English Language Reference Desk/Archives/2007

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In, on and at.

First question ever!

I am learning English on my own and I have already come across many things I could not understand. However none as embarrassing as not being able to grasp the difference between on, in and at! Those are really common words that I have read millions of times. Yet, when it comes to writing something, I many times have to Google the phrase I want to write so I can learn whether should I use in, on or at. And I have even changed a lot of my sentences as to avoid the use of any of the three.

Is there any true difference between those prepositions or is its use somewhat arbitrary and you just have to get used to it? In Portuguese, my native language, we have only one preposition for this sort of thing and it doesn't seem like it causes ambiguity. So I can't see the reason for spliting it into three prepositions. I would like to know what is the difference. Why can't say I am at Brazil, at the world, in Wikiversity, on my college, etc?

Do children in English-speaking countries have a hard time learning it as well or do they actually get it easily? A.z. 14:24, 5 April 2007 (UTC)

"In" means "inside", for example, "I'm going in the store".
"On" means "on top of" as in "I put the steak on the table".
"At" means "at that location" as in "I left the car at the hospital".
There are some ambiguous cases, though, like leaving an answer "in" a web page, "on" a web page, or "at" a web page. This ambiguity is because we don't have a single physical way to think of a web page. Is it like a physical object with volume so you can put things inside it ? Is it like a flat object so you can stack things upon it ? Is it like a location where you can visit and leave things ? StuRat 12:53, 6 April 2007 (UTC)
StuRat, I VERY MUCH appreciated your explanation about web pages. I felt a little "outside" the language when I came across people saying "on Wikipedia" but "in the article" and both "at the reference desk" and "on the reference desk". I had imagined that it was sort of what you said: how each person applies the rules originally made for the "real world" to a web page, a concept open to interpretation. But I had never read this anywhere.
I'm going to see whether my problems with those prepositions are over. I'll be really happy if they are, but I'm already pleased to understand them a lot better. If I continue having some trouble, I'll ask here again a more specific question. Thank you so much! A.Z. 16:29, 6 April 2007 (UTC)
You're quite welcome ! StuRat 21:12, 6 April 2007 (UTC)
"In a web page" sounds wrong to me in the context of "leaving an answer" at a web page. You can talk about the code "in a web page", but you leave responses "on" or "at" web pages, not "in" them (in my mind). But part of the difficulty in knowing what prepositions to use may be that native speakers may disagree as to what is acceptable! The Jade Knight 04:57, 7 April 2007 (UTC)
That's good information as well. Thank you, Jade Knight! A.Z. 19:57, 7 April 2007 (UTC)
"I am going in the store" may be accepted in US English, but it would not usually be encountered in British English, Australian English, or many other varieties of English. If you were at home and you wanted to tell someone you were going to the store to do some shopping, you'd say "I'm going to the store". If you were standing outside the store having a chat, and you wanted to tell them that the chat was over and you were now going to do your shopping, you'd say "I'm going into the store". The only case where you might say "I'm going in the store" is where you're inside the store, busting for a pee, and it's now far too late to find the restroom. JackofOz 00:34, 10 April 2007 (UTC)
US English speakers would also say "I'm going to the store", not "I'm going in the store", while at home. However, either "I'm going in the store" or "I'm going into the store" would work if you were standing outside the door. Unlike Aussies, since people in the US don't urinate inside stores (except in the rest room), we don't need a different way to say that. :-) StuRat 00:42, 10 April 2007 (UTC)
In the usage of much of the United States, one would speak of being "in Brazil and not "at Brazil" because Brazil is large. If one were "at the Rodoviária, the precise center of the city of Brasília", "at" would be used because of the specificity of the location. One could be "in Praça dos Três Poderes" in Brasília because a Praça has Dimensions; it is not a point. We are all "on the Earth" because it has a surface; but we live "in the World" because "World" is a name for the planet Earth seen from the point of view of mankind. You participate "in" "on" or "at" Wikiversity" at your option, because, your point of view as to the nature of your participation determines your choice here. Chances are that you are "in" or "at" your college depending on whether you are "residing in some building there" or "you are at a place where learning takes place". Native-born children in English-speaking countries pick up their usages with some difficulty, as do children everywhere with certain usages; but after a period of experimentation with their languages, children everywhere generally come to conform to the ways things are spoken and understood. -- Dionysios (talk), Date: 2007-07-22 (July 22, 2007) Time: 2345 UTC

