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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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What does “that” mean in the following sentences? Are there any rules which apply to the exact phrases which “that” refers to?

1. The graphs above show the rates of electricity generation of Kansas and “that” of the U.S. total in 2010. 

Q. Doesn’t “that” refer to “electricity generation”? If yes, isn’t “of” needed before “that”? 

2. The rate of electricity generation by nuclear power plants in Kansas was about the same as that of the U.S. total. 

Q. Doesn’t “that” refer to “the rate of electricity generation by nuclear power plants”? If yes, why is it “that in the U.S. total”, instead of “that of the U.S. total” to be parallel with in Kansas?

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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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Isn’t “agree the terms” simply bad form? The following is taken from today’s online Guardian in a quote from Theresa May: . . . the prime minister said she believed it was “necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the European Union”. Then as the article continues, the same usage appears in the Guardian’s own words: “The EU institutions and 27 remaining member states, however, have long said they were determined the divorce settlement, such as the rights of EU citizens in the UK and Britons on the continent and the size of Britain’s exit bill, must first be agreed before substantive talks on a future relationship could begin.”

Agree to the terms, yes; but agree the terms?

Be agreed upon, yes; but settlement be agreed before?

I have not run across this usage in US English, so is it something happening in British writing/speech?

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There is a structure used by native speakers that I often read on social media, referring to people who have passed away, on the day of their anniversary. e.g. “He would have been 60 today.” Shouldn’t it be “He would be 60 today”? Meaning, if he were alive, he would be 60 today.

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I need to give a range of percentages. Do I say “somewhere between 40 and 50%?” or “somewhere between 40% and 50%”? Does the percentage sign get assigned to the first value, even though it’s not verbally articulated?

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Consider the following sentence: “Last year, the rent was $500, but now it’s risen to $1,000. The rent is two times higher than it used to be.”

To me, this sentence is misleading, since “two times higher” would mean starting with a value of $500 and duplicating it, twice (in other words, $500 + $500 x 2 = $1,500). It seems the correct sentence should read:

“The rent is two times as high as used to be.”

Are both forms acceptable? Unfortunately, it seems that the more confusing form (”two times higher”) has become more common.

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Whilst I appreciate that it is increasingly less common to write or receive a letter these days - and that traditional usage has been Dear Sir/Madam->Yours truly/faithfully or Dear Mr Smith ->Yours sincerely - the few letters rarely follow these “rules”.

I have had (1) Dear Mr Smith without any closure from the UK Pensions Service, (2) Dear Mr Smith->Yours sincerely from the local power board, and (3) Hi Mr Smith->Until next time from my bank. Personally I have never used ‘Yours faithfully’ (which smacks of subservience) since the turn of the century, even when applying for a job. I do still use “Sincerely” in a few emails (particularly when making a complaint). 

For the life of me, I cannot see why bygone formalities are still required for examinations such as the International English Language Test. 

As to emails, it seems more difficult to be formal. Mostly I use “Hi + first name” and end with “Cheers”. 

My question is what are  other people in English-speaking countries experiencing? Is stuff like “Yours faithfully” “Yours truly” now passé? If so is there any reason to teach them?

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It grates every time I hear a local radio traffic reporter say “there is an accident just prior to the Erindale Rd turn-off.” 

I believe I’m right in thinking the word ‘prior’ is more correctly used in a time context, meaning earlier than or sooner than. 

Thoughts?

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I consider “data” as collective, like “sugar.” You can have a lot of sugar or a lot of data. Then “the sugar IS on the table,” or “the data IS correct.”

I do not like “the data ARE.” Never did. I worked as a technical writer and my philosophy was as I have stated. (Even though data can have one bit called datum, whereas sugar must have one grain.)

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In making a plaque, I need to know the correct grammar for the following.

  1. Walking Heavens woods with her daddy.
  2. Walking Heaven’s woods with her daddy.
  3. Walking Heavens’ woods with her daddy.

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Latest Comments

Plural of Yes

It's definitely NOT yes's. After all, we're not saying that the plural of yes belongs to yes! Actually, in my opinion, that form looks wrong even when pluralizing numbers. So, for instance, I usually write "the 1970s" and not "the 1970's". But I know the accepted form with numbers includes the apostrophe. It just seems unnecessary, unless where a 5 could be mistaken for an s in a particular typeface.

Anyway, "yeses" is apparently correct. However, someone mentioned "ayes" which is an interesting alternative.

Use of multiple periods

  • MoJoe
  • June 23, 2017, 3:37pm

I have been using "…" Between thoughts when emailing or texting since the Internet began.....I write the way I Think… In blips and stumbles. I find I can better get across what I want to say… If I'm not worrying about proper sentence structure and punctuation!

Mileage for kilometers

  • david4
  • June 22, 2017, 1:42pm

mileage, has at least 5 different definitions that I know of, however for the translation of the definition provided above, use, 'klicks' or 'kilometrage'. The later you can find in a french dictionary but not an english one, and is not widely used, likely because it is too had to say. The word, mileage, is still used in metric countries to denote distance and often people will respond 300k and make the assumption that you understood 300,000 km. The definition (variant) of the word very clearly means distance in miles and so the meaning has developed ambiguity in metric countries (because many metric countries converted from imperial to metric in the 70s), and an older person or a "smart ass" might assume miles. Thus to remove ambiguity, klick (or less favourably klik) should be used. You can find this word in both oxford and webster.

I speculate that the reason why there is no english word is because oxford (British) and webster (American) are the 2 prevailing authorities for the english language and neither of these countries use kilometres as their base unit of measurements. In Canada, the Quebec province explicitly has a linguistic department to create french words (in particular english equivalents), however there is not an linguistic department for english.

issue as problem

Sadly it is true that we no longer have problems - everything is now an issue. No more health problems, financial problems or problems with our computers or TV cable - we have issues. An issue used to be something with more than one point of view, such as gun control or abortion, and a problem was something everyone agreed needed to be solved. But now issue is regularly used as a synonym for problem, which it isn't - you cannot universally substitute problem for issue. One would never talk about the women's equality problem or the gay-rights problem, because a problem always has a negative connotation. If my cable goes out, my computer freezes, or a hotel loses my reservation, those, my friends, are problems, not issues.

In re: Roger Burnell's entry, quote: "Sorry to correct Jun-Dai, however 'anyways' is not an English word!" - end quote; I fully agree that the aforecited word isn't an English-word. However, 'tis a popularly-accepted American-English slang that – in my opinion – signifies the speaker's unique 'Americanness' and personal comfy in being such one. . .irregardless of anybody's discomforts or critique.

The verb 'resume' [meaning: "to continue working on a unfinished job"] is to be ideally-avoided when one includes the word "resumé" [pronounced "reh zhoo may"] or "résumé" [pronounced "reh zhoo reh] in the contents of your resumé [or résumé] to be 'snail-mail' sent to your prospective employer... such as: "Please evaluate the contents of my resume for their affinity to your published-requirements of the job-position opening that I am interested to do." Contextually, that sentence can't pass muster to a spelling-corrector-nutso; but the following, could: "Please evaluate the contents of my resumé for their affinity to your published-requirements of the job-position opening that I am interested to do." AND: "Please evaluate the contents of my résumé for their affinity to your published-requirements of the job-position opening that I am interested to do."

There are strict correct-spelling-nutsos in HR Departments; and your incorrectly-spelled word resumé [or résumé - or correctly-American-English-spelled "resume"] can very-likely get your application-letter fast-forwarded on-the-fly to the receiver's trash-can!

This particular French-word's total-absorption into the English tongue [and especially into the American-English lingo] isn't an excuse to do away with the accented "é" or "és" because:
(a) at best, the writer is presumed a lackluster and a liberal-minded idiot with 'loose' manners as regards laws'/rules' abidance who shouldn't be entrusted with mathematical calculations, scientific experientations, engineering specifications, financial matters [accounting, auditing], medical prescriptions, written legal argumentation, military secrets, pædagogical teaching and poetic/oratorical writings!

and,

[b] at worst, the writer would be perceived as an English-speaking anti-French / anti-France racist extraordinaire who'd anglicized everything-French not out of routine convenience but for outright hatred against everything France-related. . .excepting french fries, perhaps - but definitely not any comely mademoiselle (if one is an English-speaking gent with raging-testosterone) or a Monsieur Adonis (if one is an estrogen-driven English-speaking lady)! That is, in addition to those irresistible bottles French champagne and cognac—which respective international trademarks can get the foolish English-speaking idiot legally-prosecuted if such stupid-fool insists to anglicize any of 'em!!! Moreover, any idiotic English-speaking moron could likely physically-and-insultingly thrown-out by enraged mobs of Québécois and/or Québécoise off the Canadian Province of Québéc with the proscriptive words "Persona non grata" explicitly tattooed in his/her passport to signify his/her lifelong-ban from re-entry into the extremely-discriminating world of those proud-of-their distinctive French-culture and everything-français, les Canadiennes et les Canadiens!

My boss's last name is Fox. When I refer to him in an email, for example: "As requested, Mr. Fox' (or should it be Fox's) expense report is attached." I get confused on what way is correct. Thank you!

"May I have" or "I would like" would be preferable to any of the "get" options when speaking to a waiter or shop assistant.
When speaking to a customer the use of "do you want......" should be dropped in favour of "would you like".

"Listen up" and "do the math" should be consigned to the bin for all time.

Another Americanism that is creeping into our vocabulary is "listen up". Also, why are so many British women and men obsessed with driving 4 x 4's (another American influence). America has the infrastructure to deal with them - our little island doesn't! Glad I got that off my chest!

"Can I get?" instead of "Can I please have?" is yet ANOTHER Americanism. Why are people like sheep when it comes to anything American?