I am glad to welcome back, for the first time this year, our peripatetic resident language expert, Dr Wordsmith. Dr Wordsmith has been very quiet since Christmas, perhaps as a reaction to the enormous success of his book on lazy language habits, These Sort of Things. But he is back as if nothing had happened, carrying his monogrammed hip flask and his patented portable ice-cube holder and ready for all the inquiries you can throw at him. Take it away, doc!
Dear Dr Wordsmith: I couldn't help noticing in the introduction above that you were described as "our peripatetic resident language expert". Correct me if I'm wrong, but "peripatetic" means "on the move" and "resident" means "stationary". Can you be both?
Dr Wordsmith writes: In the same way that Mr Blair is our peripatetic resident Prime Minister – here, there and nowhere. By the way, it is bad form to start any sentence "correct me if I'm wrong", as it suggests that you know you are right. You are not. You are wrong.
Dear Dr Wordsmith: Is there a formula, then, for starting a sentence that suggests the speaker knows he is wrong?
Dr Wordsmith writes: No. All mankind always assumes when he or she opens his or her mouth that he or she is right. All opening formulas of all possible sentences suggest this. Let me simply cite such phrases as "To be quite honest", "In point of fact", "There are no two ways about it" and so on. No one ever starts a sentence by saying "I think, though probably erroneously..." or "I am sure I will stand corrected if I say that...". There is a good moment in JM Barrie's play The Admirable Crichton when a character says something like: "Never say 'the fact of the matter is'. When someone says 'The fact of the matter is', you can be pretty sure that what follows will be a lie." Another character comes in and says, "The fact of the matter is..." and can't understand why all present shrink from him.
Dear Dr Wordsmith: I notice in your last answer that you use the word "formulas". On previous occasions you have used the rather more correct plural "formulae". What should we poor mortals do when forming plurals? Just stick "s" on the end? Or stick to the genuine plural?
Dr Wordsmith writes: Ah, but what is correct? If the plural of "medium" is "media" and the plural of "stadium" is "stadia", why isn't the plural of museum "musea" or "museoi", or whatever it was in Greek? The fact of the matter is that we have got our knickers in a twist over plurals. The singular of "knickers" is, of course, "knickers". There is no such word as "knicker". That proves how crazy the whole business is. The other day I saw a sign up in my doctor's surgery warning against having untreated verrucas. Except they didn't call them "verrucas". They called them "verrucae". My case rests.
Dear Dr Wordsmith: The other day I was watching the programme called 'The Weakest Link', and I will swear that Anne Robinson got two answers wrong. She said that the Latin for a great year was "Annus Miribilis" whereas it is really "Annus Mirabilis", and she said that the Spanish word for a follower was "afixionado" whereas of course it is "aficionado", pronounced "afithionado". Is she stupid or what?
Dr Wordsmith writes: Anne Robinson was chosen for her powers of invective, not her intelligence. On either count it was a strange choice.
Dear Dr Wordsmith: The other day I bought a two-way adaptor plug, one of those plastic gadgets you plug into your BT socket to allow you to put two phones into it. If that is what it had said on the packet, I wouldn't have raised an eyebrow. But what it said was: "The two-way adaptor gives you greater freedom to use more than one piece of telephone equipment with your wall outlet." But it doesn't let you (give you greater freedom, my aunt Fanny!) use more than one! It only lets you use two! Don't you agree that more than one is different from just two?
Dr Wordsmith writes: Are you finished?
Dear Dr Wordsmith: Yes.
Dr Wordsmith writes: Then please take your pedantry elsewhere, you mouth-watering moron.
Dr Wordsmith will be back soon. Keep those queries rolling in!Reuse content