Going to / will

What is the difference between saying "I am going to" and "I will"? A.Z. 19:59, 7 April 2007 (UTC)

They both mean the same thing, but perhaps "going to" is a bit weaker, as in "I'm going to write a book someday", meaning that's a goal which may or may not actually be achieved, while "I will write a book" means I definitely will. StuRat 23:49, 7 April 2007 (UTC)
There's a definite connotative difference to me. If you say "I'm going to go to the store", you're sharing what you're planning on, or about to do. If you say "I will go to the store", what it means depends on where the stress is placed, but I think the most natural sense places emphasis on "I" and carries the implicity connotation that someone needed to go the store, and you're volunteering to be that person. If emphasis was on "will", then it is implicit that someone has implied or stated that you're not likely to go to the store, and you're contradicting them. What do you think, StuRat? The Jade Knight 11:43, 9 April 2007 (UTC)
I was thinking of the emphasis on "will", as in "Stop bitching at me, I will go to the store, OK !". StuRat 17:36, 9 April 2007 (UTC)
"going to" is the plan of a certain action. Where as "I will" is the commitment to executing a certain action.

--Wtxwevr 02:55, 26 October 2007 (UTC)

To can

How come we say "I can do that" and "I could do that" but we can't say "to can do something must be good" and "I will can do that one day"? A.Z. 20:01, 7 April 2007 (UTC)

I don't know the reason, but it's definitely not right. StuRat 23:51, 7 April 2007 (UTC)
Do you think one day you will can discover the reason? a.z. 05:02, 8 April 2007 (UTC)
Perhaps we should ask a W:toucan ? :-) StuRat 04:25, 9 April 2007 (UTC)
"could" and "can" are both modals in English, and in English, you cannot use the infinitive of modals. There is no "to should", "to would", "to might", etc. The closest approximate you can make to "to can to" in English is "to be able to". In proper English, you also cannot stack modals. That being said, however, I know people around here who do stack modals! "I will can do that one day" may be not so unacceptable for some, and I know people with college degrees who say things like "I might should give that a try some day." This is non-standard usage, but it does happen. BTW, the provided Wikipedia link may prove instructive. The Jade Knight 11:50, 9 April 2007 (UTC)
The modal verbs "can", "must, "will", "shall" are also known as defective verbs because they have no infinitive form of their own. 20:48, 4 July 2007 (UTC)
Good point. Wikipedia also has an article on defective verbs. The Jade Knight 08:39, 5 July 2007 (UTC)

I am having problem with the usage of could. Which form of verb are we suppose to use with could (The preceding unsigned comment was added by (talkcontribs) 03:38, 18 February 2008)

Can you give some examples of sentences which are giving you trouble ? Until we see those, I'm going to assume the problem you are having is the common one of confusing "can"/"could" with "will". I like to substitute "is it possible for you to" in place of "can"/"could" and "are you going to" in place of "will". So, is it correct to say "could you take the garbage out" ? It is only correct if you mean to ask "is it possible for you to take the garbage out ?". For example, if someone had a broken leg and you weren't sure if they could physically do it, then this would be the right form. If, on the other hand, you know it is possible and just want to know if they are planning to do so, then you should say "are you going to take the garbage out ?" or "will you take the garbage out ?". StuRat 18:34, 18 February 2008 (UTC)

Did and Have

Thank you all for all the answers above! I really learned from them. I'd like to learn more about the difference between saying "I have eaten it" and "I ate it". I most of the time choose between the two forms based on my "feeling" of which one is the most appropriate, and I'd like to know when it would be wrong to use one of them. a.z. 19:42, 14 April 2007 (UTC)

"I ate it" is less formal, that's the only diff I can think of. StuRat 01:56, 15 April 2007 (UTC)
That's interesting to know, but the eating thing was just the verb that I randomly chose to mean that I would like to know the difference beween saying "have" and "did", no matter which verb follows! a.z. 02:34, 15 April 2007 (UTC)

Actually,as far as I know,you have two instances:"I ate it"-The Past Simple Tense,and "I have eaten it"-The Present Perfect Tense.Now,if your mother tongue doesn't contain something such as 'a perfece tense'(I am referring to the whole group-The present perfect tense,the past perfect tense,the present perfect progressive tense and the past perfect progressive tense),like mine does(I am Bulgarian,and Bulgarian does not have these tenses),you will have a difficult time until you learn to grasp the difference between present perfect and past simple tense,which is often ver subtle.And very often there is no significant difference in meaning at all. Ok,basically,the main difference between the two is that(and now I'm quoting from a grammar book I have)"the present perfect tense indicates an action,which has begun at an unknown moment in the past and is still going on,when the act of speaking occurs.For example"I have been in Paris"-indicates that someone has once,at an unknown for us period of time visited Paris.We don't know exactly when that happened,that's why we use the present perfect. The past simple is used to refer to an action done at a specific period in the past(for example-"yesterday","last week/month/year",a year ago,etc").For example-"I ate a sandwitch an hour ago." So,when you try to make a difference between the two tenses,and which one of them is the more appropriate in a specific situation,there are several things you can do: 1.Look for words in the sentence,which indicate some specific moment in time,such as: yesterday,last week/month/year,2 years ago,an hour ago,a minute ago,etc.Any word that you feel might indicate the specific time in which the action takes place. 2.Words like"already","yet","still" very often suggest the use of the present perfect tense.Mostly because they don't stand for a specific moment in time.But it all depends on the context,don't take that rule literally,there are always exceptions. 3.If you don't find any of the above words,you must examine the context in order to decide which tense is more appropriate to be used. I know what I have written doesn't examine thoroughly the topic,because there's still a lot to be said on the matter.But I think I have given you the basics. In case you have any questions on the matter,or you want to ask me something else,feel free to write at:venera.hitova@gmail.com,and I'll do my best to help you. Melisandra 18:41, 23 April 2007 (UTC)Melisandra

Grammar question

In the sentence "Please stop running," what form is running? It doesn't look like a gerundive to me, and I have no idea what else it could be.

By the way, this page is being linked to from the top, where is says "Add your question to the list, at the bottom of the page." Are there supposed to be two pages for this?

Thanks much,

--Falconus 16:09, 8 July 2007 (UTC)

Ah hah! Thanks for pointing that out. The link is in error. I'll fix it anon.
As for your question, I would say that "running" would be the present participle. The Jade Knight 00:39, 9 July 2007 (UTC)
Alright, thanks --Falconus 02:01, 9 July 2007 (UTC)

How do you pronounce proper name "Geoffrey"?

Hello, I was just studying something about Geoffrey Chaucer and I was wondering how do you pronouce it. Seems to be a stupid question, but I've always been taught I should pronounce it this way: /gɒfri/ (or something like that) and absolutely not /ˈʤɛfri/ as everyone incorrectly does (told me my university professor). Then I found the latter version on it.wiki and was quite surprised, can some native speaker explain this to me? Maybe the pronunciation I was taught is the old English one? --Eyesglare 10:28, 9 July 2007 (UTC)

Yes, I believe that's correct, except that Middle English, not Old English, was the language of the time (Old English is almost completely unintelligible to speakers of modern English). Many pronunciations have drifted over time, with "talked" being an example. At the time it was a two syllable word, pronounced like "talk Ed". Now we pronounce it, and many other similar words, like "talk'd". Of course, everyone can define their own pronunciation for their own name, so we can't be absolutely sure, but I would say your prof was most likely correct. Note, however, that most modern speakers named "Geoffrey" tend to pronounce their names just like "Jeffrey". I would pronounced Chaucer's name the way he most likely would have at the time, however, not in the modern way. StuRat 12:46, 9 July 2007 (UTC)
Evidently, Geoffrey was introduced into England by the Normans—I would be very surprised if a name spelled "Geoffrey" was pronounced /g/ and not /ʤ/. Wikipedia lists "Jeffrey" as a Medieval variant of "Geoffrey", further supporting a /ʤ/ pronunciation. The name itself seems to have fallen entirely out of use among Norman speakers (name lists for both Jèrriais and Cotentinais lack a "Geoffrey" equivalent), so you can't appeal to modern Norman forms for help on this one. The Jade Knight 03:23, 10 July 2007 (UTC)
It's possible that the /g/ pronunciation derives from the co-existance of the name "Godfrey". At any rate, while professors are generally smart, don't always trust everything they say—I've met both English and History professors who were unaware of the differences between French and Norman. The Jade Knight 03:28, 10 July 2007 (UTC)

Another grammar question

In English, it is correct to say "runner," or "batter," or "seer," amongst others. Although people do it all the time, is it acceptable to tack 'er' (with necessary spelling changes) onto any verb which makes sense to do so?

Also, what is this concept called?

Thanks again,

--Falconus 14:23, 12 July 2007 (UTC)

I'm not sure if this counts as nominalization or not, but it is somewhat common. However, I'm not sure if there are limitations to its employment in English. The Jade Knight 00:55, 13 July 2007 (UTC)
Note that "runner" (unless you consider a carpet runner) and "batter" (unless you consider battering your cake batter) mean just what you'd expect, but "seer" has a meaning beyond just "one who sees", it's more like "one who sees what others can not". StuRat 01:49, 13 July 2007 (UTC)
Cool, thanks --Falconus 15:13, 13 July 2007 (UTC)
Keep an eye out for things people do for a living. In fact, words that take this form provide a vast number of 'family' names in the language. 'Cooper' as a name descends from a job name for the guys who make barrels. There are far fewer barrel-makers in the world now, but piles of people who would tell you they are called Cooper. So a washer washes and a waiter waits, but how about an usher? To know why in the world the guy at the theater who guides you to your seat is call this, we have to fall all the way back to a time period when this was the word for a door keeper. A door keeper and an usher in modern usage are two very different things, but the formation is the same even after all this time. Now just look at yourself and see what you do. If you know how to surf, write, eat, clean, read, sing and play, the formation is correct. There are exceptions, of course, and too many to list. As an example, remember that if you know how to edit and have edited, then you are an editor... because editors are special. User: HBKurtzwilde, 19:02, 7 September 2007 (UTC)

Correct usage of the term "maiden name".

Mr. & Mrs. Smith have a daughter, Mary. Mary marries Tom Hanover. Which of the following is correct?

Mary Hanover's maiden name is Smith.

Mary Hanover's maiden name was Smith.

Thank you,


I'd go with "was", since she is no longer a "maiden". StuRat 13:04, 16 July 2007 (UTC)
But her maiden name still is Smith? It's not like her maiden name has changed. I would go for is. 13:26, 23 July 2007 (UTC)
This is another Attack of the Situation question. Say you are filling out a form right this minute and have to know right now. Mary's maiden name is Smith. Perhaps in conversation someone wonders what her family name used to be. Mary's maiden name was Smith. This is just a distinction of present and past, so the format of the question will determine the usage. This gets tricky when the question is implied, but the flow of the conversation is the best place to get your usage cue. “What was Mary's last name before she married?” “Her maiden name was Smith.” “What is Mary's maiden name?” “Her maiden name is Smith.” If you're being asked in English, your conversational partner might drop you a hint.User:HBKurtzwilde, 19:02, 7 September 2007 (UTC)

Future Tenses

Can someone help me with the names of the two tenses in bold? I know they are the future but not sure of the names!!!

a) I'm going to do the shopping; do you want anything?

b) Could you get some washing powder and cheese and bread?

a) Ok, I'll go to the grocery store.

