A quite difficult quiz in The Guardian

The Guardian published a quiz about language – specifically one about errors that have crept into its own pages. There are, obviously, rich pickings to be had here, given that newspaper’s propensity for middling op it’s worms. (In fact, at the time of writing there is, amusingly, a typical Grauniad typo in the answers to question 5, where ‘tautologous’ mistakenly appears as ‘tautolous’.)

Anyway, the thing that makes the quiz rather complicated is that the selected examples are not overt errors, such as substituting ‘middling’ for ‘muddling’. Often, as well, there is more than one potential “right” answer – i.e., there are several possible “errors”, and it’s a matter of identifying the one that actually matters. For example, take the sentence reproduced at question 6:

The fishing scam impacting some Guardian accounts is still ongoing.

The quiz presents three options for the error here (it’s a Multiple Guess Choice quiz, although it violates one of the rules of the format: none of the answers is ‘Geoff Hurst in the 1966 World Cup.’). One option suggests that ‘affecting’ should be substituted for ‘impacting’, on the basis that the latter is not a verb; the second prompts a contestant to agree that the phrase ‘still ongoing’ is both tautologous and ugly; the third suggestion is that ‘fishing’ should be ‘phishing’ instead.

Now, the thing is all three of these seem plausible, at least initially. Take the first option: lots of people would deplore the use of ‘impacting’ in this way, and would prefer ‘affecting’. That said, I think that the particular objection – that ‘impacting’ is not a verb – is wrong. Specifically, I think that, in this context, ‘impacting’ is the present participle of the verb ‘to impact’, in exactly the same way that ‘affecting’ is the present participle of the verb ‘to affect’. (I think all this, by the way, because grammar really isn’t my strong point. I missed enough of my education through mental ill-health to be uncertain about a lot of things like this.) So, while I agree that ‘impacting’ may have been an unfortunate choice, it is a verb for all that, and thus the specific objection is wrong.

Moving on to the second option – that the phrase ‘still ongoing’ is tautologous and ugly – let’s start with some definitions: ongoing means ‘in progress’ and still, in this sense, ‘continuing now or in the future as in the past’. It’s certainly the case that there is an overlap here, since both words indicate that the scam began at some point in the past and is still occurring, but I think the phrase can be justified as an example of emphatic repetition; something that is ‘still ongoing’ feels like it’s been continuing for longer than something that is merely ‘ongoing’. In other words, I think the repetition is a deliberate rhetorical technique which enhances the sense of duration, not an accidental error. If I say that a problem is ‘ongoing’ it implies that it isn’t fixed yet, but if I say it’s ‘still ongoing’ it also implies that it’s taking an awfully long time to fix.

For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with the second part of the objection, that the phrase is ugly. In particular, I think the juxtaposition of a word that in its primary sense signifies stasis (“the air is still tonight”) with a word that indicates motion is unfortunate. That said, I also think that the phrase, while it is repetitious, is not tautological. Tautology, after all, is needless repetition’ [my emphasis], and I would argue that the repetition here is needful, since it subtly shifts the meaning of the phrase. In summary, while I can understand the criticism of the phrase, I think it can be successfully defended against accusations of tautology.

That leaves only the third option – that ‘fishing’ should instead be ‘phishing’. This does seem to be a straightforward mistake; the particular type of scam referred to here is usually spelled as ‘phishing’, even though it’s pronounced exactly the same as fishing. Then again, it could be argued that phishing is just a type of fishing – one that involves fraudsters trawling for confidential information via email, instead of by some other means – and so that describing a ‘phishing scam’ as a ‘fishing scam’ is not, in point of literal linguistic fact, an error.

See what I mean about this being a quite difficult quiz?

Still, as things stand I think that the last option probably is the salient one. There are reasons to wish that the word ‘impacting’ had not been used, but I think it’s a verb for all that. It’s also possible to defend the phrase ‘still ongoing’ against accusations of tautology on the basis that the connotation of the complete phrase differs from that of ‘ongoing’ alone. This means that the use of the word ‘fishing’ – for all that one of the established meanings of the standard spelling is ‘try deviously to elicit information’ – is most likely to be the error.

To be fair, not all the questions in the quiz are as difficult. For example, take the sentence reproduced at question 9:

The challenge for Ed Miliband is how to firmly capture the right tone of indignation at this injustice and class bias, how witheringly to crush the wilful ignorance of Tory backbenchers.

Now, I’m pretty much certain there is no such thing as a “split infinitive” in English, so the option highlighting ‘to firmly capture’ as one such can be easily dismissed. (As I understand it, the English language does not possess a true infinitive tense in the way languages like French and Latin do, and so has to approximate it – hence the true infinitive in French, capturer, appears in English as to capture. So-called “split infinitives” occur because English is a more flexible language which allows for a greater range of options in placing adverbs: ‘to firmly capture’, as well as ‘firmly to capture’ and ‘to capture firmly‘. They are a characteristic of our language, not an error, and were only ever identified as such by people who were mistakenly trying to remake English in the image of Latin.)

The option that encourages a contestant to assert that ‘we all know most Tory backbenchers are wilfully ignorant’ can be dismissed just as easily, which means that the only remaining option – that the placement of the adverb ‘witheringly’ results in ambiguity – must be right. In fact, it seems to be. The sentence as it stands is unclear as to whether Ed Miliband is considering how withering to be when he crushes wilful ignorance, or whether he is considering how best to witheringly crush it. This is one of those cases where the attempt to avoid a “split infinitive” has actually resulted in an error. In point of fact, the sentence probably could have been improved by dropping ‘witheringly’ altogether – the proliferation of adverbs can be a sign of bad writing – but if it had to be included it was included in the wrong place.

Well, I’m not going to go through every answer in this way. It’s an actual, write-in quiz with a tangible prize, so to do so would obviously be unfair – to any poor souls who made use of my answers, given how bad my understanding of grammar is. Still, I enjoyed puzzling my way through this quiz, and who knows, you might enjoy it, too. There’s a long wait until the official answers are published (‘shortly’ after 5pm on 11th November), so there’s still plenty of time for second guessing.

Now, do you think I was too hasty to dismiss the split infinitive option? And, actually, that other thing might be tautologous after all…

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1 Response to A quite difficult quiz in The Guardian

  1. franhunne4u says:

    Oh I wish I could take a quiz in English like that – I make use of split infinitives all the time – the awful german language interfering here …

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