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Errors & Omissions

Errors & Omissions: The bride-to-be who was very much not a bride-to-be

Connoisseurs of classical journalese were delighted to see this headline on a news page on Thursday: "Bride-to-be saved from death leap."

Vintage stuff. As long ago as 1938, Evelyn Waugh's Fleet Street satire Scoop has a genial, bone-headed reporter remarking: "On Monday afternoon I was in East Sheen breaking the news to a widow of her husband's death leap with a champion girl cyclist." Brides-to-be have no doubt been with us as long as death leaps. And of course if all goes well after the "happy day" they soon turn into mums-to-be.

Thursday's story, however, turned out differently. This unfortunate young Chinese woman had been jilted by her fiancé. Wearing her wedding dress, she tried to jump from a high window, but was pulled to safety. So she wasn't a bride-to-be at all, but a bride-not-to-be. The headline was not only journalese but wrong.

Memories are made of this: Another good old journalistic tradition was on show in the opening of a news story on Wednesday: "The luxury that he is accustomed to was already a fading memory yesterday for Dominique Strauss-Kahn as he pondered his new circumstances at Rikers Island jail."

The tradition to which I refer is that of making things up if they sound likely and vivid. Maybe there is evidence to back up this wistful picture of DSK's mental state, but if so it is not given. The "fading memory" of luxury looks to me like one of those things reporters just say. Is it not just as likely that he is tormented by cruelly unfading memories of luxury?

Broken English: "If it ain't broken Nick, don't try to fix it." That headline, which appeared over a comment piece on Monday, gives out a dull clunk, the sound of different registers clashing. The original saying is "If it ain't broke, don't fix it.". That is vernacular speech, I think American. You could translate it into the Queen's English if you like, though there is no reason to: you would then have "If it isn't broken...". But don't mix the two.

Cliché of the week: "Mr Daley may be leaving something of a poisoned chalice in Mr Emanuel's hands." So said a news story on Monday, reporting on the new Mayor of Chicago. Once again, the dreaded "something of" reveals a writer using strong, dramatic language and immediately qualifying it – an exercise in futility. By that logic, a setback is "something of a disaster", a murder is "something of a massacre" and five is "something of 10". Much better to use a word of the required strength in the first place. But much easier to bring out the old poisoned chalice.

Words of war: Two weeks ago this column commented on a story about some British soldiers of fortune who had been captured in Africa. The report had called them "contractors". And on Monday we reported on a plan by the man who founded Blackwater to recruit an 800-strong battalion, including Colombians and South Africans, for service with the rulers of Abu Dhabi. They will uphold their employers' interests if confronted with any of that "Arab Spring" nonsense. We called them "a paramilitary force of foreign mercenaries".

So there you have it. Soldiers recruited for pay through "security" companies are "contractors" if good chaps, "mercenaries" if bad chaps. How can we refer to these people in language that conveys facts, with no moral spin, as a news report ought to? "Soldiers of fortune" is too fancifully romantic. Is it perhaps time to revive the word "freelance" in its original meaning?

By George! A feature article about architecture, published on Wednesday, referred in passing to "the Georgian poet Alexander Pope". It is true that Pope's career spanned the reigns of Anne and George I, but it is confusing to call him a Georgian poet. While Georgian architecture dates from the 18th century, the term "Georgian poets" usually refers to a group who were active during the reign of George V.