Errors & Omissions: Accuracy can disappear when a headline-writer is pushed for time

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The Independent Online

A disastrous headline was published on Tuesday. Above a report of poll findings about the Libya campaign appeared these words: "Seven out of 10 want British troops out and fear 'another Iraq'."

The opening paragraph of the story said that respondents to the survey feared that British "armed forces will be sucked into a long Iraq-style military operation in Libya". That was based on the finding that 71 per cent of respondents agreed with the proposition that "I am concerned that the military action in Libya could result in Britain being dragged into a prolonged conflict like the Iraq war".

So far so good, but unfortunately "armed forces" is too long to fit into the headline. But don't worry, there is a familiar headlinese equivalent to hand – troops.

Whoops! This campaign, as far as Britain is concerned, involves only air and naval forces. There are no British troops in Libya (officially at least). The political leadership has been at pains to emphasise that there are no plans to put "boots on the ground". It gets worse. The words "want British troops out" strongly suggest that seven out of 10 respondents are opposed to British involvement in the campaign. That is not true. The survey revealed a much narrower margin of opposition. Presented with the statement "The Government was right to commit British armed forces to action in Libya", 43 per cent agreed and 47 per cent disagreed.

The headline started off trying to give the facts, but got hopelessly jumbled up along the way. That is what can happen when a hurried writer resorts to clichés.

Journalese: Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety, but Cleopatra has been taking a battering in recent days from those eager to say something arresting about the death of Elizabeth Taylor. Here is the opening of a news story published on Wednesday: "It is a fortune that even Cleopatra might have blushed at. Elizabeth Taylor, who immortalised the amorous pharaoh in the lavish 1963 movie of the same name, died leaving behind enough money to buy a pyramid or three of her own."

Now, my dictionary defines "pharaoh" as "an Egyptian king". I suppose you could apply the word to a queen, but it looks very odd. In any case "the amorous pharaoh" gives out the authentic clunk of a descriptive label stuck on a famous person for the benefit of readers from Mars. Thus Einstein is "the cigar-chomping boffin" and Stalin "the moustachioed dictator".

Pharaoh or not, Cleopatra was certainly not "immortalised" by Elizabeth Taylor. Her fame was immortal already. There has never been a time in the past 2,000 years when people did not know about her, and she will be remembered long after Taylor is forgotten. This use of "immortalised" for "portrayed in a film" has become so familiar that people no longer notice how silly it is.

More is less: Hamish McRae wrote in his Wednesday column: "It is hard to underestimate the significance of what is happening in Germany over nuclear power." He meant to say that the significance is very big. People of a pedantic turn would say he should have written that it is hard to overestimate. I would take that view, but the "underestimate" usage is very common. What is the thought process?

Those of us who think a big thing is hard to overestimate are, I think, picturing something like a scale of 1 to 10. It is marked with a bar near the top, at 9 or 9.5. That is the size of the big thing. Obviously, there is less space above the bar than below, so there is less scope to overestimate the quantity than to underestimate it. Ergo, it is hard to overestimate.

Those who think the big thing is hard to underestimate are, I think, taking the word "underestimate" to mean "make light of". So huge is the hugeness of the big thing that the mind cannot possibly make the mistake of thinking it small – that is their thinking.

Perhaps we should just drop this "hard to overestimate/underestimate" thing, since it is so easy to take it either way.