Latest languistic lapses

(Continued from "More Media Monstrosities ", 11 February.  The horror!  The horror! They keep on coming….)

The more the two Democrats contend that the other is unfit to step inside the White House, the more likely it is that the next President will be neither of them.
Andrew Rawnsley, Observer, 9 March 08
In this sentence "the other" can only mean Senator McCain, which robs it of any meaning.  

It can be done, but it is much more difficult than for you or I.
Lord (Jeffrey) Archer, 'I saw a side of life I had never seen', Financial Times, 8-9 March 2008
More difficult even for he?

Boris, the Tory, is presently MP for Henley…
Simon Hoggart, Guardian, 12 March 08
But "is" and "presently" are incompatible, Simon — or did you mean "currently"?  Or even "now"?

Asif Ali Zardari, widow of Benazir Bhutto, announced a power-sharing deal…
Agencies, Pakistan Judges may be reinstated, Guardian, 10 March 2008
Still in mourning for his late husband?  'Widow', er…?

Security Minister Tony McNulty, … as though infected by the ghosts of previous Labour hard men John Reid and David Blunkett, claimed, “The threat (of terrorism) is clearly real, serious and represents a threat unparalleled in our country's history.”, 23.02.2008
One more 'and', please, Minister.

– – – – –

And this is this is [sic] the crux of the moral slight [sic] of hand that the PM is… trying to affect [sic]
Leo Docherty, 'It's not about the uniform', Guardian, 8 March 08
A howler hat-trick in a single sentence!

– – – – –

Wednesday night's abstention and pro-referendum rebellion was [sic] probably the least worst option for the party.
Martin Kettle, 'This shambles is in fact a sign of Lib Dem strength', Guardian, 8 Mar 08
Was they, Martin?  And are it the least bad option, or only the 'least worst'?  How many worst options were there, or was there?

– – – – –

In a mesmering scene in which Mason walks along the south bank of the Thames, we see Tate Modern as it once was…
Jude Rogers, 'The London we should all know' (DVD review), Guardian Films and Music, 7 March 08
We've all been mesmered on the south bank, Jude.

– – – – –

I remember my mom, my dad and I always around the radio, listening, my parents crying….
Joe Eszterhas, 'I hit Mikoyan with a rotten egg', Guardian Films and Music, 7 March 08
Anyone, especially a Hungarian, who hit Mikoyan with a rotten (or any other) egg, can be forgiven the occasional lapse.

– – – – –

Three years her senior, she met him at school in 1940, his family having fled from Berlin to Holland…
Caroline Davies, Observer, 24 Feb 08
Cherchez l'autre femme!

– – – – –

"Obama is … a uniter of men who realises he has to reach across the isle," Lucio III said.
Dan Glaister, Guardian, 22 Feb 08
Would that be across one of the British Isles, or possibly the aisle dividing the parties in the Senate?

– – – – –

Late on a Saturday night, most British palettes are too dulled to be able to distinguish a chicken korma from lamb pasanda.
Editorial, 'Tandoori furore', Financial Times, 16-17 Feb 08
Don't paint it, eat it — then you'll know the difference.

– – – – –

When it comes to making a care decision, both seniors and their loved ones need to be confident they will always enjoy a good night's sleep.
Advertisement for Sunrise Senior Living, 'the new high quality alternative to a care home'.
Or they could all try Temazepam?  (Nothing wrong with the grammar here: it's just the sense that's elusive.)

– – – – –

Like most reasonably intelligent secularists, you won’t find me petrol-bombing mosques, spitting at Muslim women, or threatening British Asians.
Julian Baggini, Open Democracy, 4 Aug 04
How do you know that I'm like most reasonably intelligent secularists, Julian?  (Actually, I am, but you weren't to know!)


8 Responses

  1. Michael Hornsby says:

    Horrors indeed! However, I think must come to the defence of Simon Hoggart for his use of "presently" in "Boris, the Tory, is presently MP for Henley …". For myself, I generally prefer "currently"  to  "presently"  used in this sense, and think "now" is usually better than either. But that is a purely personal preference. No modern grammarian would agree with you that Hoggart’s use is wrong or that  "is" and "presently" are incompatible, though you might argue that no qualifying adverb is required at all and that "is" conveys the sense intended perfectly adequately on its own. All dictionaries now give "at present, at this time, now" as one of the meanings of "presently". Its other main current meaning is "soon, in a little while" – an interesting weakening of the meaning it had two centuries ago when it meant "immediately". A Jane Austen character who says she will do something "presently" means she will do it at once, not in half an hour’s time. An echo of this sense,  now obsolete, is retained in such ancient set-piece phrases as "a clear and present danger". One argument for preferring "currently" to "presently" in the sense of "now" is that, theoretically, there is a possibility of ambiguity – i.e. do you mean presently "now" or presently "in a little while "-  but, as the ever-sensible Burchfield sagely observes, "in practice the context normally makes it quite clear which sense is intended". 

