Errors & Omissions: Somewhere in the mush is the meaning – and it's getting harder to find


Sometimes the language seems to be turning to mush before your eyes.

This is from a theatre review, published on Monday: "She veered superbly between grande dame loftiness and low-down, brilliantly timed spite as Arkadina in The Seagull. Ian Rickson directed the latter, which was also a big hit on Broadway."

"The latter" means the last mentioned of two things. If there is a latter there must be a former. But where is it? The only pair of things in sight is the loftiness and the spite, but it cannot be that Rickson directed the spite but not the loftiness. No, the writer means The Seagull. There is no former, so "the latter" should be "that production".

The article has another mushy moment: "Everything – even the good times – are seen in the shadow of disillusion and treachery foretold." That should be "is seen", for the subject of the verb is the singular "everything", not the plural "times". The writer has allowed proximity to trump the logic of grammar. You see that more often. The tide of mush creeps upwards.

If only: On Tuesday we ran a news story from the US about how a computer retailer called Best Buy is taking legal action to defend its copyright in the words "Geek Squad" and other slogans that refer to staff as "geeks". Rival companies, says Best Buy, must not suggest that their employees are "geeks".

The headline: "Only geeks work at Best Buy: electronics giant sues over label." That means that everybody who works at Best Buy is a geek, but that is not the point the company is making. "Only" has wandered into the wrong place and attached itself to "geeks", when it ought to be qualifying "Best Buy". The headline should read "Geeks work only at Best Buy ...", or "Only Best Buy has geeks ...".

No argument: This is from a news story published on Thursday: "It was launched to allow police forces to share information, enabling them to identify patterns of criminal behaviour earlier. But critics say the controversial directory will simply present a new challenge for 'hacktivists' intent on bringing down government systems."

The adjective "controversial" occasionally has a place when used predicatively ("The directory is controversial because ..." ). But in an attributive role (as in the passage above) it is always redundant and can be struck out without hesitation. The context will tell the reader that there is a controversy going on, so there is no need to tack on "controversial". In this case, the word "critics" does the job straight away.

Metaphor soup: "An enclave stranded in a sea of loyalist hatred." That headline appeared on Thursday above a story about Short Strand, the Catholic district of Belfast at the centre of this week's rioting. It is a nice play on the name of Short Strand, and almost right, but as you think about it a vague unease turn into a conviction that the nautical metaphor has gone wrong.

"Strand" is an old Germanic word meaning a coast, the land bordering the sea, and more specifically the ground between the high and low tide marks. A stranded ship is one that has run aground. As a metaphor, "stranded" means trapped in a place you do not want to be. But you cannot be stranded in a sea; the mind refuses to form a picture of that.

Homophone horror: "Experts say even high-profile events are suffering from a lack of new talent to attract the massed hoards of music-lovers seen in previous years," said a news story on Monday about music festivals. Is there any pair of words more commonly confused than "hoard" and "horde"? Their origins could not be more different.

"Hord" is a straightforward Old English word meaning a store or treasury. The spelling "hoard" is rare before the 18th century, says the Oxford English Dictionary. Meanwhile, in central Asia, Turkic peoples had a word, "orda", meaning a camp. As "horde" it enters English in the 16th century, meaning a tribe of nomads. ("The initial 'h' appears first in Polish," reports a puckishly delighted OED.)

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