Errors & Omissions: Who's in charge of the Pentagon? We should be told

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The Independent Online

The readers of this newspaper are, axiomatically, intelligent, well-informed people – and the thing about intelligent people is not that they know all the answers but that they ask all the questions.

They will not, I suspect, have been too happy with a World Briefing item last Saturday that began as follows. "The Pentagon chief, Leon Panetta, has decided to end the ban on gays serving openly in the armed services." The piece did not elaborate on the description "Pentagon chief".

Now, readers less clever than ours might have been content with that, happy to know that somebody is in charge of the Pentagon. But the intelligent and well-informed, while they may not know off the top of their heads who Mr Panetta is, will be aware that there are at least two US officials who might be described as "the Pentagon chief" – the Secretary of Defence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I am happy to confirm that Mr Panetta is the Defence Secretary. You should not have had to wait a week for that.

A number of problems: Back after a three-week break, I find that people – here as everywhere else – still don't seem to care whether they are talking about one thing or many things. This is from an analysis piece published last Saturday about the massacre in Norway: "Sweden and Finland are among those nations that have seen a shift to the right. The Swedish Democrats with its anti-immigration stance and strong anti-Muslim sentiment have capitalised with electoral success, particularly in poorer areas of the country."

The anti-immigrant party in Sweden, which last year gained its first parliamentary seats, is indeed called the Sweden (or Swedish) Democrats. The name is plural in form, denoting the people ("democrats") who form the party, but at the same time it is the name of a single organisation. Our house style favours treating such collective nouns as singular ("... its stance ... has capitalised ..."). However, there is the option to treat this one as plural ("... their stance ... have capitalised ..."). The most important thing is to choose one or the other and stick to it. Otherwise, readers with an ear for such things will pause to reread the sentence to make sure they have the meaning right.

Journalese: Reporters everywhere fall into the habit of assigning people to familiar roles, sometimes only distantly related to the facts. If you are not a troubled teenager you must be a blonde mother of two, a heartless thief or a have-a-go hero.

This is from Saturday's report of the massacre in Norway: "According to his lawyer, Breivik has admitted masterminding Friday's attacks." Well, yes, he planned and executed them, but he seems to have done it alone. A criminal mastermind must surely be a Moriarty-like figure, directing the efforts of other, less intellectually gifted, criminals.

Homophone horror: This headline appeared above a news story last Saturday: "Wish you weren't here? PM foregoes UK holiday for fortnight in the sun." As with many of the tricky pairs of homophones that encumber the language, "forego" and "forgo" started life as variant spellings of the same word. "Forego" goes back to Old English. As you might expect, it means to go before. You don't find it in that meaning very often these days; we prefer the Romance equivalent "precede". But long before that happened "forego" took on the meanings of pass by, and hence neglect and abstain from. When we use it in that meaning these days we spell it "forgo". Why? Who knows?

Verbiage: "Rains have failed and drought conditions have affected countries across north-east Africa," a news story reported last Saturday. Not just a drought then, but drought conditions – sounds much more serious. In this country, of course, we are frequently afflicted with all kinds of adverse weather conditions.

Almost any piece of English prose can be improved by going through it to find all the abstract nouns and removing as many of them as possible, or replacing them with verbs. Try it: it really works. Among the top targets for death are "facilities", "provision" and "conditions".