Errors & Omissions: Even the disinterested can be distracted now and again
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 14 April 2012
In our excellent series about the failings of NHS nursing this week, we used "disinterested" to mean "uninterested", twice. It hardly matters, because no confusion of meaning is likely, but as long as there are enough people who care, we should try not to distract them unnecessarily. "Disinterested" means impartial, as in "not having an interest" in the outcome, whereas "uninterested" means lacking in curiosity. Thanks to Derek Watts, a reader from Lewes, for demonstrating that I am not alone in being distracted.
Small difference: The same applies to "different to", used in a news report on Thursday instead of "different from". The Prime Minister had answered a question about the Budget plan to limit tax relief on charitable donations. "He sparked speculation about a government retreat by adopting a markedly different tone to a Downing Street briefing 24 hours earlier." It does not matter much, but we might as well use the form that some of us pedants think of as "correct".
Doctor Whom: In similar vein, Sara Neill writes to point out that we wrote "who" rather than "whom" in a preview on Thursday to Will Self's television play, Minor Character. Again, that hardly matters, but, as she also says, there was a serious fault in the sentence, which said that the play features David Tennant, "who we meet while dressing for a funeral and having caustic thoughts about his social circle". The grammar leads the reader to thinking that it is we, the viewers, who are dressing for a funeral and having caustic thoughts. The confusion can be sorted out quickly enough, but the reader should not have to work so hard.
Better assumption: Just to prove that we pedants are not mere fault-finders, let me praise Tom Sutcliffe, who reviewed the previous night's television programme about the sinking of the Concordia. "'At this point, the situation is under control,' reassured the ship's loudspeaker over scenes showing that it was anything but." Sutcliffe commented: "Some people instantly assumed the worse." What a lovely subversion of the cliché, to "assume the worst", which would have been wrong, because the people were not necessarily assuming that the ship would sink – merely that the situation was worse than they were being told. Sutcliffe's precision is admirable.
Zombie apocalypse returns: A headline on Wednesday read: "Shares tumble across world as eurozone fears return." Writing good headlines is a harder job than most people realise, but it is always worth checking whether nouns could be read as verbs, or the other way round. In this case, I stumbled at first, thinking that the eurozone was afraid of the return of something.
Freedom of information: How much knowledge should we assume in people? There is always a balance to strike between insulting readers with egg-sucking instructions and leaving them baffled. On Thursday, a feature left me behind by quoting Hillary Clinton's text-speak: "Sup adam. nice selfie Stace :-)" It then went on: "There isn't space here to translate her post," which, in a whole-page article, was cheekily untrue. "Sup" may be short for "super", and a "selfie" must be a "self-portrait", but who or what is Stace? I think we wrinklies have a right to know.
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