English auxiliary verbs are a national treasure – but one that too few people appreciate. We need to fight for them. Consider the following sentences:
If he goes to London he may see the Queen.
If he has gone to London he may have seen the Queen.
If he went to London he might see the Queen.
If he had gone to London he might have seen the Queen.
Now substitute "will" for "may" and "would" for "might", and you can play through the sequence again in a different register. Then try it again with "can" and "could". Beautiful, is it not?
Now read this – if you can bear to – from a news story published last Saturday: "Mr Blair said he had to continue to support the US in military action, even though he knew he may have to withdraw the support if Lord Goldsmith had not changed his mind over the legality of the war."
He "may have to withdraw the support"? When? How can this be, when we are talking about events eight years ago? No, it should read either "even though he knew he might have to withdraw the support ..." or "even though he might have had to withdraw ...".
I know I go on and on about this, but if English sheds "might" in favour of "may", the language will become less expressive.
Sell-out: This is from a comment piece on Tuesday, about the News of the World phone-hacking scandal: "Phone hacking was common – not for any public interest but in an attempt to get some juicy stories to sell newspapers."
I have always thought it strange that the press is constantly accused of wanting to "sell newspapers", as if that were a bad thing. Nobody ever upbraided a greengrocer for wanting to "sell vegetables".
If we believe that what we do is in the public interest, we should all try to sell as many newspapers as possible. The rift between the high-minded thinkers of the quality press and the sweaty hacks of the red-top tabloids is not about who is keener to sell newspapers, but about two rival conceptions of the public interest – do you give the people what you think they desire or what you think they need?
Spreading blame: Here is a logical glitch, from last Saturday's "Inside Westminster" column. "Mr Miliband rightly judges that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will succeed in pinning the blame for the deficit on Labour overspending unless Labour admits the error of its ways. Blaming the global crisis alone won't wash with voters unless Labour accepts some culpability."
The first sentence makes sense. The second doesn't, for it implies that provided Labour accepts some blame, all the blame can be put on the global crisis. "Unless" is out of place here. The sentence should read: "Blaming the global crisis alone won't wash; Labour must accept some culpability."
Cliché of the week: This is from a "Reading List" item on Monday about Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather: "Immortalised on the big screen in Francis Ford Coppola's famous trilogy, it remains the most recognised and significant account of gangster life in popular culture."
Here are three words that should be shot on sight. If something really is famous, the reader already knows and does not need to be told. It follows that "famous" is always either otiose or a lie. "Immortalised" is just a Hollywood publicist's word for "filmed". It is such an absurd hyperbole, and we are so used to it, that the eye simply skids across it without registering anything.
As for "significant", Evelyn Waugh skewered that half a century ago with the simple question: "Signifying what?"
It's a crime: I thought we had eradicated the hanging participle. Alas, no. This is from a news story published on Tuesday: "Often seen wearing hoodies instead of the Mob's signature sharp suits, the New York Post newspaper has criticised him for 'crimes of fashion'."Reuse content