Errors & Omissions: We're all sunk if we keep losing perfectly good verbs


Is "sank" doomed? I hope not, but when a scrupulous writer forgets a word things may be starting to look bad. This is Dominic Lawson, writing on Tuesday: "David Cameron made his provocative remark last Friday; but within hours the news began to leak of David Laws' catastrophically ill-judged expenses claims and the PM's speech sunk without trace."

That should be "sank", which is the proper past tense of "sink", but you often see the past participle "sunk" taking over. The same decay seems to be threatening the verb "ring". The proper paradigm is ring-rang-rung, but you do see things like "He rung the bell and went in."

However, the field workers of the English Irregular Verbs Preservation Society report some cheering successes. Stink-stank-stunk and sing-sang-sung appear to be holding their own. Of course, the forms of such verbs are not uniform anyway. The glory of irregular verbs is that they are irregular. A different pattern is displayed by sting-stung-stung, and fling-flung-flung; there is no "stang" or "flang".

Eyes have it Andrew Cosgrove writes in from Oxford to complain about this, from a news story last Saturday: "The five-ton dinosaur with two 4ft horns directly over each eye lived about 72 million years ago." Mr Cosgrove calls that "a classic example of something I find irritating".

So do I. Two horns over each eye means four horns in all. The writer was struggling to say either "a horn directly over each eye" or "two horns directly over its eyes".

Straight out I'll tell you something else that irritates me: people who write "straight" when they mean "strait".

"Straight" comes down from Middle English, originally the past participle of the verb strecchen, meaning "stretch". So a straight line is like a stretched string – without curves or wiggles. "Strait" comes by way of French from the Latin verb stringere, which means to draw tight. "Strait" means tight, narrow or restricted.

Here is the headline that appeared above a report about Danny Alexander in Monday's paper: "Strait-laced loyalist who played a key role in coalition negotiations." Nothing wrong there. Laces may be tight or restrictive, but they are rarely straight. Indeed, they usually zigzag about a good deal.

A pity then that the story below it was allowed to commit the drearily familiar error: "Even before his arrival at Westminster he earned a seriously straight-laced reputation."

Journalese If some unpleasant event is not being "sparked" then it is being "triggered". Like most journalese usages, these two verbs are employed to create an air of drama. Sometimes it is justified by the facts, sometimes not.

Take this news report from last Saturday: "An overnight passenger train derailed yesterday in eastern India, triggering a crash with an oncoming cargo train that killed at least 71 people and injured another 200."

Consider the trigger of a crossbow or a gun. It is a device for releasing stored energy. The bent bow and the explosive in the gun are ready – eager, you might even say – to produce a sudden kick of energy. Pressing the trigger merely removes the last barrier in the way of an event waiting to happen. Figuratively, then, it may be reasonable to say that a riot, for instance, was triggered by some heavy-handed police action which had the effect of releasing the pent-up anger of a ghetto. But the Indian train crash was not like that. The trains weren't ready and waiting to crash. Everybody expected them to proceed to their destinations. The derailment was the original cause of the accident, not a trigger.

Poor rate A news report on Thursday, about anonymity for rape defendants, said: "Women's groups had argued the proposals would stop other rape victims coming forward, setting back plans to improve low conviction rates in rape trials."

I think this sentence confuses the conviction rate – the proportion of trials that end in conviction – with the absolute number of people convicted. If more complainants come forward and more cases go to trial, the number of convictions is likely to rise, but so is the number of acquittals. The conviction rate could easily fall.

Sport
The sun rises over St Andrews golf course, but will it be a new dawn for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club?
sportAnd it's Yes to women (at the R&A)
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
footballToure's lack of defensive work is big problem for City
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery Assistant Plymouth

£10000 - £20000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd...

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week