Geoff Pullum's musings on Simon Heffer's aprioristic prescriptivism ("English Grammar: Not for debate") were based on a report by the BBC, which is a reliably unreliable witness. So I wondered whether Mr. Heffer's usage advice was equally empty when taken straight from the source. The first sample that I found was "Strictly English: Part one", The Telegraph, 8/20/2010, which is "The first of four exclusive extracts from ‘Strictly English: the Correct Way to Write… and Why It Matters’". And it starts like this:
Even when armed with fine intentions, one can still fall into traps: for many words do not mean what one thinks they mean. In the interests of accuracy and precision, what follows is a reminder of the true meaning of some commonly misused words.
One occasionally reads in newspapers about people who have died or been injured in a car that has collided with a tree. This is remarkable, because a collision requires both parties to it to be in motion. The Latin verb collidere means to strike or clash together, and the etymology is strict. So two moving vehicles may collide, as may a car and a cyclist or even a car and a pedestrian, but not a car and a tree. Like so much of our language this is a question of logic based on the etymology; there is no perversity about it.
By strict etymology, silly would still mean "holy"; and in this case, Mr. Heffer's strict etymological logic was invalid even in classical Latin. Perseus finds 11 examples of forms of collido in Latin texts; and while some of them certainly involve two objects in motion striking or clashing together, several of them don't. In particular, the past participle form collisus often seems to mean "battered, beaten, bruised" (as Lewis and Short tell us), or something like "dented" or "smashed" in other cases. And in several examples, it's clear that the ding was caused by an event in which only one of the objects was in motion (at least in a common-sense reference frame). The very first one I looked at — a passage from Petronius — involves a cup that was dented by colliding with the floor:
Fuit tamen faber qui fecit phialam vitream, quae non frangebatur. Admissus ergo Caesarem est cum suo munere, deinde fecit reporrigere Caesarem et illam in pavimentum proiecit. Caesar non pote valdius quam expavit. At ille sustulit phialam de terra; collisa erat tanquam vasum aeneum; deinde martiolum de sinu protulit et phialam otio belle correxit. Hoc facto putabat se solium Iovis tenere, utique postquam Caesar illi dixit: 'Numquid alius scit hanc condituram vitreorum?' vide modo. Postquam negavit, iussit illum Caesar decollari: quia enim, si scitum esset, aurum pro luto haberemus. In argento plane studiosus sum.
But there was once a workman who made a glass cup that was unbreakable. So he was given an audience of the Emperor with his invention; he made Caesar give it back to him and then threw it on the floor. Caesar was as frightened as could be. But the man picked up his cup from the ground: it was dented like a bronze bowl; then he took a little hammer out of his pocket and made the cup quite sound again without any trouble. After doing this he thought he had himself seated on the throne of Jupiter, especially when Caesar said to him: 'Does anyone else know how to blow glass like this?' Just see what happened. He said not, and then Caesar had him beheaded. Why? Because if his invention were generally known we should treat gold like dirt. Myself I have a great passion for silver.
Given this natural development in Latin, it shouldn't be a shock that from the very beginning, many if not most English writers have been happy to use collide and collision in cases where one of the things colliding is immobile relative to the surface of the planet. Thus the OED's third-oldest citation for collision is from Robert Plot's 1677 work The natural history of Oxfordshire, which in expanded form reads (emphasis added):
The Springs, as I remember, are in Number three, and the most southern one of these 'tis that has the humming Noise, much like that of an empty Bottle held with the Mouth against the Wind, which perhaps may be a Resemblance so befitting our purpose, that it may help to explain the Cause, as well as the Sound: for provided the Channel be large within, and the Passage forth somewhat narrow like a Bottle, the Collision of the Water against the Lips of the Orifice, may well make a Noise in a large Vault within, especially if the Waters be indued with a Spirit, as peradventure hereafter may be proved like enough.
You shouldn't think that this is only a 17th century usage — a bit of web search turns up Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood:
Whether the nuns of yore, being of a submissive rather than a stiff-necked generation, habitually bent their contemplative heads to avoid collision with the beams in the low ceilings of the many chambers of their House; whether they sat in its long low windows, telling their beads for their mortification instead of making necklaces of them for their adornment; whether they were ever walled up alive in odd angles and jutting gables of the building for having some ineradicable leaven of busy mother Nature in them which has kept the fermenting world alive ever since; these may be matters of interest to its haunting ghosts (if any), but constitute no item in Miss Twinkleton's half-yearly accounts.
And William Makepeace Thackery, The Adventures of Philip:
His horses were frightened, no doubt; for just as Yellow Jack wheeled nimbly round one side of the Ringwood statue, Woolcomb's horses were all huddled together and plunging in confusion beside it, the fore-wheel came in abrupt collision with the stonework of the statue railing: and then we saw the vehicle turn over altogether.
It's even easier to find recent examples in well-edited writing, even of the specific phrase that Heffer forbids. This small sample (of a much larger set) comes from Google Books and the NYT archive:
Turning to run, she collided with a tree and knocked herself unconscious.
The bus left the road and collided with a tree.
An Aeronca L-3B collided with a tree while maneuvering at low altitude three miles north of Greenville, Alabama.
Although I lost my hat, I neither lost physical balance nor collided with a tree sufficiently sturdy to arrest a fearfully swift descent, as did many of my comrades.
I had to lift him onto my back the other day after he collided with a tree and hurt himself.
[T]rying to repeat the success five days later, Bleriot collided with a tree in a fog and wrecked the machine past repair.
Even after they crashed to the bottom, they continued to roll head over heel until they collided with a tree.
He ran around, collided with a tree and toppled over with a loud “Bonk.”
Jason collided with a tree as he backed up and tumbled to the ground.
Andy sprang back, collided with a tree-trunk, and went head over heels.
Mr. Kennedy, 39, collided with a tree while playing football on skis.
Two nights ago, policemen discovered a magnificent automobile that had collided with a tree and been greatly damaged.
Amusingly, we even have this example from The Broadview book of common errors in English:
Wrong: The bus left the road and collided against a tree.
Right: The bus left the road and collided with a tree.
A reliable diagnosis of Mr. Heffer's prescriptive psychology would require a larger sample of his usage advice, but added to the claims about warn that Geoff discussed, this business about collisions is enough to suggest that he has a consistent method. He invents or borrows a plausible "rule" that puts most well-educated writers of standard English in the wrong, and then he uses bluster and bluff — along with his status as a columnist and self-appointed usage expert for the Telegraph — to try to persuade everyone to defer to his fantasy.
Whatever floats his boat. But why should the BBC connive at involving schoolchildren in his linguistic perversions? Learning standard written English is a good thing, but memorizing the lexicographical fantasies of self-appointed experts is at best a waste of time. It confirms many children's belief that learning to write is impossible, like trying to please a cruel and capricious boss who is likely to punish you at random even for following the best practices of the past.