“Well-heeled Middle Eastern shoppers increased their spending by half in the UK last month, making them the most important group for retailers from outside the European Union.” So said a business story last Saturday.
This isn’t Latin, you know. In English, an uninflected language, word order is crucial to meaning, and there is a limit to how much you can mess about with the one without scrambling the other. In this case, the reader is left puzzling about retailers from outside the European Union. I can’t think of any way to rescue this sentence. It needs to be split: “Well-heeled Middle Eastern shoppers increased their spending by half in the UK last month. For British retailers they are now the most important group from outside the European Union.”
Who he? This is from a news story last Saturday, on the death of Leo Blair, father of the last prime minister but one: “His father was immensely proud of Mr Blair. When he became Prime Minister in 1997, he wrote to his son to congratulate him.”
Number them from one to five: his; he; he; his; him. Numbers one, two and five refer to Tony Blair; numbers three and four to Leo. It is not difficult to work out what is going on, but why not spare the reader the effort? Just cut down the number of pronouns by writing “Tony” in the number two slot and “Leo” at number three.
Homophone horror: I am grateful to Nigel Halliday for pointing out the following, from a news feature published on Monday: “Both women have taken the rare and courageous step of waving a sex-attack victim’s automatic right to anonymity.” That should be “waiving”.
Turning, as we do on these occasions, to the trusty Shorter Oxford Dictionary, we unearth the arcane fact that “waive” is in origin an Anglo-Norman French legal term (“wayver”), meaning to outlaw or abandon. It is related to “waif”, as in “waifs and strays”, a waif being a piece of abandoned property which, if unclaimed, falls to the lord of the manor. Not many people know that.
And “wave”? Just a Germanic word (Old English “wafian”), meaning, er, “wave”. Sorry. But here’s a thing. Johnson’s dictionary spells both words the same: “wave”. If that was good enough for the father of English lexicography, why have we since burdened ourselves with a troublesome variation in spelling?
Take a chair: Ian Craine writes to draw attention to this, from an article last Saturday about the troubles at the BBC: “He has to run the show without the help of an independent chairman or chairwoman.”
In the past 20 years, even the most diehard conservatives must have got over the shock about “chair”. Mr Craine writes: “This is one instance where we have surely devised an acceptable non-gender-specific term.” I think he is right. He adds, only half joking, that “chairwoman” could be misread as “charwoman”. Right again.