From dusk till dawn

'You were both right. You were right grammatically and she was right to leave you. And I am right to go out to the pub'
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The Independent Online

I am very glad to say that when I got to the office at dawn this morning, Dr Wordsmith – our language expert – had already got here before me. Indeed, judging by the empty cans of lager and overflowing ashtrays, he has been here the whole night, so fire away, please.

I am very glad to say that when I got to the office at dawn this morning, Dr Wordsmith – our language expert – had already got here before me. Indeed, judging by the empty cans of lager and overflowing ashtrays, he has been here the whole night, so fire away, please.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, May I say how nice it is to see the word "dawn" used in a British newspaper, especially not in conjunction with the word "raid"? One of the things I have always loved about our language is that it is so much richer in vocabulary than other languages. We have at least three common pairs of words to describe the coming and going of the light. Dusk and dawn, sunrise and sunset, daybreak and nightfall, not to mention first light and twilight. Can any other language match that?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Why should they want to? Isn't one pair enough?

Dear Dr Wordsmith: And what about "crepuscule"? This is the normal French word for "dusk", as opposed to their word for dawn, "l'aube", and we have crepuscular in English as well. But what is the dawn equivalent in English to "crepuscule"? "At sparrowfart" perhaps?

Dr Wordsmith writes: The tone of this column is degenerating. Could we change the subject, please?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Why should we? "At sparrowfart" is a very good and colourful English expression, and I wish we had more like it. My only fear is that as the sparrow heads towards extinction, the expression will die with it, and we will have to make do with something like "at robinfart". Incidentally, why, if "dawn raid" is a cliché, do we never hear of a "dusk raid"?

Dr Wordsmith writes: If the subject of sunrise and sunset is not changed immediately, I shall terminate this session.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Why is there no word for the rising and setting of the moon? Why no "moonrise" or "moonset"?

Dr Wordsmith writes: That is not what I call a change of topic.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, OK, doc, here's a change of subject. Let's talk about unusual plurals. The other day I was visiting a race circuit, Castle Combe in Wiltshire, and I saw a sign which baffled me at first: "Turn right for the esses". Esses? I thought. What on earth is an esse? There's no such thing! Then it clicked. They meant the plural of "s"! S is a common shape on a race course, and these poor circuit managers had found themselves with the strange job of being the first people who have to work out how to spell the plural of a single letter!

Dr Wordsmith writes: Not quite the first. What about minding your Ps and Qs? I notice that whoever first wrote that down didn't go for "Pees and Queues". Next, please.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I notice that your last correspondent said there was no such word as "esse". Rubbish! It is the second word listed in my edition of 'Roget's Thesaurus'. Let me read it to you... It starts... "Existence, esse, being..."

Dr Wordsmith writes: Thank you. That's quite enough. A reading of Roget's Thesaurus is not what this feature is all about.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, If you think "esses" is a funny plural, how about a notice I saw recently in our local doctors' surgery. It was all about warts and verrucas. But it was actually headed "Warts and Verrucae"! Fancy giving "verruca" its old Latin plural!

Dr Wordsmith writes: Thanks for that. Any other pedants hiding in the undergrowth?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes. The other day my wife said to me, "I see 'Withnail and I' is on TV tonight. I'd like to see it. I've never seen 'Withnail and I'." I said to her that strictly she should use the accusative and say, "I have never seen 'Withnail and Me'." She said she couldn't stand my nit-picking any more and stormed out, and hasn't come back. Which one of us was right?

Dr Wordsmith writes: You were both right. You were right grammatically and she was right to leave you. And I am right to go out to the pub. First one to buy me a pint in The Printer's Widow gets a free consultation. See you there!

Dr Wordsmith will be back again soon. Keep those queries rolling in!

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