Errors and Omissions: A brilliant performance doesn't always make you a star

Our Letters editor puts this week's mishaps firmly in their place

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This is a point for advanced students, satisfying when you get it right. Here is a quotation from a news report published on Tuesday: “A senior Liberal Democrat source said: ‘We were well-prepared last time but Nick wants us to be even better prepared this time.’” In that sentence, “well prepared” should be two words, with no hyphen.

What we have here is a participle of a verb (prepared) modified by an adverb (well). Should there be a hyphen? There are two criteria to be met.

First, does the adverb end in “-ly”? Most adverbs do – “strongly”, “quickly”, “highly” and a host of others. In that case, no hyphen.

Then, in the case of the few adverbs that do not end in “-ly” – “well”, “ill”, “long” and “little” spring to mind – we have to decide on the role of the participle. If it is attributive there should be a hyphen – “a well-prepared speech” – but if predicative, no hyphen – “the speech was well prepared”.

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So much for industrial-strength grammar; now for some Latin. This is from a news report published on Monday: “The bill was lax in some respects and might not change the status quo all that much.”

“Status quo” is short for “status quo ante bellum”, which means “the situation before the war”. It is an old diplomatic formula, used in peace settlements. It means that the war will end, essentially, in a draw. No one will keep any conquests, and things will return to what they were before.

So the status quo is not the situation now, but the situation at some time in the past. You cannot “change” it, nor maintain it, though you may restore it.

It is a pity to see the term becoming blurred with too much use, like the image and inscription on an old, worn coin.

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Now here is a word that is not just blurred with use, but worn smooth and wafer-thin. A news story published on Thursday referred to “the 28-year-old Somali-American star of Captain Phillips, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at Sunday’s Oscars”.

What with “porn stars” and “reality TV stars”, we have become used to any low-life who gets in front of a camera being a “star” (just as any soldier who doesn’t actually run away is a “hero”), but to describe as a star a person who has been specifically placed in the category of Supporting Actor is such a blatant contradiction that it ought to make people stop and think.

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A couple of homophone horrors turned up on Tuesday’s arts pages, both, oddly enough, concerned with food.

The heroine of a novel tells stories “oozing caramelised sugar, bursting with currents and spice” and the television cook Mary Berry apparently hides cakes “in the draw with my tights”. That should be “currants” and “drawer”.

The spell-checker won’t save you from that sort of thing; you just have to concentrate. Maybe someone was editing those articles just before lunch.

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