Errors & Omissions: What does it take for an occupation to become an era? That depends...

By Guy Keleny


What do the following three sentences have in common?

"The delicious intensity of a ripe, fresh homegrown tomato, and the dreariness of the commercial variety, raises an immediate and obvious question." – Viewspaper front page, Wednesday.

"Spending and investment would collapse again, and world trade with it." – Opinion article, Monday.

"Closed circuit television and remote video monitoring is in use at this station." – announcement by Southeastern railway company.

There seems to be a growing fashion, affecting newspapers no less than railways, for regarding a pair of associated things as singular, rather than plural.

I would say that intensity and dreariness raise (not "raises") a question; that spending and investment are "them" (not "it"); and that television and monitoring are (not "is"). The people who wrote the sentences above regard each associated pair as a sort of package, which seems to them to be one thing. So they use a singular verb or pronoun.

English, being a language with very few inflections, has always been pretty lax about such matters, attending more to the things it is describing than to the logical structure of the language itself. So it would perhaps be pedantic to assert that these writers are wrong. But we should be aware of what is going on.

Age cannot wither him: Ian Craine writes in to point out this passage, from an obituary of the jazz pianist Ray Bryant, published last Saturday: "His beefy playing ... caught the ear with its authority and was easy to identify. Even in what turned out to be his old age, it had a youthful joy and hope about it that was most infectious."

Mr Craine speculates that perhaps the weird phrase "what turned out to be his old age" ought to read "what turned out to be his last years". That may be so. As it stands, it seems to imply that to Bryant the onset of old age came as a surprise, he having expected something else.

A bit occupied: In last Monday's Notebook, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote of "new generations for whom the Sixties and Seventies must feel as long ago as the Roman occupation". How long must an occupation go on before it turns into an era? It seems to depend on how long ago it was and who was occupying whom.

An occupation is temporary and not very legitimate. Hence the sensitivity of Israel about the West Bank being described as "occupied". Hence also the eagerness of campaigners for the return of the Elgin Marbles to speak of a "Turkish occupation" of Greece, with the implication that the Turkish authorities had no right to dispose of the marbles to Lord Elgin. The Turkish "occupation" of Greece lasted from the 14th to the 19th century. By that standard the current European occupation of North America, known to some as the United States, has scarcely got into its stride.

And of course nobody in this country talks of a British "occupation" of India (1765-1947). Funny, that.

The Roman army arrived in Britain AD43 and left around 410. Not as long as the Turkish stay in Greece, but too long, surely, to be dismissed as an occupation.

Verbiage: We seem to be forming quite a collection of redundant adjectives that should be struck out on sight. Recently we have noted "famous" and "controversial".

Now this, from a news story published on Wednesday: "Three judges on the panel resigned in protest over Mr Roth being awarded the prestigious prize."

The prize in question is the Man Booker. Of course it is prestigious. The reader knows this. And if people didn't know the prize carried prestige then it wouldn't be prestigious – prestige being a matter of public perception. It follows that in all cases where "prestigious" is true it is also redundant.

Daft headline of the week: "Qatar hero? The sheikh who shook up the art world", said a headline on a news page on Wednesday. Guitar Hero is a video game in which players pretend to be rock music performers. What has that to do with an Arab prince who collects works of art? Search me.

A pun works only if it works on every level.

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