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Why no paragraph breaks on-screen?

I'm constantly surprised by people who send emails or post entries on mailing lists, asking for help or advice, who do so in continuous blocks of prose with no paragraph breaks. This makes reading what they've written so difficult and unpleasant that I never do so.

Perhaps they were never taught paragraphing at school, or perhaps they think it doesn't matter - just another example of elitism. But surely, when they have to read other people's paragraphless prose, they see how difficult it is to follow?

They are writing, after all, in the hope of being read and responded to, so why don't they try to make that happen?

Actually, I think that for reading on-screen as opposed to on the printed page, more paragraphs are needed, not fewer.

The big chill

The term "chilling" seems to be invariably used by journalists whenever they hope that something they are reporting will create fear in the reader. Sometimes it leads to absurdity. Yesterday's Independent had a piece about global warming, saying that it was going to be worse than forecast and was likely to be at least 6 degrees. This was said to be "chilling". If it were, we'd have nothing to worry about.

As the poet and critic F.L. Lucas wrote more than 50 years ago, "Really dead metaphors, like really dead nettles, cannot sting; but often the metaphors are only half dead; and these need careful handling."

"Review into"

A usage which seems to have crept into speech without anyone noticing is "review into". It should, of course, be "review of". What seems to have happened is a conflation of two different idioms, "review of" and "investigation into".

The subjunctive in English

The fact that English still has the subjunctive mood seem to be largely forgotten now but it still matters. Consider the following sentence, heard today on the BBC, which is currently broadcasting readings from Selina Hasting's biography of Somerset Maugham.
Maugham received a phone call from a family friend, asking if he were interested in some temporary war work.
What is wrong with this sentence? "Were" is the subjunctive, but it shouldn't be in this case. The sentence requires "was", not "were". That is because Maugham might or might not have been interested; there is an element of uncertainty. We, the readers or listeners, must wait until the next sentence to learn if he went. (He did.)

The subjunctive implies a negative. Something might have been the case but it wasn't. So Maugham could have said "I'd go if I were free, but I'm not." In that sentence we do need the subjunctive; it would be ungrammatical to say: "I'd go if I was free ...", and someone of Maugham's class, education, and sensibility would never utter such a solecism.

Schoolchildren are (or were) told not to say things like "if I was you". True, that is ungrammatical, but then they get the impression that "if" must always be followed by "were". That's a pity. The sentence "I don't know if he went for a bike ride but he wouldn't have done if it was raining" is correct, because no negative is implied; the mood is of uncertainty. I don't know if it was raining or not. "Were" would be wrong here.

The difference between the two usages is clear in Spanish but is danger of getting lost in English.

Does it matter? I think it does, because it jars on the reader or listener - this one, anyway. And a subtle shade of meaning is lost.

OK, pedantic mode off. But I wanted to get that off my chest; it always annoys me when I come across it.

Bacteria, bacterium

There's some evidence of a welcome return of recognition that bacteria is a plural (singular bacterium). A piece in The Independent referred to 'the E.Coli bacterium', and so did an item on the BBC news. A relief after hearing a bacteriologist using bacteria as a singular.

Case confusion again

In The Independent Shaun Walker writes about his alarming experience in South Ossetia, where he was arrested by the military. 'Two heavily armed Ossetian soldiers drove our Georgian driver, Kim and I into the city ...'

Shouldn't whoever subbed this for the paper have picked it up? (Not to mention the dodgy punctuation.) But confusion about case, particularly in constructions such as this, seems to be very common. I think it probably stems from schooldays, when pupils were constantly told off for writing 'Jim and me went ...'. This often leaves people with a superstitious dread of writing 'me' in any sentence at all. I suppose the only real cure for it is to spend some years learning an inflected language.

Dumbing down Stonehenge

It seems the literature available at Stonehenge describing the site for visitors is to be dumbed down because it is thought to be too difficult. In future it will be aimed at people with a reading age of 10.

