Errors & Omissions: It seems that some functionless words were born only to make trouble


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The Independent Online

Here is a common homophone error with very odd origins. An analysis piece published on Tuesday said: "If Mr Putin really does believe that the opposition to him is not borne of a disgruntled middle class...".

That should be "born". The verb "bear" has several meanings: to carry, to support, to push and, among others, to produce, as when a mother gives birth to a child. In all cases, the past tense is "bore" and the past participle is "borne" – with one exception. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary explains: "Since c1775 the past participle 'born' is used only in sense IV.2 [the giving birth one] and there only in the passive when not followed by 'by' and the mother. In all other cases 'borne' is used."

So, believe it or not, the following is correct usage: "She had borne three children. The youngest was born on a stormy night."

The one thing the dictionary cannot explain is what on earth possessed users of English, and printers of books (after about 1775) to preserve the spelling "born" at all. After a bout of sinusitis, I once asked my doctor the function of our sinuses. "Just to make trouble really," he replied. I think you could say the same about the functionless distinction between "borne" and "born". But until the day that English spelling is reformed (and that means for ever) we are stuck with it.

In the passage above, the metaphor is from birth, the opposition being the child and the middle class being the mother – so, "born".

Homophone horror (2): This is from the Monday Interview: "So how does it feel now... when she hands over the reigns as director in July?" That should be "reins".

Reign (from the Latin "regnum") is the exercise of kingly authority. A rein (from the French "rêne") is a leather thong by which a horse is controlled. Rain (Old English "regn", from a Teutonic origin) is water falling from the sky, and does not concern us here.

The erroneous usage "give free reign" is quite common, and in that case you can imagine how writers confuse kingship with horsemanship. "Hands over the reigns" is less easy to understand. What could the "reigns" be?

Living language: This column has had a debate recently about "different from" and "different to". Here is another example of the way prepositions can shift around.

"But the shareholders who engaged in such talks would thus have been turned into 'insiders' and be forbidden from trading in the shares for a lengthy period."

That is from Andreas Whittam Smith's Thursday comment piece. I think it is only in the past 20 years or so that we have seen "forbid from", followed by a gerund; before that, it was always "forbid to". But there is an obvious analogy with "prevent from", and the Whittam Smith imprimatur is good enough for me. "Forbid from" is all right.

Cliché of the week: "Poor consumer confidence, high business rates, competition from supermarkets and the internet as well as an inability to adapt have created a perfect storm which has destroyed the weakest members of the retail industry.

The expression "perfect storm" was popularised by the 1997 book and 2000 film about the loss of a fishing boat in a storm off the coast of Massachusetts. Now, any coincidence of adverse factors is always a "perfect storm" – even, it seems, one that destroys only the weakest members of the industry. Any perfect storm worth the name would surely take out the strongest as well.