When did appliances and gadgets turn into "essentials"? Last Saturday's Information section carried a list of the "50 best bathroom essentials".
It included such items as the Starck Classic Mono Basin Mixer. "This tap," said the blurb, "is iconic. The feathered quill joystick handle epitomises Starck's desire to make the bathroom a more tranquil space." At £646.40 (what is the 40p for?) this is the kind of "essential" that nearly everybody in fact does without.
Dead weird: "She died many centuries ago, but her mummified corpse and clothing have been almost perfectly preserved, despite being buried for hundreds of years in a wooden tomb a few feet beneath a busy street in the city of Taizhou, eastern China."
This is the opening paragraph of a news story published last Saturday. The word "despite" bears witness to the human desire to witness conflict and heroism. It suggests that this Chinese mummy has won through in the face of heavy odds. That is a fantasy. A corpse cannot struggle. It has been preserved not "despite" the conditions of its burial, but specifically because of them.
Racing certainty: Last week this column criticised a report that The King's Speech had "justified heavy favouritism to carry off four Academy Awards". We pointed out that "favouritism" means showing unfair favour to the teacher's pet, not being the favourite to win a contest.
However, word reaches me from the world of racing that it is not as simple as that. My friend with the binoculars and the battered brown trilby informs me that in racing journalism "favouritism" has exactly the meaning it was given in the report about the Oscars – the situation of being the punters' favourite. I didn't know that, but in mitigation I would plead that it is a pretty arcane usage. To readers not dedicated to the Turf, it looks odd.
Poor marks: "The former Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, said: 'This mission was ill-conceived, poorly-planned and embarrassingly-executed.'" That is from Tuesday's report of William Hague's Commons statement about the SAS farce in Libya. It raises two issues about punctuation.
First, the commas around "Sir Menzies Campbell". Consider the difference between "My brother Tom is a jolly fellow", and "My brother, Tom, is a jolly fellow". In the first sentence, the name Tom tells the reader which brother the speaker is referring to. In the second, the writer has only one brother, so "my brother" is enough to make the identification, and the name is just further information about him.
Similarly, the commas around "Sir Menzies Campbell" imply that there is only one former Liberal Democrat leader. But in fact there are several. So leave the commas off.
Next, the hyphens. (Warning: this item contains high-strength grammar.) Adjectives can be used either attributively ("the house has a red door") or predicatively ("The door is red"). A similar distinction can be applied to the past participles of verbs. Attributive: "The house has a painted door." Predicative: "The door is painted." Furthermore, the adjective or participle can be qualified by an adverb. Attributive: "The house has a well-painted door." Predicative: "The door is well painted." Note that adverb and participle are joined by a hyphen in the attributive function only, not in the predicative. I know this distinction is frequently ignored, but let's show a bit of class by observing it.
There is one more crucial point. Even when the participle is attributive, there is no hyphen when the adverb ends in –ly. That is an arbitrary convention, but it holds nonetheless. So if the painters turn out to be cowboys , there is no hyphen: "The house has a badly painted door."
The hyphen is right only under quite limited conditions – where the participle is being used attributively and the adverb does not end in –ly. In the passage above, two adverbs end in –ly and all the participles are predicative. So, no hyphens.
Cliché of the week: On Monday we published an interview with the "Vicar of Baghdad" – the pastor of the only Anglican church in Iraq. Canon Andrew White, said the report, "spoke on a brief visit back to his picturesque home in a quiet Hampshire village". One, day somebody will be reported as living in a noisy village.