Errors & Omissions: Another distinctively British usage gets lost on its way across the Atlantic

By Guy Keleny
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:45

This column does not go on about "Americanisms". Terms such as "loft apartment" do not drive us to paroxysms of nationalistic bigotry.

But one recent American import does seem to be making the language less expressive. This example is from a science article published on Monday: "Rather than meeting up and talking about what we want to post online, we just add to what someone – maybe on the other side of the world – already wrote."

No, I'm not talking about "meeting up". The anti-Americanism police go nuts about that one, but it seems there is a real difference between meeting, which one might do by chance in the street, and meeting up, which is done by arrangement. My problem is with "what someone already wrote". Any time up to about 10 years ago any British writer would have said "add to what someone has already written".

Under the influence of American usage, the present perfect form of the verb ("has written") is losing ground to the past simple ("wrote"). In British English, the past simple merely signifies an action in the past, whereas the present perfect describes a state of affairs in the present brought about by an action in the past – we now are in a world where somebody "has written". American English, with only the past simple to call on, fails to mark that distinction.

If our verbs lose the present perfect tense, then our language has become less rich.

Off target: On Thursday we reported on Vladimir Putin's latest he-man stunt. Russia's Prime Minister had been out at sea in a boat shooting at whales with crossbow bolts designed to collect skin samples. The report, from an agency, ended thus: "Asked why he got involved, he added: 'Because I like it. I love the nature.'"

"The nature"? It looks at first as if Putin is speaking in broken English. But a more likely explanation is that he was speaking Russian and his remarks were translated into English by a Russian. The Russian language has no definite article, and anybody translating from Russian into English has to insert "the" at the right places. A Russian is liable to put it in occasionally in the wrong place as well.

The maritime marksman was actually saying, "I love nature." A pity that nobody knocked out that intrusive "the". Shooting at whales with a crossbow is daft enough, without seeming to utter gibberish as well.

Who he? Pronoun soup again on Wednesday. Christina Patterson commented on a row between Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne: "But he did, according to one source, tell the Chancellor that he was 'not prepared to tolerate' the 'appalling' way he treated his department, and that he should 'show more respect'. His staff, he said, 'did not deserve to be treated in such an arrogant way'."

The words "he" and "his" appear seven times. The first, second, fourth, sixth and seventh times, they mean Mr Duncan Smith; the third and fifth times, they mean Mr Osborne. More than once, the reader pauses to work out who "he" is.

Congested: "The 10-day traffic jam driving China mad," said a headline on Wednesday. The first paragraph of the story informed the reader: "For five days, thousands of motorists have been stuck in the world's worst traffic jam that stretches for 60 miles, and even worse, the 10-day queue is expected to remain backed up until at least the end of the month."

What can this mean? "For five days, thousands of motorists have been stuck ..." suggests that this event has been going on for five days. How then can it be a "10-day queue"? The writer may perhaps be struggling to say that the jam has been there for 10 days and it has taken individual drivers as long as five days to pass through it.

Cliché of the week: Our report on Thursday of the death of the intelligence officer Gareth Williams included this sentence: "Yesterday the 30-year-old's work ... led to speculation that he had been brutally murdered because of his job." As opposed to being gently murdered?

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