Errors & Omissions: Those rampaging nouns have been on the loose again

The 1960 science-fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz concerns a community of Latin-speaking monks surviving in an America devastated by nuclear war.

In an early scene one of them puzzles over a sign on a wrecked building: "Fallout survival shelter". How perverse the English language was, he reflects, with its sloppy habit of piling up nouns one in front of the other, each seeking to qualify the next.

You wouldn't need to be a Latin-speaking monk to have had similar trouble with this headline, which appeared on a business page last Saturday: "Double dip worries weigh on blue chips." I defy anybody to get it first time. At first sight "worries" looks like a verb and you expect to be told what it is that the double dip worries. "Weigh" doesn't fit in with that idea, so you go back to the beginning, and realise that "worries" is a noun, and the noun phrase "double dip" is being used adjectivally, qualifying "worries". It's a "fallout survival shelter" construction.

A hyphen would have been a big help: "Double-dip worries" is more or less clear. But I'm still not crazy about it.

Verbiage: On Thursday we published a piece about the caterers who do canapés for fashion shows. It contained the following sentence: "Lyndy Redding is something of an old hand when it comes to making canapés."

"Something of" and "when it comes to" are just floppy verbal material extruded for no reason by the idling human brain. Compare the sentence "Lyndy Redding is something of an old hand when it comes to making canapés"with "Lyndy Redding is an old hand at making canapés". The longer sentence offers nothing – neither information nor imagery – that is not in the shorter. Just more words.

Flashing and flaying: Anthony Day has written in to point out this sentence, from Adrian Hamilton's Thursday comment column: "The key part of the draft which the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, sought to water down is the clause in which the Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, cast coruscating comments on the behaviour of the British authorities."

Now, it may be that his Lordship's judicial prose is so brilliant that it may be said to throw off flashes of light, which is what "coruscate" means. However, in the context it is more likely that the writer wanted to comment on the severity of the judgment, suggesting that to be at the receiving end of it was like having your skin ripped off. The word for that is "excoriate".

The erroneous use of "coruscate" for "excoriate" is so common that I suspect we may be witnessing a shift in usage that will eventually have to be acknowledged by dictionaries and allowed to stand. But for now, let's try to get it right.

Imperfect storm: In a tribute to the fashion designer Alexander McQueen, published last Saturday, Susannah Frankel wrote: "Alexander McQueen showered his Plexiglas catwalk with rain one season and caused it to burst into flames the next. He created a larger-than-life snowstorm, peopled by the world's most glamorously attired ice-skaters ... An elevated glass wind-tunnel through which a lithe young model made her way in a heavily embroidered kimono that billowed behind her like a cloud. It was not uncommon for McQueen's audience to be reduced to tears by the sheer loveliness and audacity of his vision."

That is fine, vivid writing, obviously inspired by genuine love. Only one thing: what is a "larger-than-life snowstorm"? The phrase seems to imply that real-life snowstorms are of a particular size, which was exceeded by McQueen's artificial one. That can't be right. It seems that "larger-than-life", as used here, is just a high-sounding way of saying "really, really enormously huge".

Initial setback: A feature on Thursday about modernist architecture displayed this disastrous picture caption: "Simmons Hall, MIT, Cambridge, Maryland."

I bet I know what happened. Somebody read the agency caption on the picture of this weird but engaging university hall of residence. It would have said that the hall was in "Cambridge, MA". Maryland, right? No, Maryland is MD. MA is Massachusetts.

The hapless perpetrator would have been put on the right track if they had reflected on what MIT stands for. It's a fair bet that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would be in Massachusetts.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)