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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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A) Must we have fish for dinner again?

B) Shall we have to have fish for dinner again?

C) Will we have to have fish for dinner again?

D) Do we have to have fish for dinner again?

Accepting that (D) is by far the commonest utterance and would express annoyance or lament. roughly the same as “I wish we weren’t having fish again”, my concern is with the other options, particularly (B) which looks “grammatical” but just sounds odd to me. (A) is less common today but seems to go back a long way whereas “have to” is relatively modern, so which sound “normal” to you?

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Two scenarios:

  1. You are an antipodean cricket commentator and during a broadcast you realise that your Indian co-commentator is pronouncing some words/names differently from you.
  2. You are at a social gathering and notice that everyone else pronounces words/names differently from you.

The words/names in question could be for or example:

  • Tendulkar with a soft ‘oo’ sound as opposed to your hard ‘u’ (as in dull).
  • Nepal with “paul” as opposed to your ‘pal’.
  • Debut as ‘dehbyew’ as opposed to your ‘dayboo’.

In each situation how do you react?

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Recently seen on a standardized assessment for elementary students: “Which fraction of the fruit are apples?” Shouldn’t it read: “Which fraction of the fruit is apples?” Doesn’t the subject verb-agreement rule dictate “is” apples since fraction (singular) is the question’s subject?

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I have noticed recently that the phrase “admits to” keeps popping up in contexts where the “to” is obviously redundant.

“He admits to the offence” 

“He admitted to the charge”

Is this a new fad or has it been going on for some time?

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When you Google “What does curb your dog mean?”, you find three different answers.

  1. Control your dog.
  2. Pick up dog poop.
  3. Take the dog to the curb to pee or poo.

I always understood it to mean #2, so even when I saw a sign that said “Curb your dog,” I would let my dog poo there but I picked it up afterward. I figured the person who put the sign there would be satisfied with that. But if #3 is what is meant by the sign, s/he would not be happy.

What is confusing is the word “curb” itself. It can mean “control” or “edge of street” which are two completely different definitions, and I would assume that they came from completely unrelated etymological roots. The expression is so vague and confusing that it is ineffective.

The only one that actually makes sense is #1 as “curb” means to control.

#2 doesn’t really make sense. The word “curb” has no definition that means to pick up after something, although it can indirectly imply cleaning up after the misbehavior of your own dog. (i.e., Since dogs cannot control themselves, you need to control the aftermath for them.) It’s too vague. You should just say, “Pick up after your dog.”

#3 is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, “curb” in this context should be used as a noun. I seriously doubt that “take your dog to the curb” was what was meant when the signs first started appearing in public. If you are the first person ever to create this sign, and if you meant to say, “take your dog to the curb”, then you would not write “Curb your dog.” You could not expect other people to understand what you meant by that, as there was no such use of the word “curb” in a verb form. You would have written: “Take your dog to the curb.” My second problem with #3 is that it implies it’s fine to leave the poo as long as you take the dog to the curb.

My theory is that “Curb your dog” originally had only one definition: “Control your dog.” And, the sign originally was introduced because many dogs were not kept on leash, and would cause trouble, like attacking kids, starting a fight with other dogs, barking uncontrollably, and running into the traffic. Ideally, they wanted to say, “Keep your dog on leash”, but at the time, this probably felt too extreme, so they just wanted to ask dog owners to responsibly control their dogs’ behavior. Then, in big cities like New York, some people started interpreting the word “curb” to mean the edge of the street/sidewalk, although it’s a bit of a stretch, given that “curb” in this case should not be used as a verb.

This is my theory of how the expression was originally introduced and evolved to include all three definitions. What do you think?

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Can you please comment on a trend that I have noticed recently. More and more people seem to be pronouncing words that contain the letters “str” as if they were written “shtr”. Strong sounds like shtrong, strange sounds like shtrange, and so on. I have noticed even my favorite NPR journalists mispronouncing these words. I first noticed this pronunciation in one of Michelle Obama’s early speeches. I’d appreciate any insight that you might have.

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I suppose this more of speculation and bit of a question. I have noticed some quotations of ‘nor’ paired with ‘not’ (typically a comma follows not and whatever it is negating), for example:

“Battery D did not stop at the first, nor the second, but halt was made at what was ...”

