Errors & Omissions: An unintentional detour into the land of Camelot


Guy Keleny
Friday 24 August 2012 19:59

Reverse order: A news story published on Monday began thus: "The public's lingering appetite for all things Olympic…" Where does this tiresome tic come from? I can only guess that perhaps it refers to the old hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful".

And what effect is it meant to achieve? What is supposed to happen in the reader's mind at sight of "all things x"? I have no idea. The actual effect is either nothing – the cliché is so well worn that it often passes unnoticed – or a mild, fleeting irritation.

The usual position of an adjective in English is in front of the noun it qualifies – "Olympic things". The reversal of the order carries a suggestion of misty medieval grandeur – knight errant, Siege Perilous, Lords Appellant. But the writer who burbles on about "things Olympic" obviously has no intention of stirring echoes of Camelot. So when he does so unintentionally, the reader experiences a sensation akin to being randomly poked with a stick.

Number crunching (1): It's getting worse. A picture caption published yesterday said: "The dire state of Britain's roads have led to 54,000 compensation claims since 2010."

More and more writers, by no means only in this newspaper, behave as if they didn't know the difference between one thing and more than one. It is difficult not to lay the blame on the decay of grammar in schools. If you have been taught that a verb must agree in number with its subject then you will notice that the subject is "state", which requires the singular verb "has". Without such simple knowledge, you risk falling back on mere proximity – "roads have". Wrong.

Number crunching (2): Here is an oddity, from a news story about the US presidential election, published on Wednesday: "Accurately assessing the cash battle is difficult, however, because it is not just the finances of the campaigns that have to be considered but also the towering sums being spent by outside organisations on their behalves." "Behalves" looks weird. So what is the plural of "behalf"? Is it "behalves" or "behalfs"? Neither. I don't think "behalf" has a plural, and I suggest that multiple people can share a single behalf.

Weather or not: "Although today will be cooler and fresher than the weekend the weather will still be good," opined a news report, published on Monday. Why "although"?

It is, I hope, axiomatic that news reports should state facts impartially, leaving the opinions up to the reader. Whence then comes this universal bias – found even in television forecasts presented by professional meteorologists – that says hot, sunny weather is "good", and a bit of rain is cause for commiseration? Maybe most people feel like that, but we of the minority do exist, sweating in the heat, dazzled by the sunshine, and greeting "bad" weather – cloudy and cool – as a deliverance. Why should we have to put up with this media bigotry?

No difference: "A largely wordless meditation on memory and guilt, it could hardly be more different than the films for which he later became famous," said our obituary of Tony Scott, published on Tuesday. I come from London, and at home we always said "different from". Letters I received after last discussing this question suggest that "different to" may be the norm in some parts of the country. "Different than" has, to me, an American flavour, but there's nothing wrong with that. Does it matter?

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