Errors & Omissions: Xxxxxx marks the spot where the headline should have been

I think the little heading was intended to say something like "Presidential popularity". It headed a panel that formed part of a foreign news spread published on Thursday, about President Obama's healthcare reforms. Unfortunately it came out in later editions as "Xxxxxx".

This was what we call dummy copy. When a page layout is put together on screen, it cannot be made out of blank space. So the editor who is designing the page puts in bits of random text, in the required typefaces, to represent the final story text, captions, headlines and so on. In the process of producing the page, various people will come in and replace this dummy copy with the intended text for publication. But occasionally bits can get forgotten, as in this case, and the dummy copy ends up published.

Still, it could have been worse. Fortunately the damage was contained, because proper procedures had been followed. The important thing when putting dummy material into a layout is never to try to amuse your colleagues. To publish a headline that says "Xxxxxx" or a picture caption that says "Three-column caption here please" is merely an embarrassment. If you want to see a disaster, publish a caption that says, "Please try to find something to say about these sad old farts." Such things have happened.

***

Wrong number: "The first photos of Californian child rapist Philip Garrido's garden," Guy Adams's LA notebook reported on Thursday, "were taken by Nick Stern, a British paparazzi, who simply leapt a fence into the crime scene and began snapping." That should have been "paparazzo". The original Paparazzo was a press photographer in Federico Fellini's 1960 film La Dolce Vita. "Paparazzi" is the plural. Many Italian masculine nouns have the singular in –o and the plural in –i.

***

Figure it out: This is from Wednesday's news story about the British Medical Association calling for a ban on drink advertising: "Spending per household on drink increased by a factor of 81 per cent between 1992 and 2006." The words "a factor of" do nothing but confuse the issue. The writer means to say that spending increased by 81 per cent. If it increased by a factor of 81, that would mean that it became 81 times as large.

***

Tell me more: "The heirs of J R R Tolkien have settled a £133m lawsuit with New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The legal dispute threatened to block the release of two films based on Tolkien's novel The Hobbit. The heirs claimed the studio owed it [sic] millions of pounds in undistributed profits from the three films, which made £1.8bn worldwide and won 11 Oscars."

That was the entire text of a News in Brief item on Wednesday. "It" should of course be "them", but more serious is the failure to satisfy curiosity. What were the terms of the settlement? In fact, we don't know, because they were not disclosed. That was what the reader needed to be told, rather than ancient history about the Oscars.

***

Mixed metaphor of the week: "Breakthrough highlights the role of genes in Alzheimer's" – news headline on Monday.

I suppose you could picture a situation in which a light is shining behind some sort of barrier, but on this side all is darkness. Then somebody – presumably a scientific researcher in a white coat – comes and breaks through the barrier. Through the hole just made the light floods, and falls on a hitherto obscure object: the role of genes in Alzheimer's. It is difficult to picture this role, but maybe it is a sort of knotted object like the tortured human figures in the paintings of Francis Bacon.

No, it doesn't really work. A breakthrough is a military manoeuvre and the highlight is the brightest spot on the subject of a painting or photograph. No breakthrough ever highlighted anything.

***

Cliché of the week: The peculiar property of clichés is that familiarity leaches all the colour and flavour out of the words. Then all kinds of absurdities can pass unnoticed. This headline appeared above an obituary, published on Wednesday: "Francis Rogallo: engineer whose work paved the way for hang-gliders." There is such a thing as a flight path, but you still cannot pave the way for a glider.

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