Errors & Omissions: Too many conditional clauses can lead the writer into a trap


Several people have written in to point out a sentence from the interview with Michael Parkinson in last Saturday's Magazine: "I say: if you could have had the Queen on your show and you could have asked her one question which she would have to of answered candidly in front of the nation, what would that question be?"

How did "have to of" get in there instead of "have to have"? Was it a transcription error, or what? I don't know. I suspect the writer simply became flustered by a sentence with too many conditional clauses and shied away from writing "have to have". That bit is in the wrong tense anyway: it should be "which she would have had to answer candidly". And at the end: "What would that question have been?"

Note, though, how the errors that really get people going are the ones that impact on the great English obsession with social class. Saying "should of" when it should be "should have" is seen as a marker of a lower-class upbringing, like saying "me and Wayne" when it should be "Wayne and I" – or rather "Rupert and I".

All Greek: A theatre review, published on Monday, began thus: "Poland's Song of the Goat Theatre company – their name alludes to the Greek word for tragedy – created a stir in 2004."

"The Greek word for tragedy" is not strictly wrong, but it is odd. For everybody knows that "tragedy" is a Greek word, its English form scarcely altered from the original. So what we are talking about is not the Greek word for tragedy but the Greek derivation of the word "tragedy" (which may indeed be from words meaning "goat song").

Verbiage: "Rich, confident and overtly glamorous," proclaimed a picture caption on Tuesday, of the shoe tycoon Tamara Mellon. Overtly? It is not possible to be secretly or obscurely glamorous, since glamour resides in the eye of the beholder. Glamour is by definition overt.

Golden age? "With its portrait of upstairs, as well as downstairs, life in the final, golden years of Edwardian splendour..." So began a news story on Monday about Downton Abbey. Sorry to spoil the party, but the TV series is set in the years 1912-14, and Edward VII died in 1910.

You could argue that although Edward himself was no longer around, "Edwardian splendour" carried on until the First World War, or even the great crash of 1929. The trouble is that you could equally well argue that 1912-14 were not the final years of anything, but the early years of Modernism (Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907; Ballets Russes, 1909; Fagus factory, 1911) and the time we call the 1920s.

Delineating cultural eras is an endlessly fascinating game. Safer, in a news story, to stick to facts and apply the word Edwardian to the years of Edward's reign.

Homophone horror: From a news story published on Thursday: "Officials with the state elections department took their seats at rows of what looked like school examination tables to begin pouring through some 90,000 of the ballots that were cast more than a week ago."

What, you may ask, were they pouring through the ballots? The sweat of hard labour presumably. It should, of course, be "poring".

I would like to be able to tell you about the derivation of these two words, both pronounced the same, one meaning to emit a stream of liquid, the other to examine closely. But the faithful Shorter Oxford is unable to help. Both go back to Middle English, before which their origin is obscure. Our medieval ancestors seem to have set us a little trap out of pure devilment.

Cliché of the week: On Wednesday we published a page of rock music photographs by Mick Rock. The caption included this: "In 1972 he photographed a little-known David Bowie re-emerging as Ziggy Stardust."

All rock megastars have to go through a "little-known" phase, don't they? Bowie may not have shot to stardom (oh dear, this is infectious) until he became Ziggy Stardust in 1972, but to describe the creator of the 1969 single "Space Oddity" as little known is going it a bit.

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