Mea Culpa: That fine mess we’ve gotten into, again

Questions of style and usage in this week’s Independent

John Rentoul@JohnRentoul
Friday 26 April 2019 17:10
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Had Cristiano Ronaldo’s opponents really gotten too big for their boots?
Had Cristiano Ronaldo’s opponents really gotten too big for their boots?

We reported the findings of a survey of teachers that found many of them paid for classroom essentials out of their own money, and wrote that one said “they had gotten themselves into debt because of these purchases”.

I have written about “gotten” before (a few times). I like it. It is a good English word that died out over here after we exported it to America – except in the fossilised form, “ill-gotten gains”. It featured in my “Top 10 Americanisms that were originally English”, along with fall, trash and faucet.

But some readers find it distracting. Alan Gwyer, who has read The Independent since it was founded in 1986, thought it out of place in a British news report. As long as a significant number of our readers think like that, we should use it with care.

We used it in a sports report too: “Juventus began with all of the force of a team desperate to crush an opponent who had gotten a little bit too big for their boots.” I thought that was fine, though, because it was part of a metaphorical phrase common in American film and TV.

They alone: Some readers also have their doubts about the use of “they” as a singular pronoun in that same sentence – we referred to the teacher who had gotten into debt as “they”. In this case I think the irritation of some readers is outweighed by the usefulness of a gender-neutral pronoun where we don’t want to identify the sex of the person, or where we want to avoid the clumsy “he or she”.

And to those who think this is a newfangled thing, it is worth pointing out Jane Austen used “they” and “their” in the singular.

“Nobody could command attention when they spoke,” says the narrator in Mansfield Park. And: “Poor Julia, the only one out of the nine not tolerably satisfied with their lot…”

Toxic pedantry: In a “World news in brief” item on Saturday, we said: “Liberia is home to poisonous snakes – and officials are taking no chances.” Terence Carr wrote to ask: “Is it being pedantic to say that snakes are venomous not poisonous, apart from two species that are actually poisonous if eaten?” To which the answer is, yes it is, and, much as I approve of pedantry, I don’t think there is any danger of ambiguity here.

Wanton disregard: The difference between flaunt and flout has caught us out before and will no doubt do so again. This week we had a sub-headline on the story in the Daily Edition about Diane Abbott drinking a tinned mojito on a train: “Shadow minister ‘sincerely sorry’ for flaunting alcohol ban.” Thanks to Linda Calvey for pointing this out.

Normally, when two similar sounding words are often confused I would suggest avoiding one of them altogether, but both of these are good words with distinct, if overlapping, meanings.

Flaunt means show off, “especially in order to provoke envy or admiration or to show defiance” (Oxford dictionary), whereas flout means openly defy or disregard a rule. Flout may come from the Dutch fluiten, meaning to whistle or play the flute in derision, so there is an element of thumbing one’s nose at authority in both, but flaunting was definitely the wrong word for the shadow home secretary.

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