Errors & Omissions: Going forward, here's my counsel to honeytrap divorcees

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The Independent Online

It is an odd quirk of the human brain to be unclear or inconsistent about the direction in which time is moving.

For instance, when we speak of "going forward" we mean forward into the future, from an earlier to a later time; but bringing a meeting "forward" means moving it from later to earlier.

This is from a comment article published on Monday: "The 'Sarah's Law' campaign was started by the newspaper under the editorship of Rebekah Brooks and was continued by her predecessors." That should be "successors". Similarly, we often see people writing "ancestors" when they mean "descendants". We don't know if we are coming or going.

Homophone horror: Last Saturday's profile of Jonathan Sumption QC told of his having been appointed "Queen's Council" in 1986. That should have been "Queen's Counsel". It is a common mistake. "Council" and "counsel" are both ultimately derived from the Latin verb concilio, meaning call together or unite. As so often happens, two words derived from the same Latin origin have taken different routes through medieval French and English, to arrive in modern English with different spellings and meanings, but, alas, similar pronunciations – hence the confusion. "Council" is a noun only. It means a body of people brought together to deliberate and to exercise certain powers. "Counsel" is a verb meaning to offer advice, and a noun meaning advice or a person who offers advice – as lawyers do. This business reaches a pinnacle of obscurity in the affairs of the Privy Council. In Tudor times it was the most powerful organ of royal government; today it is one of the more arcane mechanisms of constitutional monarchy. The members of your local council are called councillors, but the Privy Council is made up of Privy Counsellors – presumably because their traditional function is to offer counsel to the Queen.

Tell me more: Every news story, so I was taught a long time ago as a trainee reporter, should answer these questions: who; what; when; where; why? A 50-word news-in-brief item on Thursday told of the arrival of a large python at London Zoo. Valuable space was filled with the unsurprising information that the zoo is in Regent's Park and that the snake had been in quarantine. Most readers would rather have been told where the snake had come from – presumably another zoo – and why. No information on that, I'm afraid.

Incidentally, the item also said the snake was "a 16ft Burmese python that weighs about 80kg". That sort of confusion about units of measurement is less unusual than you might think. The United States sticks to imperial measures. Australia has been all metric since 1988. At around the same time this country made a half-hearted lurch at metrication. Later it entertained itself with the anti-European antics of the "metric martyrs". Now it seems to be acquiring the habit of using metric units for weight and imperial units for length. The English have always been proud of their contempt for abstract logic, but this is carrying things a bit far.

Sex change: "The honeytrap that turned divorcés into drink drivers" – so said the headline on a news story on Tuesday. There is no need to get Gallic about this: "divorcee" is a perfectly good English word, applicable to either sex and with no accents. The Shorter Oxford also recognises the French form "divorcé(e)", but that is no reason to encourage it.