Errors & Omissions: Another hackneyed phrase deserves to be laid to rest

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The Independent Online

Last Saturday, Amy Jenkins's column reviewed the case of Amanda Knox, who is serving 26 years in prison in Italy for murder. The piece argued cogently that the evidence against Knox is flimsy and there is a more obvious suspect. The last paragraph then added the following.

"All that to one side, I can't personally prove that Amanda Knox is innocent but I would bet every penny I own that she is. Why? For the simple reason that 90 per cent of violent crime is committed by men, not women. I'd be willing to contemplate an extraordinary exception to this rule if there was some half-decent evidence against Knox – but there isn't. So I'm going to stick with the law of probabilities."

The well-known saying about the exception proving the rule (what does it mean?) has a lot to answer for. People are always gassing on about exceptions to rules. In this case, the rule says that 90 per cent of violent crime is committed by men, not women. So a violent crime committed by a woman would be an exception to the rule? No, of course not. It would just be one of the 10 per cent of violent crimes the rule says are committed by women.

Further, if this column may be allowed a brief digression from pedantry into jurisprudence, reaching criminal verdicts according to the law of probabilities is very dangerous. A notorious example is that of Sally Clark, who was convicted of murdering her two baby sons. The jury was apparently influenced by expert evidence to the effect that the explanation put forward by the defence – two innocent cot deaths in one family – was astronomically unlikely. It turned out to be a ghastly miscarriage of justice.

That an event is unlikely is not inconsistent with its having happened in one case. Otherwise we should never believe that anybody had been struck by lightning or had won a lottery.

Art attack: The following headline and strapline adorned a news story on Wednesday: "Mystery solved as Italian masterpiece is unveiled. Restoration reveals priceless Tintoretto." Three dismal headlinese words here. "Masterpiece" is worn smooth by overuse. If any old painting finds its way into the news someone is bound to call it a masterpiece. If you want to keep the word bright and crisp, reserve it for examples of an artist's work that are generally acknowledged to be outstanding.

"Unveiled" is confusing. To unveil something is to reveal it by removing a covering intended to conceal it. To remove dirt and old varnish from a painting is not to unveil it, merely to clean it. Finally, "priceless". This word, which always pops up in a story of this kind, is not only hackneyed, like "masterpiece", but vulgar. It assumes that the readers are gagging to find out how much money the picture might be worth, and also that they don't know much about painting. To anybody who does, "Tintoretto" says it all: you don't need to be told that a Tintoretto is an expensive item.

It gets worse. Go on to read the story and you will find that the headline has the facts all mixed up. The painting has hung in a Dorset country house since Victorian times. Its owners always believed it to be a Tintoretto. The restoration has confirmed that attribution, not "revealed" it. The mystery about the painting is not its authorship but the mythological scene it represents. That mystery has not been "solved": indeed, the National Trust has invited people to submit explanations of the picture's iconography.

Unjust sentence: People often write "less" when they mean "fewer". The rule is: "less" for quantity, "fewer" for numbers; so less milk will fill fewer bottles. A news story on Wednesday displayed the opposite error: "fewer" where it should be "less". "Phil Wheatley said that offenders who serve sentences of six months or fewer are not being rehabilitated."

The use of "fewer" here implies that all prison sentences are a whole number of months. Not so. What we are talking about is a quantity of time, not a number of months, so "sentences of six months or less" is fine.