Errors & Omissions: In search of the final word on how to use prepositions properly


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The Independent Online

Prepositions can provoke violent loyalty and outrage. John Rentoul has been taken to task by another colleague in the office for having written in this space last week that it "does not matter much" whether you write "different from" or "different to". There are those who think "different to" is awful.

I tend to agree with Rentoul about that, though we should remember that the verb is always "differ from", so "different to" introduces an inconsistency. But then again, as Oscar Wilde said, consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

Anyway, here is a new example in the same vein, from a theatre review on Monday: "She portrays Lotte, a lonely graphic designer who embarks on a surreal odyssey across contemporary Germany in a fruitless search of some form of connection with old friends."

If you cut out the words "a fruitless" it reads all right. But except in the phrase "in search of", "search" needs to be followed by "for" – "She embarked on a search for some form of connection with old friends." So, does the intrusion of "a fruitless" between "in" and "search" mean we have to switch from "of" to "for"? For my money, yes, but some will no doubt disagree.

Just for show: "Boubou Flaring has been nominated as best actress in the tedious and shameful Binkie Beaumont awards." That is a sentence you will never see in print.

So why, in a news story on Wednesday, did we print this? – "Justin Parker's co-writing contribution to 'Video Games' was yesterday recognised with a nomination for the prestigious Ivor Novello awards." "Prestigious" is one of those words that should be struck out on sight. All awards of this kind are intended to confer prestige, and we wouldn't think it worthwhile to report on one that didn't.

Opinion: The following is from our reporting on Tuesday of the Breivik trial: "Norway's mass murderer sat in Oslo's court 250 at the opening of his trial for the slaughter of 77 people yesterday looking impassive and chillingly defiant. Sometimes he even smirked."

What is the difference between a smile and a smirk? I suspect that if you showed people a series of photos of facial expressions, there would be no agreement about which were smiles and which were smirks. A smirk, like a leer or a simper, is a smile on the face of someone the speaker dislikes or disapproves of.

If I am right about that, then Breivik's "smirk" is not something the reporter has observed, like his impassive and defiant look, but a piece of tendentious language expressing revulsion at his crimes. As such, it was out of place in a news report. I wish we had stuck to the facts and reported that Breivik smiled.

Cliché of the week: Still with Breivik, a front-page puff on Monday promised an insight into "the mind of a serial killer". Breivik is not a serial killer, but a mass murderer. He killed a number of people, all on the same occasion. A serial killer carries out the murders one at a time.

Mixed metaphor of the week: This is from a news story published on Wednesday: "A cocktail of plummeting house prices, a remorselessly unfavourable exchange rate and a Spanish economy in ruins has dealt a knockout blow to the economic welfare of the many Britons living in Spain."

A cocktail dealing a knockout blow sounds like something that might have felled Bertie Wooster, requiring Jeeves's most potent morning-after pick-me-up. On reflection, perhaps that is exactly what the distressed expats need.