Errors and Omissions: In thrall to a word that we don’t quite comprehend

Our Letters editor casts his eye over this week's Independent coverage

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If you use a word whose meaning you do not know, you are liable to get into trouble. Obvious enough, but what about a word most of us use freely, but without a very clear idea of what it means? Such a word is “thrall”.

It appeared on Wednesday in the blurb introducing a feature article: “Why do the Emmys matter to Brits? Because US TV has us in its thrall.”

We are all familiar with “enthralled” and “in thrall”, but “in its thrall” looked wrong, and sent me to the Shorter Oxford dictionary to find out what a thrall might be. “Thrall” turns out to be an old Germanic word meaning a serf, an unfree medieval peasant, or the condition of being such a person. So if you are “in thrall” you are in bondage; you have become a thrall. You may be in thrall to US TV, but “in its thrall” is too much of stretch. What would US TV’s thrall look like?


A blatant error in number agreement cropped up on Thursday, in an article on the psychological tricks employers use to induce workers to do more work: “The presence of treadmill desks are understandably on the rise.”

Obviously, presence “is”, not “are”. There are only three words between the verb and its subject. Unfortunately, those three words are “of treadmill desks” – which triggered an automatic “desks are”, reducing the sentence to gibberish. It is a clumsy sentence anyway. How about “You see more and more treadmill desks”? No danger of a number error there.


A number error of a different kind appeared in a cricket report on Thursday: “He took the otherwise commendable Chris Woakes for 19 runs, striking two sixes and a pair of fours from the five deliveries he faced.” Sebastian Robinson wrote in to point that one out, commenting that, arcane as the laws of cricket are, they still do not make 6+6+4+4 add up to 19.


Alan Langley draws my attention to this, from a news story published on Monday: “Libya’s air force does not possess the guided ordinance apparently used in the strikes.” “Ordinance” means a direction on how things are to be done. “Ordnance” means artillery or military supplies – which was the word needed here. The two started off as the same word, derived from the Latin ordinare, to set in order. I surmise that a clue to the historic link between the two meanings may be found in the name of the Gens d’Armes d’Ordonnance, the French regular army of the 15th century.


Last week, this column commented on a story about a plague that is ravaging crayfish. My opening paragraph correctly called it a fungal disease, but by the end the fungus had become a virus. Did I not know that a fungus and a virus are two different things, several readers have demanded. Yes, I do. This was not Dr Johnson’s “ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance”, but pure carelessness, which is worse.