Errors & Omissions: We can't escape 'The Hobbit', but we can at least get the details right


Yesterday's Arts & Books section carried an interview with the Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro, who resigned from the Hobbit project some months ago when it looked as if the money men would never give the films the green light.

The article said: "Still, it's not as if del Toro hasn't been keeping busy while finding himself mired in Middle Earth."

In the next couple of years, as the two parts of The Hobbit, now under the direction of Peter Jackson, roll towards your local multiplex, we are going to be spending more and more time in J R R Tolkien's imagined world (some of us with eyes wide with wonder, others no doubt with gritted teeth, but none will escape the Hobbit publicity machine). So let us get one thing clear at this early stage: the place where the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place is not called Middle Earth. It is called Middle-earth, with a hyphen and a lower-case "e". I believe Tolkien spells it that way because it is a modernisation of the Old English word middangeard, meaning the world inhabited by humans, surrounded by the great ocean.

Seams a bit odd: If you forget the literal meaning of a metaphor, you lose a vivid sensuous image and gain a bland abstraction. Phil Potter has written in to point out an example from Tuesday's paper.

Vogue, we reported, has been reconfigured as an iPad application. The article was introduced by a blurb: "The magazine is making its iPad debut with an app – but going from page to screen has been less than seamless."

What do less than no seams look like?

Specific problem: Another correspondent, Andrew Berrington, points out an error in this column last week. In discussing the word "bacterium" we remarked that Weil's disease was "caused by the bacterium leptospira".

Mr Berrington points out that the scientific Latin name of the little beastie is Leptospira interrogans. Leptospira is the name of a genus, comprising several species, of which one is interrogans. So to be safe, one should probably write of "a Leptospira bacterium". Note that generic names take a capital letter, while specific names are lower case. The genus Homo, for instance, includes the species Homo erectus, Homo habilis, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens. That last one is us, and the others are all extinct.

Splitting headache: "A gift for those who don't want illegally to download," said a headline on a news page last Saturday. Heavens, what contortions to avoid a split infinitive! What is wrong with "to download illegally"?

And what is this? Turning to the beginning of the article, we read: "I've always been too cowardly to illegally download music." So the agony in the headline went for nothing after all.

No escape: Another disastrous headline appeared on Thursday: "Google escapes with fine for beaking data laws". Two things horribly wrong here. First, the story clearly states that Google did not escape with a fine; it escaped a fine. And then there is "beaking" for "breaking". In nine-point body text that kind of slip can pass unnoticed; not so in a 38-point headline. One would be inclined to pass over it in silence, except for the subversive feeling that there really ought to be a verb "to beak". And, believe it or not, there is.

Step forward, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: "Beak v. trans. To strike or seize with the beak; to push the beak into." Yes, you really could be beaked by, say, an angry penguin. Isn't the English language wonderful?

Cliché of the week: "But generally, when it comes to pop concerts, the rules are few and far between, but they do exist." That was from an article on Tuesday about the etiquette of crowd behaviour at rock gigs.

Two clichés here. To get rid of the dreaded "when it comes to" you may have to recast the sentence. "Few and far between", however, is easy to fix: just strike out "and far between".

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