Errors & Omissions: Innocent words become casualties in the propaganda war

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The Independent Online

Hands up, all those who are anti-life. Thank you. Now those who are anti-choice. Thank you. Well, not many hands will have gone up; probably none.

Now, what about those who are pro-life? I expect we will see a forest of hands. But what is this? Confusion around the hall. Some hands shoot confidently up and stay there. Others go up and then come hesitantly down again. Some people look bewildered or indignant and start to protest. What is going on?

What is going on is that most of the people in the hall realise that we are we are no longer talking about life. We are talking about abortion. The same would have happened if we had asked people to identify themselves as pro-choice. Our language is no longer working properly: hence the bewilderment. And it is no longer working properly because it has been hijacked by propaganda.

That little thought-experiment was prompted by a headline that appeared on a news page on Monday: "Abortion law prompts pro-life protests in Spain." That should have been "Abortion law prompts 'pro-life' protests in Spain". I believe "pro-life" and "pro-choice" should always be in quotation marks. These terms are snappy, brief, appealing and monstrously tendentious. A fair-minded newspaper should always distance itself from them by attributing them to somebody.

Life and choice, two innocent things that everybody likes, have been forcibly recruited, like African child-soldiers, for a bitter propaganda war. It is no more honest than the way industrial food is promoted with the cunning use of words such as "natural", "new" and "pure".

It doesn't help, of course, that the dispute about abortion is irresolvable, being a conflict of the imagination. Some people imagine the foetus as a person; others imagine it as a gynaecological event happening to the pregnant woman. Both ideas are consistent with the facts. Reason builds two opposed ethical structures on these poetical foundations, and language is powerless to bridge the void between them.

Jargon: An arts page feature on Tuesday informed us that a radical theatre company "are fielding website invective seemingly on a near daily basis". We are sadly familiar with "on a daily basis", a surprisingly popular way of using more words to say "daily". Now comes "on a near daily basis". How about "nearly every day"?

The same piece, discussing a rash of political plays on the London stage, also offers this extraordinary extrusion of verbiage: "Does this signify a sudden flourishing of new political playwrighting? Or is this just a serendipitous consequence of timing that doesn't really reflect the wider picture?" The last 12 words are just a long way of saying "a coincidence".

In any case, it is a silly question for anybody to ask when writing a feature article, because if the answer is that, yes, it is just a coincidence, then there is no article to write.

Obvious: Halfway through a review of the new production of London Assurance published on Thursday came this: "The play brims with brio and youthful high spirits. To use an oenophile metaphor: it's not like savouring a full-bodied, venerable Burgundy; it's more like getting deliciously tiddly on bumper after bumper of Beaujolais Nouveau."

Yup, that's an oenophile metaphor all right. When a writer states what he is going to do, the reader senses discomfort. The fact is that the context here has nothing to do with wine. The oenophile metaphor, though vivid, feels a bit out of place. So the writer has to give it a little introduction: "OK, folks, are you ready for an oenophile metaphor? You are? Here goes ..."

Slight disruption: A feature article, published on Tuesday, told of the family life of a married couple who are both lawyers: "They have three children, and he [the husband] turned one of the rooms in their shared office into a crèche in order to minimise the disruption work can so frequently have on family life."

That illustrates what can easily happen when a writer starts one sentence but finishes another. It should be either "the disruption work can cause to family life" or the "the disruptive effect work can have on family life".

Or, even better, get rid of the abstract noun "disruption" altogether, and make it " ... so that work would disrupt their family life as little as possible".

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