Errors & Omissions: The reader is an individual, not some member of a cosy club

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The Independent Online

"If any of you can cite a more perfect irony than the one which made 7.59am on 6 December 2010 the most listened-to moment in British radio history since Edward VIII announced his abdication, I will send you a signed copy of the James Naughtie Lexicon of Modern Rhyming Slang by courier forthwith."

That, shorn of two or three subordinate clauses, is the opening sentence of Matthew Norman's Wednesday column. There is nothing about it that you could call wrong, but I still winced at the words "any of you".

It is easy for writers to picture their readers as a big group of people, a sort of public meeting taking place on some plane of the imagination. Maybe some readers like to think of themselves as members of a cosy club, and certainly some publications play up to the idea by addressing their readers in the second person plural. But it is all a fiction. The "readers" may be many, but they never meet as a body or form a community. The lived experience is that of a single person, reading a book, a newspaper or a screen. I shall continue to think of you, dear reader, as the one person you actually are.

Good estimate: Last week I wondered why writers so often use "underestimate" when they mean "overestimate", as in "The wickedness of the Government cannot be underestimated."

Mark Miller writes from Dalton-in-Furness, Cumbria, to suggest that "should not be underestimated" has shifted to "cannot be underestimated". He points to the way we often use "cannot" to mean "should not", as in "You can't go out like that" or "You can't ignore this book". But when "should not be underestimated" becomes "cannot be underestimated", we have sleepwalked into saying the opposite of what we mean. It sounds plausible.

I don't believe it: This is from a feature article published on Tuesday, discussing the turbine blades of jet engines: "They have to operate in temperatures that reach 1,700 degrees, so the materials used to build them need to remain incredibly strong under immense stress." When I fly in an aircraft I should like the engine components to be credibly strong, if you don't mind, not incredibly strong. "Incredible" is one of the most irritating vogue words we have encountered for some years. It will go away eventually – such meaningless modifiers always do. To hasten that happy day, here is what to do. Whenever you see "incredible" or "incredibly", simply strike it out. You will find that no meaning is lost.

Metaphor soup: This is the opening of a World Briefing item published on Thursday: "The top US military officer expressed frustration yesterday with what he called China's unwillingness to rein in North Korea, calling again on Beijing to use its unique leverage to push the North to stop provocations." So is North Korea a frisky horse that needs a firm hand on the reins, or a heavy weight to be shifted by levers? Incidentally, the journalese phrase "top US military officer" remained unexplained. Is the reader really the kind of dimwit who doesn't seek confirmation that Admiral Mike Mullen is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

Number crunching: "Oh fathers, where art thou?" said the heading on a comment piece on Monday about gender roles in parenting. It is easy to forget that "thou" and its accusative form "thee" are not just old-fashioned words for "you". They are, specifically, obsolete second person singular forms. "Thou" can only ever be one person. The headline based itself on the movie title O Brother, Where Art Thou? and "Oh father ..." would have been fine.

Cliché of the week: Thursday's story about this newspaper's campaign to open the Court of Protection to reporting contained this: "But some details of the case can be reported for the first time, providing the public with an insight into the desperately hard, often controversial decisions made by the court on a daily basis." "On a daily basis" should be taken out and shot. What is wrong with "daily" or "every day"?

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