Errors & Omissions: Readers lost in the muddle of a never-ending sentence

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The Independent Online

The first sentence of a news story is crucial. It sets the scene and tries to grab the reader's attention. So there is a temptation to cram too much into it.

A story published on Wednesday began: "Conan O'Brien has raised the stakes in a deepening row over the future of American late-night television, saying he refuses to participate in the 'destruction' of one of America's most prestigious TV programmes, by publicly rejecting a plan to move his chat-show to a graveyard slot."

That is a grammatical mess. It is not clear how the clause beginning "by publicly rejecting" relates to what goes before. The sentence is better split into two: "Conan O'Brien has raised the stakes in a row over the future of American late-night television, by publicly rejecting a plan to move his chat-show to a graveyard slot. He refuses to participate in the 'destruction' of one of America's most prestigious TV programmes."

Mixed metaphor of the week: Wednesday's front page carried a puff for a news story inside: "Battle for the pink vote – landmark shift in the debate on gay rights." Can you imagine how a shift could be a landmark? A landmark stays still.

Near miss: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote on Monday about fanatical Muslims: "Their inner lives are stormy psychological dramas which turn dangerously unstable. Some of the resulting turmoil and sexual unrest may be swelling the seething brain of the next terrorist manqué."

Well, don't worry about it, because a terrorist manqué is no danger to anyone. The French verb manquer means to fail or fall short. A terrorist manqué is person who might have been a terrorist but never was. The person with the dangerous turmoil is a potential terrorist, or would-be terrorist.

Who he? Why make things difficult? This is from a news story published last Saturday: "Although he was a Tory MP before becoming Speaker last June, Mr Bercow's wife is on Labour's list of parliamentary candidates."

Putting a pronoun (in this case, "he") before the noun for which it stands ("Bercow") is rarely the best thing to do. The reader eventually finds out who "he" is, but it would be easier the other way round: "Although Mr Bercow was a Tory MP before becoming Speaker last June, his wife is on Labour's list of parliamentary candidates."

Forbidden: Irregular verbs are a glory of the English language, so be careful not to trip up over them. This is from Wednesday's report of Nick Clegg's policy initiative on homosexuality: "The Lib Dem leader complimented Labour for its track record on gay rights, which included ... the repeal of Section 28, which forbode local authities and schools from 'promoting' homosexuality."

That should be "forbade", which is the past tense of "forbid". "Forebode" means to foretell or presage. "Forbode", sadly, does not exist.

Cliché of the week: "The power behind the throne at Fox." It is difficult to know what that headline was supposed to mean. It appeared above a profile, published on Tuesday, of Roger Ailes. Mr Ailes is the president of the Fox News Channel; he runs the show. How can the man who is patently sitting on the throne be at the same time behind the throne? Mr Ailes's photograph shows him to be a portly gent long past the age for such contortions.

Absolute limit: Gyles Cooper writes in from London to draw attention to a news report on Wednesday. It told of the conviction of a woman with British and French nationality in a French court for the murder of a French man in France. It said that at the time of the offence she was "four times over the drink-drive limit". So was that the French limit of 50mg or, seeing that this is a report for British readers, was it the British limit of 80mg? Good question. We should have been told.

Verbiage: It's odd how people put in diffident little qualifiers to explain that they are not really saying what they are saying. One such is "something of". This came up in a feature on Thursday about small independent breweries: "Microbreweries are going through something of a purple patch."

Ask yourself what the difference is between a purple patch and "something of a purple patch". Then strike out "something of".

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