Horrible linguistic solecisms department, Part 4.

A properly fastidious friend of half a century’s standing, Robin Fairlie, wrote to me the other day:  
"Years ago I wrote in protest to the historian author of a historical production called “The Norman Achievement”. You will appreciate that since Normandy is a peninsula; and so is southern Italy where William the Conqueror’s friends landed up, the word peninsula turns up quite a lot in this book. Spelt invariably as “peninsular”. I did eventually get an authorial response, regretting the occurrence of this “typo” – which has since become near-standard practice in our media. Which reminds me of the even more common habit in my business environment of using “media” as a singular."  
To which I replied: 
"As to ‘media’ treated as singular, the admirable Bob Burchfield in his third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage writes: "…media is properly construed with a plural verb or pronoun.  But it has swiftly followed agenda and data, and, like them, is often treated as a mass noun with a singular verb or pronoun.  We are still at the debating table, however, on the question of the media are/is having a field day in their/its reporting of the scandal.  When in doubt use the plural.  Above all, never write a media or the medias."  (Not sure that I see anything to debate about that, myself, but I bow as always to Dr B.)"  Sadly, Robert Burchfield is currently (14 May) ill in hospital in Oxford.  All those who value the language and its most genial though rigorous defender will wish him well.

Extracts from a recent Guardian editorial:  
"…it should be recognised that the differences in language, religion and culture means  that patrolling the streets of Belfast and those of Basra are  hardly comparable…"   "The events of the last two weeks … means the government will have to think…” [my emphasis].  This must surely set some kind of record, especially in a newspaper which once prided itself on its elegant use of English.  (I hope, though, that I haven’t given the impression of having my knife into the Guardian, easily my all-time favourite paper in spite of everything.  What else would an ageing man with a beard and sandals read?)

Defunct clichés to avoid:  ‘have one’s knife into someone’.  Apologies.

A recent letter in the Guardian (there I go again) referred to King Canute — which the writer spelled ‘Cnut‘, thereby giving an awesome impression of scholarship — as ‘delusional‘, clearly under the common delusion that Canute, or Cnut, thought he could make the tide recede by ordering it to do so, when in fact he gave his order to the sea in order to demonstrate to his fawning courtiers that they were wrong to think or call him omnipotent.  Others persist in saying that someone who has blundered in a way that damages him has "shot himself in the foot", an image from the first World War where soldiers deliberately shot themselves in the foot to avoid being sent to the trenches.  But trying to correct these tiresome misconceptions is like — well, it’s like trying to turn back the tide, I suppose.

1 Response

  1. Roy says:

    Surely there is nothing objectionable about the Guardian’s “patrolling the streets of Belfast and those of Basra are hardly comparable”. Clearly we have an example of ellipsis here, the second ‘patrolling’ having been omitted. It remains understood, however, and the grammar of the sentence assumes its presence. There is, of course, nothing ungrammatical about: “Patrolling the streets of Belfast and patrolling those of Basra are hardly comparable.”

    Also, although, like you, I am aware of foot-shooting as a self-inflicted wound during WWI (and possibly earlier) I am not at all sure that this is the origin of the metaphorical expression. Semantic considerations would suggest that it is much more likely to refer to a genuine accident of the sort that might result when hastily drawing one’s pistol from the holster.

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