Words by Nicholas Bagnall: Correct

You couldn't help feeling sorry for John Prescott as he faced the lions of the TUC at Blackpool last week. The poor old seadog, having become used to being told that he was too left-wing for New Labour, was now being called too right-wing for the unions, and failed to get an ovation.

What should we make of it? I turned to the Sun for guidance. "John Prescott is correct to warn the TUC," said its leader, "that there's a great big world out there."

Good point; but why did the Sun say he was "correct"? Why didn't it just say he was right? One or two reasons come to mind.

Perhaps the Sun had a new leader writer, who wanted to bring a touch of variety into the paper's leader column so that Rupert himself might see it and say: "Who wrote that leader? I like his style. Something kind of fresh about it."

Or perhaps it was an older writer who remembered the dawn of civilisation, otherwise known as the student revolution of 1967-72, when the word correct was constantly on the lips of the politically aware.

In those days debates were won, not by the speakers who best furthered the student cause, but by those whose political posture earned most approval from right-thinking people. "The last speaker's analysis is correct," someone would say, and the day would be carried.

Or perhaps it was the work of an even older leader writer who knew about Low's Colonel Blimp and his "Gad sir, Chamberlain is right!", and who felt that "right" was more the Telegraph's sort of word.

But one thing is certain, as Telegraph leader writers used to say as they tried to sum up an argument. It's far better to be right than to be correct.

Correct comes from the past participle of the Latin corrigere, to put straight. A corrected proof is supposed to have had the typographical errors taken out. An author's style used to be called correct if it followed the rules of composition already laid down by the best writers, while correct manners were what polite society had decided they were.

Today, people ask for the correct address and wonder whether they've been charged the correct sum. It's all about accuracy and conformity. Particularly conformity. There's no personal judgement in it.

Of course, right can carry this meaning too, and indeed it comes, though by a lengthier route, from the same old Latin, rectus for "straight". But it means so much more besides. There's a moral dimension to it.

Consider the difference between being politically right and being politically correct. The first is the business of the statesmen and the policymakers; the second has practically nothing to do with politics and a lot to do with not being allowed to say anything that might hurt other people's feelings.

All the Sun probably meant was that Mr Prescott was following the party line, like those student debaters of 30 years ago. Fair enough, but faint praise all the same.