Errors & Omissions: Literally, incredibly and infinitely fed up with unnecessary adverbs


Adverbs used for emphasis are notoriously difficult to keep under control. We all know to beware of "literally" ("I was literally gutted"). There is an irritating vogue at the moment for "incredibly". Prince William and Miss Middleton (as she then was) issued a statement on Thursday that they found people's affection "incredibly moving". There is nothing incredible about it; it is easy to believe.

Now look at this, from a news story, published on Wednesday: "It was at this point that what was yet another titillating example of the ability of the Palace of Westminster to generate affairs and infidelities among its participants took on an infinitely more complex and politically significant hue."

Infinitely? How do you measure the political significance of a hue? "Infinitely" adds nothing to "more complex and politically significant".

There is one more thing to note. How do you participate in a palace?

This is your life: Last Saturday we reported that Sir David Frost was moving house and selling some of his rare wines. The second paragraph of the story began thus: "Whether for reasons of space or economy, Sir David has decided to get rid of a few things. While for an ordinary homeowner that might mean the jettisoning of an oversize sofa, a mound of yellowing gas bills and a relative's well-meaning gift of a garish vase, Sir David's disposals are of a different order." Then come details of some of the bottles he is selling.

Some columnists manage to make a career of telling readers things they already know. (My hell with a broken-down washing machine! Golly, aren't cyclists irritating?) But news is about things you don't know. Why will readers find the contents of Sir David's wine cellar interesting? Partly because they are quite different from the contents of the readers' own attics. The appeal of the story therefore rests, from the beginning, on the reasonable assumption that the readers know what sort of stuff they have in their own homes. They do not need to be told.

What is that? Here is another misfired sentence, from a news page on Tuesday: "Andrew Marr... is prepared to relinquish a super-injunction that he secured over the British media more than three years ago and has been in place ever since." At first sight, this reads as if Andrew Marr has been in place ever since. It takes a moment to realise what is going on. The relative pronoun "that" is being asked to do two inconsistent jobs, as the object of the verb "secured" and the subject of the verb "has been".

The mysterious east: A news page last Saturday carried a picture of a crowd with the caption: "Anti-government protesters attend a Good Friday rally in Banias, north-east Syria."

Good Friday is a Christian day of observance. The rally certainly happened on the day Christians call Good Friday. But Syria is a predominantly Muslim country, though with a Christian minority. It is conceivable that the people in the picture are Christians and the rally has something to do with Good Friday, but if that is so, it needs to be explained. Otherwise alert readers will assume that the people in the picture are Muslims, that the rally has no connection with Good Friday and that the person who wrote the caption was half asleep. Only the dozy reader will accept this caption at face value. Further, my atlas shows the city of Banias (or Baniyas) in north-western, not north-eastern, Syria.

Cliché of the week: "Anyone with a heart is going to side with, say, hungry African children rather than Barclays' well-paid traders – or the billionaires at Glencore, also in the firing line in recent days."

We have here one of those over-familiar usages that people get wrong because they don't know its original meaning. A firing line is found on a rifle range. It is the line where the shooters line up to fire. Someone who is in a position to be hit by gunfire – the metaphorical plight of the Glencore people – is not in the firing line but in the line of fire.

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