Errors & Omissions: An odyssey won't take you to the Holy Grail

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The Independent Online

Legends cluster around the name of Katherine Grainger, it seems. Last Saturday we reported on the British rower: "Ever since she secured her first silver in the double sculls at the Sydney Games in 2000, the 36-year-old rower has been painfully honest about her quest for what she called the Holy Grail – Olympic gold. That odyssey came to a euphoric close yesterday on Dorney Lake when she and her partner Anna Watkins powered to first place in the double sculls."

Well, is this a quest for the Holy Grail, or is it an odyssey ? It can hardly be both.

Both the Odyssey and the medieval Grail legends are stories of long and perilous journeys, but there the similarity ends. Galahad and the other Grail knights are wandering into far countries in search of a precious object that will win them salvation. Odysseus, in his more down-to-earth Greek way, is simply trying to find the way home. The Grail quest, then, is an apt metaphor for an athlete's quest for Olympic gold, but the Odyssey is not.

Medal tally The Olympics seem to have given us a new verb: to medal, meaning to win a medal. Last Saturday's London 2012 supplement told us that "Greg Rutherford and Chris Tomlinson will hope to medal".

Pedants will be shocked. However, the use of a noun as an intransitive verb is not unprecedented. If a tree can blossom, I don't see why an athlete shouldn't medal. It isn't ambiguous or an offence against logic. There is only one real problem that I can see. So far "medal" and "meddle" have been a noun and verb respectively, and no one confuses their spellings. If the use of "medal" as a verb becomes established, I can see this unhappy pair joining "pedal" and "peddle" at the top of the Crazy English Spelling Homophone Horrors List.

And another thing Hugh Minor has written in from Cardiff to draw attention to a grammatical issue I was not aware of. On reflection, I think he is right.

He saw this, in a news story, published last Saturday, about a break-in by protesters at a nuclear facility: "'We're taking this very, very seriously,' he said, confirming that the trio had cut through two chain-link fences."

Mr Minor points out that the present participle "confirming" is used here in a way that usually implies either two simultaneous actions ("He left the pub, singing lustily") or one action consequent upon another ("He accidentally hit the alarm button, setting off a panic"). He goes on: "In this case, confirmation of the trio's actions was not a consequence of saying 'We're taking this very, very seriously', and it is difficult to see how it could have been uttered simultaneously. To put it simply, he said one thing and confirmed something else."

Why, oh why? It is a great temptation to start a headline with "Why", "How" or "When". It imparts the seductive air of a mystery slowly unfolding. We all do it, but let's not overdo it, particularly when the story reveals that there really is not much of a mystery at all.

Tuesday's paper gave us two "Why" headlines: "Why sailing is not a spectator sport" (because it happens a long way from the shore and the rules are weird); and "Why Mensch's move has gifted Labour a by-election win" (because the seat will probably revert to Labour).