More howlers for Christmas

'Tis the season to be illiterate, apparently, as well as jolly.  The following assaults on our language are nearly all taken from the letters page of a single issue of the Guardian.  I refrain from naming their authors, since the editing of letters to the Guardian is famously done with a meat cleaver, so the letter writers could well be blameless:

*  The most important defence for workers in the garment industry are independent and democratic trade unions.

*  If these standards had been in place in southern Italy, these workers may have been spared the conditions they were forced to endure.

*  While the EU quite rightly wants to place itself at the forefront of efforts to promote decent standards of work globally, but first we must guarantee that worker's rights are upheld within the EU .

* True, but the shortfall made up by the hard-working families is miniscule when compared to the deficit incurred by the unwillingness of others to cough up the taxes they should pay…

*  While not wishing to question the law, nor to support creationism, a consequence of the second law is that the randomness of the universe is increasing…

And a different kind of clunker from the news pages of the same issue:

*  Ben Dunne, one of the Irish businessmen criticised for making secretive payments to Mr Haughey, hit back…

Here's a (presumably unintentionally) revealing slip of the pen from a Sunday Times article about a footballer called Wayne Rooney and his 'girlfriend':

*  I had eight sessions with him of three hours each at his Cheshire home, while working on his autobiography… 

And a tailpiece from the Scotland Yard Crime Prevention Team Christmas email message:

*  Theft from bags/handbags etc is a problem in shopping centres and bar’s/café’s at this time of year.

Could be a problem in the greengrocer's, too, I imagine.

Brian

3 Responses

  1. Peter Harvey says:

    *  The most important defence for workers in the garment industry are independent and democratic trade unions.

    Not acceptable in English, but Spanish does work this way. Such a sentence in Spanish would have a plural verb, and as the two items connected by a copular verb are equal in English(in theory, as in ‘It is I’) it is in fact difficult to adduce a logical justification for why it should be so. But languages don’t work by logic.

    * True, but the shortfall made up by the hard-working families is miniscule when compared to the deficit incurred by the unwillingness of others to cough up the taxes they should pay…

    Well, miniscule has more Google hits than minuscule, (1.18m to 1.08m) and is accepted by MSWord’s spell-checker. Etymologically it is wrong – but so are a lot of things. The problem is that English pronunciation doesn’t give the vowel clearly and it is associated with mini in meaning very small, the original technical meaning  of lower case being almost unknown in English-speaking countries. There is an interesting piece on http://www.barnsdle.demon.co.uk/spell/mini.html.

    *  While not wishing to question the law, nor to support creationism, a consequence of the second law is that the randomness of the universe is increasing…

    A veritable feast. You are, I imagine,  after the unattached participle, but I would also criticise the nor for being a double negative. I know that this is a minority point of view but it is the way that I see it. Also, randomness is surely absolute. The size of a random set of data can increase but surely not the degree of randomness of that set.

    *  Theft from bags/handbags etc is a problem in shopping centres and bar’s/café’s at this time of year.

    I would like to see a full stop in etc. but it’s not something to insist on.

    Brian writes:  I foresaw an interesting discussion of miniscule, but (as mentioned in my post), Burchfield says it's an error and that's good enough for me, especially when, as you say, it's etymologically wrong, and misspellings that obscure a word's origins and undertones ought, in my view, to be avoided.  I agree with you about the absolute character of randomness, and see what you mean about the nor although it doesn't bother me.  The hanging participle is, as you guessed, what riled me most.    

  2. Tim weakley says:

    Surely randomness is not as absolute a concept as, say, uniqueness (where something can be almost unique, meaning there is only one other known example, but not somewhat unique).  You can take a pack of cards perfectly sorted by suit and face-value, and exchange a pair of cards chosen randomly, and do this repeatedly introducing more randomness at each step.

    Brian writes:  Ingenious, but I'm not convinced.  In your example it seems to me that part of the pack is sorted, and the rest in random order.  The random part may get gradually bigger, but not more random.  It's either random or it's not;  just as there can't be greater or lesser degrees of being pregnant, although a pregnancy may of course be more or less advanced.  I would also query "almost unique":  again, something is either unique (there's only one of it) or it's not, and if there's another example known, it's not: it's "one of only two known examples".  Same with perfect, square, etc.  I must check to see if there's a comprehensive list in Peter Harvey's book! 

  3. Tim Weakley says:

    Brian, I'm tempted to respond using the language of configurational entropy and statistical thermodynamics – except that I'd fall flat on my face in public, having long ago lost my notes and completely forgotten what the Prof. was driving at in his third-year chemistry lectures back when the world was young!  As for the examples you give: (i) how would you objectively recognise perfection if you saw it? and (ii) there may be an ideal square floating somewhere in conception-space or in the mind of the late Plato, but squares outside of Euclidean geometry (Trafalgar, parade-ground, the base of the Great Pyramid, lawns, picture frames, etc.) are all squares to a degree of approximation to be specified for each particular case. 

    I'd guess that the letter from which you took your original quotation about randomness was from someone seduced by the fallacious argument that a designer is needed to account for the increased information-content of more complex organisms, which is (supposedly) all Against Nature.  Am I right?

    Brian writes:  Tim, the whole letter read as follows:

    It would have been interesting had Richard Dawkins addressed the assertion by Professor McIntosh that evolution and the second law of thermodynamics are incompatible. While not wishing to question the law, nor to support creationism, a consequence of the second law is that the randomness of the universe is increasing, whereas when we consider the increasing complexity of life, that can hardly be said of evolutionary processes.
    Christopher Jordan
    Derby

    Make of that what you will! 

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