Errors & Omissions: There's no rest for those wicked and awkward prepositions


Here's an awkward sentence, from an article last Saturday about celebrities holidaying in Marbella:

"There's no rest for the wicked, and Sundays are no exception, when the beachside Ocean Club hosts the only party to be seen at." A correspondent writes in to suggest that this is an example of the horrors that ensue when you break the rule that a sentence should never end with a preposition. Well, that is not a rule I have ever had much time for. Reputable writers break it all the time. The other day, I came across another example. This is from Shakespeare's Henry V. The Earl of Exeter, Henry's ambassador, addresses the Dauphin: "Scorn and defiance; slight regard, contempt,/And anything that may not misbecome/The mighty sender, doth he prize you at."

The sentence from Marbella needs sorting out, but moving the final preposition won't necessarily help: "... the only party at which to be seen" is not much of an improvement.

No, the problem with this sentence is " ...no exception, when ..." , which reads as if Sundays sometimes are an exception. Split the sentence: "There's no rest for the wicked, even on Sundays; that is the day when the beachside Ocean Club holds [not 'hosts', please] the only party to be seen at."

Daft headline of the week: "Rise in obesity sees resurgence in heart attacks." That appeared over a news story on Thursday. Short, vague verbs will always be popular for headlines. "Hit", for instance, could mean anything detrimental, from causing a 1p fall in the price of a stock to condemning thousands to starvation in a drought. "See", in the sense it is used here, is even more accommodating to the lazy mind, covering almost any causation or coincidence.

"See" also stretches a metaphor beyond the power of the human imagination. A headline along the lines of "Drought hits African harvest" just about works as metaphor. You can picture the drought as a kind of wrathful deity, stamping on the harvest and pummelling the wretched human population. But in what sense can a rise in obesity – a purely abstract idea – "see" anything? The only picture it summons into the mind is a big, saggy belly – which has no eyes. Furthermore, regardless of this headline's poetic qualities – or lack of them – it is factually wrong. Anybody would take it to mean that as people have become fatter they have suffered more heart attacks. But the story does not say that. It says that heart attacks are still declining, but more slowly than before, and researchers fear they could start to rise again. So the "resurgence" hasn't happened yet. "Sees" should be "threatens" or "risks".

Barred: On Tuesday we ran a story about the Engineer, a pub in north London frequented by some famous people. One of the regulars is David Miliband, who was quoted. Among the photographs used to illustrate the report was a picture of Ed Miliband, who had nothing to do with the story. An easy mistake to make, I suppose. Poor David Miliband. Less than a year ago, he was the leading contender for the Labour Party leadership, the natural political heir to Tony Blair. Now he is so little remembered, apparently, that the picture desk can supply a picture of brother Ed, now the leader of the Labour Party, and a sub-editor can write a caption for it, without anybody noticing that it ought to be David. After that, I should think David will need to take refuge in the Engineer for a stiff drink or three.

Journalese: On Wednesday we reported on what was described as "the brutal double murder of a mother and her toddler". Important to know that this was a brutal murder, not one of those gentle murders one reads so much about. No doubt the culprit will turn out to be a heartless killer who carried out a frenzied attack.

Warning: "Is it safe to eat salad? In England – yes," said a commentary last Saturday on the German E.coli scare. What happened to Britain? Maybe the notorious dearth of salad in Scotland has some point to it after all.

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