Errors & Omissions: Write about literacy and wait for the inevitable clanger


Arbitrary rules govern what you can leave out of headlines.

You can get away with a good deal, but this is going too far: "Children with no books rises." That appeared above a story on Monday, reporting that a third of children have no books of their own at home, according to a survey by the National Literacy Trust.

Better not ask what the National Literacy Trust would say of a headline that leaves out the subject of the main verb. It has to be "Number of children with no books rises". But there are two problems with that. "Number of" is a dull start, and the words do not fit the fairly challenging shape the layout imposes on this headline – three lines, each of no more than 10 characters.

Heigh ho. It is an iron law of the inky trade that a story about literacy is bound to contain a horrendous error of spelling or grammar.

You don't scare me: Here is the opening of a news story published on Monday: "A massive bomb dropped on the city of Koblenz by the allies during the Second World War was successfully defused yesterday, after a scare which forced the evacuation of about half of the 107,000 residents."

Two observations here. Is "scare" quite the right word? It carries the suggestion that the alarm was unfounded. But this was a real and dangerous bomb. I wouldn't say "scare" was outright wrong, but "alert" would have been better. And "successfully", on this occasion as nearly always, is a waste of space. Strike it out. Do you think there is such a thing as unsuccessfully defusing a bomb? Don't try that one at home, kids.

Fatal attraction: More redundancy in a TV preview published on Wednesday: "Kathleen Turner made her sensational film debut as the sexy femme fatale who seduces sleazy lawyer William Hurt." Does the writer think there is such a thing as a frumpy femme fatale, or does he fear that some of his readers aren't too sure what a femme fatale is? The opposition of "sexy" and "sleazy" gives the sentence rhetorical force, but does it come at too high a price?

Such a pity: This is from an analysis piece on Tuesday: "Ms Merkel's treaty changes will not address that fundamental flaw – and they will not help to alleviate the present crisis. As such, the German Chancellor is engaged in elaborate displacement activity."

It's not the most terrible thing in the world, but I am always surprised to find "as such" where I would expect "that being the case". In the best prose, "as such" always follows a statement about what a person or a thing is, or is like, and what comes after it must refer to the same thing. You could, for instance, say: "Ms Merkel's treaty changes are fundamental; as such they must be approved by referendum."

Precisely wrong: It is said that a Hollywood actress arriving at Heathrow was once quoted as follows: "Miss X said: 'I feel like a million dollars (£723,000).'"

The following, from a news story on Monday, doesn't rank that high in the all-time league table of daft currency conversions, but it is a game challenger: "Agreeable men earned an average of $7,000 (£4,490) less than their disagreeable peers." The story was reporting the results of a study by North American academics. The $7,000 was obviously a round figure. It just looks silly not to bung in the extra tenner and convert it to £4,500.

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