Errors & Omissions: You really ought to think carefully before using the word 'real'


Whenever you find yourself writing the word "real", pause for a moment: you should probably cut it out.

The word is a philosophical minefield, and in common usage it often masks a confusion of thought. Take this headline, from Monday's paper: "The real reason women outlive men: it's all a matter of breeding."

The use of "real" here seems to imply that there is a popularly held idea about why women outlive men, but it has now been shown to be erroneous, and the true reason has been found. No such the thing. The story simply reports that nobody has hitherto known the reason, but now scientists think they have found it. So it's not the "real" reason, just the reason.

Not well: This is from a news story on Tuesday: "The bacteria which causes Weil's, leptospira, is one of the most commonly transmitted diseases between animals, but transmission to humans is almost unheard of." Bob Lowrie writes in to point out the common but mistaken use of "bacteria" as a singular. Some people have trouble getting their heads round the idea of a word with a plural ending in -a. Blame it on the Greeks and Romans. Commonly misused examples are "bacteria", from Latin, and from Greek "phenomena" and "criteria". The respective singulars are "bacterium", "phenomenon" and "criterion".

There is a strange wrongness about almost everything in this sentence. Leptospira is not a disease; "one of the most commonly transmitted diseases between animals" is in the wrong order; and "almost unheard of" sounds as if the transmission is semi-mythical. In fact, it is perfectly well documented. There is too much "transmission" going on. And the scientific Latin name of a living organism should be in italics. So: "Weil's is caused by the bacterium leptospira. The infection commonly passes between animals; for a human to catch it is extremely rare."

Apparently so: From time to time, we have pointed out how the term "heir apparent" is frequently misapplied to anybody who expects to succeed to anything. It is only fair, then, to mention a rare case of somebody getting it right. On Wednesday, a news story reported on a television drama about the marriage of Prince Felipe of Spain: "Felipe and Letizia: a Love Story started showing this week, and the timing couldn't be better for the heir apparent."

Yes, Felipe is his father's eldest son; no closer heir to the throne can appear and supplant him. He really is an heir apparent.

Who he? This column recently declared war on the use of the same pronoun to mean more than one person in the same sentence. But that is not the only kind of confusion about pronouns. The following is from Matthew Norman's Wednesday column, explaining Ed Miliband's political dilemma. "The source of Ed's current paralysis is easily understood. The urge to wait patiently for the scything of welfare to ignite social unrest and make the Coalition profoundly unpopular must be intense. A full-frontal, tribalist attack on Osborne's deficit reduction plan would make no sense, meanwhile, in the absence of a well-defined alternative, and would dangerously undermine his positioning as a responsible centrist."

Whose positioning? Surely "he" must be Osborne, mentioned a mere 21 words ago. No, keep scrolling back for further 35 words and you reach Ed. The general thrust of the paragraph, with Ed the protagonist throughout, indicates that "he" is Ed. Also, most readers will know that Ed is the one who is trying to position himself as a responsible centrist. The clues are there, but why set the readers such a puzzle? Just make it "Ed's positioning".

Verbiage: A story on Monday about the architect Le Corbusier included this: "But now the level of demand for such works means that even the most mundane items...are fetching thousands of pounds." "The level of" is one of those terms ending in "of" that amount to little more than preliminary throat-clearing. They can nearly always be struck out. Other examples are "a sense of", "a series of", "the introduction of", "a package of", "a basket of", "a raft of", "a range of" and "the prospect of".

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