Errors & Omissions: The trouble with the adverb formerly known as formally


This is from a news page last Saturday: "Partly this is the nature of coalition government, which means that everything has to be formerly signed off by both parties." That should be "formally".

Nobody ever confuses the adjectives "former" and "formal", and I don't have to tell you what they mean. "Formal" comes from the Latin "forma", meaning "form". "Former" is Old English and related to "fore" and "foremost" . The trouble starts when they turn into adverbs. "Formerly" and "formally" sound very similar and are sometimes confused in writing.

Don't tell me: "Tell" is a temptingly short word for headlines, but it can give the wrong impression. Here is a standfirst from a news story about gay marriage last Saturday: "Ministers tell Church not to make discussion a battle between gay rights and religion." That suggests that the ministers are in authority over the Church, which will have to do as it is told. But that is not the case. The ministers may urge the Church, or advise it or warn it not to turn the dispute into a crisis, but they cannot tell the Church what to do: we are not living in Russia under Peter the Great.

Odd number: Writers seem to be less sure about the difference between one thing and more than one. This is from a profile published in last Saturday's magazine: "He's in the outer orbit of the Notting Hill set, as the circle of acquaintances surrounding David Cameron and George Osborne became known (neither politicians live there now)."

That should be "neither politician lives there now", or "neither of the politicians lives there now". Either way, "neither" takes a singular verb. So, incidentally, does "none" – "None of these pictures is (not are) for sale."

Ready, aim... : John Hudson has written in to point out the same error in two different headlines published on Wednesday. They were "Trump's sons in firing line over African hunting trip" and "The new victims in the firing line".

That should be "the line of fire". On a rifle range the shooters line up on the firing line. There, you are safe. The dangerous place is in the path of the bullets – that is, in the line of fire.

Texas rearranger: On Tuesday we reported on an imminent deal to sell Mashable, "the world's most influential technology and social networking news site", to CNN. "News of the deal was revealed by Reuters blogger Felix Salmon, who filed a video report breaking the story from the South by Southwest technology festival in Austen, Texas."

Everybody is so familiar with the novelist Jane Austen that it is easy to forget the more common spelling of the name: "Austin".

The city of Austin, capital of Texas, is named after Stephen Fuller Austin (1793-1836). He brought some of the first US settlers into Texas, then part of Mexico, and played a prominent part in the subsequent events that led to Texan independence and, ultimately, the admission of Texas to the US as a state in 1845. He is known as the Father of Texas.

Jane Austen (1775-1817) was an approximate contemporary of Stephen F Austin, but is not believed ever to have set foot in Texas.

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