Errors & Omissions: The sordid world of newspaper story introductions


A news story published on Thursday began like this: “Sarah Tressler, a 30-year-old stripper who worked the gentlemen's clubs of Houston, had a guilty secret: she earned a second income in the sordid world of newspaper journalism.”

That is what is known in the business as a drop intro. Usually the first paragraph of a news story states clearly what it is about. A drop intro eschews the usual thing and gives the reader a teasing sideways introduction. In this case, the story went on to disclose that things were actually the other way round: The Houston Chronicle had sacked Ms Tressler, allegedly because it didn't approve of reporters having a sideline in stripping. All jolly stuff, and quite nicely done – no doubt some readers really think that journalism is the more sordid occupation.

Pity about the headline though: "Journalist is sacked after her secret life as a stripper is exposed". Having read that, the reader will begin the story knowing what it is all about. It is never easy to write a headline on a story with a drop intro, but you have to enter into the spirit of the thing. Something like "Stripper's secret life exposed in press scandal" would have fitted the bill.

Number crunching: A leading article on Saturday said: "It is here that the substance of the arguments come in." No, the arguments may come in, but the substance comes in. There is nothing much to be said about this failure to tell the difference between singular and plural, except that there is far too much of it about, and I don't know why. Every day the public address system at my local station says that "for your safety and security, CCTV and 24-hour monitoring is in use". It's all I can do not to alarm my dead-eyed fellow commuters by screaming: "Are! CCTV and 24-hour monitoring ARE in use!" (And by the way, what is the distinction between safety and security?)

Main attraction: John Summers writes in to alert us to this, from a film review published on Monday: "Fashion model Agyness Deyn brings an unlikely glamour to proceedings. The producers are reportedly contemplating a spin-off film in which she would be the main protagonist."

"Protagonist" is a troublesome word. Derived from the Greek "protos agonistes", it means "first actor" – that is to say the principal character in a drama, or the central figure in any situation. "Main protagonist" is therefore a pleonasm.

Another common error is to assume that "protagonist" must be the opposite of "antagonist". It isn't, and it doesn't mean somebody who is in favour of something.

Misfire: This is from a news story published on Tuesday: "Critics suggest that it is hardline Muslim fundamentalists, inimically hostile to the West, rather than progressive groups, which have seized the reins of power." The writer seems to think that "inimically" means something like "intrinsically". In fact, "inimical" simply means "hostile". It is a late Latin word, "inimicalis", produced by putting a negating "in-" on the front of "amicus", which means "friend". So "inimical" is the opposite of "amicable".

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