Errors & Omissions: Technology marches on, but it snatches the odd word along the way

Click to follow
The Independent Online

"A 1962 photograph of Marilyn Monroe ... by the US photographer George Barris is estimated to sell for"

Thus ended a news-in-brief item on Tuesday. I haven't seen that for ages. It is maddening for readers. I thought we had got over it. Stories that end like that, without the last line, are an example of technological regression.

In the days when dinosaurs walked the earth, newspaper pages were put together in metal type by a man (yes, always a man) called a stonehand. The process was staggeringly expensive, but at least intimate human contact with every detail prevented stories from ending in the air. Then, about 30 years ago, came a process called Atex. Pages were made up by journalists on primitive computer screens – black with green luminous letters. It drove you insane but at least it wouldn't output a page unless all the words fitted properly in the spaces allotted to them.

Finally, about 20 years ago, we got Windows and a magical software application called QuarkXPress which does the job in a way reasonably suited to the human brain, but allows you, alas, to send pages with too much kit in the text boxes. And it has a little brother called QuarkCopyDesk that allows one person to work on the text of any particular story while another works on the page layout. And if there is the slightest discrepancy between the formats they are using, it is possible for the words to fit into the text box on CopyDesk, but be a line over on the page layout. And that last line will not print in the newspaper.

Thus human fallibility can defeat any system, and the only answer is human vigilance in checking the bottom of each box before you send the page. As I say, I thought we had got that one licked.

Homophone horror: An arts page piece on Monday commented on the Royal Academy's current exhibition of Watteau drawings: "It was a form which he pursued with as much invention and even greater flare than his paintings."

That should be "flair". These are a couple of rather weird words, quite apart from being pronounced the same, so it is no wonder that people confuse them. "Flair" comes down from Latin by way of Old French. A very distant cousin of "fragrance", it means a scent, hence a power of discernment, and finally an innate instinctive ability. "Flare" pops up from nowhere in the 16th century, origin unknown, meaning a flickering or spreading flame. Later, it comes to apply to anything that spreads out, including the absurd trousers whose popularity in the 1970s scars the memory of anybody over the age of 50.

Atlantic swell: This column does not get sniffy about "Americanisms". The American version of the English language is just as good as the British, if not better – and our tool box of metaphors would be much the poorer without bandwagons, filibusters and many other colourful North American images. But at the same time, a British newspaper should be written in British English, and it is easy for globetrotting foreign correspondents to fall into mid-Atlantic habits. Jan Cook writes in to draw attention to the following, from our Japanese coverage on Thursday: "With lines for food stretching six city blocks ... people in the region are struggling with shortages."

In this country we form queues, not lines. And our cities (except for Glasgow) are not laid out in those rigid grid patterns that allow the "block" to be a unit of measurement. How far is "six city blocks"? A quarter of a mile? Half? I've really no idea.

Wrong way round: "It has been a week of military reversals for the rebels," opined an introductory blurb on a news story about Libya last Saturday. A reversal means turning round or going backwards; the rebels had not done that. What had happened was that they had suffered some checks. Not outright defeats, perhaps, but the Gaddafi forces had thwarted their plans and generally got the better of things. The rebels had suffered reverses.