Errors & Ommisions: When it comes to meaningless phrases, journalists can't say no

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The Independent Online

This is from a news story published on Monday: "Teachers' leaders are today calling for a new government grant to help white working-class children lift themselves from the bottom of the heap when it comes to exam performance."

And this is from a blurb in last Saturday's Magazine: "When it comes to classic design, one man stands the test of time."

Oh, really? When does it come to classic design, or to exam performance? "When it comes to" does convey meaning of a sort if you are talking of some preordained event about which something has to be done – "When it comes to the wedding service ..." or "When it comes to cooking Sunday lunch ..." But otherwise it is just a bit of burble meaning something like "in the matter of". Think of something better.



Chocs away: Thanks to an illustration that accompanied Tuesday's report of the Cadbury takeover battle, I now know what a square of Cadbury's milk chocolate looks like.

There it sat in the middle of the spread of type, with an elegant "runaround" causing the words to flow around it. I am able to report that it was brown in colour, shiny on top and crumbly at the sides where it had been broken from the bar. Who would have thought it?

The fashion for illustrating articles at random with stock pictures of things the reader is already familiar with, such as a bar of chocolate, a Nazi soldier, a wind turbine or the face of the Prime Minister, is by no means confined to this newspaper. It is one of those designer fads that come and go, wasting a good deal of space but doing no real harm. This one has been around for about 10 years. It seems to be reaching a climax of silliness. That could herald the end, and a return to a sane world in which we are not terrified of the naked printed word.



No, no, no: Just to prove that even the most elegant and scrupulous of writers is capable of falling into the multiple-negative trap, here is an extract from Philip Hensher's Monday column.

Hensher whimsically proposed that the "Friends" organisations that raise money for museums should be paralleled by the "Enemies of the National Museums". Members would pay a subscription in return for the chance to destroy, from time to time, some hated and worthless exhibit, chosen by the curators. He went on: "I can't believe that the curators of the Victoria and Albert Museum, say, couldn't find a majolica pot, a Sixties kaftan or a Bauhaus penholder they weren't all united in detesting."

With three negatives – can't, couldn't, weren't – this sentence finishes up on the wrong side of the line. For it to say what it means to say, "weren't" should be "were".



Journalese: Last Saturday's paper carried a distressing story about the death of a woman who was hit by her own car when she tried to stop somebody stealing it from outside her house.

"Her partner and her five-year-old son watched in horror as the vehicle mounted a grass verge and sped off, leaving the popular 42-year-old dead outside the modern terraced home the couple shared with their children in Worsley Mesnes, near Wigan in Greater Manchester."

There is something thoughtless about this sentence, with its relentless cramming in of facts, the clichés "watched in horror" and "modern terraced home", and particularly the jaunty labelling of the dead woman as a "popular 42-year-old". That's her summed up, then.

I am reminded of Corker, the hard-nosed news reporter in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, a man who speaks in journalese: "On Monday afternoon I was in East Sheen breaking the news to a widow of her husband's death leap with a champion girl cyclist – the wrong widow as it turned out; the husband came back from business while I was there and cut up very nasty."



Out of time: "Drew Barrymore," enthused Tuesday's Hit and Run page, "demonstrated that understated hair and make-up and a healthy figure just can't be outshone. Her Atelier Versace dress exuded a timeless Thirties glamour without being too retro."

Eh? The dress may not have been dated, but how can it be "timeless" when the very next word specifies the time to which it refers?

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