Errors & Omissions: Under attack from inappropriate war metaphors


We had a couple of beleaguereds in the newspaper on Thursday.

One was in the poker column, where a gambling website was so described. This was not just a cliché but wrong. The website is not even figuratively surrounded by angry punters. It was shut down after the company that ran it failed to pay out when its directors were charged with money laundering. I suppose the company could be said to be besieged by creditors, but that is not what we said.

The other one was in the introduction to a commendably clear analysis of the euro crisis, which said that José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission President, had told Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, to stop dithering, "as markets run out of patience with beleaguered eurozone". That analogy does not work well either. The eurozone is a large area, of 17 countries, to which it would be hard to lay siege. Even in the idiomatic sense of "bother" or "worry", the eurozone is rather an abstract entity to be subjected to such treatment. My rule is that the only thing that should be described as beleaguered is a castle or fort. With turrets.

Cutting room floor: Elsewhere in our coverage of the euro crisis, we used the vogue term "haircut" several times this week to describe the option of a partial default on Greek debt. Copying some of the jargon of City traders is fun when it first happens, but the freshness quickly wears off, especially when the metaphor is as badly styled as this one. People who have their hair cut lose something about which they do not care and end up looking better. (That is the idea, anyway.) The holders of Greek bonds are being asked to lose actual money.

Exposed: We reported on Thursday that church shareholders in News Corp have demanded that Rupert Murdoch step aside as chief executive officer. "Their efforts come at a vulnerable moment for Mr Murdoch and his grip over the company." The sense is clear enough, but the disorderly syntax makes it harder to read. A moment cannot be vulnerable; we meant "a moment of vulnerability". The listing of Mr Murdoch and "his grip over the company" as two things which are vulnerable was also clumsy. In any case, vulnerable is overused journalese. It might have been better simply to have said: "Their efforts came at a time when Mr Murdoch's control of the company is being challenged."

Whom? Oh, him: One of the hazards of being a pedant is that one's own mistakes deserve mockery as well as correction. Last Saturday we castigated the "shoddy spelling and poor grammar" of, variously, website writers and contestants on The Apprentice. I enjoy The Apprentice for that very reason: it is a cliché-hunter's barrel of fish. Possibly aware of the pedant's peril, however, we made a common error of over-compensation, saying that Tom and Helen, two of Lord Sugar's plaintiffs, talked about "Christopher Columbus, whom they believed was British". That should be "who". The simple test is to recast the sentence with "he" or "him". If it works as "he", then choose "who"; if it is "him" it should be "whom". So: "They believed he was British." Therefore, "who". Thanks to Barrie King and Brandon Robshaw for pointing this out.

Cubist hordes: We have done it again. "Art horde found after police raid suspect who walked off with Picasso" was the headline on David Usborne's news story last Saturday. As John Prag wrote, when he drew it to my attention: "Hordes of Picassos coming over the hills – an art collector's dream!" The word for a store or treasury is hoard.

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