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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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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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From “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin:

“She sat with her head thrown back upon the cushion of the chair, quite motionless, except when a sob came up into her throat and shook her, as a child who had cried itself to sleep continues to sob in its dreams.”

At the ‘as’ clause, why is it fine for the verb to be conjugated in the present tense (continues), instead of past tense? I don’t believe it’s wrong, but I would like an explanation.

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Some people think that there is a difference in meaning between “in that regard” and “in that respect”, some believe that a lot of phrases using “regard” or “regards” are in fact making inappropriate use of the word, and of course some think there is nothing wrong with such usage.

Does anyone else think that the phrase “In that regard” is overused and misused?

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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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How widespread is the misuse of the word “lay”? I’m quite sure one “lies down” and does not “lay down” (except when laying down a carpet, the law or a challenge) This is prevalent in Australia, and I’ve recently found it to be very common in the USA. It irritates me no end...is it in danger of becoming ‘accepted usage’?

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Something has happened to the spellings of “into, onto” and “in to, on to”: they seem suddenly to feature in newspapers spelled wrong more often than right. It is a quite new phenomenon. These examples might serve to show what I mean, although they are made up by me, typical nevertheless:

He went onto become president. He got in to bed. He climbed on to a chair. The firemen went into rescue a cat from the burning building. 

Now, how do we go about explaining to folk when these should be two words, and when one word? To my mind it is simple enough: the “to” which is separate is part of the infinitive form of the following verb: to become, to rescue. When the following word is a noun the preceding preposition is ‘into’, ‘onto’. There are other situations, too: “....he carried onto Rome” instead of “Instead of going back home he carried on to Rome” where ‘on’ goes with carried, and ‘to’ goes with Rome. Any rules to help those who are suddenly getting it wrong everywhere? Politicians not excepted. 

You don’t see these errors in books, which have been proof-read by literate editors. Why then are they suddenly everywhere in newspapers, and even signs in public places? At Gatwick there is a huge, expensive sign telling people where (or is it when?) they should check-in (sic).  Check-in is the name of the place where you check in, surely? (noun/verb).

Any thoughts, anyone? I shall supply, tomorrow, examples gleaned from the UK Sunday Telegraph, one of the more prestigious newspapers in this country.

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I had always wondered about a construction (of conjugation within a sentence) but never could write it down properly. I have since found that construction. This is a quote from “The Day It Happened” by Rosario Morales.

A) “I wouldn’t have known anything about any of this [if Olga next door hadn't rung our doorbell and banged on the door just when Mami was too deep in prayer to hear and Maria was leaning out over the sill with her eyes bugging out].”

Specifically the verbs in that clause. My question here is why is “when Mami was... and Maria was...” past tense instead of past perfect. I’m perfectly aware that the actions of Mami and Maria are happening simultaneously with Olga’s banging of the door. I concluded that it was because that it would be interpreted further in the past than Olga’s banging. But I have supposed I’m looking for a logical consistency similar to math.

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Does that grate on anyone else’s ear? Is there, say, a “simplistic” analysis that is OK, but go a step beyond that and you have “over-simplistic”? Here’s an expert on computing platforms quoted in a NYTimes blog (6 Sep 2013) on Google’s cloud-computing expectations: “It’s an admission that their original vision was over-simplistic....” And that’s hardly a rare instance.

At my current favorite online dictionary, thefreedictionary.com, there’s a note to their definition saying, “Usage: Since simplistic already has too as part of its meaning, it is tautologous to talk about something being too simplistic or over-simplistic.” That doesn’t seem to stop folks from using it, though!

I know there are other similar tautologies in use today, so maybe other posters can bring some up.

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Please look at the following examples:

a) The plants died.        ( an event - intransitive verb)

b) The plants were killed.   ( event -passive verb)

c) The plants were dead.  ( state - adjective)

d) The plants were withered  (state? - adjective?) 

e) The plants were withered by the sirocco. (event? - passive)

f) The plants shrank. (event - intransitive verb)

g) The plants were shrunk by the dry wind (event - passive)

h) The plants were shrunken. (state - adjective)

and finally:

i) “I was bored” - is this a passive or an adjective, an event or a state?

Is it ambiguous, context-dependent or a case of “unmarked-grammar”?

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Which is correct; If the current owner WERE allowed to have an auto body shop of if the current owner WAS allowed to have an auto body shop? I am questioning whether Owner should be with WERE or Owner should be with WAS?

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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?