Tom Freeman, the Stroppy Editor, has tweeted as @SnoozeInBrief: "Simon Heffer warns of 47 'common mistakes' in English. By my count, he has 15 fair points, 13 debatable, 19 rubbish," and I have not the strength to resist so gorgeous a target.
Mr. Heffer, formerly a journalist with the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail and the author of Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write... and Why it Matters, writes in the Daily Mail article to which Mr. Freeman refers with the dogmatism so frequently displayed in the works of the peeververein.
As you may have guessed, the rubbish interests me more than either the fair points or the debatable ones, and countering the rubbish in an unending activity. Some choice morsels:
"ACCESS is a noun and not a verb."
But if someone speaks or writes a sentence in which access functions as a verb, and the hearer or reader, understands it, then it is manifestly a verb. And if enough people use it and understand it as a verb, then it will go into the dictionaries as a verb, whether Mr. Heffer approves or no.
The way people use words determines their meanings and functions. Mr. Heffer has got the wrong end of the stick.
"ADULTERY is strictly voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and another who is not his or her spouse. Technically speaking, when both parties are married (but not to each other) the act constitutes double adultery. Where both parties are unmarried, they can merely participate in fornication."
Spot on in his first sentence, which echoes the Oxford English Dictionary. Why he should want to bring in the purely legal sense of double adultery, unless he thinks we are canon lawyers, is obscure.
"BETWEEN must refer to a position, literal or abstract, within two other positions — ‘he was between his two aunts at the theatre’ or ‘she was at school between 1970 and 1980’. It is wrong when used to describe the relations between more than two things."
Mr. Heffer appears to be unaware that this schoolroom oversimplification will not stand up to examination. James A.H. Murray wrote in the OED that between "is still the only word available to express the relation of a thing to many surrounding things severally and individually." And Noah Webster, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage points out, wrote "We observe that between is not restricted to two."
"COLLIDE and COLLISION One occasionally reads about people who have died or been injured in a car that has collided with a tree. This is remarkable, because a collision requires both parties to it to be in motion. So two moving vehicles may collide, but not a car and a tree."
The Associated Press Stylebook also endorses this mistaken belief, and, along with the unsubstantiated over/more than distinction, it is identifiable as a superstition fostered by newspaper editors. Significantly, Garner's Modern American Usage does not even bother to address the point.
"DECIMATE As every schoolboy used to know, this was a punishment meted out to Roman legions, in which every tenth man was killed. Its correct sense in English, therefore, is the reduction of the strength of a body of people by 10 per cent. Thus it is absurd to say that ‘the workforce was decimated by 20 per cent’."
And unless you are a centurion, you are unlikely to have much call to use the word in the fine old Roman sense. "Reduce by a significant amount" or "damage to a significant extent" are current senses in English, though you probably do not want to use the word to mean "devastate" or "destroy."
All right, my wrists are tiring. Guess what he has to say about hopefully and literally. Yup.
Once you have seen how wide of the mark he is on this handful of usages, you may well wonder how much he is to be trusted on any of the others.
Opening the article, Mr. Heffer writes, "For better or worse, we live in a society where we may be judged not by how we sound — accents are irrelevant — but by how carefully we choose our words and how well we put a sentence together."
I identify the tone of this article as that of a fussy, pedantic prig. I sincerely hope that Mr. Heffer is not such a person, but he does know that we judge people by how they sound.