“These bonds did not give their owners the privilege of using them as a basis for bank-note circulation, nor was there any other privilege...”

“... meaning of its message so clearly, so simply, and yet so earnestly, and with such a passionate longing that from York Hill there should indeed radiate “Peace and good will towards all men,” that not the stupidest nor the most frivolous girl but was touched to a sense of higher ideals and...”

All quotes are provided by dictionary.net in the quotations for ‘nor’.

Is it possible that this could become a correlative conjunction paired with ‘not’ or possibly a substitution for ‘neither’ in the “neither-nor” pair? Or maybe, has ‘not’ been a viable substitute for ‘neither’ for years without notice?

This idea tenuously excites me.

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I imagine everyone uses an apostrophe with expressions of distance or time when the number is one:

It’s only an hour’s drive from here.
They live a mile’s walk away.
A stone’s throw away.

It follows that an apostrophe should also be used in the plural version, as stipulated by, amongst others, The Guardian and Economist style guides:

It’s three hours’ drive from here.
They live two miles’ walk away.

I notice the apostrophe is often dropped here, so my question is this - do you think the apostrophe:

is always optional?
is only necessary in formal writing?
is always necessary?

or that there is some other grammatical explanation that makes the apostrophe unnecessary?

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Why, for a task, can we take it on, or put it off But for clothing we take it off and put it on?

(background: I am an American living in Hungary, so teaching/correcting English comes up a lot, and many here learn British English, so even I learn new words. People here often mix up the words for “put on” your clothes or “take off” clothes. They’ll say put off your jacket, or take on your shoes, etc. This became an embarrassingly awkward situation yesterday when I had to get an x-ray and ultrasound, and the tech didn’t speak very good English. She told me to undress everything, but then said I could take on my trousers, or put off something, and I really had no idea how “undressed” I had to get. I was thinking of how to explain it, that putting should be away from you, and taking should be towards you... but when it comes to clothing, we use the opposite - put ON and take OFF. Unless we’re taking it OUT of a closet and putting it AWAY. aaahh!!!)

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I’m all for the metric system, and I’m sure a lot of British schoolchildren would be well pissed off if UKIP’s idea of restoring the imperial system ever came to fruition. But I do find sentences like this, in a item on the BBC website, rather strange and unnatural:

Mr Teller says the first question is not “How can we make a tonne of money?”

I know that tonne is our unit of measurement now, but does it have to take over our idioms as well, especially as this is probably more of an American idiom anyway (I think we Brits would be more likely to say ‘ton(ne)s of money’)?

The following idioms are all listed in British dictionaries with ‘ton’ or ‘tons’:

They came down on him like a ton of bricks.

That bag of yours weighs a ton!

I’ve got tons of work to do.

We’ve got tons of food left over from the party.

I don’t know why the BBC insist on using tonne in idioms. Perhaps they think young people won’t know what a ton is. I say keep the idiomatic ton, and leave tonne for weights. After all people don’t say they’re off to spend a new penny, do they? (Actually I’m not sure anyone says that anymore anyway!)

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Latest Comments

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.

http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=ad...*_NOUN%2Cadvocate+for+the+*&year_start=1960&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t2%3B%2Cadvocate%20%2A_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Badvocate%20violence_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20policies_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20role_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20change_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20groups_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20general_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20Ralph_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20changes_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20peace_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20use_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B.t2%3B%2Cadvocate%20for%20the%20%2A%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20child%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20rights%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20client%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20patient%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20poor%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20defence%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20needs%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20use%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20interests%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20elderly%3B%2Cc0

https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=a...*_NOUN%2Cadvocate+for+the+*&year_start=1960&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t2%3B%2Cadvocate%20%2A_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Badvocate%20violence_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20policies_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20role_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20change_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20groups_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20general_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20Ralph_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20changes_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20peace_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20use_NOUN%3B%2Cc0%3B.t2%3B%2Cadvocate%20for%20the%20%2A%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20child%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20rights%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20client%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20patient%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20poor%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20defence%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20needs%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20use%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20interests%3B%2Cc0%3B%3Badvocate%20for%20the%20elderly%3B%2Cc0