Errors & Omissions: Stick to English if you want to avoid the trap of foreign phrases
Saturday 17 October 2009
This newspaper has a bad habit of making a hash of foreign languages. We have been at it again.
Last Saturday a comment piece began thus: "There is a new class struggle in Britain today. Never mind working man and landed toff or the mutual distrust of the socialist and the socialite. It is rus versus urbe." At that point, readers with Latin will have winced. It is a pity, because "the socialist and the socialite" was good fun.
The familiar Latin phrase rus in urbe means "the countryside in the city". Urbe is in the ablative case, following in. But if you use a Latin noun in an English sentence, it is usual to give it in the nominative: "It is rus versus urbs." But at that point readers without Latin will be baffled. The only way out is to revert to English: "It is town against country." What is wrong with that?
Then on Wednesday the Life section twice encountered French and came off worse. A recipe was given for "Petit pois à la Française". That means something like "a little pea belonging to the Frenchwoman". It should have been "Petits pois à la française".
Two pages on, a Hit & Run item about Asterix referred innocently to a French region called Bourgogne – "looking at the map at the beginning of an Asterix book, that's almost in Lutetia territory, or Luxembourg" – in apparently ignorance of its familiar English name: Burgundy.
Journalese: Whenever you see "just" before a figure, strike it out. That sly, irritating little "just" appeared twice in a piece in last Saturday's magazine about Mike Perham, a 17-year-old boy who has sailed solo round the world.
"At just 14 years old," the reader was informed, "the schoolboy also completed a solo Atlantic crossing." And farther down the piece: "Perham started sailing when he was just 14 years old."
The journalese "just" conveys no information to the reader; neither does it paint a picture in the imagination. It's only function is to tell the reader how to react. The required reaction is one of amazement. All together now; "Ooh, er – just fancy that!" What gives us the right to order our readers about like that?
Mystery of Stonehenge: On Tuesday we carried a news story about a plan for a new visitor centre at Stonehenge. It supersedes a more expensive plan that was not carried out. In the third paragraph came this: "The scheme, designed by Denton Corker Marshall, will cost £26m – one twentieth of the original project by the same architects. 'Sir Philip Green probably spent more than that on his son's bar mitzvah,' commented one leading British architect."
No wonder the person who uttered this inanity did not want to be quoted by name. Who is Sir Philip Green? Many readers will know that he is the retail tycoon who owns BhS and throws lavish parties, but others will be left puzzled unless they are told. What has he to do with Stonehenge? Search me. And how much did he spend on his son's bar mitzvah? Reportedly, £4m, which is less than £26m, not more.
The subtext of the quotation is: "What, only £26m? Somebody like Philip Green would spend more than that on a party! Ho ho!" Readers who don't instantly recognise the name of Philip Green as a byword for big spending on parties could get the wrong end of the stick. There is nothing anti-Semitic about this quotation; the stereotypic slur about Jews and money says that they are grasping and mean, not extravagant. But the reference to a prominent Jewish businessman is so wildly irrelevant that the baffled reader is drawn into all kinds of speculations about why it is there.
The writer was merely trying to make a rhetorical flourish about the low cost of the Stonehenge scheme. Try again.
Such as? A News in Brief item on Monday about Glastonbury Festival reported: "This year's festival attracted 137,000 music fans and featured acts such as Blur, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen." Pedants are constantly, and rightly, trying to stop people writing "like" when they mean "such as", but "such as" is not always right either. It implies some common characteristic linking the items listed. But these are merely three prominent acts that happened to appear at the festival. "Including" would have been better than "such as".
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