How dear Melvyn Bragg got his big break

`I couldn't go into the studio during licensing hours. Licensing hours are my prime research time'

I'M GLAD to say that it's time for a return visit from Dr Wordsmith, the greatest living expert on real English. That is to say, the kind of English really spoken by people in the real world - in other words, in pubs, to which end Dr Wordsmith bravely spends most of his working day researching language on licensed premises. He has popped into the office today, en route from the Three Jolly Typesetters and the Rat and Crossword, to answer some more readers' queries. All yours, Doc!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I was listening to Melvyn Bragg the other day...

Dr Wordsmith writes: Poor Melvyn. Let us have no more criticism of him. It is not his fault if he is presented as a pundit on so many subjects. Well, it is his fault, in fact, but that doesn't make it any better for him. I think the strain must be starting to tell. The other day he presented a South Bank Show feature on a comedian called Paul Merton, in which he failed to ask the single most important question about Paul Merton.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, And what question is that?

Dr Wordsmith writes: The single most important question is this: "Paul Merton - why do you persist in leaving the last letter off any word ending in "ing"? Why do you always say "operatin' theatre" instead of "operating theatre", and "balancin' act" instead of "balancing act"? Is it an affectation? Is it a relic of your South London origins? Or is it a self-conscious hommage to William Brown, the creation of Richmal Crompton, who had the same linguistic peculiarity even though he lived nowhere near London?"

Dear Dr Wordsmith, And what is the answer?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I have no idea. Alas, Melvyn Bragg never asked the question. But to get back to the beginning - I take it you have been listening to Melvyn Bragg's Radio 4 series The Routes of English? They asked me to take charge of that series, you know. But I had to turn it down. They wanted me to go into the studio during licensing hours. I couldn't do that. Licensing hours are my prime research time. So dear Melvyn got his big break.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, No, I haven't been listening to Melvyn Bragg's `The Routes of English'. I just happened to be watching one of those TV programmes that look at bits of the British countryside through celebrities' eyes, and we were watching Melvyn Bragg striding out over some Cumbrian fell or other when I distinctly heard him say: "One of the things I love about these walks up here are the skies - there's so much of them..."

Dr Wordsmith writes: I see. And your question?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Well, I wondered if you had any comment on the gross grammatical error contained therein. He uses a singular subject with a plural verb. "One of the things I love... ARE the skies..."

Dr Wordsmith writes: This is a really pedantic point. It is well known that spoken English contains many rough edges, many mistakes, many false starts. The main purpose is to get the meaning across. Even the most fastidious speaker will commit solecisms if it helps to pinpoint the meaning.

On the other hand, I do think that someone fronting a major series on the English language for Radio 4 would take more care, and I really feel that perhaps they should have got someone who cared a bit more for the niceties of correct English than our Melvyn seems to. Me, for example. After all, if Melvyn did say that on TV, it can only have been a recording, and you think he might have had the grace to re-record it.

However, this is not a let's-bash-Melvyn corner, for goodness sake, so let's move on. Meanwhile, if anyone else comes across gaffes made by Melvyn Bragg, let's have them, so that I can feature them in future columns!

Dr Wordsmith will be back tomorrow, so keep those queries rolling in - of a Bragg-free nature if possible, please!

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