Errors & Omissions: Insure yourself against the strange use of the term 'third party'


This is not exactly an error, just a very odd usage that seems to have become universal. Throughout the Gareth Williams inquest, everybody, including the coroner, has been referring to the possibility that the MI6 man was killed and zipped up into a holdall by a "third party".

There are normally two parties to a dispute or an agreement, and someone else who becomes involved will be a third party. The most familiar instance is the third-party insurance that all motorists must carry. In this case, the two parties to the agreement are the insurer and the insured motorist. Another person who makes a claim after suffering damage in an accident will be a third party.

"Third party" seems to have become a general term for anyone who comes into a situation uninvited or mysteriously. Fair enough, but should we not be taking care to avoid numerical absurdities. In the "spy in the bag" affair, the unfortunate Mr Williams may be assumed to be the first party; if his killer was the third party, who was the second?

Mixed metaphor of the week: "Standoff over Chinese dissident threatens to derail US summit," proclaimed a headline on Tuesday. How the top of a mountain can be pushed off the rails is a bit of mystery. I don't think even a confrontation between gunfighters could manage it.

Note, by the way, how "summit" has been devalued over the years. A summit meeting, as the name suggests, is a meeting, in person, between heads of government, at the "summit" of power. The term dates back at least to the Cold War. But this latest "summit" is a mere visit to Beijing by the US Secretary of State.

Cliché of the week: Here is another headline, from a news page on Monday: "Taliban link to brutal murder of aid worker." The well-worn phrase "brutal murder" is here perfectly consonant with the facts. The trouble is that the eye just slides over it, registering no more than would have been conveyed by just "murder", without the familiar "brutal".

Journalese: The Monday interview was accompanied by a box of facts about the subject, including: "A father of four, he lives with his third wife, Karen." Have you ever described anybody you know as a father of four, a mother of three, or whatever? I haven't. You would just say, "He has four children."

This "father of four" business appears only in newspapers, where it caters to the eternal journalistic urge to put people into the right boxes. A father of four, it seems, is a particular kind of person, with a character distinct from that of a father of three, or of five.

Where was that? A news item on Monday reported on the sale of some photographs by David Bailey: "They are due to fetch £2,500 each at auction in Vienna, Austria."

We all make fun of the American habit of specifying "Paris, France" or "Rome, Italy", but it isn't really so daft to make sure you avoid a confusion with Paris, Illinois, or Rome, Georgia. And I suppose US readers might imagine we were talking about Vienna, Virginia. But no such danger threatens the British readers for whom The Independent is intended. Just plain Vienna will do, and indeed to write "Vienna, Austria" is almost an insult, suggesting as it does that some of them might perhaps not know the first thing about one of the great cities of the world.