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I’m not a pedant. Language is fluid and developing, but it saddens me when I hear or read greengrocer’s apostrophes, split infinitives and sentences ending with prepositions. I recently had an argument with the editor of a respected publication for which I occasionally write: he insisted on starting one of my sentences with “but”.
But two particular errors rankle. One I hear daily on radio travel bulletins: “Due to an accident, there are long delays on the M8”. The technical explanation of the error is simple. “Due to” is an adjectival phrase and should therefore qualify a noun, as in “The train due to arrive at 7.30 will be late”; or it should follow the verb, as in “The long delays on the M8 are due to an earlier accident”.
How should these original sentences have been accurately delivered? The answer is simple: using the prepositional phrase “because of”. There is nothing wrong with “There are long delays on the M8 because of an accident”, nor with “The London sleeper will be 30 minutes late because of leaves on the line”.
It is, however, precisely “because” which modern communicators struggle to avoid. “Because” implies cause and effect. It attributes responsibility. It is not a popular word.
My second bugbear is “problematic”. I had always understood it to mean difficult of solution, doubtful, uncertain, questionable.
Polly Toynbee recently wrote in The Guardian that the “BBC is always a problematic outfit, an odd beast, rightly at odds with both government and opposition”. We know what she meant. The BBC’s very purpose is to “create problems for” and be at odds with both government and opposition. It is no accident that such a doyen of social liberalism should so misuse “problematic”.
I first came across the abuse of “problematic” when I worked in a team of teachers and social workers. I read reports with sentences such as “James’s family circumstances are very problematic”. I hold my social-work colleagues in the highest regard. Even if I could, I would not do their jobs for twice their salaries, but to describe James’s family circumstances as doubtful, uncertain or questionable, simply does not make sense. It would just about make sense if what was intended was that James’s family circumstances were difficult of solution, but that was not what was meant.
We all know what my social work colleague meant: that James’s family WAS the problem. To say that, however, would be “judgmental”. It would attribute value, and to be value-free and non-judgmental are among the most lauded of contemporary professional values.
I regret that. I want to live in a world where value and responsibility are attributed and where judgments are made, humanely and rationally, but made. I want to attempt to attribute cause and effect to the problems which face me in my daily work and my daily life. For that, I require clear, precise language. I will not sit back while BBC weather reporters and well-meaning relativists rob my language of that necessary precision.
The above article was first published in the Times Educational Supplement Scotland on 7 August 2009:

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