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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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Just what does “You have two choices” actually mean? Since “You have a choice” indicates that more than one option exists, what is “You have two choices” meant to convey?

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Why do we nowadays have to pre-book or pre-order items? Surely we always used to book or order them, and they would be delivered when ready.

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To preface, I have been studying conditionals for the last few days because the grammar book that I used barely mentioned it. Now as the title suggests, I have a question about modal remoteness and tense. My question deals with stories, which are typically in the past tense, and when modality occurs which I should use: second (present time remote) or third (past time remote) conditional. I am unsure of which but am leaning towards third conditional. Which would be used?

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While doing some homework for literature, I constructed these two sentences and was wondering if they can be interpreted differently. The original sentence was the synopsis of “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Poe and started in the present tense, which will also be included because there is a question I have about it.

A1) The narrator arrived at the house of his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, who had sent him a letter that had requested his presence.

A2) The narrator arrived at the house of his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, who had sent him a letter that requested his presence.

What is the difference in meaning between the above sentences?

The original sentence was:

B) The narrator arrives at the house of his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, who had sent him a letter that requested his presence.

In the sentence, the narrator is currently arriving at the house because he received a letter that requested his presence, which had been sent by Roderick Usher. Does that coincide with the above statement?

For a timeline: Usher sent the letter—> the letter, through Usher’s words request the narrator’s presence—> the narrator’s arrival.

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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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I’ve been seeing and hearing people use “based out of” more and more, when they mean simply “based in.” The phrases at first glance would seem to mean opposite things, as if being “based out of New York” would imply one is not actually in New York. But it’s clear people use them with the same intention. 

Case in point: At the U. S. Small Business Administration website a paragraph about Home-Based Businesses includes this: “In fact, more than half of all U.S. businesses are based out of an owner’s home.”

I see this phenomenon as yet another example of what is to me a peculiar affection for a term or phrase longer than one with the same meaning that’s been considered standard for a long time. Folks no longer plan, they pre-plan. We take preventative steps, not preventive. But “based out of” seems worse, because to me it’s just bad usage.

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I’m not sure when it started, but at some point, servers in restaurants, when coming around to your table to check on you, started asking “how’s everything tasting?”, rather than the formerly prevalent “how is everything?”. It seems as if a universal email went out to all wait staff everywhere, with the decree that this is now the proper way to phrase the question. But while it’s no longer a new practice, it still grates on my ears whenever it’s asked of me. I mean, this is FOOD: When asking about someone’s satisfaction regarding food, isn’t the sense of taste implied? Are they otherwise expecting someone to reply, “Well, it TASTES great, but it looks disgusting and smells terrible”? To me, asking “how’s everything” instead would imply not only the food, but also the congeniality and promptness of service, the atmosphere... ie, the overall experience. By narrowing the inquiry down to taste only, it seems to make the statement that the establishment doesn’t much care about the patron’s OVERALL satisfaction! I think this is the aspect of it that disturbs me: I can prepare all sorts of wonderful food in my kitchen, and for a fraction of the price of eating out. What I feel I’m paying for when dining out is the experience as much as the food, and it is my satisfaction with that experience that this new question (besides its annoying redundancy) seems to deliberately avoid.

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I’ve always believed that, especially with clothing, that there are stripes (vertical) and bands or hoops (horizontal) but I hear more and more people describing bands or hoops as stripes, and even as horizontal stripes. Another evolution?

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I came upon this on their website: “The Senior Management Team at Fettes College have day to day responsibilities for the running of The College. They meet regularly throughout the year and feedback to staff and Governors as appropriate.”

Leaving aside the rather Germanic employment of capital letters on some, but strangely then not all, of the nouns in this statement, and the wholly gratuitous ‘as appropriate’ tacked on to fill up some space, I find most irksome the use here of ‘feedback’ as a verb. I would use two words: ‘feed back’ (a compound verb), or I would insert a verb and say ‘provide feedback’ (noun + verb). In fact I would much prefer to avoid this ugly expression altogether and use a term such as ‘report back to’ or ‘report to’. Am I alone in finding this whole thing rather disappointing for a major British school?

It’s like the sign at Gatwick airport which directs passengers to do something along the lines of ‘check-in here’ where what is meant is ‘check in here’ because ‘check in’, being what you do, is a compound verb, and ‘check-in’, being the name of the place where you do it, is a noun. 

