Errors & Omissions: Once upon a time, people could distinguish fairy tale from reality

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The Independent Online

I hate to break this to you, but Mickey Mouse, Snow White and Pinocchio are fictional characters. Somebody made them up. When you watch a Disney film – indeed any film – the people on the screen are not really there. You are choosing to suspend disbelief in an illusion created by artifice.

But not according to the world-view of the person who wrote the blurb for an article on Monday about the new Disney production The Princess and the Frog: "After seven decades of making dreams come true, Hollywood's finest animation studio finally decided to create its first African-American princess." Disney may be said to present dreams in a form visible to the waking eye, but in no conceivable sense does it make them come true. The idea that it does is cliché-thinking. What happens to dreams? They come true, of course. But only in films – particularly Disney films. This daft blurb has forgotten the sad fact that we are not actually inside the magical Disney world but outside, looking in.

Further Disney-think in a picture caption on the same day: "A pair of black swans proudly show off their cygnets to curious onlookers at St James's Park, London." Readers who want anthropomorphic tales about swans with human feelings can surely make them up for themselves. There is no reason to suppose that swans are capable of feeling pride, or that this pair had any notion of displaying their offspring to passing humans. You may say it is just a manner of speaking – but what a hackneyed old idea it is.

Terrible twins: There are pairs of like-sounding words that seem destined to be for ever tangled up. Flout and flaunt; coruscate and excoriate; slither and sliver.

This is from an arts review published on Tuesday: "The Hazards of Love is a rock-opera song cycle telling the story of a maiden ravaged by a shape-shifting animal." The verb "ravage" is usually applied to a stretch of countryside. It means to devastate, lay waste, plunder. I suppose you could say, in a whimsical way, that a maiden was ravaged by a monster, but it is much more likely that she was ravished – raped or carried off by violence.

Both English words are derived, by different routes, from the French verb ravir, in its old meaning of to steal or abduct. Today ravir usually means to delight – as does "ravish" in its adjectival form "ravishing". On and on it goes: the evolution of a language is a centuries-long game of free association. But just to prove that we can keep our feet on the ground, here is the start of a news story, also published on Tuesday: "Hundreds of residents in flood-ravaged Cumbrian towns were allowed back into their homes yesterday." That is "ravage" in its proper usage.


Who he? This broken-backed sentence is from an article published on Thursday, about how mainstream Islam is fighting back against the extremists. "An elderly cleric with a trimmed grey beard and warm eyes, the Islam he grew up with and went on to study was mainly concerned with creating a just world marked by kindness and lenience."

The grammatical structure fights the meaning in a way usually associated with the hanging participle ("Having died, they buried him"). A subordinate element of the sentence is attaching itself to the wrong noun or pronoun. In this case the errant element is the noun phrase "an elderly cleric with a trimmed grey beard and warm eyes". The meaning demands that it apply to "he", but "Islam" gets in the way and snatches the connection, for "Islam" comes first, and is the subject of the main verb, "was".

So the sentence ends up saying that Islam is an elderly cleric with a trimmed grey beard and warm eyes. The reader winces and moves on.


Initial difficulty: Try to remember what initials stand for. Then we would get fewer absurdities such as "HIV virus" and "PIN number". Last Saturday a travel article about Bermuda told how: "Sir George Somers crashed his ship, the HMS Sea Venture, into a reef."

I think American influence may be to blame here. People are used to seeing "the USS". There is nothing wrong with that, for "the United States ship..." makes sense. But "the Her Majesty's ship..." doesn't. Make it just "HMS Sea Venture".