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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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Has anybody come across the idiom “Fit as a butcher’s dog”, and if so, is it mainly confined to the North of England? Eric Partridge suggests it originates from Lancashire, but it seems to be used in Yorkshire as well. Also, is it usually used only with the meaning of physically fit, or is its use extending to the other (British) meaning of fit - sexually attractive?

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How do you handle a quote within a quote within a quote in an MLA citation?

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How can backwards be a word if backward is as well? Forwards and forward? Beside and besides?

I can’t turn a light switch ons, can I? Go outs the door?

Nouns can be plural, and verbs have tense, but prepositions? 

When did we start pluralizing those?

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“She said she...” or “She said that she...”

All my life I have received great feedback about my grammar, but these past few years I find myself over thinking it—all the time. It actually causes me to create mistakes where there previously weren’t any. Bizarre? 

One such thing that I have thought too much about is the necessity of “that” in phrases like the above. When would you say it’s necessary? Always? Never? Sometimes? Explain! Thanks!

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Discussion on appropriate use of these two phrases came up on another forum. I believe it depends on context. Would be interested in hearing other views.

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Are adverbs something to be avoided like the plague or an inevitable mutation of the English language that we just have to deal with? I’ve heard it said that they’re the mark of a writer who lacks the vocabulary to use powerful words (for example, “He walked slowly” does not carry the weight of “He plodded” or “He trudged”) and the skill to vary their sentence structure. I’ve seen them used in published in professional work, from George R. R. Martin to J.K. Rowling, so it’s not something authors shy away from and, for the most part, the public accepts it without question.

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Do excuse the purposeful misspelling in my name. It comes from a time where I thought doing such was what the “cool” kids did.

Anyways, I have a question, which just so happens to concern the word I used to start this sentence. I find myself using “anyways” instead of “anyway”, despite it not being “correct”. It’s more a matter of it feeling like it rolls off of the tongue better than any hard reason. If someone can offer their thoughts on its use (or misuse) I would be most appreciative.

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Is there a difference between “further” and “farther”? David Attenborough (age 86, I think) says “farther”. I have never, ever, used that word. What’s the difference, if there is one? My dictionary does not say they are synonyms, but their definitions are identical. “Nothing could be farther from my mind” sounds to me a bit over the top, like saying ‘looking glass’ when you mean ‘mirror’. Views?

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I love to read Victorian era mysteries and novels. Can you tell me the meaning of “ton” as used in that era? By context it appears to refer to members of high society. Is this accurate? What is the origin of the term? Thanks for your help.

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Is there any difference between “bad” and “poor.” I always thought that bad implied a moral tone whereas poor simply implied low quality. Has this ever been true? I now look both words up in the dictionary (AHD and Merriam-Webster) and they are synonyms of one another and carry very similar meanings. Have these two words always been essentially the same in their meaning? Or has popular usage of “bad” made them converge toward one another?

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Latest Comments

agree the terms

Finebetty's research seems to settle the question. But as an American user of the language I will not be saying "agree the terms" anytime soon.

The reason the verb "to be" is an exception is that its meaning makes it equivalent to an equal sign. "It is I." means: It = I.

Both "It" and "I" are co-equal subjects of the sentence. There is no object. The subject of a sentence, in this case both subjects, require the nominative case.

Contrast this with the sentence : "It hit me." The subject "it" acts upon the object "me," so the objective case is required.

Another example of the exception with the verb "to be", which may be surprising, is: "It was we." This is the correct usage for the same reason, however in common usage, most people say, "It was us," which is technically incorrect.

agree the terms

'Agree' can be used intransitively and transitively. According to Merriam Webster, your example is "chiefly British" - which I guess means it does come up but is rare in the US whereas it is standard in British English (and not "bad form" at all, please note that 'agree to the terms' changes the meaning, 'agree on or upon' is the only option here).
Oxford dict:
2.1 with object Reach agreement about (something) after negotiation.
‘if they had agreed a price the deal would have gone through’
no object ‘the commission agreed on a proposal to limit imports’
https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/agree

MW:
transitive verb
2. chiefly British: to settle on by common consent
e.g. … I agreed rental terms with him … —Eric Bennett
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/agree

(the 'before' in your example does not belong to 'agreed' of course - i.e., it means 'must be agreed upon before...')

Worst Case or Worse Case

  • Eric F
  • October 11, 2017, 2:39pm

"worse-case" is a comparison between TWO degrees of tribulation. Which one of the TWO options is worse than the other?
"worst-case" implies that there are many degrees of tribulation, and it is the worst of many options.

For LaurenBC: I find it's useful to read previous comments before posting. For example, Warsaw Will on June 6, 2014, contributed a lengthy discussion of the idiom's history and defense which included the fact that it's been seen in British written texts as early as 1859.

So the phrase is not of recent origin and is now widely accepted. I think fewer folks are bothered by it than by, say, the use of multiple question marks (or exclamation points in declarative sentences) in online posts.

“went missing/gone missing”?

This expression (and its variations) drives me crazy. It’s right up there with “the reason being” instead of “the reason is” or, more simply, “because “!

The English language is getting slaughtered ????

Lego (the bricks) should be lego in both singular and plural, like fish or sheep.

Word in question: Conversate

douglas.bryant

In your rush to discredit 'conversate' you're grossly misusing 'dialectical':

dialectical | ˌdīəˈlektək(ə)l |
adjective
1 relating to the logical discussion of ideas and opinions: dialectical ingenuity.
2 concerned with or acting through opposing forces: a dialectical opposition between social convention and individual libertarianism.

This thread has been running for years and years! I don't believe at all that "hey" goes back to a native American greeting. It's been used in British English for a very long time to attract someone's attention dramatically, as in "Hey, you there!" or "Hey, stop that!" It's used mostly towards strangers; otherwise one would call them by name. It's certainly nothing to do with the "silent (??) language of lovers" in Britain. It can be aggressive, and is never used to address someone in an email.
Hi is definitely an import from America, still resisted by some who don't wish the English language to become americanised, and is an informal greeting equivalent to "hello". It's become accepted as a greeting at the beginning of an email, instead of the more formal "Dear...".

me vs. myself

  • Eddie
  • October 4, 2017, 8:11am

It seems like there's an obsession with "self." I've heard evening news people use "myself" instead of "me" and "myself" instead of "I." I even heard someone use "hisself" in a sentence. And the culprits are journalists. Hisself? C'mon, man.