  2. Tim Weakley says:

    Chambers (2003) says that Hoggart's use of presently as a synonym for now  is "obs or Scot and N Am", and used thus it seems more logical  than the current English-English sense of bye-and-bye, when I get round to it, when I'm good and ready.

    Compare momentarily: in the UK, "for a moment", but in the US, "in a moment".  I have more than once been momentarily alarmed when the public address system on an American plane announced that "the flight will take off momentarily".

    Brian writes:  I don't think that logic is a useful guide to acceptable usage, fortunately or otherwise!  I like your definitions of the current sense, except that I can't find any authority for 'bye-and-bye' unless in cricket parlance.  (Plenty for by-and-by, of course, including the OED Online.) 

  3. Michael Hornsby says:

    Chambers's claim that the use of presently as a synonym for now is "obs or Scot. and U.S." is odd and only half-true at best. Some other dictionaries do agree that this use of presently is especially common in Scotland and North America, but to say that the use of presently to mean now is obsolete is only true if now is being used in the sense of immediately, at once. (See my earlier comment). But now also means at present, at the present time, and the use of presently in this sense is very much current. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary says: presently adverb 1 after a short time; soon. 2 at the present time; now.  The Times English Dictionary has: presently adv 1 in a short while; soon. 2 at the moment. 3 an archaic word for immediately.

    The American momentarily is indeed a pitfall for the unwary.

    Brian writes:  It seems that 'presently' was at one time used to mean 'in a while, soon', so it's legitimate to say that this sense of the word is obsolete, even if enjoying a renaissance in the US and Scotland.  Please see my reply to Carl's comment below and my own comment below that.

  4. Carl Lundquist/LA says:

    The American Heritage dictionary says about that:

    An original meaning of presently was " at the present time; currently. " That sense is said to have disappeared from the literary language in the 17th century, but it has survived in popular usage and is widely found nowadays in literate speech and writing. Still, there is a lingering prejudice against this use. In the most recent survey the sentence General Walters is . . . presently the United States Ambassador to the United Nations was acceptable to exactly 50 percent of the Usage Panel.

    Thus it appears to be a matter in some flux right now — at least at the AHD Usage Panel.

    Brian writes:  I thought there'd be an argument about 'presently' — see the three preceding comments also. It's a good example of a fine and useful word meaning something subtly different from 'soon', but very close to it, gradually becoming unavailable because 'presently' sounds to some ears as if it must mean the same as 'at present', as of course it did at one time long ago.  The sadness is that this corruption of a useful word is unnecessary, because it's coming to replace or duplicate the perfectly good words 'currently' and 'now', or 'at present'.  As so often, the process is considerably further advanced in the US than in 'English English', where in my fairly confident opinion it remains unacceptable in the sense of 'currently', although I have no doubt that it will gradually achieve respectability, and its current sense ('fairly soon, but don't be impatient') will simultaneously begin to sound archaic and thus be lost. For the time being, though, when used to mean 'at present' it has an unmistakeable American twang.  

    The above was written before I checked with the OED and Burchfield's Fowler, the latter also cited above by Michael Hornsby to, admittedly, good effect:

    OED Online:

    b. In a little while, before long, soon.
      Now the usual sense.

     3. a. At the present time; at this time, at present, now.
      Apparently avoided in literary use between the 17th and 20th centuries, but in regular use in most English dialects and by Scottish writers; revived in the 20th cent. in the U.S., subsequently in Britain and elsewhere. Regarded by some usage writers, esp. after the mid 20th cent., as erroneous or ambiguous.

    Burchfield's Fowler's Modern English Usage:

    The oldest sense (15C.) of those still current is 'at the present time, now': it is now chiefly used in America and Scotland….  it became weakened at an early date (by the 17C.) from 'immediately' to 'in a little while, soon' [which is] not quite as old, but is now the main current sense in England and elsewhere.

     As so often, where America leads, the rest of the world follows, sometimes reaping great benefit, sometimes not.

  5. Brian says:

    More on ‘presently’, as postscript to my reply to Carl’s comment above, and to other preceding comments:

    Guardian Style Guide
    means soon, not at present

    Economist Style Guide (hard-back edition)
    PRESENTLY means soon, not at present. "Presently Kep opened the door of the shed, and let out Jemima Puddle-Duck."

    So prescriptively, ‘presently’ in the sense of  "currently" is not (yet) acceptable in UK English;  descriptively (eg in lesser dictionaries) it is listed, because people with tin ears and dark glasses, even Brits, do sometimes use it — regrettably.  But as Carl sagely remarks in his comment above, it’s apparently exactly half-way there in the US.


  6. Michael Hornsby says:

    The support of the Guardian and Economist Style Guides for the view that presently should be used only to mean "soon" and  not "at present/now" is encouraging for those of us, like you and me, who share that view. But it doesn't, alas, allow us to conclude  that "prescriptively, presently in the sense of "currently" is not (yet) acceptable in UK English", much as we might wish it so. It merely establishes that this usage is not acceptable in the Guardian and the Economist – as Master Hoggart, of all people, should have known. His real offence was to have violated his own newspaper's style rules. Style guides are primarily intended (evidently not always successfully)  to ensure consistency of usage in the publication concerned.  To that end, they aim, of course, to prevent obvious grammatical howlers and offences against linguistic logic- of the kind well illustrated in your other examples – from getting into print. But in many cases they merely express a strong stylistic preference for one among several current usages and insist on its use by their own writers. As a matter of interest, The Times Style Guide decrees that  present should always be preferred to current  in the sense of "now, at this time". For many years it also banned "despite", insisting instead on "in spite of" (though this injunction has now sensibly been dropped). I can think of no good reason for either "rule" other than the personal preference of successive editors. What is demonstrable fact is that a large number of well-educated people in this country think that the use of presently to mean "now, at present" is entirely acceptable, and that a possibly even larger number (though I am not aware of the results of any census on the point) think it is not, and are supported in this view, as the passage you cite from the OED carefully puts it, "by some usage writers". That is about all that can be usefully said on the matter. The OED entry, incidentally, offers scant evidence for your curious notion that lesser dictionaries are merely "descriptive" and that, by implication, superior dictionaries such as the OED are "prescriptive" – that is, they lay down the law. I see nothing in the OED entry which says the use of  presently to mean "at present" is definitively wrong, though the inference might be drawn that this is a use best avoided because of disagreement over its acceptability and the consequent risk of ambiguity. In fact, all the best dictionaries, from the OED down, are predominantly descriptive: that is, they mainly describe the way words are used, and the meanings attached to them, by literate people at the point in time when the dictionary goes to press. The more comprehensive ones also give some account of etymology, show how usage and meanings have changed over time, identify those that are obsolete and those that are current, cite regional variants, flag up areas of dispute (as in the case of presently) and give some space to slang and colloquial usage. They are prescriptive, if at all, mainly by omission – that is, those usages and meanings of which they make no mention can be assumed to be ones found to have no currency of any significant kind. Prescription is mainly a matter for manuals of grammer – and newspaper style guides. There is more room for both prescription and description in general guides to usage, by such well-qualified authorities as Fowler and Burchfield, but the exact balance struck, I suggest,  still reflects personal preference and temperament to a large extent. I would locate Fowler pretty clearly towards the prescriptive end of the spectrum, while Burchfield is much closer to the descriptive end.

    Brian writes:  I don't disagree with anything here, Michael.  My reference to 'lesser dictionaries' tending to be purely descriptive simply reflected the fact that the smaller the dictionary, the less space it has for the kind of comments about acceptability or controversy surrounding a particular entry or usage that are common in, e.g., the full OED.  Of course a dictionary, any dictionary, is bound to be mainly descriptive: that's its job.  But a big enough dictionary should have room for warnings about questionable usages.  It would go beyond the limitations of a dictionary to say that a particular usage of 'presently' is 'definitively wrong' when the usage is not all that uncommon even in England, and increasingly so in the US and Scotland.  But there's no mistaking the OED's view, surely.

    I agree that Bob Burchfield tended more to the descriptive than the prescriptive, mainly I think because of the many years he had spent as editor of the great supplement to the OED before taking on the equally gigantic task of producing a new edition of Fowler.  I was lucky enough to know him quite well and sometimes ventured to reproach him, I hope respectfully, for undue generosity towards those guilty of linguistic error or lapses in taste.  But he was a very kind man, like many New Zealanders. 

  7. Carl Lundquist/LA says:

    >> As so often, the process is considerably further advanced in the US than in ‘English English’, where in my fairly confident opinion it remains unacceptable in the sense of ‘currently’, although I have no doubt that it will gradually achieve respectability, and its current sense (‘fairly soon, but don’t be impatient’) will simultaneously begin to sound archaic and thus be lost. For the time being, though, when used to mean ‘at present’ it has an unmistakeable American twang.  <<

    Oddly enough that "American twang" is generally a conservative one.   As is usual with emigrant populations, the emigrants retained the older usages of the mother country as the center racket off in search of fashion and novelty.   For example, the American othography that uses an -o- where the British use an -ou-.   The Brtish useage grew up in the 18th century adopting the French spellings of armour and honour.  The flow of fashion from the metropolis to the colonies got interupted with extreme predjudice in 1776 and Noah Webster go to enforce the American Way of spelling.

    Presently seems to have suffered a similar fate.  The definition shifted in the 17th – 18th centuries and the US definition and use was cut off.

    Of course there are all sorts of true American neologisms and dialectical differences like the SE American revival of the 2nd person plural in y’all and its possessive y’alls’.  This actually has acquired an almost regular status.  <g>

  8. Brian says:

    We gave the impression that the Citroën C1 is presently exempted from the London congestion charge (The low-carbon motorist, page 8, Budget report, yesterday).

            Guardian, Corrections and clarifications, 14 March 2008; emphasis added.

    ["Guardian Style Guide:   presently means soon, not at present"]

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