Errors & Omissions: Got carried away with words and forgot to make a clear point


Rhetoric is all very well, but let's remember what we are actually saying. This is from a comment piece published on Thursday: "Mr Cameron has a thousand domestic policies and his Big Society as a binding theme. In relation to events in the Middle East he had neither a policy let alone the international equivalent of a Big Society."

That should be either "He had neither a policy nor the international equivalent of a Big Society" or "He did not even have a policy, let alone the international equivalent of a Big Society". Either sentence will do (though they are not the same – the second emphasises the idea that a big theme is more difficult to construct than a mere policy). But the important thing is to choose one and stick to it.

Keep it simple: "Even today, there is a 20-mile 'exclusion zone' around the Chernobyl power plant where inhabitation is prohibited," said a news story on Monday.

One feels that the word "inhabitation" ought to exist. After all, the verb is "inhabit", and the people who do it are inhabitants. But, oddly perhaps, the abstract noun is still "habitation".

Why not avoid the whole problem – and get rid of that bureaucratic "exclusion zone" at the same time? Better to write: "Even today, people are not allowed to live within 20 miles of the Chernobyl power plant."

Favourite film: Our Tuesday news report about the Oscars said that The King's Speech "justified heavy favouritism to carry off four Academy Awards". I don't think the writer meant to say that the film benefited from an unfair advantage because of a personal relationship with those in a position to advance its fortunes. But that is what favouritism is – and, by definition, it could never be justified.

All that was meant was that the film had been a favourite in a betting sense. Most people imagined it would win. I don't think there is a name for the quality of being in that position; perhaps there should be, but it isn't "favouritism".

Deny everything: I know newspaper style pedants go on and on about "refute", but it is important. It is always important that readers know when the newspaper is reporting facts or statements by other people, and when it is making value judgements. An interview published on Monday began: "When a man the world takes to be ambitious writes a memoir flatly refuting his ambition, do we believe him?"

"Flatly denying" would be much better, on two grounds. "Deny" means simply to state that something is wrong. "Refute" goes further: it means to prove a proposition wrong, or to defeat it in argument. It follows that a refutation cannot be "flat"; to refute involves the elaboration of a case.

And further, "refute" implies that the case was made, that the antagonist has indeed been proved wrong. So when we use "refute" we are not merely reporting what the speaker has said; we are taking their side, stating that they won the argument.

And something more follows from that. In the passage above, the use of "refute" turns the question "Do we believe him?" into nonsense. Of course we do: if we didn't believe him we wouldn't assert that he had refuted the accusation against him, merely that he had denied it.

Cliché of the week: "You might be forgiven a sense of déjà vu. It is only 13 months since the original iPad was presented by the man in the black turtle-neck." So said a story on Thursday about the launch of the new iPad 2 by Steve Jobs, the Apple boss.

This "sense of déjà vu" keeps popping up, nearly always in the wrong context. Déjà vu is a psychological phenomenon in which you think that you have already experienced what you are experiencing now. After a few moments the feeling passes, and you realise it was an illusion. The people attending the launch of the iPad 2 had the feeling that they had experienced something similar in the past – for the very good reason that they really had. That was not déjà vu; it was just memory.

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