The language

Zeal for accuracy sometimes leads to pitfalls, notes Heather Neill, and too right usually makes it wrong

There is such a thing as trying too hard to be accurate. Small Latin and less Greek - Ben Jonson's dismissive description of Shakespeare's educational arsenal - can still lead us into making mistakes for the best of reasons. For instance, the correct plural of syllabus is syllabuses, not syllabi, just as many crocuses are not (thank goodness) croci but crocuses. Latin first declension nouns ending in us become i in the plural, but fourth declension ones don't. Criteria and phenomena are, however, always plural, the singular forms being Greek criterion and phenomenon respectively. Criterias has begun to creep in, so should we accept the loss of criterion?

Then there is the correct use of the accusative case in a sentence like "He invited Mary and me to the wedding". Sometimes that just sounds wrong when it isn't, perhaps especially in the case of couples - "My wifehusbandpartner and I..." comes more naturally off the tongue as a package wherever it occurs in a sentence. Over-correction like this may go back to draconian teaching of rules divorced from real understanding a couple of generations ago.

Similarly, there seems to be a reluctance in some quarters - and you can find examples in the best newspapers - to spell led, the past tense of lead, without the a, or practise as a verb with s rather than c. Even the "greengrocer's apostrophe" (ie, in simple plurals, such as banana's, onion's and carrot's) probably goes back to a conviction that it's better to scatter punctuation marks in the hope that some land in the right place whether they are needed or not. "It's," of course, needs a section of its own.


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