Errors & Omissions: The story of the Royal Navy's incredible hulk

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HMS Severn is one of the Royal Navy's new river class offshore patrol vessels. Armed with machine guns and 20mm cannon and able to deploy both landing craft and helicopters, she represents the very latest in fishery protection, combined with roles including disaster relief and firefighting.

How then can it be that the following appeared in our Wednesday report of the homecoming of Ellen MacArthur? "Five miles out to sea ... beside the pyramidal hulk of HMS Severn, the weather was clearing and a single sail reached into the sky from a giant trimaran."

A hulk is the dismantled hull of a sailing ship, no longer fit to go to sea. The word has particularly dismal associations from the prison hulks of Georgian England. We may surmise that "hulk" crept in here in a conflation of "hull" and "bulk". However it happened, to suggest that the Severn is anything like a hulk is an insult to a fine unit of the Queen's Navy.

Stop press: This may be getting more serious. Visiting naval vessels frequently berth at the dockside right outside The Independent's offices. By coincidence (at least I hope that is what it is), there has just arrived the Severn's sister ship HMS Mersey. I can see her from the window as I write. Nothing less like a hulk could possibly be imagined. Hold your fire, gentlemen. We didn't mean it!

Trying too hard: My old schoolmate Charles Clarke has just committed a terrorist outrage against the English language. We reported on Wednesday that he told the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee: "Events around the weapons of mass destruction issue in Iraq have led to a scepticism about the quality of intelligence on important matters. I don't think that is fair. But there's no doubt that the great range of issues around that have given rise to scepticism and doubt, in its genuine sense, not necessarily disbelief, about what we can and cannot believe about security assessments."

Mr Hartley, English master at Highgate School all those years ago, would have taken a ruthless blue pencil to that. You can see what the Home Secretary is struggling not to say: "People have concluded that what we said about Saddam's WMD was not true. They are therefore reluctant to believe what we say now about terrorist threats."

I suppose Clarke deserves some credit for touching on a ticklish subject. But note what frequently happens when a man is struggling not to say something, but is nevertheless obliged to make some utterance. Abstract nouns, bland and bloodless, flood into his speech: events; destruction; issue; scepticism (twice); quality; intelligence; matters; doubt (twice); range; issues; sense; disbelief; security; assessments. Note also that the one bit he is happy and relaxed about is expressed in direct, simple language: "I don't think that is fair."

Daft headline of the week: "Howard wants 14,400 more criminals to be locked up" - and if you ask him he will give you their names. The facts behind this news headline from Tuesday are that Michael Howard has put forward certain policies for what he sees as tough action on crime, and he accepted that they would increase the prison population by something like 14,400. The headline confuses a result with an intention. Mr Howard is not setting out to lock up 14,400 people. He wants to lock up certain classes of people, such as burglars. That there will be 14,400 of them is merely incidental, though not necessarily unwelcome to Mr Howard.

If this is Tenerife... The strange English conviction that all the hot countries in southern Europe border the Mediterranean Sea led us astray again on Monday. On the front page we reported on the plight of boat people who try to reach Spanish territory from Africa. A leading article mentioned patrolling by the Spanish navy and went on: "But this has not stopped thousands of Africans braving the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. More than 7,000 made it to the Canary Islands from Morocco in the past year." A perilous journey across the Mediterranean would be heartbreaking if you were trying to reach the Canaries, which are in the Atlantic.

Metaphor soup: On Tuesday a leading article commented on the Middle East: "Now suddenly the stars are back in alignment. The peace process, we may dare to hope, may be back on track." We all travel on railways that sometimes feel as if they are being run with the help of astrological charts, but even so ...

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