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Errors & Omissions

Errors & Omissions: Put the brakes on these instances of careless spelling

A business story last Saturday reported on good financial results at the Triumph motorcycle company: "This was driven by 'strong' sales of motorbike parts, clothing and accessories such as automatic breaking systems, said a spokeswoman."

Chris Sladen of Woodstock, who drew my attention to this passage, remarks: "Small wonder their replacement parts business is doing well." Quite. "Breaking" should of course be "braking". It is a common confusion. A similarly difficult pair is "breach" and "breech". So "ea" can make either of two different sounds – each of which can also be made by another vowel formation.

English spelling, it can scarcely be stated too often, is barking mad, and ought to be reformed (though it probably won't be). Those of us who pride ourselves on getting these things right, and take pleasure in the quirks of the language, too easily forget the shocking price paid by people who never learn to read and write properly.

"Break" goes back, by way of Old English, to an ancient Teutonic root, its meaning apparently unaltered for about 2,000 years. It surfaces also in modern German as brechen, with the same meaning – to part asunder by force. "Brake" is a more slippery customer, of uncertain origin and various meanings as both noun and verb. It may be obscurely derived from "break", or it may be related to the French bras meaning "arm" – hence a long lever, as seen in the braking mechanism of carriages.

You don't say: Here is the first paragraph of a news item published on Tuesday: "A man declared legally dead 16 years ago has been arrested for the kidnapping of a girl whose body was found in some woods."

In some woods, but not others, presumably. The moral here is not to allow the patterns of speech to leak over into writing. A listener has to catch the words as they fly – hence the repetitious prolixity of oral poetry. But a reader can take them in at whatever pace is comfortable, so written language can afford to be more concise. A speaker might well say "some woods", but for a writer "woods" is enough.

One in the eye: A tongue-in-cheek guide to office etiquette, written by one of my male colleagues and published on Wednesday, offered this insight into feminine grooming: "It is increasingly common to see young women doing their make-up or plucking their eyelashes on the train on the way to work."

Son, there are clearly things you don't know about the ways of women. That thing they do with the tweezers and the look of agonised concentration is plucking their eyebrows. The thing with the eyelashes is sticking on false ones.

Mangled metaphor: My old friend Alan Hendry writes in to draw attention to this, from a story last Saturday about the British launch of the US clothes shop chain Forever 21: "The store has thrived by offering trend-led pieces, but has flown close to the wind." The expression is "sail close to the wind". Sailing ships can make headway against the wind, but you must not try to steer too directly upwind. If you do you run the risk of being taken aback. (After which you might need to batten down the hatches. It is scarcely possible to open your mouth in English without uttering a maritime metaphor).

At the back of the writer's mind there might possibly have been the image of Icarus flying too close to the sun, a different metaphor that means more or less the same thing.

Beaune idle: This caption appeared on a news page on Thursday beside a picture of a bottle of wine that had sold for £191,000. "Not your ordinary supermarket plonk, this six-litre bottle of imperial Cheval Blanc 1947 broke the record for a price paid for a single bottle at auction."

You don't need a PhD from the University of the Bleeding Obvious to work out that this is not an ordinary bottle. Only those desperate for anything to say resort to such banal remarks about what something is not. Coming soon: "Not your regular garden shed, the Taj Mahal."