Errors & Omissions: Left hand, meet right hand – and stop irritating the reader


"British law firm steps up fight against Europe's last dictator," said a headline on a news story on Tuesday. Next to the headline was a picture, carrying the following caption: "The Belarus President, Alexander Lukashenko, left, is described as Europe's last dictator."

"Yup," snarls the reader, "he certainly is: in your own headline, which I have just read. Now will you tell me something I don't already know?" Probably headline and caption were written by different people, and the left hand did not know what the right hand was doing. But that does not make it less irritating for the reader. Most people read the headline and caption first, before turning to the text of the story, so it is important that they say different things.

Remodelled: Oh no, it's those "models" again. Here is a picture caption from Monday's paper: "Models display Dolce & Gabbana styles at Milan Fashion week."

And there they are in the picture, a crowd of skinny young women wearing absurd clothes and grumpy expressions. They're models all right. Few readers will have assumed that they were plumbers, until the caption brought enlightenment.

A few years ago there was a rash of fashion captions beginning with "models" or "a model". This column ran a successful campaign against them. It seems the job is to do again. What next? Captions on the arts pages, perhaps, beginning "Actors ..."; or on the sports pages beginning "Footballers...".

These "model" captions are presumably written by men, who naturally but wrongly assume that the point of interest is the human being. No, lads, it's not a picture of a girl; it's a picture of a frock. The caption should say something like "Dolce & Gabbana on the catwalk at Milan Fashion Week...".

Who he? My old friend Alan Hendry writes in. On a news page last Saturday he found this, in a story about a white hart in Devon: "There is still something magical about the animal, shown here captured by the photographer Ian Crisp in recent days somewhere in north Devon. He's keeping the exact location secret in case trophy hunters try to shoot him."

Hang on, I thought "he" was the photographer. These trophy hunters are no doubt a pretty ruthless crew, but they don't shoot people, do they? That should be "in case trophy hunters try to shoot the deer". The passage goes on: "In the Middle Ages, that would be seen as tempting fate." Maybe, but anything that might happen to you if you shoot a white hart is nothing to the revenge of the gods of pedantry on those who allow the same pronoun to mean two different persons in the same sentence.

Regime change: "After the war, the vengeance, as rebels seek out 'traitors'." That was the headline on a news story on Monday, and the report referred to "rebels" and "loyalists", meaning fighters in the forces of the new Libyan government , and those still holding out for Gaddafi.

The new regime controls nearly the whole country and Italian and French oil companies are getting the wells back into production. Isn't it time to stop calling the government forces rebels? "Treason doth never prosper; what's the reason? Why, if it prosper none dare call it treason," wrote Sir John Harington. The same principle should apply to rebellion.

Work it out: A news item about the London Olympic stadium, published on Wednesday, set the reader a puzzle: "Its designers say it is the most sustainable stadium ever built, using as much as 75 per cent less steel – an expensive and relatively scarce resource – than other stadiums." The question is this: why prefer the semi-opaque "as much as 75 per cent less steel than other stadiums" to the straightforward "a quarter as much steel as some stadiums"?

I don't know, but I do know that whenever you see either "relatively" or "as much as" (or the latter's partner in crime "up to"), you can be sure you are in the presence of fuzzy thinking, and probably an attempt to cherry-pick figures. To call a resource "relatively scarce" is to say nothing. Relatively to what? Sand, diamonds, Swiss cheese?

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