Errors & Omissions: Some words should never leave the backwoods of America

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The foundations of formality are shifting.

Men have stopped wearing ties in all but the most stately circumstances. The Queen no longer insists on being bowed and curtseyed to. Members of the House of Lords often like to be called Lord John Smith, when until quite recently a peer would always be Lord Smith, and Lord John Smith would be a younger son of a duke or marquess. Maybe Tony Blair succeeded in "modernising" Britain. But you have to draw the line somewhere, and I draw it at calling a Church of England clergyman "a retired reverend".

That is what we did in a news story on Monday: "The Church of England was facing a grassroots revolt within its own ranks last night after a retired reverend used St Paul's rearranged Sunday morning service to pledge solidarity with the protesters camped outside." "Reverend" is an adjective (derived from a Latin gerundive) meaning worthy of reverence or respect. It has become a title of courtesy attached to the names of Christian clergy, generally abbreviated to "Rev" and always used with the Christian name: "the Rev John Smith". The variant forms "the Rev Smith" and "Rev Smith", as well as the use of the "reverend" as a noun, as in "a retired reverend", may be acceptable in the backwoods of America, but that is where they should stay.

Mixed metaphor of the week: "Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez has cruised to a landslide re-election win after securing the widest victory margin recorded in the country since the return to democracy in 1983."

The most obvious thing wrong with this sentence, the opening of a news story published on Tuesday, is the words "cruised to a landslide". Most mixed metaphors produce some kind of ludicrous picture in the mind: this one doesn't even achieve that. When the brain tries to picture what cruising to a landslide might look like, nothing comes into focus at all.

Furthermore, while the President may have cruised to an election victory, in the sense of achieving it easily, it was not a landslide, because she was the incumbent office-holder. The point about a landslide is that it leaves the appearance of the landscape changed. No election result, no matter how overwhelming, is like a landslide unless power changes hands.

One other thing. "Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez" is an example of the journalese habit of identifying a person by piling up adjectival material in front of the name. All right, it's not up to the old local newspaper standard; this is no "burly 33-year-old Blanktown-born lorry driver John Smith". But the principle is the same – nobody outside the news media would ever utter the words "Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez". Why not act like a normal human being and write "The President of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez"?

Vulgar brawl: Last Saturday we reported on trouble at a Cardiff primary school. Police were called in after staff were threatened and two families of school parents came to blows in the playground. But the report failed to tell the reader what the feud was about.

The story not only fails the "who, what, when, where, why" test; it also carries a whiff of snobbery. If parents at Eton were involved in a punch-up, it would be inconceivable not to ask what caused the quarrel. The omission in Saturday's story leaves the impression that this is just the sort of behaviour you can expect sometimes from working-class Welsh people.