Errors & Omissions: Always confusing when you wake up and think you're 15 'again'


Did Columbus discover America? It is true that he discovered certain islands that we now know to be in the Americas, but he believed that they were off the coast of Asia.

In what sense can he be said to have "discovered" a continent whose existence he never acknowledged? A similar question is posed by the following introduction to a feature article on Tuesday, about a woman who suffered amnesia: "Naomi Jacobs went to bed a 34-year-old mother – but the next morning was convinced she was 15 again."

The use of "again" here reminds us that words like "discovered" and "convinced" can be ambiguous. Do they refer to the facts as seen by the writer, or as seen by the person whose experience is being reported? "She was 15 again" is Naomi's situation as seen by the writer. But it didn't look like that to her. She didn't imagine that she had been transported back in time and was 15 "again". She had simply forgotten everything that had happened since she was 15, woke up believing she was still 15 and was bewildered by her suddenly aged appearance and her unfamiliar surroundings.

This is not an error or omission; merely a puzzle. The words "the next morning she was convinced ..." read to me as introducing a description of how things looked to Naomi, not to the writer – which is as it should be. But the word "again" takes us back into the mind of the writer.

Guilt trap: Sebastian Robinson writes to point out an error in an article about Ernest Hemingway in last Saturday's magazine: "He was pursued, for the rest of his life, by a colossal death wish – either to join his late father or to expatiate his guilt at his late father's death." That should be "expiate" – to lay to rest by atonement, not "expatiate" – to talk at length. Here we have two words of unconnected meaning whose forms have converged, laying a trap for the unwary. "Expiate" comes from the Latin piare, meaning to propitiate or cleanse, "expatiate" from spatium, meaning space, or length of time.

Figure it out: On Monday we carried a picture of a boat race in Venice. The caption contained this tortured sentence: "Depending on the fitness of the rower, the course can take between 2-5 hours or more to complete." Three problems here. Figures below 10 we spell out as words, so that should be "two" and "five". Second, a hyphen between two figures stands for the word "to": "between two to five" makes no sense; it should be "between two and five" or just "two to five". And what does "two to five or more" mean? Is it between two and five or more than five? How about this: "The fittest crews complete the course in two hours, but some can take more than five." That makes sense and is three words shorter.

Pope-a-Catholic shock: A news-in-brief item on Thursday told us of the discovery, in Sussex, of a hitherto unknown species of dinosaur. "The dinosaur has been identified as coming from the Mesozoic era, which began about 250 million years ago." The danger in writing about scientific topics is not getting the facts wrong but mistaking their significance – or in this case lack of it. All dinosaurs (except the ones we call birds) come from the Mesozoic era. It is not worth mentioning.

Gone West: "A famous building in London's West End caught fire yesterday," said a news story on Wednesday. The building in question is on the corner of Aldwych and the Strand, near Somerset House. We Londoners know how difficult it can be to fix the boundaries of districts, but surely nothing east of Charing Cross can be called the West End. Notice also two notorious journalese usages. "London's West End" is found only in mass media; real people call it either just "the West End", or "the west End of London". And "famous" is, as usual, simply untrue. The building is apparently called Marconi House. I've never heard of it.

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