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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
News
i100
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of the late singer Whitney Houston, poses at the premiere of
people
News
people
News
The frequency with which we lie and our ability to get away with it both increase to young adulthood then decline with age, possibly because of changes that occur in the brain
scienceRoger Dobson knows the true story, from Pinocchio to Pollard
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen