Errors & Omissions: It's not just vocabulary that gets lost across the Atlantic

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The Independent Online

Aged pedants who moan about "Americanisms" usually mean items of vocabulary, such as "sidewalk" and "apartment", failing to remember how much duller the English language would be, especially its political vocabulary, without such American expressions as "bandwagon", "filibuster" and "pork barrel". Less often noted are the differences of syntax.

What follows is neither an error nor an omission, merely an instance of a grammatical divergence between British and American English, and of how easily writers and speakers go native. On Monday Guy Adams, a true-born Englishman who has been our Los Angeles correspondent for some time, commented on the effect of recession on Las Vegas: "The city's unemployment rate just broke 13 per cent." In British English that should be "has just broken 13 per cent".

Where British uses the present perfect tense – "has broken" – American prefers the past simple – "broke". British observes a distinction that American does not bother with. It is a distinction not only of tense (past or present) but of aspect (simple or perfect). It is not so much about time – in both cases the action is in the past – as about the speaker's relationship to the event.

When a speaker of British English says "I broke my leg", the breaking of the leg is an event in the past that no longer affects the speaker. "I have broken my leg", on the other hand, places the speaker now in the position of a person with a broken leg.

The capacity of a language to convey such shades of meaning through its grammar is a precious heritage. That is hugely more important than whether you say "flat" or "apartment".


Journalese: Have you ever quaffed? Neither have I. When mere drinking has palled, we may have gulped or glugged, even supped, soaked and swilled, but nobody, outside the pages of newspapers, quaffs.

Keith Floyd did, though, according to our account of his last lunch, published on Wednesday. Not only did he "quaff champagne cocktails and a fine bottle of Cote du Rhone". (Oops, that should be Côtes du Rhône.) He did it "just hours" before his fatal heart attack. That journalese "just" is always tendentious. Here it suggests, without actually stating, that the heart attack was brought on by the meal. Was it? Who knows?


Non sequitur: "Voice of shipping forecast to leave after swearing on air," said the headline on a News in Brief item the same day. The story told how a continuity announcer had been replaced "after he accidentally swore on air". The report went on, however, to quote the BBC specifically denying that Peter Jefferson had been removed as a result of his uttering a rude expression when he mixed up his words on the air.

"After" is a weaselly word in this context. It creates the impression that one thing has caused another, but states nothing more than a mere temporal relationship.


Still hanging on: Hanging participles have become tediously familiar, but occasionally one hits you in the eye.

An article on Thursday about tourism in former trouble spots included, under the heading "Cambodia", this: "Famed for Angkor Wat and other architectural treasures, the genocidal Khmer Rouge scared away tourists until the mid-90s and beyond." No, the Khmer Rouge were not famed for architectural treasures.

And by the way, what does "until the mid-90s and beyond" mean? Until the late Nineties? Until last week?


Do calm down, love: Lily Allen is just a girl pop singer, so nothing she says is to be taken seriously. That was the impression given by an astonishing display of tendentious language in a news story on Thursday.

Allen had taken to task a couple of senior rockers, Nick Mason of Pink Floyd and Radiohead's Ed O'Brien. They were in favour of file-sharing. Allen argued that they could afford to be, since such well-known bands could make a good living out of arena tours, but file-sharing made it more difficult for new acts to become established.

This was variously described – this in a news story, not a comment piece – as an "angry salvo", an "online rant" and an "online tirade". Her middle-aged male opponents, on the other hand, had made a "stand". If Allen's riposte is to be dismissed as a hysterical outburst, why report it at all?