Errors & Omissions: Making the point using a metaphor can be a painful experience


The phrase "not to put too fine a point on it" has always puzzled me. In a broad sense, the meaning is reasonably clear: "I am about to say something you won't like." But what has the "fine point" to do with it?

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable states that the allusion is to the sharp end of a tool or weapon, and adds that the speaker is announcing an intention not to be over-delicate. The phrase, says Bewer, is "the prelude to a blunt though truthful remark".

Perhaps, but surely a sharp weapon is more damaging than a blunt one, not less. "I'm going to hit you with a club instead of sparing your feelings by using a dagger," doesn't make much sense. While the rhetorical intention is clear, the picture fails – for me at least – to snap into focus.

And what of this, from an arts page feature published on Wednesday? "It's a somewhat unsettling thought for someone of my generation – the middle aged, not wanting to put too fine a point on it – that young people may well have never heard of Morecambe and Wise."

"Not wanting to" seems to suggest that the writer is actually sparing the reader pain by "not putting too fine a point on it". If that is so, then the "point" is not the end of a weapon but a matter of logical precision. Could it be that "not to put too fine a point on it" sometimes unpacks as "I won't draw you a diagram; but we both know how bad this is"?

If that is the case, then the "fine point" could be that of a pencil or a graving tool, an instrument of precise delineation, and the speaker, not wishing to portray every grisly detail of an unpleasant subject, is declining to use such a tool, and just giving the baldest outline of the main facts. That is the way I have always seen this metaphor, but perhaps – not to put too fine a point on it – I'm just being weird.

Real puzzle: Wednesday's front page carried an odd picture caption: "An England supporter holds an imitation urn at the Melbourne Test."

Philosophers may ponder the difference between a real urn and imitation urn. The urn in the picture looked reasonably substantial, but even an urn made of wood or cardboard is an urn. And the fact of its having been designed in imitation of the Ashes urn – which this one was – does not make it an imitation urn.

Verbiage: On Monday an article about parties referred to the 90th anniversary ball for French Vogue: "It was to prove something of a swansong for editor Carine Roitfeld, who announced her resignation earlier this month."

What is going on in the minds of people who use the expression "something of"? It is almost as if they are afraid of the power of language. First they employ a vivid metaphor such as a dying swan, and then immediately feel a need to qualify it. What is the point?

Don't mix it: On Monday we ran an article about the new Coen brothers film of True Grit. Half way down, the piece said: "Rooster never for a moment doubts his own abilities, even when he fails to shoot a whiskey bottle lying on the ground." Towards the end came this: "When offered a slug of whisky she says: 'I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains.' "

Now, the Scots and Canadians drink whisky, but the Irish and Americans prefer whiskey. In England the Scottish spelling is used.

In an article about an American film portraying events in the United States, there is a case for writing "whiskey". When that article appears in a British publication there is an equally strong case for preferring "whisky". There is no case for switching from one to the other.

Mixed metaphor of the week: "Safety concerns sparked drive to outlaw products" – news headline on Thursday. How about a new year resolution to remember that you can spark only a fire or an explosion?

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried