If I was only allowed three publications to read on my desert island they would be The Economist, which I have read from cover to cover without fail for over 30 years; The Week, which summarises all the other newspapers; and Private Eye which publishes the stuff that the rest of the press are afraid to. One of its more recent features is called Pedantry Corner where pedantic readers point out the errors in the newspaper and indeed in each others’ letters.
I am proud to be a pedant. When the word was first used by Shakespeare in Love's Labour's Lost (1588), it simply meant "teacher". H. W. Fowler, the great lexicographer, noted pedantry is a relative term: “My pedantry is your scholarship, his reasonable accuracy, her irreducible minimum of education and someone else’s ignorance.” Oliver Kamm, a columnist for The Times writes a regular column on correct English usage and observed, "What used to be Standard English is now often regarded as finicky. My pedantry is an insistence on reasonable accuracy." Another Times columnist, Lynne Truss, wrote a hugely successful book on the correct use of punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves.
In a previous Blog (It Doesn’t Add Up, 25 July 2009) I wrote on errors in arithmetic. In this blog I want to list my top ten dislikes of errors in use of words.
1. Principal vs. Principle: Firstly, it seems appropriate to comment on the growing confusion in spelling of principal and principle. The principal reason why I get upset over this is that one of my principles is that I believe correct spelling is important in maintaining good communication, a fundamental plank of a civilised society. I believe the Principals of all good schools should make it one of their guiding principles to teach proper English.*
2. Inappropriate Absolutes: Absolutes should be used sparingly and only when absolutely necessary. It is tautologous to use an absolute to qualify another as in “absolutely correct” or “quite right.” A variation on this theme is the inappropriate use of percentages as in “He always gives 110% effort.”
3. Orwellian euphemisms: In The Rule of Law by Tom Bingham, who uniquely has held all three of Britain’s great judicial offices: Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice and Senior Law Lord until his retirement in 2008, he takes to task governments both in Britain and abroad who subvert the rule of law in the name of security using Orwellian euphemisms such as control orders (house arrest without trial), extraordinary rendition (kidnapping) and enhanced interrogation techniques (torture). And he quotes Benjamin Franklin with approval: “He who would put security before liberty deserves neither.”
4. Classical plurals: We derive much of our language from classical Greek and Latin and some comes directly without change. This can cause those without benefit of classical education confusion when trying to express plurals. Thus the plural of the Greek word phenomenon is phenomena. I can only think of one word, stadium where both the Latin stadia and the anglicised stadiums are acceptable words for the plural.
5. Confused plurals: There is further confusion of classical plurals where the plural word is used as if it is singular. Thus data is the plural of datum. So “These data are significant.” Consortia is the plural of consortium and criteria is the plural of criterion.
6. Inappropriate names of foreign capitals: I quote from Richard Dawkins in his excellent book “The Greatest Show on Earth”. In a footnote on “Peking Man” he says “Predictably, the Peking fossil is now sometimes called Beijing Man. Why, since we are talking English rather than Chinese, do we go along with “Beijing” at all, when referring to China’s capital? There’s a rather charming programme on British television called Grumpy Old Men, which is a genially edited collection of grouses and grizzles of this kind. If I were on it, I would say something like the following. We don’t dab on a splash of Eau de Köln to drown out the smell of Mumbai Duck, or go waltzing to the strains of “The Blue Dunaj” or “Tales from the Wien Woods”. We don’t compare Neville Chamberlain, the Man of München, to Napoleon’s retreat from Moskva. Nor yet (though give it time) do we take our snuffling little pet Beij for walkies. What’s wrong with Peking, when it’s the English language we’re speaking? I was delighted recently to meet a member of the British diplomatic corps, fluent in Mandarin, who had played a leading role in our embassy in what he insisted on calling Peking.”
Fortunately the Hong Kong Chinese who came here to open takeaway restaurants understand this and still prepare their excellent Peking Roast Duck!
7. US spelling: George Bernard Shaw, who was Irish, said “The English and the Americans are divided by a common language” and this is particularly true of spelling. I do not object to their spelling which is correct in their language. I learnt to write it as a student there in the 1960s. I object to its use in our language. I think Microsoft is guilty of an act of Imperialist aggression in making US English the default language in spell-check.*
8. The useful word disinterested, meaning impartial, is now widely used as a synonym for uninterested, presumably on the ground that it sounds more refined.
9. Sports commentary: The use of hyperbole in sports commentary on television and radio is probably unavoidable but its worst excesses should be avoided. The great Boris Becker got it right when he lost in the second round at Wimbledon in 1987 and said "I lost a game of tennis, nobody died." I particularly cringe at the use of a word like tragedy to describe a sporting defeat. The invasion of Iraq was a tragedy.
10. Decimate: Fittingly my tenth comes from the Latin meaning to reduce by a tenth. It was the practice in the Roman army over at least 500 years to punish failure by selecting a tenth of the soldiers regardless of rank and then clubbing them to death. It was still being used by the Italians in the First World War and by the Soviets in the Second World War. However, regrettably its meaning is being perverted in modern usage to mean general destruction to a great degree, even 90 %, rather than exactly 10% as it meant for over 2000 years.
*I came across the following extract taken from a letter from the Headmistress of a Hertfordshire school to The Times Educational Supplement:
“We have been the subject of an Ofsted inspection earlier this term….In spite of receiving many “good” judgments we were rated overall as “satisfactory”. And this is largely because of our English results which have proved so stubborn against our efforts to move them upwards….
The letter the lead inspector wrote to our students contained the following sentence:
“Your headteacher, along with her team, is working tirelessly to ensure your school makes your experience in education enjoyable and successful. You can of course contribute to this by attending regularly, practicing your grammar and spelling and working as hard as you can in all lessons to achieve your best.”
Some 90% of my own Set 3 Year 11 English students could not only spell “practising” correctly but could also spell “irony”. Sometimes, a smile keeps us going. Ofsted certainly does not.”
Copyright David C Pearson 2010 All rights reserved