x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Prevaricating? No, I am not being evasive, just dithering

When reflecting on all the unfortunate souls whose only mistake was to enter teaching and find me among their pupils, I still wonder - as they would - how I ended up as the guest speaker at an annual meeting of the Queen's English Society.

When reflecting on all the unfortunate souls whose only mistake was to enter teaching and find me among their pupils, I still wonder - as they would - how I ended up as the guest speaker at an annual meeting of the Queen's English Society. The mirth that greeted the arrival of my invitation in the newsroom of The Daily Telegraph, where I then worked, was more than office banter. It also reflected the rough edges in my own use of English that had survived from my youth in north-eastern England.

One wag even threatened to organise a coach party to attend the meeting and heckle unmercifully as I spoke. The event, which took place without the hecklers, was mentioned in passing in the first My Word column to appear in The National, on the day our Saturday edition made its debut last November. For the benefit of those who have become readers since that launch, my brief spell in the QES limelight arose from correspondence with its vice president, Anne Shelley. She had registered a mild protest at this introduction to a Telegraph news report: "One in 10 women has drunk themselves unconscious, according to a survey..."

The complaint reached my desk and Mrs Shelley was astonished to receive not only a swift response, but one agreeing unreservedly with her view that the singular "one in 10" followed by "themselves" turned the sentence into gibberish. Raising points of style and grammar with the gentlemen (and women) of the press had clearly not been among the most fruitful of Mrs Shelley's activities; she was more accustomed to dismissive replies, or none at all.

The small audience of QES members present for my speech heard me describe my exchanges with Mrs Shelley. They may recall the postscript. When the Telegraph held a phone-in day, with staff taking calls from readers wishing to donate to a Christmas charity appeal, Mrs Shelley found herself talking to the journalist who had written the words that caused her to contact the paper in the first place. In honour of the coincidence, she promptly doubled her intended contribution.

Six years later, Mrs Shelley remains in office. A glance at Quest, the QES journal which has arrived without fail since I made that speech, shows that highly observant members of society continue to rebuke writers and editors for offences against English. The language is so vast that even those who profess to care about its use can learn from such exercises. In the summer edition of the journal, Malcolm Skeggs identifies four examples of incorrect usage in the Radio Times, remembered by some of us as a high-minded and slightly staid BBC programme guide.

In each case, I found myself nodding in agreement. Someone was reported as having "flaunted" the conventions of her era, whereas she had flouted them. "Oh dear, oh dear, how many times?" Mr Skeggs asks in perhaps affected exasperation. A sportsman had been diagnosed with cancer when the diagnosis should have been of the disease, not the patient. Mr Skeggs admits that this is one battle that may already be lost to common usage. But it is probably just as well that the Radio Times employee who wrote "Debra realises her and Ray don't have fun any more" is unlikely to see Quest, where he or she is branded a "tin-eared, semi-literate cretin".

Finally, in highlighting the sins of the Radio Times, Mr Skeggs sternly explains the distinction between prevarication and procrastination, the former being "an offensive term suggesting dishonesty or deviousness" and not, as used by the magazine (and in a Telegraph report), indicating hesitation or dithering (procrastination). If my nods of approval became slower on reading the last of Mr Skeggs's examples, this may well be because, in common with countless writers of all kinds, I have almost certainly misused prevarication at least once in my life.

Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae