Errors & Omissions: A stone's throw from yet another tiresome cliché
Saturday 31 October 2009
An arresting quotation drew the reader in to a report on Monday about a secondary school with its own small zoo. "'You want the head's study?' the receptionist asked. 'It's past the ducks and the alpaca and then it's on the left.'"
What a shame, then, to spoil it with a crashing cliché in the second paragraph, which described the school as being "a stone's throw from Coventry's bustling city centre". Who in real life measures distances in throws of stones? And does Coventry city centre bustle any more than any other shopping precinct?
Controversial renown: Our report, also on Monday, of Angela Merkel's new government said that it included "a controversial and openly gay foreign minister". Controversial here is a meaningless word, not even designed to tell the reader what to think, but to alert the reader that he or she ought to have an opinion. It contaminates the reference to the minister's being openly gay, which, it turns out, is not the source of controversy. In fact, the controversy appears to relate to the next part of the sentence: "... who is renowned for refusing to answer questions in English".
Renowned is the wrong word. The dictionary may simply define it as "famous", which is all it means from its French origins. But one of the joys of the abundant vocabulary of the English language, full of duplicates of Germanic and Romance origin that mean similar things, is that such words acquire subtler shades of meaning. Renown is positive; it means the kind of good name that you win for yourself by your conspicuous virtues. But it is not until after six more paragraphs of the story, about the new government's tax policies, that we learned the identity of the controversial and renowned minister: he is Guido Westerwelle, leader of the Free Democrats, the junior partner of the ruling coalition. And then, finally, we come to the interesting bit. Mr Westerwelle was, we are told, "lampooned" last month for snapping at a BBC reporter who asked a question in English. "We are in Germany. We speak German here." Sounds reasonable to me.
Cover-up: You could say that it is hard to choose a coat because there is so much choice. Or you could say, as we did in the Style & Beauty section on Monday: "Every winter, shopping for your new cover-up gets a little harder, as designers introduce further trends and variables to the mix." (Or you could say that more choice makes it easier to buy the one you want.)
Dematerialised: A news in brief item on Tuesday began: "A draft of a play intended to be performed for King James I on New Year's Day 1618, which never materialised, has been discovered." New Year's Day may have been celebrated on 25 March in England before the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1752, but we can be sure that the day itself dawned, time passed and the sun eventually set. What failed to materialise was the play, presumably meaning that it was never performed.
Inacquirate: I am Simon Carr's greatest admirer, and not just because I have seen him writing his parliamentary sketch on his BlackBerry – how can such fluent, offbeat observation get through such fiddly keys? So someone should have saved him from calling the former Home Secretary Jackie Smith yesterday.
Horror fiction: The story of Taylor Mitchell, the 19-year-old singer who was killed by coyotes while walking alone in a Canadian national park, is dramatic enough. There was no need, therefore, for our headline yesterday, "Canadian folk singer torn apart by coyotes on solo hike". Not least because there was nothing in the report to support the use of the phrase "torn apart"; she was, if you read to the end, "mauled" and left "bleeding heavily".
Green-eyed monster: Finally, a plea to retain the distinction in the English language between jealous and envious. Steve Richards yesterday said that Gordon Brown was not "jealous that his old rival might become a president as he struggles to remain Prime Minister". What Brown is not is envious. Jealousy is something that you feel about someone or something that you want to keep for yourself. Brown could be jealous of the premiership, but only envious of the European presidency. In any case, his "old rival" seems unlikely to threaten either.
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