Errors & Omissions: Accidents do happen, but not necessarily in a certain Cold War comedy

By Guy Keleny


Many items of common knowledge turn out, on examination, to be wrong. Rupert Cornwell wrote on an opinion page on Monday: "You don't have to be a fan of Dr Strangelove to recognise that wars can start by accident."

Everybody knows that Stanley Kubrick's Cold War black comedy masterpiece is about a nuclear war starting by accident, right? Actually, no. The nuclear war in Dr Strangelove is started deliberately by a mad US Air Force general who believes fluoridation is a communist plot to pollute people's "bodily fluids".

Shirt tale: The Notes feature on the same page contained a list of "unwise things to do". They included wearing "a Goldman Sachs t-shirt".

I haven't seen "t-shirt" before, but "tee-shirt" is quite common. Why? This garment derives its name from the fact that if you lay it out flat with its short sleeves sticking out sideways it resembles a capital letter T. It is therefore called a T-shirt. What's difficult about that?

Pedantry corner: Thursday's paper yielded examples of two of those tiresome little points that keep popping up. Some people care about them a great deal; others do not.

One of them is the split infinitive, which doesn't worry me very much. This is from the Pandora column: "I felt it was only right to inquire when he was going to finally don the sombrero and take a well-earned holiday." Strictly speaking "was going to don" is not an infinitive, but the split infinitive police will be on the case none the less, demanding "was finally going to don". And it is best not to annoy the split infinitive police, since the editor of this newspaper is a senior officer in the force.

This, from a news report the same day, is in my view much more serious: "Running to an excessive 140 minutes, fans won't be insulted, but neither will they be entranced by a film that loses sight of its aims." Yes, it's the hanging participle, a bugbear familiar to readers of this column. The participle "running" is liable to attach itself to the nearest available noun or pronoun: in this case "fans". So the fans are running? No, of course not, but the words say they are.

I suppose some people don't even notice the discrepancy. "What does it matter?" they mumble in their oafish way. "We can see what the writer means."

To those who value language for the beauty of its form, not just for the information it conveys, the irritation resides in that very point – that we can see what the writer means. "If that is what he means," we demand through gritted teeth, "why has he said something completely different?"

Daft headline of the week: Somebody had a little snigger on a news page on Monday: "Filipinos pin hopes of new political era on balding bachelor."

Not only does Benigno Aquino have to wrestle with his country's many problems; he has to put up with jumped-up sub-editors in London calling him a balding bachelor. That this description of him was given in the text of the story does not justify pulling it out for the headline, as if this were the only important thing about him.

This headline exhibits crass bigotry in terms of both nationality and gender. We would certainly not feel free to insult a British political candidate in such a way. Nor is it conceivable that we would describe a woman, from no matter how distant a country, as, say, a scrawny spinster.

Flying high: A political story on Monday began thus: "David Cameron faces a momentous challenge to hold his troops together if he negotiates a deal with Nick Clegg, Tories from all wings of the party warned last night."

All wings? How many wings has the Tory party got? Armies have wings, one at each end of the fighting line, and political parties are similarly thought of as having a left and a right wing. The Liberal Democrats' yellow bird clearly conforms to the usual pattern. But what is the Tory party? An insect with four wings, perhaps; or even one of those angels from the Bible with six.

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