequently all the time and it really annoys me. Bad is an adjective, not a noun or verb.

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How can backwards be a word if backward is as well? Forwards and forward? Beside and besides?

I can’t turn a light switch ons, can I? Go outs the door?

Nouns can be plural, and verbs have tense, but prepositions? 

When did we start pluralizing those?

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Hey

Why, in English, do we say ‘hey’ as a conversation starter? Why not hello? According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, hey is “used especially to call attention or to express interrogation, surprise, or exultation”. It does not mention any connection to the word hello. Why then, do we so often hear hey substituted for hello? Whether talking on the phone, texting, or just trying to make small talk in person, everyone always seems to begin with hey, even when you are already talking to the person and you don’t need their attention. My best guess is that is probably another development in our ever-changing language that came about over time, but does anyone know how this connotation came to be?

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If you’re over a certain age, you will probably be familiar with the expression - ‘If that’s what you think, you’ve got another think coming’. But if you’re a bit younger than me, you might well have heard it as - ‘You’ve got another thing coming’, especially if you’re a heavy metal fan. While I can understand that the saying could have changed through mishearing (an eggcorn?), I am puzzled as to how people who use the newer version understand it’s meaning. The original has a perfect logic to it (if not perfect grammar) which seems to me to be completely lost in the newer version.

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What’s the difference in meaning between ‘-ic’ and ‘-ical’, for example, as in ‘horrific’ versus ‘horrifical’, ‘comic’ versus ‘comical’ ‘fantastic’ versus ‘fantastical’, ‘Eucharistic’ versus ‘Eucharistical’, ‘feministic’ versus ‘feministical’, ‘ecclesial’ vs ‘ecclesiastic’ vs ‘ecclesiastical’, etc? 

The more informative the answer(s), the better.

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The word “hack” has two distinct definitions. One means “to cut or sever with repeated irregular or unskillful blows.” This must be the origin of the word “hack” as used in the world of computers, i.e., to “hack into” a computer. You keep trying different tactics and passwords until you succeed.

But the word “hack” also means to cope with something, to make do with what you have and forget about the details, even if it’s not the proper way to do it, as in a “hack job”. This is a very different definition from the first but the two are often used interchangeably in a confusing way.

“Hackathon” for instance does not mean what many people assume it does. It’s not an event where a bunch of computer hackers try to hack into a system. The term “codefest” better describes what “hackathon” really is, where a bunch of computer programmers get together and collaborate on software applications. They are using the second definition, not the first.

I’m wondering which definition came first. And, where did the second definition come from? Did it exist before the days of computers?

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I am playing rooster in a production of Annie and I need some terms of endearment that were used in the 20s and 30s. I use the term “blondie” but the woman I say it to isn’t blonde. How about “sweet cheeks”? Any help?

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Latest Comments

Actress instead of Actor

  • jsall
  • December 11, 2017, 10:12pm

I always saw it as a "Title" as opposed to a "Label", but even so, some things are gender speicific, ("Mom" or "Dad") while some are meant to be gender descriptive, ("His" or "Hers").

Pled versus pleaded

  • Mary G
  • December 8, 2017, 4:11pm

So, should we expect "he bled to death" to become "he bleeded to death"?

Thanks! I didn't think to look there.

Possessive with acronyms ending in S

  • jayles
  • December 4, 2017, 12:52am

@riley
"requires" and "is" are more common than "require" and "are" in published books.

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

“Anglish”

This looks very much like Cowley's work who wrote 'How we'd talk if the English won in 1066' . I think he's an excellent linguist with cutting edge ideas on the make and mode of English as it stands and would have been. I do, however, believe that 'ednew' became the modern 'anew' thus, it should be Anew/ Anewed English.

Computer mouses or computer mice?

  • colin1
  • December 2, 2017, 12:50pm

Fowler's Modern English Usage 3rd Ed (2004) doesn't recognise "mouse" as an acronym but as a term within a new layer of words with new meanings, called "computerese". Fowler's adopts a wait and see approach.

Computer mouses or computer mice?

  • colin1
  • December 2, 2017, 12:29pm

The Economist Style Guide says, with regard to plurals in general, "No rules here. The spelling ... may be decided by either practice or derivation."

Computer mouses or computer mice?

  • colin1
  • December 2, 2017, 12:08pm

The Oxford Dictionary of English 3rd Ed (2010) entry for mouse reads as follows: "2 (pl. mice or mouses) a small handheld device which is moved across a mat or flat surface to move the cursor on a computer screen". The world's most trusted dictionary of English accepts both mice and mouses as correct.

“Anglish”

Hello,

Does anyone know anything about this site:

http://ednewenglish.tripod.com/index.htm

The first sentence describing it says:

"Ednew English is dedicated to an awareness and restoration primarly of native English words."

There are lists of prefixes, suffixes, verbs, and so on; but there is no information about who the author is.

There are lots of interesting words there, but I wonder if they are actually words. For example, is "Ednew" actually a word?

Thanks,

I heard today for the first time ever that it is supposed to be said "you've got another *think* coming." I always understood it as meaning, If you think this way, a negative consequence "some thing" is on its way to straighten you out. Not the thinking itself which will be redone, but the consequences of that way of thinking. I still prefer "thing", since this is what I mean when I say it. In fact, after that consequence comes I/they might rethink my/their initial position. Or it might be that the consequence is the end of it and they never change their opinion, just get that lovely bad thing as a result. Besides, "another think coming" implies that a think is a thing, when think is a verb. In no other ways do I use think as a noun. A think is coming. Incorrect. A thought is coming. Correct. To fight over this "grammar rule" when it is breaking grammar rules to even say it is silly. If anything, it would need to be..."If you think...you've got another thought coming." Just my two cents.