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
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower