Errors & Omissions: Take a perfectly good image, misuse it endlessly and watch it crumble


A comment piece on Thursday, about love affairs, said: "One person only has to slip in their resolve for 10 minutes and the whole thing crumbles like a pack of cards."

You can try this at home. Place a pack of cards on a table. Now wait for it to crumble, or fall over. You will have a long wait, even if you prod it. For of course the exemplary precarious structure, liable to collapse at any moment, is a house of cards, not a pack.

You can be certain that an image has died and turned into a cliché when people frequently quote it wrongly, as they do with the "pack of cards". The mistake reveals that they are just parroting the words, without trying to form the image in their imagination. In this case we may speculate that the image has died for a very good reason – that, in the age of the Xbox, children no longer while away long afternoons building and demolishing card houses.

Crashing bore: Last Saturday we published a big picture of waves breaking on the seashore. Turning to the accompanying words, the reader came first to this headline: "Storms crash across northern Britain." Next, the picture caption: "Waves crash over the promenade in Blackpool yesterday as severe gales and rain hit the west coast." Finally, the first paragraph of the story: "The waves came crashing in on Blackpool yesterday as high winds gusted across northern Britain."

This kind of thing can easily happen when, in the hurly-burly of news production, caption and headline are written by different people.

In a presentation of this kind, the words should offer an attractive variety of imaginative effect, but the facts should be consistent. Here it was the other way round. Amid the repetitive crashing of the waves, there are two conflicting accounts of how strong the wind was. Was it a severe gale (force 9 on the Beaufort scale) or a storm (force 10)?

I don't believe it: "Paul McMullen, whose memorandum from October was published by the Home Affairs Select Committee yesterday, claimed that Andy Coulson, the Prime Minister's former communications director, was aware of the hacking while in senior roles at News International". So said a news report published last Saturday.

Why "claimed"? Are we trying to suggest that McMullen's statement may not be true? For that is what the word "claim" implies. In a court case the plaintiff may make a claim for damages; a usurper may claim the throne; a gold prospector stakes out his claim. In every case the claim defies a possible challenge. On the other hand, nobody ever "claimed" that the sun rises in the east, for that is a fact.

"Alleged" carries a similar burden of scepticism. On the other side, there are equally tendentious terms suggesting that a statement is true: revealed, disclosed, made clear, pointed out. (The tiresome, moralistic adverb "rightly" is often put in for the same purpose.)

Why not stick to "said", and leave the reader to decide how reliable the statement is?

Bear necessities: Brian Clarke writes in from Kent to point out the following, from a travel piece in last Saturday's Magazine, about San Diego, California: "It can trace the growth which turned it into America's eighth-largest city to the Second World War, when a generation of young men passed through its port en route to the grizzly theatre of the Pacific."

That should be "grisly". The words are pronounced the same, but their origins and meanings are different. Grisly means causing fear and horror. Grizzly means grey – as in grizzled hair. It is rarely encountered except as the name of the fierce bear of North America.

Cinematic illusion: Another travel piece in the Magazine, this time about the Vienna of The Third Man, refers to "alleys glistening with rain" and "death-haunted chiaroscuro of night and rainy streets". This a tribute to cinema's power to create visual impressions that are stronger than facts. For it never rains in The Third Man, though in some scenes the pavements are wet.

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