Sunday, 3 October 2010

How are the might-y fallen?

There was a news story this week that the Leeds Building Society is employing a retired teacher to give their graduate staff remedial grammar lessons. Meanwhile Emma Thompson berated some schoolgirls for the over-use of "like" and "innit" saying it made them sound stupid.

I thought I'd save any other institutions from spending money by starting an occasional series of posts about some of the regular blunders found in newspapers and heard on the radio.

I'm currently reading a book published by a small academic press in which the author uses "infers" when she means "implies." Having those two words which mean something different is one of the many strengths and richnesses of English.

I'm implying that such distinctions are worth making and retaining - you might infer, correctly, that I'm a stickler, or pedant if you prefer. Of course language use changes over time: "whom" is rapidly becoming a fossil and most people don't use "nice" to mean "precise" though that meaning is retained in " a nice distinction."

I'm all in favour of nice distinctions. I think they're nice. 

Here's another: to "flaunt" means to show off, to display; to "flout" means to disregard or disobey something. And yet you see the one used instead of the other every day. A senior figure in the library service in the London borough I used to live in used to say "mitigate against" confusing "militate" (contend)  and "mitigate" (soften, make less harsh).

But one of the most annoying common usages (to me) is the global replacement of "might" by "may." Recently, I heard and read everywhere "Raoul Moat warned police that he may hurt his ex-girlfriend."

Well, his words might have been "I may hurt her" but when it's reported speech the "may" changes to "might." Except that these days it doesn't! (And yes, I do know that what happened to Moat and his victims is more important than the grammar used when telling us about it).

Steven Berkoff in the Guardian a week or so ago wrote about the relations "between my father and I" and even the last Prime Minister said in a speech "my mother brought my brother and I up" to do something or other. I don't remember what; I was probably screaming at the radio too loudly to hear.

So, these are a few examples in the fields of meaning and grammar, semantics and syntax. What the ones that really annoy you? Give examples in the comments.