Our unseated language expert rights wrongs

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The Independent Online

It has been a little while since we threw this column open to our language expert, Dr Wordsmith, to answer your queries about language, so I am glad to welcome him back after the Christmas period looking as fresh as a daisy, and if you have seen any daisies growing recently, you will know that by that I mean he looks muddy, bedraggled and in need of some sunshine.

Still, if we waited for the good Doctor to look his best, we would be here for ever, so take it away, Doc!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, May I hazard a guess as to why you have been crushed by the Christmas period? I would guess that you were chagrined by the success of Lynne Truss's book on punctuation, Eats Shoots and Leaves, and are consumed by jealousy. Why, oh why, you are thinking to yourself, did I not think of the idea?

Dr Wordsmith writes: There is something in what you say. Of course, I myself am no stranger to bestsellerdom. My little volume of modern usage called These Sort of Things was not unsuccessful last year. Yet it would be foolish to deny that I am even now on the look-out for an idea for a best-seller at Christmas 2004. Now, can we change the subject please?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I was amused the other day to hear Mariella Frostrup on Radio 4's Open Book talking about John le Carré.

Dr Wordsmith writes: I don't see what is so funny about that. There was a period over Christmas when everyone was talking about John le Carré. You couldn't switch on the radio without bumping into someone discussing his new novel.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Hold on, I haven't finished yet. The thing is that she referred to him as - and this is the exact wording - as "... the unseated supremo of the spy novel ...". Hello, I thought, I wonder who John le Carré has been unseated by? But when she went on to talk about him being still the tops, I realised that when she said "unseated", she really meant something like "undisputed" or "unchallenged". In other words, the exact opposite. What do you think?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Yes, I think you are right. "Unseated" can only mean "toppled" or "displaced". It's also one of those odd words which seem to have no opposite. We never heard about anyone being the "seated" champion. It's a bit like the word "vested". We hear all the time about "vested interests", but is there such a thing as an "unvested interest"? If there is, I have never heard of it. Nor have I ever heard the word "vested" be used except as an adjective for "interests".

Dear Dr Wordsmith, How about: "He took off all his clothes except his underwear, and stood there, panted and vested"?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Thank you, clever clogs. Next question!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Mariella Frostrup is not the only famous thinking head who is capable of making mistakes. I was reading something by Melvyn Bragg the other day and was amazed to find no less than two grammatical mistakes in it.

Dr Wordsmith writes: In fairness to Lord "Roots of English" Bragg, I would think it would be hard to write a novel without the occasional grammatical error.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Ah, but it wasn't a novel - it was a short intro to some collected pieces by Wilfred De'Ath! He wrote as follows of Mr De'Ath: "He has, probably had the most curious life of anyone of my Oxford generation."

Dr Wordsmith writes: I think you have missed out a comma after "probably".

Dear Dr Wordsmith, No! Not me! It was Melvyn Bragg who missed it out! And again he says: "The odd thing is that neither seem to touch him very much". That should be "Neither seems to touch him very much", should it not?

Dr Wordsmith writes: It certainly is very odd that a man like Bragg, who attaches his name to authoritative radio programmes about the English language, should commit such basic howlers. Grammatically, it is the equivalent of Mr Kilroy-Silk being rude about the Arabs. I fear, alas, that Bragg will not be fired and replaced by my good self, as would happen in a just world. Next!

More from Dr Wordsmith tomorrow!