Errors & Omissions: Every picture tells a story, but sometimes it's the wrong one


On Monday, 14 February, we naturally had an article about declarations of love. John Walsh wrote about love letters. The article was illustrated with pictures of the writers Denis Diderot, John Keats, Victor Hugo and James Joyce – and what looked like a Victorian etching of a soppy-looking medieval monk, captioned thus: "St Valentine, a martyr for love."

But something was wrong. Careful inspection of this absurd picture revealed under the figure's hand a piece of paper – and written on it, in spiky Gothic script, the word "Heloïse". Clearly this was meant to be a picture of Peter Abelard, the 12th-century scholar whose forbidden love for the fair Heloïse led him to a fate you don't want to read about over breakfast.

It is impossible to know, by looking at the page, whether the picture desk was asked for St Valentine and mistakenly supplied a picture of Abelard, or whether the picture was meant to be Abelard – who would fit in with the other four writers of love letters – but was miscaptioned as Valentine by an inattentive sub-editor.

However, in a sense, none of it matters. Valentine is a legendary figure, traditionally supposed to have been a third-century Roman martyr. Nobody knows anything much about him – certainly not what he looked like. Abelard is a historical person; his writings survive. But I know of no authentic surviving portrait of him. In fact, a photograph of your Uncle Bert would be as good a picture of either of them as any 19th-century print. Why we so often try to pass these ridiculous things off as authentic portraits of figures from the past has always baffled me.

Last Saturday, it was even worse. Among the illustrations used in a picture spread about footballers' tattoos were a series of portraits of Viking monarchs, including such colourful characters as Harald Bluetooth and Sweyn Forkbeard. The representation of Sweyn was not even the usual Victorian etching, but a picture of an actor in costume. Pull the other one.

Kiss goodbye: Still on the theme of love, Monday's Digital Digest opined: "Over the course of the history of art one topic has recurred more than any other: the kiss."

Eh? More than the Madonna and Child? More than the formal portrait? More than the still life of objects on a table? It is frighteningly easy for statements like this, which sound credible but are in fact tosh, to creep into print.

Shrinking away: Here is Steve Richards, writing on Tuesday: "He genuinely believed that if the state shrunk, other more efficient providers would fill the gap." That should be "shrank".

Over recent years "shrunk", the past participle of "shrink", has been taking over the role of past tense also, driving out "shrank". The Society for the Preservation of English Irregular Verbs has placed "shrank" on its endangered list (along with "sank", "rang" and "striven" ). Use it or lose it. I think the title of the 1989 comedy film Honey, I Shrunk The Kids has a good deal to answer for. Maybe US usage is to blame for the decay of "shrank". But let's not be snooty about it; remember that stalwart America preserves "gotten" and "dove", where British English prefers the dull "got" and "dived".

Wrong word: Perhaps the spirit of Mrs Malaprop hovers over the land just now, with Penelope Keith portraying her so beguilingly on the London stage. Three of the most sadly familiar verbal misfires turned up this week.

Miles Howard writes in from Braintree to draw attention to this, from a leading article on Wednesday about elderly NHS patients: "Impersonal structures mitigate against the development of real bonds between staff and patients." That should be "militate" (fight), not "mitigate" (make mild). On the same day a film review said: "Miranda July hones in on throwaway details." Make that "homes", like a homing pigeon, not "hones", like sharpening a knife. And an article on last Saturday's personal finance pages mentioned "the flutter of excitement that an anonymous billet doux can illicit." No, "illicit" is an adjective, meaning not allowed. What was wanted was the verb "elicit", meaning to draw out.

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