Errors & Omissions: An entirely expected event happens, and you're still shocked?

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The Independent Online

"Shock defeat for Sarkozy in local elections," said a headline on Monday, reporting the results of Sunday's vote in France. Three things are wrong.

The elections were not local, but regional.

"Shock", used as an adjective like that in a headline, is so hackneyed that it scarcely registers on the reader's brain at all.

And in any case there was no shock. The defeat for Nicolas Sarkozy came as no surprise to anyone who had been following the story. Last Saturday our world news pages kicked off with a full-page report headed: "Embattled Sarkozy facing new blow at hands of French voters: Socialists tipped to replace centre right as France's most popular party in regional mid-term elections." And on Sunday that duly happened.

I don't know how much that sort of thing is noticed by readers out there, but for a sub-editor just about the most embarrassing mishap is to write a headline that makes it clear that you haven't read your own paper.

Picture this: On Wednesday we carried a special dispatch from Ethiopia about how girls are forced into marriage. This came in the first paragraph: "Narame Abedo is sitting in her hut high in the clouds, remembering the day she became a wife. She lives hundreds of miles into the countryside, thousands of miles above sea level, in the hills of the bridal-kidnapping capital of the world."

The summit of Everest, the highest point on earth, is about five-and-a-half miles above sea level. Clearly, "thousands of miles" should be "thousands of feet".

Half the work of copy-editing is forming a clear picture in your mind of everything the words say, and making sure it makes sense. It is a constant, gruelling effort of the imagination, and sometimes things just slip out of focus. And it has to be admitted that in this case the mind may easily have been distracted by the vivid surrounding detail.

Pretentious, moi? My old friend Alan Hendry has written in to draw attention to this, from the report of an interview with Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, published in last Saturday's magazine: "Who better, then, to bring some sagacité and finesse to the current debate about the tawdry rapaciousness of the culture of our football?"

Now, Wenger is French, so the odd bit of French is not out of place. The piece had already described him as un homme sérieux and as uttering mots justes. Fair enough to work those familiar French phrases into the piece; they express, so it is said, ideas that cannot be adequately pictured in English. But what does sagacité bring to the feast that "sagacity" wouldn't?

And where on earth did "rapaciousness" come from? The oafish habit of tacking "-ness" on to the end of an adjective to produce an abstract noun that nobody needs is one of my bêtes noires. (Whoops, there we go again!) What happened to "rapacity"? It's shorter; it's more vivid; use it or lose it.

Might is right: The distinction, rapidly being lost, between "may" and "might" is not only about tense – the distinction between present and past. It is also about degrees of likelihood or conditionality.

Take this, from another piece in last Saturday's magazine: "If Daisy had been alive during the Second World War, she'd have been one of those tireless dynamo types [who] read out announcements on the radio in an exquisite cut-glass accent (which in her case may have its roots in Norfolk, but may as well emanate from Buck House itself)."

It would have been much better to say, "which in her case may have its roots in Norfolk but might as well have emanated from Buck House itself". In this context , "may have" implies "may indeed have", but "might have" indicates "might have in certain circumstances which did not actually happen". Thus is made more explicit the message that the accent actually comes from Norfolk, but is of a kind that you associate with royalty.

With the shockingly rapid elision of "might" in favour of "may" we are watching the language become less expressive before our very eyes. I may have written about this before, and I might well do so again.