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

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".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Administrator

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are a world leadin...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral