Errors & Omissions: How to use adverbs without inadvertently messing up

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The Independent Online
On Tuesday's health page, Elizabeth Meakins told of a patient who was released from habitual anxiety by news of the Asian tsunami. "The tables were unexpectedly turned, and rather than being the one who helped, the tsunami tragedy seemed to have inadvertently helped her."

"Inadvertently" means "without paying attention to what you are doing", which implies consciousness, on the part of the actor - in this case the tsunami. The writer has (inadvertently) painted a picture of the tsunami rubbing its hands and exclaiming: "Right - now to flatten Sumatra. Oh rats! I seem to have cheered up this wretched woman in London."

What is meant here is not "inadvertently" but "surprisingly" or "incidentally". Actually you don't need either. Nor do you need "unexpectedly". The phrase "the tables were turned" introduces the idea of a surprise. Cut the adverbs. We also need to sort out the hanging participle "being", which has attached itself to the tsunami, when the person being is the patient.

Lay this to rest: The great Bob Dylan controversy rumbles on. Now S Madden has written from Cambridgeshire to say that I misquoted Dylan. He wrote not "lay upon my big brass bed" but "lay across...". The inexorable Madden points out that "Lay, lady, lay" rhymes with "Stay, lady, stay". All this is true, and the misquotation is shameful. But I stand by my point, which was that those of us who are not beat poets should respect the difference between "lay" and "lie", or we will impoverish our language.

A single quotation does not make a principle of best usage. In The Tempest, Shakespeare wrote, "Of his bones are coral made", but no one would seek to defend "coral are made".

On a more cordial note, John Barker writes from Bournemouth to say that, anyway, we should not blame or credit Dylan for "lay across my big brass bed", because Big Joe Turner used almost the same words in the blues song "Cherry Red", recorded in 1939 with Pete Johnson. I am not sure whether that mitigates or aggravates my offence.

You don't say! A feature in last Saturday's Magazine was billed on the front of the newspaper as "Shepperton Babylon - revealed: Britain's secret screen scandals". A scandal is something shameful that has become publicly known. A piece of information may be either a secret or a scandal, but not both.

Eye of the beholder: The paternal pride of my colleague Robert Hanks was outraged by one of the captions to Tuesday's double-page spread of 10 film actresses. Kate Bosworth, we said, "suffers from heterochromia iridium". Hanks objects to the word "suffers", and he has a point. After all, it only means having one blue and one brown eye. A fellow "sufferer" is Hanks's own daughter, and he reports that when people notice her undistressing condition they remark upon her "extraordinary beauty".

The extraordinary beauty of these Hollywood belles seems to have flustered whoever wrote the captions. One says Cate Blanchett "drooped regally on horseback through a seemingly endless succession of forests in the Lord of the Rings trilogy". No, that was Liv Tyler. Another describes Ziyi Zhang as the "most popular Chinese export since opium". China is not noted for exporting opium. The Opium Wars were about the importation of opium into China.

Semi-feminist: Thursday's headline "Mother and two firefighters killed in tower block blaze" betrays a half-successful attempt to follow an agenda that has been around for 30 years. Firemen have become firefighters. Tick that box. But "mother"? Was she perhaps the mother of the firefighters? No, it's just the old habit of defining a woman by her family status. If the victim had been a man, would we have written "Father and two firefighters"?

Homophone horror: Those who wrote and edited this passage, from yesterday's report of the death of the comic Malcolm Hardee, seem to have taken a little nap. "He founded the Tunnel Club in 1984. Its audience rivals the Glasgow Empire ... for hostility. But it failed to phase Hardee ... He once invited a student review from Cambridge University to appear, drafting in his comedian friends to heckle." "Phase" should be "faze", and "review" should be "revue".

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