Errors and Omissions: A common confusion that fools the English in spades

Our Letters editor casts his eye over this week's Independent coverage

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A couple of people have written in to point out this, from a TV preview published last Saturday: “I know the palate is supposed to be subdued, but past episodes were so dark on my television screen that I could hardly make out what was going on.”

That should be “palette”. It is a common confusion, and it arises because the English pronunciations of two unrelated words have converged.

A palette is the wooden tablet on which an artist lays out colours, and hence the range of colours used. The word is a diminutive of the French pale, meaning the blade of an oar. That is derived in turn from the Latin pala meaning spade.

The palate is the structure in your head that separates the mouth from the nasal cavities. The word is direct from Latin – palatum means the same thing.

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In the face of a strong challenge from politics, the language of finance and economics remains our finest source of mad metaphors. Hamish McRae wrote on Wednesday: “The very rich also tend to keep their funds offshore, with Switzerland remaining the largest single location.” Only in the crazy world of money is landlocked Switzerland “offshore”.

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 “The showpiece sculpture sits on the façade of The Beaumont Hotel, which is due to open in London’s Mayfair later this year,” averred a news story on Wednesday. There are three things to note here.

First, how did the Beaumont Hotel become The Beaumont Hotel? The capital T on “The”, once found only in the titles of some periodicals and literary works – The Lady, The Mayor of Casterbridge – has in recent years undergone a dreadful devaluation. The group who, when they existed, were the Beatles have become The Beatles; the Dog and Duck has become The Dog and Duck. Why? How long before we see The High Street, The World Cup and The European Union?

Second, “London’s Mayfair”. This construction is pure, 24-carat journalese. Nowhere is it found outside the news media; not in academic papers, literary novels or political speeches. Neither at classy dinner parties nor in the public bar of the dear old Dog and Duck will you hear anyone remark that they live in London’s Cricklewood or are going away for a weekend to Spain’s Barcelona.

And finally, “later” is redundant. The hotel can hardly be going to open earlier this year.

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It is easy to trip up on the tenses that English builds with auxiliary verbs. An article on Wednesday told how T S Eliot and Groucho Marx admired each other’s work, but failed to get on when they finally met. (Astonishing, but true, apparently.)

“Eliot wanted to hear what it was like to make those movies, but Groucho… preferred to quote to Eliot the vast chunks of The Waste Land that he’d memorised. Eliot couldn’t be less interested in hearing his own poetry spouted back at him.”

Since the whole passage is describing the past, that should be “couldn’t have been less interested”.

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