Errors & Omissions: It's imagination that makes others' exceptional experiences real to us


On Wednesday Christina Patterson observed on the new book by the mother of Madeleine McCann: "No one who hasn't been to check on a child and found that she has disappeared, and not known if she was still alive, and not known if she was being abused, or raped, can imagine what Kate McCann went through and what she still goes through every day. But now we can have a glimpse, if we want to."

That is a common rhetorical device: "No one who hasn't . . . can imagine . . ." It sets out to dramatise the extremity of the experience – this was so terrible that you, the reader, cannot possibly imagine it. Well, we cannot know the quality of an experience we have never had, but we can easily imagine it. If we couldn't, there would be no drama, literature or movies. Indeed, the piece was largely an attempt – a successful one – to make Mrs McCann's ordeal vivid to the reader's imagination.

You may say that a rhetorical device does not have to be literally true. But neither does it have to be clean contrary to fact. And this one is usually easy to fix: just write "know" instead of "imagine".

City break: "It should be boomtime for Birmingham ... but Britain's Second City has a third-rate reputation." So opined the blurb introducing the Monday Essay. But isn't Birmingham usually reckoned to be England's, not Britain's, second city? What would the notoriously haughty burghers of Edinburgh think about it? For them, I imagine, being rated below London is absurd enough, let alone Birmingham. And Glasgow, I am told, once claimed to be the second city of the British Empire.

These are deep waters, particularly for the staff of a newspaper with a Mancunian editor. Can we safely award even the English silver medal to Birmingham?

Power of money: On Monday we ran a news story about The Sunday Times Rich List. It reported that Dame Mary Perkins, the founder of Specsavers, is "Britain's first self-made billionaire, joining 72 others who have at least 10 figures in their bank accounts".

Roger Baresel writes in to describe this as naïve, pointing out that billionaires will have most of their money tied up in their businesses or "out in the market place, earning its living", not sitting in a bank account. You might say that "in their bank accounts" is just a figurative manner of speaking, and doesn't claim to be literally accurate. None the less, I am with Mr Baresel. Why trot out a conventional phrase that isn't strictly true, when you could be making the truth vivid to the reader? How about "72 others who wield 10-figure fortunes"?

Homophone horror: According to a fashion article published last Saturday, Pierre Cardin has been "absent from the role call of labels taking part in the main international fashion weeks". That should be "roll call"; it is a confusion frequently seen. The Shorter Oxford is its usual informative self. "Role" and "roll" are, in origin, the same word, derived ultimately from rota, the Latin word for "wheel". In the Middle Ages the Old French form rolle arrives in English as "roll". Among its many meanings is a rolled-up scroll of parchment or paper, as in "muster roll". To call the roll is to check that the members of a military unit, or suchlike, are all present, by having them answer to their names, read out from a list.

Then, in the 17th century, the same word arrives again from France, now spelt "role", and carrying the much narrower meaning of the script setting out an actor's part. Hence, any function a person performs.

Cliche of the week: In his Tuesday business column, David Prosser wrote: "Britain is unique in having to manage the transition to low-carbon technologies at the same time as a whole generation of ageing power plants come to the end of their shelf life." Is anything gained by likening a power station to a supermarket apple tart? Surely, the power plants are simply coming to the end of their life.

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