Errors & Omissions: There's a difference between keeping language alive and sheer ignorance

Bad mark: "Monday marked the six-month anniversary of Winehouse's death," said a news story on Thursday.

Two things to say about that. First, "mark" has become a really tiresome journalese word. Monday didn't "mark" the day when six months had passed; it was that day. Had a ceremony been held, or a commemorative volume published, that would have marked the day.

Second, what could a "six-month anniversary" possibly be? "Anniversary" means the turning of a year, not of six months. The Latin word "annus" means year – as in "annual". A similar ignorance is betrayed when people write "30-year anniversary" instead of just "30th anniversary".

Does all this mean that "anniversary" is changing its meaning, to signify the ending of any measured period of time, not just a year? For the meanings of words do change from time to time. Well, yes they do, but not all changes are for the better. In this connection I also recall the pronouncement of the late Frank Peters: "The next reporter who comes in here and tells me that language is a living thing gets the sack."

"In here" was the sub-editors' room at The Northern Echo in Darlington, where Frank was night editor back in the 1970s and taught me a good deal of what little I know about editing copy and writing headlines.

What Frank meant was not that usage must for ever remain the same, but that those who protest that it changes are less often making an impartial judgement than trying to justify their own ignorance.

Use it or lose it: Last week I lamented the apparent ousting of "besought", the agreeably irregular past tense of "beseech", by the dully regular "beseeched". Roy Evans writes in from Harpenden to remind us of the following "relishably rhymed" lines from Noël Coward's song "Nina": "She declined to begin the beguine though they besought her to. / And with language profane and obscene she cursed the man who taught her to. / She cursed Cole Porter too."

Remember: every time an English irregular verb dies, the world becomes a bit greyer. Before you write "beseeched", pause and think what we would have missed if "besought" had not been available to Noël Coward.

Number crunching: "The unanswered questions in Surrey Police's handling of the investigation of Milly Dowler's disappearance and murder in 2002, and the force's close contact with journalists from the News of the World, is to be investigated by the police's internal watchdog, the IPCC."

So began a news story published on Wednesday, raising a further unanswered question: has everybody quite forgotten the idea that a verb and its subject should agree in number? This seems to happen more and more. Nobody would ever write "The unanswered questions is to be investigated", but shove nearly 30 words in between "questions" and "is" (which ought, of course, to be "are") and it is all too easy to forget how the sentence ought to work. Another good reason to avoid long, clumsy sentences.

All clear? "Intensive care unit cleared after bug kills three babies." That headline was published on a news page last Saturday. So does it mean that the unit was cleared of blame or cleared of patients? It could be either. You have to read the story to find out that it was the latter.

Whose ship? "The HMS Argyll was part of a US-led carrier group," said a picture caption published on Tuesday. "The HMS ..." is always wrong because "The Her Majesty's Ship ..." makes no sense. "The USS ...", on the other hand, is fine.

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