Errors & Omissions: A cause worth fighting for in the war of the words

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The Independent Online

We pedants love dying in the last ditch, and the more futile the resistance the more we love it. Some people, for instance, insist passionately that "decimate" must be used only in its original and "correct" meaning. But do we really need a word that means "kill one in 10"?

However, some last ditches are worth dying in, and one of them is "plethora". This is from a news story on Thursday about the Icelandic volcano: "They use a plethora of scientific instruments to gauge the thickness of the ash." Do we really need a word that means a harmful excess of something which, in due measure, would be beneficial? Yes, actually, we do; and that is what "plethora" means. If we keep using it to mean just "a lot", then we will lose a useful word, which would be a pity.

Journalese: "The spectre of travel chaos is again haunting European air passengers," said a news story on Tuesday, reporting on that volcano. The comic effect here derives from the combination of two hackneyed journalese images. Chaos is an absurd exaggeration when what you really mean is the cancellation of air flights – actually a fairly orderly process. And any unpleasant prospect is, in the journalese world, a spectre. A literal spectre is a terrifying ghostly apparition. Try to imagine what "the spectre of travel chaos" would actually look like.

Small mistake: Still with the volcano, several readers have written in to draw attention to this headline from the same page: "Smaller ash particles should mean less chaos". When you read the story beneath, you realise that "Smaller ash particles" should read "Bigger ash particles". There is not much to say about that really, except, "There, but for the grace of God go I." In the hurly-burly of news production it is frighteningly easy to get things the wrong way round.

Deus vult: "Barack Obama and David Cameron will today vow to lead a crusade for democracy in the Arab world – if necessary by using military might to protect people from autocratic regimes." So said a news story on Tuesday. I hope nobody in either government calls it a crusade. That would not go down well in the Middle East. Notice also the phrase "military might". I quoted Evelyn Waugh's Scoop only last week. Its satire on journalism remains uncannily apt. Remember the mysterious Mr Baldwin and his admonition to the tyro reporter William Boot: "You should ask me whether I have any message for the British public. I have. It is this: 'Might must find a way.' Not 'Force', remember; other nations use 'force'; we Britons alone use 'Might'."

And so it remains, more than 60 years later.

Who he? "Among the last to hear, before the case went to court, was Mr Hutcheson's daughter Tana, who is married to Gordon Ramsay. He broke the news to her late last year, after his business relationship with her father fell apart, though he had known about it for several months." That was the third paragraph of a news story, published on Thursday. The two preceeding paragraphs had all been about Mr Hutcheson. The word "he" appeared in them five times, every time referring to Hutcheson. Coming on a sentence beginning, "He broke the news...", the reader assumes "he" is still Hutcheson, and does a double-take on realising that "he" is now Ramsay. A switch in the attribution of a pronoun always needs to be adequately signalled. In this case, "Her husband broke the news to her..." would have done the job.

Colour code: On Thursday we published a photograph of the great Downing Street barbecue. A caption remarked: "The brown uniforms are British; the US servicemen are in navy blue." Khaki is an Urdu word meaning "dusty". The British Army adopted khaki uniforms for active service in the late 19th century in response to the firepower of modern rifles, the previous red being too conspicuous. The officers present at Downing Street would be surprised to learn that their uniforms were brown.