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Tuesday, September 03, 2002
Authority on the use of English

From time to time, I watch a TV programme that seems to be designed to help elderly viewers keep their minds in trim. One cannot find too much to quarrel with there, even if it is a game show. (It's an intellectual game show, for heavens sake). However, I need to take serious issue with their reference document: (one of the many versions of) The Oxford English Dictionary.

A month or two ago, one of the contestants (never mind the rules of the game - they're not relevant here) offered 'fluorides' as a suitable word. This was rejected on the grounds that 'fluoride' cannot be pluralised because it's a mass noun (like 'rice'). I wonder who compiled this part of the dictionary. Did they consult anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of Chemistry? Of course they didn't.

According to this idiotic Oxford rule, one would be expected to say 'Lithium fluoride, sodium fluoride, potassium fluoride, rubidium fluoride, caesium fluoride and francium fluoride' instead of 'the fluorides of the alkaline metals'. Just because (some sort of) fluoride (and I'll bet it's a mixture of fluorides, anyway) is used in drinking water, this does not give the arbiters of English use the right to flaunt their ignorance, to the cost of their more knowledgeable superiors.

It would be a good idea if the competitor concerned were to be summoned back and given a grovelling apology by the programme's producers and presenters, on air. Oxford University Press should, forthwith, issue a corrigendum to all relevant editions.

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