Errors & Omissions: It may be hypothetical, but it's still completely wrong

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The Independent Online

"Begging the question" is one of the permanent fixtures of pedantry. We are forever pointing out that very few people know what "beg the question" means. When people use it they invariably mean "raise the question".

Does it matter? In the eternal scheme of the English language, not much. But whenever we misuse "beg the question" we annoy that minority of readers who know what it really means. Why annoy any section of your readership?

And now the great "beg the question" horror has just got worse. This is from an article on Wednesday about cyber attacks on the internet: "The assaults only targeted two websites and the damage was quickly rectified. But it begged a series of frightening hypotheticals."

Heavens! As if begging questions were not bad enough, now we are begging hypotheticals.

Alert pedants will have noticed at least three further things wrong with that passage. First, the number agreement is all over the place, with "assaults" becoming "it". Next, "only" is misplaced. And finally, we can do without the empty verbiage "a series of". And I suppose a hyper-pedant might object that damage cannot be rectified – put right – because it is not wrong. So, how about this? – "The assaults targeted only two websites and the damage was quickly repaired. But they raised frightening questions."

Rise and fall: On Tuesday we carried an article about Dunnhumby, the company that invented the Tesco Clubcard, and thus revolutionised the way retailers study their customers' shopping habits. It reported: "The meteoric rise began in the mid-1980s."

"Meteoric" has acquired a meaning almost opposite to the one it started out with. The writer of this story, describing the company's rise as meteoric, meant to convey that it has been swift and spectacular. But meteors do not rise; they fall. They blaze briefly in the night sky and as quickly disappear. So a meteoric career is one of spectacular success followed by sudden oblivion. I am sure that was not what we meant to say about Dunnhumby.

Journalese: On Monday we reported on a jewel raid in the City of London. Sure enough, the crime was committed "at the exclusive Royal Exchange shopping centre".

There are two problems with calling shops "exclusive". First, it is meaningless. To be sure, the shops at the Royal Exchange are exclusive in the sense that, in effect, they exclude people who cannot afford the prices of the goods they sell. But so does my local Sainsbury's.

And second, expensive and luxurious shops look "exclusive" only to people who cannot afford to use them. To their customers they are just shops. By assuming that our readers will identify with the word "exclusive" we imply that they are among the ragged urchins with their noses pressed to the glass. Not very flattering.

Immortalised on film: On Wednesday we carried a story about the young actress who has been cast to star in a forthcoming film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The headline said: "The girl with the very bright future." There is nothing wrong with that heading; it is actually quite good. But I fear it heralds some horrors in the years to come.

Some film titles get stuck in the brains of those who write headlines. We have all grown weary of the endless variations on A Bridge Too Far, The Godfather, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and others. If this new film is a success, and if there are still such things as headlines in 2050 or thereabouts, some of them will certainly begin with the words "The girl with the ...". Thank goodness I shall not be here to see it.

Daft headline of the week: "Portraits reveal a playful side to Marilyn Monroe," said the heading on a news story, published on Tuesday, about some previously unseen photographs. It just about could have got away with "show", but the word "reveal" definitely implies that nobody has hitherto suspected that Monroe had a playful side. This headline was obviously written by one of the three people in the world who have not seen Some Like It Hot.

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