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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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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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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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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