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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Babysitter Katie and Paul have terse words in the park
tvReview: The strength of the writing keeps viewers glued to their seats even when they are confronted with the hard-hitting scenes
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Sport
England’s opening goalscorer Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain battles with Scotland’s Charlie Mulgrew
FootballEngland must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Life and Style
Make-up artists prepare contestants for last year’s Miss World, held in Budapest
fashion
Sport
Wigan Athletic’s back-of-the shirt sponsor Premier Range has pulled out due to Malky Mackay’s arrival
Football
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

Argyll Scott International: FP&A Manager Supply Chain

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Argyll Scott is recruiting for a Permane...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property NQ+

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: COMMERCIAL PROPERTY SOLI...

Argyll Scott International: Retail Commercial Finance Analyst

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Due to further expansion, a leading inte...

Langley James : Senior Technician; Promotion & Training Opp; Borough; upto £32k

£27000 - £32000 per annum + training: Langley James : Senior Technician; Promo...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines