Errors & Omissions: A headline that should come with a health warning
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at King's College, London, and at Queen Mary University of London. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Saturday 17 December 2011
Out of his mind: We noted a tension in American ideas about money in a leading article on Monday.
"The latest victim of this schizophrenic attitude is the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney," we said, after he was rounded on – in a country that celebrates wealth – for offering a $10,000 bet to a rival in a debate. We should be more careful in using words from mental health. Schizophrenia does not mean a "split personality". Schizo- comes from the Greek for split, but it refers to the separation between the mind and reality, not that between multiple personalities. Even if it were the right word to use, however, it would be in dubious taste.
Who is full of what? I hope to turn the tide against the misuse of "hopefully", although I admit that it does not usually matter much. This, by Mark Steel on Wednesday, though, tripped me up: "So, just like in 1940, we stand alone, and hopefully at every bus stop, you'll hear the plucky British saying: 'Blooming Krauts, who do they think they are telling us our bankers aren't allowed to rob us blind?'" For a moment, I thought he meant that the British would stand hopefully at bus stops, possibly waiting for a No 27. The placing of the commas does not help, but he means "I hope that". Perhaps it is a commendable reluctance to use the first person pronoun that prompts writers to use hopefully, but it is taking self-effacement too far.
Piano and forte: In our preview of Radiohead's new single, which is an attack on the Daily Mail, we described it as "a piano ballad which builds to a crescendo". A crescendo, as any junior thunker of the plinky-plonk knows, is a musical passage that becomes louder. It is not the bit to which the crescendo builds, which is usually called the climax. I suppose misplaced prudery might explain the frequency of this error.
Off the spiral track: Daniel Howden's brilliant report on Thursday from the conflict in Somalia was let down by two clanging clichés. One was in the headline, "UN-backed invasion of Somalia spirals into chaos". It is not the chaos so much – at least we were not describing lane restrictions on the A38 – it is the spiralling. An invasion going into a spiral? If it were the first time someone had used that metaphor, the failure of the image might be forgiven. Howden was presumably not responsible for the headline, but conjured another implausible picture in his report, which said: "Kenya's first foreign war ... is coming off the rails." I am told that there was a railway in Somalia, built by the Italians in the 1910s. But it was dismantled, by the British, in the 1940s.
In effect: As we approach the end of the year, I will invert this column's purpose to praise John Lichfield, whose report of the conviction of Jacques Chirac was a model of accurate and original writing. Take this early sentence: "Despite 14 years of delays and rearguard actions and despite the best efforts of his former protégé, President Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac, 79, was convicted by a Paris court of, in effect, embezzling taxpayers' money to fund his rise to the presidency between 1990 and 1995." Long, but clear, and dodging all the familiar traps into which lesser reporters fall. "Protégé" correctly spelt and accented. "In effect" rather than "effectively", which means something different. And no ghastly "from 1990-95". A thing of beauty and a joy for ever.
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