Errors and Omissions: As new constructions usurp older ones, we should try to remain calm

Our Letters editor takes the sharpest eyes on Fleet Street to this week's Independent

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A little while back, I noticed a billboard advertising an insurance company or something of the sort. It informed the public that the company was the “most awarded” in its field, meaning that it had received the most awards. Now comes this, from a news story published on Wednesday: “A long-running campaign by a minister to get an official awarded for his work implementing a government policy was repeatedly thwarted by senior officials in his department.”

There is no denying that this looks odd. Until very recently, the object of the verb “award” was the thing awarded, not the person who received it. The gong would be awarded to the civil servant. The civil servant would be honoured, not awarded. But let’s take a deep breath and remember that there are precedents for transitive verbs shifting from one object to another.

Once, a usurper usurped only the throne; now the rightful monarch who falls victim to a usurpation may be said to have been usurped. Long before that, “execute” underwent a similar shift; the execution of a death warrant – that is to say carrying out of it – became also the execution of the condemned person. The Oxford English Dictionary dates that innovation to 1483.

So although the idea of “awarding” a civil servant strikes the ear strangely, I don’t think there is any occasion for a fit of the vapours.

Triumph of the will? But here is a battle that does need to be fought. It is possible that we are losing the past tense forms of modal verbs – a development that would diminish the expressiveness of the language.

This column has frequently remarked upon the decay of “might” and its replacement by “may”. But what about this, from a news story published on Thursday? “A shortage of guns in circulation has triggered a price spike in the underworld firearms market, according to detectives. A study for the Home Office in 2006 found that around £1,000 will buy a new semi-automatic handgun with ammunition.”

We are speaking here about the past, so “will” should be “would”. Perhaps “will” here is no more than a singular error, but I fear it could be a straw in the wind.

Sorry: A news story last Saturday told of the disgraced designer John Galliano returning to the fashion industry: “Galliano’s return was welcomed by many – now that he has done his period of penury.” I think the writer probably meant “penance”, not “penury”.

They both begin with “pen”, they both mean an unpleasant ordeal and they have both been in English since the Middle Ages, but this is an example of convergence, or even coincidence. They come from different Latin roots and they mean different things. “Penury” means extreme poverty. “Penance” is, in Christian tradition, a sacrament whereby a penitent receives remission of sin – more generally, submission to a penalty as an expression of repentance. That is what John Galliano has undergone.

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