They are both the Future tense in English. A friend of mine getting his PhD in Linguistics tells me that the difference is one of assumed/non-assumed language, but the short answer seems to be that they're both just the Future Tense. The Jade Knight 06:13, 22 July 2007 (UTC)
(But if I were to invent names for them, I'd call them the Progressive Future (not to be confused with the Future Progressive) and the Simple Future. However, to my knowledge, these are not real tense names in English). The Jade Knight 06:15, 22 July 2007 (UTC)


With respect to this, how can they remove the letter c from the keyboard even if they replace the soft c with s and hard c with k. I mean they would still need c to spell change. Am I right??

Another question: Will Euroenglish be easier than the british english for new learners learning the language. I am sure native speakers will face a multitude of problems.-- 17:57, 5 September 2007 (UTC)

I'm afraid you've fallen for a prank. That is just a retitled version of Mark Twain's satiric A plan for the improvement of spelling in the English language: [1]. But, if one were to seriously undertake such massive changes, I would propose "kh" to replace the "ch" sound, temporarily. He did propose a long term plan of bringing back the "c" but now using it exclusively for the "ch" sound. So, "change" would then be "canj". StuRat 20:37, 5 September 2007 (UTC)

Polite English Business Reply

I'm looking for a polite way to acknowledge an e-mail for a business template. Someone at my work changed it to say

"Dear Sir/Madame

We acknowledge your below cited e-mail

We trust that the issue has now been solved.

Kind Regards"

I find this very impolite. Surely "Thank you for your e-mail dated...." would be a better way of aknowledging a business e-mail or letter.

Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated

"Thank you" is definitely more polite, but sounds a bit ingenuous if in reply to a complaint (which this sounds like it might be). It's like saying "I so enjoyed you telling me how poorly I do my job". It comes off as sarcasm. So, I would only say "thank you" for things where you might genuinely be thankful, like when a purchase order is received. I think "We acknowledge receipt" is the best you can do for complaints, without sounding sarcastic.
Also, "Madame" is for French married women, I believe; it should be "Madam" in English. Better yet, just put the customer name in place of "Sir/Madam", since this avoids the unpleasant implication that you can't tell if they are male or female. StuRat 15:37, 23 August 2007 (UTC)

Sindhi Hindus Worldwide

I wish to know how many Sindhi Hindus migrated from Pakistan when India was divided in 1947. I am writing a book on immigrants and the subject is: Sindhi Hindus worldwide. A directory is also in making to show the names, addresses [old address in Pakistan with new address anywhere in the world], contact telephone no., contact email id:, and few lines of family background. all views, suggestions, and comments are most welcome. Kindly contact: Sunder Thadani [75 years old and one man army with a base in Bombay since 1948] <sunder360@yahoo.com> Best Wishes!

1) This page is for questions on the use of the English language. A better place for this type of general question is the Wikiversity Help Desk: Wikiversity:Help_desk.
2) As for your question, this Wikipedia article claims that 1.2 million of 1.4 million total Sindhi Hindus migrated to India: w:Partition_of_India#Sindh.
3) Good luck on your book ! StuRat 03:46, 19 September 2007 (UTC)



what do you mean by BTW? (The preceding unsigned comment was added by (talkcontribs) 17:16, 17 December 2007)

BTW = by the way
What i sthe purpose of the ogg file ? I can hear: "test" and "test reading". ----Erkan Yilmaz (Wikiversity:Chat, wiki blog) 17:26, 17 December 2007 (UTC)