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.


  1. Most annoying? 'is comprised of'- aaaargh.

  2. This won't be useful to you, but ever after my tutor at Gothenburg university pointed out that most people use (the Swedish for) 'without a doubt' and 'without hesitation' almost always consistently the opposite way round; it's something I notice everywhere. And I want to scream.

    Most recently it was in the crime novel written by two of the country's 'proper' authors. If neither they nor their editors have a clue, then the general public can't be expected to.

    I also hate the 'my husband and I' mistake. I was taught that you work it out by removing 'husband' from the sentence and then you see if you want 'I' or 'me'.

  3. I've just read an otherwise well-written book that kept using "like" instead of "as if". I'm not sure if this is acceptable now or not, but it really jarred with me every time I read it!

    Also I often see "breath" instead of "breathe" and "affect" muddled up with "effect".

    And one I'm still not that sure of myself... "practise" / "practice"?

    But I think it's OK for books written in the first person to have grammatical errors if the narrator is uneducated, because this adds character - provided readers know the difference!

  4. I recently have seen elusive and illusive confused, although I have to admit that I had to look up the difference to make sure I knew what I was doing. :)


  5. I agree about "is comprised of" - aaargh indeed! The Bookwitch is right about subtracting the husband - in grammatical terms only - and I'm sure about the Swedish mistake too.

    Like and as if are almost a lost cause though I never use like as a conjunction myself.

    And as someone mentioned over on Facebook fewer and less are also not just misused but poor old fewer is going thway of whom,

    Katherine I'm going to give you a useful piece of advice (see what I did there?). It's always "c" in the noun and "s" in the verb, as in "advise."

    I agree about first person narrative.

  6. Yes, Margo, you're right. That's another common one though I've seen the confusion more often between "elusive" and "allusive."

  7. Blogger just ate my comment. I'll try again: I hate hearing 'more importantly' for 'more important': and in speech it's "a hotel" (aspirated 'h') or "an 'otel" (non aspirated h), not 'an hotel' with the 'h' pronounced. You wouldn't say 'an hospital' would you? Yet even newsreaders do it!

  8. You mentioned the one that bugs me the most - the "between you and I." When I first heard it, I thought, oh, well, someone mixed up the rules. But it's all over the place now! It's like all those years of teachers pounding into people's heads "you and I, not you and me" scares people so much that everyone applies it to every situation, not remembering the subject/object rule! Over-correctness - I feel like correcting people, but I just bite my lip.

  9. Compliment and complement.

  10. Loose for lose - "I loose my way all the time". Arrgh.

    Note that in American English, most of the s/c words just use c for both (I need to practice my guitar-playing more).

  11. We were sat there. We were stood there.

  12. Oh yes, Brian, I do agree! Though I've been told it's northern dialect.

  13. Ah yes, Mary, that's what I always thought... until my editor changed practised (used as a verb) into "practiced"... I just thought maybe it was a more modern way of doing things, since language is constantly evolving? My dictionary does list "practice" as an alternative verb spelling.

  14. Your editor, if English, was wrong! I have often had editors "correcting" my grammar into errors!

  15. Sat and stood! I had a long argument with daughter about it, and was told it's the past tense, so it's right. If the teachers say so, what can you do?

  16. Bookwitch - I'm afraid I say 'your teacher is wrong'. This may be awful, but I am not beyond saying: 'she has a tolerable degree in English and PGCE certificate; she is good at teaching. I have a PhD in English from Cambridge and am a professional writer. I taught people like her and corrected the English of such people. It didn't always stick.' I wouldn't say it to the teacher, but I'll say it to my daughters when they claim the teacher must be right.

    Oh - 'off of the table'