LETTER from THE EDITOR

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The Independent Online
David Davis, the Foreign Office minister who told John Major he was resigning (no he didn't, yes he did, no he didn't ...) is a cheerful soul and the latest victim of what one might call the journalistic Heisenberg Principle.

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle was, in essence, the observation that by observing something, you changed its behaviour. He was talking about the velocity and direction of particles, but it works just as well for ministers. What happens is that a journalist reports that something is going to happen and, by reporting it, embarrasses everyone and ensures that it doesn't happen.

In this case, the story was that Major was threatened with resignation by Davis and bought him off by promising to sack the agriculture minister Douglas Hogg later this summer, giving Davis his job. Let's assume that the story was true (and it came from a highly experienced journalist): now that everyone is expecting it to happen, Major cannot possibly oblige. It was a story that ate itself - which happens all the time.

Your bad English is bad English. My bad English is style, swagger and syntactical chutzpah. That, at any rate, is the instant reaction to the eagle-eyed readers (both of you) who corrected my sentence beginning: "The Daily Mail, followed by the Times, were keen ..." As one put it: " 'Followed by' does not co-ordinate the two nouns; it introduces an adjectival/participal expansion ... so the verb should be singular." There was a little who/ whom difficulty, too.

Now, this mild chastisement is clearly correct and there is no editorial defence, bar a hung head and a moist eye. But it comes at a time when grammar has been much in the news, thanks to a new test for 14-year-olds, and when the campaign for better English, headed by Trevor Macdonald, is catching the public imagination. (The ITN newsreader has been inundated with mail on the subject.)

Grammar is clearly important. But how important? And what, precisely, are the current rules? For instance, I was firmly taught at Dundee High School that every sentence must contain a verb, that no sentence should begin with ''and'' or ''but'', and that infinitives must not be split. In this paragraph, I have broken all these rules. The point of grammar is to ensure clarity of meaning (though elegance is a secondary purpose). Yet has any reader been confused by the previous few sentences?

There are, however, mistakes that drive me mad and mark out a hopeless reactionary. The worst is the rampant spread of the inverted comma, which has become simply an alternative to underlining or italicisation. This spread from fruit and flower stalls to faxes and letters and is now as rampant as bindweed in suburbia. Interestingly, though, its effect can be unintentionally accurate: "fresh" produce; "genuine" watches; "historic" furniture - which, translated into oldspeak, means rot, fakes and tat.

The greatest humiliation of my editorship so far has been the realisation that so many Independent readers are obsessive football fans: the more football in the paper, the bigger the circulation. Why is this a problem? Only because, of all the males in all the bars in all the world, there is no one who is less footballsy than myself. But it is the job of an editor to be interested in everything and I have been trying. I watched all of the Scotland-England game and heard almost all of the Dutch game. I have discovered something. In some ways, association football is quite interesting. I don't know if this insight is helpful to any readers who are wondering what to do this afternoon; but I pass it on for what it's worth.

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