Errors & Omissions: Readers want to both gawp at pictures and learn a few facts


Many years ago, The Times had a reputation for publishing, in a spirit of superb hauteur, captions which did not condescend to tell you anything much about the picture. Maybe it was assumed that people who wanted to gawp at pictures rather than read text were not clever enough to want facts.

Anyway, the story is told that once, beneath a photo with no accompanying story, there appeared the following caption: "A Chinese junk on the Thames at Marlow." That was it. No explanation of this startling apparition.

The spirit of that Chinese junk seemed to live on in the following caption, published in last week's Magazine: "An aircraft carrier returning to Portsmouth on 30 July 1982 is met by a flotilla of small boats."

Get a grip. Which one? We didn't have that many aircraft carriers. Two took part in the Falklands campaign: Hermes and Invincible. Five minutes spent comparing pictures on Wikipedia will tell you that this one is Hermes.

You've seen the film: Gavin Brown writes to draw attention to this headline, from a news page last Saturday: "Australia deports 'Silence of the Lambs' rapist to the UK."

The only basis for the analogy with The Silence of the Lambs (drawn by the Australian police) is that the man kept his victim prisoner. Mr Brown points out a couple of glaring differences. The criminal in the film was a serial killer, not a rapist, and he kept his victims in an underground dungeon, not, as in the Australian case, a shed.

This headline is an example of the lazy reliance on analogies from popular culture that has replaced the now discarded rags of classical learning. Once upon a time, dim writers inhabited a landscape of clichés in which everything was a Gordian knot, a Sisyphean task or a bed of Procrustes. Today it is the shower scene from Psycho, a Reservoir Dogs stand-off or a something "too far".

Ovid and Homer have been replaced by Hitchcock and Tarantino, but the principle is the same: nothing can be allowed to be itself, described in simple, literal language.

Highly irregular: On Monday an arts page published an interview with the actress Joanna Page – "small, blonde and irrepressible, her sentences a torrent of lovely sing-song Welshness, with longer words cleaved neatly down the middle ('mil-lion', 'act-ress')".

This column is ever the champion of English irregular verbs. Few are as gloriously irregular as "cleave", that old Teutonic survival meaning to split or hew asunder. The OED recognises no fewer than four past participles: cloven, clove, cleaved and cleft. So "cleaved" is not wrong, but why choose the most boring option?

Remember the scene in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, when the greenhorn reporter William Boot is sent to a London store to buy his kit for Africa? In his innocence, he asks for cleft sticks "for my despatches". The assistant replies brightly: "We can have some cloven for you. If you will make your selection I will send them down to our cleaver."

Quoth he: This is from a news report on Thursday: "Women throughout the country are at risk of abduction, rape, forced marriage and being traded as commodities, warned the report." That should have been "the report warned". Putting the noun at the end emphasises the source of the utterance. A rhetorical stress on the word "report" looks daft.

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