Errors & Omissions: How the public's mild worry can be stretched to deep concern

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The Independent Online

All through the great phone-hacking scandal, I have held a minority position in the office. It seems to me to be a parish-pump story from the village of Westminster and Fleet Street, much less interesting to real people than to journalists. So maybe I have missed the point of the following headline, which appeared on Tuesday: "Voters deeply concerned about phone hacking, survey reveals."

The accompanying report seemed to reveal no such thing. It revealed that voters were deeply disapproving of phone hacking. For instance, confronted with the statement "It is acceptable for journalists to hack into the private telephone voicemail of celebrities", 94 per cent disagreed. But unanimity of opinion is not the same thing as deep concern. It was indeed unethical for the News of the Screws to listen in on Sienna Miller's voicemail, but do you stay awake at night worrying about it?

Bad end: Tuesday's Notebook pondered the use of electronic devices in public. British "hooliganism" in this respect was lamented, with a ghastly picture of "iPads sliding off laps at every turn, BlackBerries tweaked feverishly and phone calls shouted without a thought for those nearby". I think that should be "BlackBerrys", just as the American presidential family are the Kennedys, not the Kennedies, and the RAF combat aircraft are Tornados, not Tornadoes.

English common nouns ending in –y following a consonant form their plurals in –ies (army – armies). Common nouns ending in –o take –oes (tomato – tomatoes). But these days, that does not apply to proper names; they have plurals in –ys and –os. I say "these days" in deference to the Victorian statesmen who used to worry about the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Number crunching: This is from a piece of colour writing, published on Wednesday, about the protests in Egypt. "But so vast was the crowd that the organisers decided the danger of attacks from the state security police were too great." "Were" should be "was". This kind of disjunction between noun and verb seems to be getting more common. Crusty pedants will attribute it to the decline of grammar in schools. Here, the subject of the verb is the singular noun "danger" – so "the danger was". The writer seems to have been bamboozled by the intervening plural noun "attacks".

It's a lie! The word "belie" seems to like shifting its meaning in baffling ways. Four hundred years ago, in Sonnet 130, Shakespeare mocked poetic comparisons ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun ...") but still declared his lady as fair as any woman "belied with false compare". "Belied" here means misrepresented, turned into a lie.

But today, "belie" has lost some of that richness, and just means "expose as a falsehood", as in, say, "The evidence belies the stated reasons for going to war." But the stated reasons, being false, cannot belie the evidence, which is true. It is easy to get it the wrong way round. On Monday we made it even worse. A feature article said: "The fear in some quarters over a programme showing experimental sex and drug use belies an ingrained suspicion of youth itself." Nothing here is being shown to be untrue; "belies" has become a mere synonym for "reveals".

Easily fixed: A business story on Thursday carried this headline: "BP hit by UK safety order and alleged US market fixing." Nothing in it is wrong by itself, but the elements jar together. The market fixing is something BP is alleged to have done, but the safety order is something that has been done to the company. The linking of the two by "and" suggests, wrongly, that they are things of the same order.

The headline would read more smoothly as either "BP hit by UK safety order and claims of US market fixing" or "BP hit by UK safety lapses and alleged US market fixing".

Theme music: "The skill of a great film composer is to marry moving images with sound in such a way that they seem organically linked." That was the opening sentence of our news report on Tuesday, telling of the death of John Barry. How true, how very true. Now tell me something I don't know already.