It is very elementary grammar, as taught to me at about the age of eight, noun! verb! and I find it almost incredible that a renowned Scottish public school can be so sloppy, and that a major airport in England, an English-speaking country, does not proof-read what is to be painted in huge letters on its walls. 

On the other hand, one’s reaction to seeing in Phnom Penh, in Cambodia, the “PRINCESSS HOTEL” in huge pink neon lights ranged in a column above the door, has to be mirth, and wondering what the extra S cost the management. It is not as though they could not afford an apostrophe, as in the foyer are life-size photographs of a number of these estimable ladies, so the ‘princesss’ are plural. So it was an ‘e’ which proved beyond budget, then, or a proof-reader. But that of course is forgivable, as it is not in an anglophone country.

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On ESL websites I sometimes see instructions to students of the type ‘Tell about an experience you had this week’. To me, and I think other speakers of British English, this sounds a bit strange: we normally tell somebody about something or talk about something. I’ve checked six standard British dictionaries and can find no examples of ‘tell about’. My (British) teacher colleagues also find it odd.

At first I tended to put it down to the fact that these instructions were usually written by teachers who are not native speakers. Then I found some examples in American crime writing, and wondered if it could be a dialect thing. But I’m now finding examples in academic texts, and am beginning to assume that this is absolutely standard North American English. This one’s from a Canadian non-fiction book - Be Good, Sweet Maid: The Trials of Dorothy Joudrie - by Audrey Andrews:

“O’Brien asked Dorothy to tell about incidents that were not physical. He prompted her by suggesting she begin by telling about an incident that occurred in Glacier National Park … . She told about how Earl had frightened her to the point of hysteria …” 

This one’s from a book on social psychology -  Knowing People: The Personal Use of Social Psychology -  by Michael J Lovaglia:

“Would people rate the man as less mentally healthy if he kept personal information to himself  than they would if he told about it. They did not. In contrast to the way people rated a woman who told personal information about herself, people rated the man less mentally healthy when he told about his personal problems than when the man kept silent about his personal problems.”

And finally advice for job interviewees at About.com:

“So, when asked to tell about yourself, don’t spend too much time on the predictable answers.”

So I’d just like speakers of North American English to confirm that this use of “tell about something” without a personal object is absolutely standard for you, and speakers of British English (and similar) to confirm that I’m not alone in finding this construction strange, and that you would “tell somebody about something” or “talk about something”. 

Just another example of being “separated by a common language” perhaps.

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Latest Comments

your completely wrong

On Tomorrow

I live in the South and have heard this quite frequently. Funnily enough, the speakers who engage in this linguistic homicide are from the NORTH!

First annual vs. second annual

The eleventh year after the inaugural year..
is there a special adjective?

Word in question: Conversate

Once again, we have lowered our standard of grammar to accommodate those too lazy to learn usage!

agree the terms

Certainly does seem to appear only in British publications. American equivalent would be "agree on the terms" I think.

We have yet to agree the terms of your surrender.

Persian/Farsi

The reason we don't like the word "Farsi" I believe is: the actual word is Parsi and in Arabic language "p" doesn't exist so when Islamic Arabs attacked Iran and stayed for along time cuz they couldn't pronounce "P" they were saying Farsi instead of Parsi so after few hundred years of occupying Iran b4 they got kicked out, the word of Farsi stayed I hope the F word goes back to them to have fun with it

“Zen” as an Adjective

  • Dustin
  • April 23, 2017, 9:14pm

I also agree with Eliza. Pick a better adjective. Continuing to use "Zen" that way only commodifies and promotes misunderstanding about that religious tradition.

I live in a rural area, and do not get U.S. Postal delivery at my physical address. I have a P.O. Box at the local post office but when address verification is requested, like from UPS, the post office has no record of my physical address. This can be a huge problem. The solution is to install a mailbox on the main road a mile away. My husband has been reluctant to do this for safety reasons, even though I him that our mail will continue to go to the local post office. I actually purchased a mail box which my husband has been avoiding. I am over 70 so it's rather difficult for me, maybe I can get my neighbor to help.

As wet as ?

As wet as a well diggers ar**e!