Errors & Omissions: Don't never attempt to use too many negatives


The word "not" is one of the most troublesome for newspapers.

The Daily Mirror used to ban it in first paragraphs. Any sentence with two or more nots in it ought generally to be quarantined, as this should have been, on Wednesday: "Not any of this would be a problem for the BBC if it were not for the suggestion that Mr Peston's scoops this month were not helpful to Mr Murdoch's media organisation." The third not was a mistake, of the kind that often happens with double negatives. It was a mistake more likely to happen after that odd "Not any" at the start, which was corrected to "None" in the internet version of the article.

Not literally: Another word of which sub-editors should be wary is "literally". Steve Richards got into a tangle with it on Tuesday, when he said that, after recent events, David Cameron "cannot lead a government in which he [Rupert Murdoch] triumphs. This is almost literally the case now that Nick Clegg has overtly called for Murdoch to pull out of the bid". The sense is clear enough: at first Mr Cameron did not want Mr Murdoch's bid to succeed, because it was so unpopular and the Government would be blamed for allowing it; after Mr Clegg's statement, Mr Cameron was unable to allow the bid, because the Liberal Democrats would withdraw support from the Coalition. But Richards obviously realised that it was not as clear cut as that: would Mr Clegg really bring the Government down over this? Hence the "almost", which renders "literally" meaningless. Something is either literal or it is metaphorical. Unusually, "literally" on its own would have been fine.

More fool them: Richards also referred at one point to BskyB, which is just a typing mistake, but I blame the company for adopting a name with mixed upper and lower case. I remember Jeremy Warner, when he was City Editor of The Independent, once responded with magnificent disdain when a reader pointed out that he had confused Aviva, the insurer, with Arriva, the bus company. "More fool CGNU for rechristening itself Arriva is what I say. Or should that be Aviva?"

Rolling in the deep: We gave Adele's concert at the Roundhouse four stars in Monday's newspaper. Our reviewer was much taken by The Voice: "Adele seems to have mastered her God-given instrument to perfectly compliment the sentiment of her songs." That should be complement. The words seem to have the same root, the Latin for complete. I suppose you could argue that the voice paid a compliment to the sentiment by making it sound even better, but the sense we wanted here was that of making complete, providing needed balance or contrast. When English spelling became codified, the word with an I was reserved for saying something nice about someone (originally complying with or completing the obligation of courtesy), and that with an E for something that goes well with something else. It is a trivial distinction, of course, but as long as it distracts some readers we should stick with the conventional usage. The same goes for the split infinitive. It does not matter much, but if we had said "to complement perfectly", everyone could have paid full attention to the remarkable success of Ms Adkins.

Doubly doubtful: "Remediation work was started on the brownfield sight several months ago." Thanks to David Jacobs for drawing attention to an article last Saturday about Manchester City's planned "Etihad Campus". Remediate is not a word. We might have meant remedial, but no adjective was needed. Cross it out, or explain. And "sight" for "site" is a common spell-checker-proof mistake. One day someone will get rich writing a homophone-detector program.

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