Errors & Omissions: Another distinctively British usage gets lost on its way across the Atlantic

This column does not go on about "Americanisms". Terms such as "loft apartment" do not drive us to paroxysms of nationalistic bigotry.

But one recent American import does seem to be making the language less expressive. This example is from a science article published on Monday: "Rather than meeting up and talking about what we want to post online, we just add to what someone – maybe on the other side of the world – already wrote."

No, I'm not talking about "meeting up". The anti-Americanism police go nuts about that one, but it seems there is a real difference between meeting, which one might do by chance in the street, and meeting up, which is done by arrangement. My problem is with "what someone already wrote". Any time up to about 10 years ago any British writer would have said "add to what someone has already written".

Under the influence of American usage, the present perfect form of the verb ("has written") is losing ground to the past simple ("wrote"). In British English, the past simple merely signifies an action in the past, whereas the present perfect describes a state of affairs in the present brought about by an action in the past – we now are in a world where somebody "has written". American English, with only the past simple to call on, fails to mark that distinction.

If our verbs lose the present perfect tense, then our language has become less rich.

Off target: On Thursday we reported on Vladimir Putin's latest he-man stunt. Russia's Prime Minister had been out at sea in a boat shooting at whales with crossbow bolts designed to collect skin samples. The report, from an agency, ended thus: "Asked why he got involved, he added: 'Because I like it. I love the nature.'"

"The nature"? It looks at first as if Putin is speaking in broken English. But a more likely explanation is that he was speaking Russian and his remarks were translated into English by a Russian. The Russian language has no definite article, and anybody translating from Russian into English has to insert "the" at the right places. A Russian is liable to put it in occasionally in the wrong place as well.

The maritime marksman was actually saying, "I love nature." A pity that nobody knocked out that intrusive "the". Shooting at whales with a crossbow is daft enough, without seeming to utter gibberish as well.

Who he? Pronoun soup again on Wednesday. Christina Patterson commented on a row between Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne: "But he did, according to one source, tell the Chancellor that he was 'not prepared to tolerate' the 'appalling' way he treated his department, and that he should 'show more respect'. His staff, he said, 'did not deserve to be treated in such an arrogant way'."

The words "he" and "his" appear seven times. The first, second, fourth, sixth and seventh times, they mean Mr Duncan Smith; the third and fifth times, they mean Mr Osborne. More than once, the reader pauses to work out who "he" is.

Congested: "The 10-day traffic jam driving China mad," said a headline on Wednesday. The first paragraph of the story informed the reader: "For five days, thousands of motorists have been stuck in the world's worst traffic jam that stretches for 60 miles, and even worse, the 10-day queue is expected to remain backed up until at least the end of the month."

What can this mean? "For five days, thousands of motorists have been stuck ..." suggests that this event has been going on for five days. How then can it be a "10-day queue"? The writer may perhaps be struggling to say that the jam has been there for 10 days and it has taken individual drivers as long as five days to pass through it.

Cliché of the week: Our report on Thursday of the death of the intelligence officer Gareth Williams included this sentence: "Yesterday the 30-year-old's work ... led to speculation that he had been brutally murdered because of his job." As opposed to being gently murdered?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own