Errors & Omissions: If you can't work out who is in which picture, the caption's not doing its job

Click to follow
The Independent Online

An essay about exorcism, published on Thursday, was illustrated by eight photographs. Four were film stills, and four were headshots of priests.

Seven of the pictures were arranged in a cloud in the middle of the page, the eighth by itself to the left. At the bottom was the following caption: "Satan on screen: The Rite; Stigmata; The Exorcist; The Exorcism of Emily Rose (centre, top to bottom); Father Walter Halloran, who inspired The Exorcist; Father Gary Thomas, who advised on The Rite; Father Gabriele Nanni, the official church exorcist (right, top to bottom); Pope Benedict XVI, far left."

Desperately, the reader's eye flickers between the caption and the photographs, trying to work out what is what. You can point out ways in which this caption could be improved. For instance, it would read better if it told you where to look for each image before telling you what the image was – "Far left: Pope Benedict" is better than "Pope Benedict, far left." But that is just tinkering. The truth is that the fashion for giving multiple photographs a common caption has turned to madness. What is wrong with giving each picture its own caption? The answer would be that it looks fussy and spoils the appearance of the page. Well, rather that, I say, than breaking the reader's brain.

Life study: On Tuesday we reported on a new sculpture of L S Lowry: "Based on an old sketch by his friend Harold Riley ... it was brought to life by sculptor Peter Hodgkinson."

Writers seem to have boundless faith in the miraculous powers of artistic creation. We are used to stories being "immortalised" on film. Now apparently a bronze statue is alive in a way that a pencil sketch is not.

Where from? On Monday we ran a story about allegations of staff bullying at the Commonwealth Foundation. Three people were mentioned; their names were Mark Collins, Anisha Rajapakse and Simone de Comarmond.

Mr Collins sounds British or Australian, while Ms Rajapakse is presumably from south Asia and Ms de Comarmond might be Canadian. But we don't know. Why weren't we told?

Newspapers do this all the time, mentioning officials of the Commonwealth, the EU or the UN without giving their nationality. It will be said that in the context of supranational organisations the nationality of individual officials is irrelevant. True enough, but I still want to know. Journalism should never be too grand to satisfy mere idle curiosity.

Mixed metaphor of the week: "Libya's bloody crackdown on the opposition protesters [has] pushed tensions in the North African country to boiling point."

This news report on Monday prompted Hugh Minor to write from Cardiff. He points out that boiling point has nothing to do with tension, and that tension occurs when you pull something from both ends; when you push it, you get compression. One thing is for sure – the author of the above sentence could never have designed a steam engine that worked.

Gadzooks! On Tuesday, a piece of colour writing about Libya asked: "And who knows what the Green Book Archives – and please, O insurgents of Libya, do not, in thy righteous anger, burn these priceless documents – will tell us?" You often find the obsolete pronouns "thou" and "thee", and their associated adjectives "thy" and "thine" used to impart an exotic flavour. The flavour may be medieval or, as in this case, oriental, carrying a spicy odour of the Arabian Nights. But in any case, do not forget that, "thou" is a second person singular. You cannot apply it to multiple people, such as "insurgents".

Cliché of the week: Let us declare war on the notorious "on a...basis". The people of Christchurch, New Zealand, readers were informed by a news report on Wednesday, "have become used to the grim reality of living in a city pummelled by powerful aftershocks on a near weekly basis". This sounds as if some bureaucrat had laid down the "basis" on which the aftershocks were to be timed. Try "nearly every week" .