Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Cultivating confusion

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Hydrangea petiolaris

Image via Wikipedia

Do you know what ‘adventitious’ means? No, nor did I. And I didn’t particularly want to either, but needs must.

Alys Fowler, writing a gentle gardening column in the Guardian, advises:

The other option is climbers with adventitious roots, such as Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris.

Some hapless subeditor came along, thought Fowler was having a bad spelling day, and changed ‘adventitious’ to ‘advantageous’. The Guardian later changed it back to the original, which is a shame as about seven people in the UK know what ‘adventitious’ means. And none of them read the Guardian.

Yes, I’ve researched it, no, I haven’t got a life, and it just means (in this context) roots on stems that can cling to walls. Kind of advantageous, in a way. So why couldn’t Fowler have just said that? It may have taken a few more words, but they would have been short words, and — small point — understandable ones.

To add insult to injury on the adventitious front, the word has more than one meaning, making its use even more confusing.

I can also reveal to my reader (Gladys) that Alys deliberately misspells her name so it forms an anagram of ‘lay flowers’. I just made that up.

We do have a couple of aptly named gardening broadcasters in the UK, though: Bob Flowerdew and Pippa Greenwood. Which (I’m rambling now, sorry) reminds me that as a child I used to know of a dentist whose name was I. Pullem. It was engraved with some relish on a posh brass plaque at the entrance to his practice. True story.

Speaking of which (true stories), the Guardian didn’t quite manage to tell one when it recently announced:

We are locking up more and more children, but to what effect?

Unless, that is, ‘more’ now means ‘fewer’. Because, in fact, as the paper later admitted, the number of young people in custody has been falling for nearly a decade (apart from a spike during the August riots in England). Oops.

Alarmingly sloppy journalism. Very disadventitious on the credibility front.



4 Responses

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  1. Hey, I read the Guardian!

    Anyway, Fowler might have meant a plant with non-native origins. OK, she probably didn’t, but she could easily have done so as the plant comes from Japan originally, giving it adventitious roots. 😉

    And I have a feeling, though I can’t find any evidence for it, that Alys is an archaic form of Alice. Or maybe she’s just pretentious.


    26/11/2011 at 4:44 pm

    • Hi, Ron

      You are the exception that proves the rule! (I’ve never understood that maxim.)

      Yes, I saw that ‘non-native’ definition, which does make its use all the more confusing (to non-botanists).

      And Alys is probably both archaic and pretentious.*

      * The name, not its owner. Alys and her lawyer are both lovely.


      26/11/2011 at 5:14 pm

      • I was going to say Alys is a babe, but that would be sexist, so I won’t!


        26/11/2011 at 6:34 pm

        • She certainly is. Especially when compared to Alan Titchmarsh. Is that how you spell his name? Oh, who cares.


          26/11/2011 at 6:40 pm

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