Errors and Omissions: You may argue we need more P G Wodehouse, but you can't say it's a fact

Our peerless pedant surveys this week's paper for linguistic failings and foibles

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The Independent Online

Slippery things, facts. We have remarked before on “the fact that”. When you see that phrase, you know that the sentence needs recasting. Equally, when a politician says, “The fact of the matter is …”, you can be sure that what follows is an unproven assertion.

And what about this? A leading article on Monday, hailing the BBC’s new television version of Blandings, opined: “The fact remains, however, that there can never be too much Wodehouse in our lives.”

No, a fact is something that exists or has happened; a hard chunk of reality that can be demonstrated by evidence or experience. That there can never be too much Wodehouse in the world is an opinion; you may claim that it is a truth, but it is not a fact.

Rising damp: Phil Wood writes in from Westhoughton, Greater Manchester, to comment on this, from a business analysis piece published last Saturday: “At the heart of the fund is a simple approach – invest up to 80 per cent in equities and the remainder in bonds and cash. The latter component has the effect of dampening the volatility of the fund.”

Mr Wood says that “dampen” should be “damp”. He argues that “dampen” means to make moist, and if what you mean is to reduce movement or oscillation, then the right verb is “damp”. I think most people would agree with that, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say “dampen” is absolutely wrong. The Oxford English Dictionary does recognise “dampen” as a synonym for “damp” in various senses including that of to depress or discourage. “Damp” is a word with a strange and convoluted history. It has the same origin as the German Dampf, meaning “steam”. It surfaces in English in 1480, and signifies variously a noxious vapour found in coal mines (as in “firedamp”), moisture or wetness (the usual modern meaning) and a state of stupor or depression. It is presumably the last sense that leads on to the idea of “damping” noise or vibration.

Hang it all: It is a long time since we have come across such a humdinger of a hanging participle as this. It comes from Monday’s news story about the marking of the London Underground’s 150th anniversary with a steam run along the Circle Line: “Passing through 13 stations with good old fashioned chug-chugs and toot-toots, plenty of tourists on the platforms were left bemused as they were dowsed in smoke.”

So the tourists on the platforms were passing through the stations? Er, no.

It would have been very easy to fix. Just start with “As the train passed through …” and carry on as before.

Chocks away! “British war planes fly to Mali”, exulted a headline on Monday’s front page. You could almost hear the “Dam Busters March” in the background. But is an unarmed C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft really a “war plane”? Yes, in Headlineland it jolly well is, when the RAF is not actually deploying any real combat aircraft.