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?

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