Blog

An error, an omission, a confession

A small moment of shame has occurred. I have earned a mention in the Independent’s Errors and Omissions column.

As the name of the column implies, no appearance in Errors and Omissions is likely to be  good news, and this was no exception. I was taken to task by its author John Rentoul for opening a sentence, indeed a column, like this: “So now we know how to get a reply from a dodgy banker or a beleaguered MP.  Flowers do the trick…”

That “so”, appearing at the start of sentence, was a terrible solecism. To make matters worse, Rentoul sorrowfully referred to me as “a proper writer”, a description which normally would have provoked a shudder of pride. Now it only compounded my sin.

Grammar matters. The one lesson – possibly the only lesson – I took from Wellington College, where I spent some of my teenage years, was that there is a connection between usage and clarity. The English teacher, Mr PM Letts, attached incomparably more importance to teaching boys how to avoid a dangling modifier than to introducing them  to the relatively frivolous joys of literature.

But, over time, standards fall. That sentence, starting with a conjunction, would once have been almost physically impossible for me to write, as would the first sentence of the second paragraph of this blog: “this”, Mr PM Letts would teach, should in that context  be attached to a noun.

Sometimes it feels as if journalism corrupts style as one writes. I have never had the courage or the will to ignore the  rules of grammar and punctuation  entirely  – even the use of a dash in the middle of a sentence can feel dangerously cavalier.

But this is where, grammatically, I have ended up. So it goes.