Errors & Omissions: It's understandably easy to confuse horses and royalty

A disastrous headline appeared on a business page on Monday: "CBI to unveil plans to reign in jobless total."

The confusion between "reign" and "rein" is quite common. One frequently sees "given free reign". In both cases it should be "rein". The metaphor is from horsemanship. When you rein in a horse you pull on the reins to make it slow down or stop. By contrast, to give it free rein is to relax one's hold and let the animal run free. "Reign" is something else altogether: the exercise of authority over a kingdom by a monarch.

I suppose the confusion arises because the two words are pronounced the same and differ in spelling by only one letter, and in meaning they both carry overtones of rule and restraint. Curiously, "rain" is also pronounced the same and spelt almost the same, but its meaning is different enough to save it from getting drawn into this mess. (At this point, foreign students of English may like to go and lie down in a darkened room for a bit.)

Be that as it may, how do you rein in a total? What the CBI wants to rein in is the growth of unemployment, not the total, which is a mere figure. The unemployment may be like a galloping horse, but the total is not; it is more like a furlong marker the horse has reached.

Finally, "unveil", a widely abused and devalued word. It ought to suggest a dramatic moment of revelation, veils being torn aside; some exciting mystery, hitherto hidden, being at last exposed for all to see. Not surprisingly, the story contained nothing of the sort. The Confederation of British Industry had thought up some proposals for labour market reform and had announced them, presumably through the mundane medium of a press release.

***

Risky: It has not been a very good week for business page headlines. Another one, on Wednesday, exhibited two of the dangers that lie in wait for those who practise this ultra-compressed form of expression: ambiguity between verbs and nouns and the unintended effects of line breaks. You need to see it with the original line breaks:

EU plans risk

driving away

hedge funds

To the reader, coming upon this for the first time, the top line looks like a complete sentence, with "plans" as the verb and "risk" as a noun. It makes perfect grammatical sense, though it is a bit of a puzzle that the EU should be planning a risk. Somewhere in the second or third line, the meaning becomes clear and the grammar reverses itself with a disagreeable lurch, "risk" becoming the verb and "plans" the noun.

***

Cut it out: A news report last Saturday dealt with overseas aid: "A White Paper on Monday will lay out a swathe of measures." We must applaud any attempt to avoid babbling on about rafts, packages and baskets, but a swathe of measures really won't do.

"Swathe" is an exhibit from the Museum of Ancient Metaphors, which preserves those objects, such as linchpins and mainstays, that scarcely exist in the real world any more but live on as metaphors. A swathe is the track of a man mowing grass or reaping corn with a scythe, the line of cut crop that he leaves behind him as he advances across the field. Some force may be said to "cut a swathe" through something or "leave swathe of destruction" behind. You cut a swathe through some stuff that is already there. If you bring things along and lay them out in a row – as the Government is doing with its aid policies – that is not a swathe.

***

Who she? This is the opening sentence of Christina Patterson's interview with the new Poet Laureate, published on Friday: "Last time Carol Ann Duffy met the Queen, she told her that Kipling was 'exceedingly good'." Who is she, and who is her? Who told whom? It's impossible to be sure, but the grammar and rhythm of the sentence suggest that "she" must be the subject of the previous verb "met", namely Carol Ann Duffy.

In fact, the next sentence makes it clear that, as you would expect, the person who likes Kipling, and makes a homely joke based on an advertisement for cake, is the Queen, not the poet.

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