Errors & Omissions: We should follow the rules of grammar, even if they sound a bit 'wrong'
Saturday 25 September 2010
"Hope for peace talks remain despite tensions in West Bank."
It may be that this headline, which appeared on Thursday, was written by someone with a thorough grounding in English grammar who happened to suffer a momentary lapse; it can happen to anyone.
On the other hand, it may be that the perpetrator of this gaffe is one of the millions of victims of modern teachers of English who think it their business to nurture their pupils' appreciation of literary art (with an emphasis on dismal 20th-century novels) without giving them the slightest clue about how words fit together.
Be that as it may, the headline should read: "Hope for peace talks remains ..." Those with grammar can say why: the verb "remains" and its subject, "hope", need to agree in person and number. Those who have been denied this technical vocabulary may be left floundering. They will miss the functional relationship between "hope" and "remains": they will see only the proximity of "talks" and "remains", and feel vaguely that "talks remains" sounds "wrong".
Now, look here: I know it is usual to call any exhibition covering an artist's career a retrospective, but I still think that, if the artist is dead, it is a weird word to use.
A news report on Tuesday called a new exhibition in Paris "the first large Monet retrospective in his home country since 1980". Now, if an artist is alive, there are two kinds of exhibition you could stage: a show of new work, or a show of works representative of the artist's career to date. The latter, since it looks back, is called a retrospective.
Claude Monet died in 1926. There can be no new works. Any Monet exhibition is bound to be retrospective. So the word "retrospective" conveys no information.
Nameless dread: Another word that has undergone a strange shift of meaning in recent years is "anonymous", which used to mean nameless, or of unknown name. This is from a news story last Saturday: "... as he walked home on Thursday afternoon from the pharmacy on Edgware where he worked to Green Court, an anonymous 1940s apartment block where for the last two years...". Eh? Green Court is not anonymous. You have just told me its name: it is called Green Court. The right word here is "unremarkable".
Is it that our fame-obsessed culture needs an antonym to "famous" and has fixed on "anonymous"? Who knows? But in any case "anonymous" is here otiose; no reader would imagine that a 1940s apartment block in north London was celebrated in song and story.
The above passage throws up another, unrelated, point. "The last two years" could mean the last two completed calendar years – 2008 and 2009. If you are referring to the two-year period up to now, and you want to avoid all ambiguity, you should prefer "the past two years".
Too much: George Orwell, in his essay "Politics and the English Language", takes a verse from the King James Bible ("I returned and saw under the sun, that ...") and turns it into modern bureaucratic jargon ("Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that ..."). That passage should be inscribed on the wall of every newsroom.
A story about the Afghan war, published on Tuesday, contained this: "There are likely to be complaints that 'blood and treasure' (lives and financial investment) expended by British forces have been wasted." It is coming to something when a reporter feels that vivid and concrete language such as "blood and treasure" has to be translated into grey abstractions for readers with ice water in their veins.
Homophone horror: Last Saturday's magazine carried an article about oysters, and a virus that is attacking them. It included the following quotation: "Oyster farming is good for the environment ... In the United States, President Obama has the navy sewing oyster beds back."
That should be "sowing", but I am reluctant to let go of the picture of hundreds of American sailors, inspired no doubt by their nation's great quilt-making tradition, earnestly sewing a carpet of oysters back on to the seabed.
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