Actually, if a recent Timewatch programme is to be believed, the information contained in the literature is wrong anyway. There was never a wooden precursor of the later building; it was stone from the start. And it seems it was intended for the dead -- a kind of mausoleum. I suppose it was rather like the great burial sites constructed at much the same time in Malta.

Linguistic grumble: refute or deny?

There is an increasing trend for speakers on TV or radio - especially politicians - to say that they refute a statement or a criticism when they should say they deny or reject it. To refute a statement implies that you have decisively shown its falsity. Of course, the speaker would hope to do this but whether he or she has succeeded is for the listener to decide, not the speaker. Claims to have refuted an allegation are often wishful thinking.

Linguistic grumble

In the current issue of The Skeptic, author Robert Sheaffer replies to a correspondent thus: 'Mr Parrish laments that none of we skeptics ...'. I know it's illogical,but when a writer perpetrates grammatical howlers of this magnitude I find it difficult to take the substance of what they write seriously.

Linguistic grumble -- reticent instead of reluctant

I'm hearing more and more broadcasters using "reticent" to mean "reluctant", as in: "Jones was reticent to reveal his thoughts about his marriage." Another example I just heard: "People were reticent to complain." They weren't reticent to complain, they were reluctant.

I know that language changes but I dislike this new usage and I am reluctant to accept it as standard English.

The Tudors on BBC2

A reviewer in yesterday's Independent said that The Tudors must be in contention for the category of the 50 worst films ever. I tend to agree and I don't know why I've been watching it, except that spotting the linguistic anachronsms is becoming something of a hobby. I particularly like the startling juxtapositions of language; at one moment people sound as if they are discussiong the EU constitution and the next a girl is saying: "How like you my body?."

So I was rather startled last night to hear the Queen speaking to a couple of Spanish ambassadors, with the dialogue proceeding in mediaeval Spanish. I wonder who slipped that in?

Linguistic carelessness in TV dramas

Historical TV dramas usually go out of their way to strive for authenticity in visual matters (dress and so on) but are often surprisingly careless of the turns of phrase the characters use. I frequently find myself muttering "We never said that in the 1960s!". Lapses of this kind make me grind my teeth in the same way as would seeing someone in an Elizabethan drama wearing a wristwatch.

Medical soaps commit a different kind of linguistic solecism by mispronouncing medical phrases. They go out of their way to try to sound authentic by referring to procedures by their acronyms (often to the bafflement of the audience, I suspect), but then they come up with something like "cardiomegAly", with the stress on the A. I've never heard anyone say that in hospital (although, admittedly, it's nearer to the modern Greek!).

Another version of this, which is perhaps more understandable, concerns the acronym CABG (coronary artery bypass graft). This is referred to in standard medical-speak as CABBAGE, but the characters in the soap always spell it out: C-A-B-G. I suspect this is because they are afraid it would sound too frivolous if they called it CABBAGE.

Grammatical Gripes

We are often being told these days that it is wimpish (or Blimpish) to complain about grammatical and linguistic errors. Language changes, the argument goes, and it is futile and pointless to complain about it or try to resist it. I can see the force of this but it doesn't stop me from gritting my teeth in anger when I hear certain solecisms, usually on the radio.

Here are my top two current dislikes.

1. "Between you and I." This is annoying, not just because it is ungrammatical but because it is genteel. It's the linguistic equivalent of crooking your little finger when you drink tea.

2. Confusion of "may" and "might". These are NOT equivalent, and if they are treated as if they were, the result is a loss of precision and subtlety. For example, you can say: "You might have won £5000 pounds if only you had entered the lottery." However, it is ungrammatical to say: "You may have won £5000 if only you had entered the lottery." The implied continuation is "but you didn't." And there is no uncertainty about your entry; you didn't enter.

However, you could say: "You may have won £5000 if you entered the lottery." In this last case, there is an element of uncertainty about whether you entered it or not.