Errors & Omissions: Frequent and regular – they're not interchangeable


There are many pairs of words in English that have similar but distinct meanings.

In some cases a useful distinction is being lost because one of the words is increasingly taking the place of the other. Refute and rebut. Jealous and envious. And this week's example: regular and frequent. If something is regular that means it happens at predictable intervals. If it is frequent that means that it happens a lot. In our report on Wednesday of the trial of Silvio Berlusconi, we said that prosecutors alleged that "teen belly dancer Karima 'Ruby' el-Mahroug" and 30 other young women "regularly attended parties at Mr Berlusconi's mansion". That suggests that the parties were every Tuesday night at 7.30, which they might have been, I suppose, but I think "frequently" or "often" was what we meant.

Sometimes, though, occasional and unpredictable events are described as regular even when they were infrequent. In John Walsh's entertaining survey of snobbery on Tuesday, he quoted Nicholas Soames, the Conservative MP. "'Mine's a gin and tonic, Giovanni, and would you ask my friend what he's having?' he would regularly ask of John Prescott, a working-class former ship steward." That implies he did it every fortnight at Deputy Prime Minister's Questions. Actually he might have heckled something like it once or twice. On this occasion, the word should simply have been struck out.

Seven-day itch: "A week is a long time in retail" was a headline on the business pages last Saturday that clashed a cliché with a contraction. Just because a cliché is from politics doesn't make it any more interesting when applied to retailing.

Whom to patronise? Because we are not taught formal grammar any more, we all have our different ways of checking whether something that sounds odd is actually right or not. My father, who was taught formal grammar, finds it easier to translate anything doubtful into Hindi. The rest of us have to find other ways. Mine is always to rephrase the sentence. That is what someone should have done when composing this headline on the Letters page on Wednesday: "Don't patronise we teenage girls." Sounds odd to me. Sure enough, if you rephrase it as "Don't patronise we", you can see what's wrong with it. It should have been "Don't patronise us teenage girls".

Hello: A profile on Wednesday of Alassane Ouattara, the winner of last year's election in Ivory Coast, said that, as tanks rolled into the capital, he "sat speaking on the telephone with French President Nicolas Sarkozy". To speak "with" is a harmless Americanism, and perhaps it is what people increasingly say in natural speech in this country (although they are more likely to say, "Ouattara was like, 'Hello,' and Sarkozy was like, 'Yeah?'"), but for others of us it jars. If he had been "speaking on the telephone to Nicolas Sarkozy", we could have concentrated on the significance of the conversation.

Still waiting: I liked the headline on Ian Herbert's interview with Sir Alex Ferguson on Wednesday: "Piano lid closed as Ferguson dismisses talk of retirement." The effect was spoiled by the sub-headline, "Manchester United manager says music lessons will have to wait as he has no plans for abdicating any time soon." I don't suppose we will get rid of "any time soon" any time soon.

Tick or cross: Alice-Azania Jarvis's review yesterday of the previous night's television was nicely done. "The Kennedys is many things – lusciously filmed, richly sound tracked – but exciting isn't one of them. Neither is good." But, in explaining why it was so bad, she accuses Katie Holmes, as Jackie, of "mugging for the camera", and said: "It's a tick repeated throughout the cast." That should be "tic", as in a repeated involuntary twitch.

Guy Keleny is away

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