Errors & Omissions: Compare and contrast – and thoroughly confuse the reader


It is a jolly idea to start a story with a contrast, capturing the reader's attention with the implied question, "Is it this, or is it that?" Well, here are two contrasting attempts at this rhetorical trick, from two news stories published this week.

First this, published on Thursday: "To its supporters it blends seamlessly into the commanding moorland setting, evoking the high principles of green thinking with the mystical atmosphere of an Orcadian neolithic settlement. Those who are not so keen on the planned futuristic dwelling of Manchester United star Gary Neville believe that it bears more than a passing resemblance to the troglodyte abode of the Teletubbies."

And now this, from Wednesday: "For most people the arrival of summer provides the perfect excuse to try to master the tricky skill of cooking on a barbecue, sunbathe in a garden they usually never use and walk shirtless in places they otherwise would not. But for the police the hot weather signals one thing: a spike in crime." The first of those paragraphs is a success, the second a disaster. I would single out two reasons.

First, both end with an effect like a deflating balloon. But in the first case it works, swooping from the high-flown "mystical atmosphere" all the way down to the Teletubbies. In the second case the opening sentence just seems to lose the will to live, with the dying mumble of "... places they otherwise would not."

Note also that the first passage is all about the subject of the story – the futuristic house. In the second we don't get to the point – crime in the summer – until the second sentence. To reach it, we have to plod through a lot of stuff about barbecues that the reader already knows, put in by the writer to manufacture a contrast.

University challenge: Peter Jefferson Smith writes in from south London to draw attention to a news report in Thursday's paper. It dealt with poor job prospects for new graduates: "Mark Wiseman, 22, who is studying maths at Queens' College, Cambridge, has tried in vain to seek a job as an actuary when he leaves the leafy spires of his university this summer."

Full marks to the writer for getting the apostrophe in the right place in the name of the college, the foundation of which involved more than one queen. Queen's College is in Oxford. A pity that this success is followed by two bloopers.

The lad hasn't tried in vain to seek a job. He has sought a job all right. He has tried in vain to find one. And what is all this about "leafy spires"? Mr Jefferson Smith comments: "I was at Cambridge in the late 1950s, and I don't remember any leafy spires then: but biotechnology has made wonderful progress." Well said, but it's even worse. The writer evidently has a vague memory of the "city of dreaming spires", but that is Oxford. The old churches and college buildings of Cambridge favour towers, not spires, whether leafy or not.

Don't sneer: A complicated sentence with a negative is always a minefield. This one blew up in the face of Matthew Norman on Wednesday: "Many of us are delighted by the prospect of the legislature treating the executive with other than sneering contempt."

This must be the wrong way round. It is the executive that many people say has been treating the legislature with sneering contempt in recent years, a matter they hope may be put right by the Government's reforms.

Fruitless controversy: Here is the opening of a news story, published on Wednesday: "Plans to create Europe's biggest asylum removal centre at Heathrow airport have been condemned by inspectors, who say the detention conditions will be like an 'oppressive prison'. The controversial extension to Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre will more than double the number of refugees and immigrants held there."

"Controversial" is one of those words that can be shot on sight. (See also "famous" and "relatively".) The readers have been told that the plan has been condemned by inspectors. They can work out for themselves that it is controversial.

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