Errors & Omissions: The spirit of PC Plod finds its way into a news report

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This sentence comes from Thursday's news story about the great Mayfair jewel robbery. It goes badly wrong halfway through: "It is believed that police in the current investigation have not ruled out the possibility that the same gang has struck again, but think it is unlikely due to the fact that the suspected culprits in the latest raid had London accents."

The words "the fact that" are a signal that the sentence has slipped into mere verbiage. And "due to" is, as so often, misused. "Due" is an adjective, and needs a noun or pronoun to modify. Or, for those without grammar, there must be something that is "due" – where is it? It would be correct, though long-winded, to write: "They think it unlikely; their opinion is due to the fact that ..."

But we don't need any of that stuff. Simply strike out "due to the fact that" and replace it with an unjustly neglected and very useful word: "because".

And finally, what is this nonsense about "suspected culprits"? If and when anybody is arrested, they will be suspected culprits. The people who spoke with London accents were the actual culprits, as heard speaking by the staff at the shop.


Choose: This is the opening sentence of Thursday's front-page splash: "Record numbers of pupils set to get three grade-A passes at A-level next week have been turned away from Britain's most elite universities." But they are getting into the only slightly elite ones, I suppose.

The word "elite" comes, by way of French, from the Latin verb eligere, to choose (which also gives us the word "elect"). The elite are the chosen ones, picked out for particular excellence. You are either of the elite or you are not. You cannot be more or less elite.


How many? "The Taliban has warned they will kill anyone who votes," said Thursday's news story about the election in Afghanistan. The writer needs to decide whether to treat the word "Taliban" as singular or plural. Is it "The Taliban has warned it will kill anyone who votes" or "The Taliban have warned they will kill anyone who votes"? In principle, either will do, but you cannot mix them.

Normally, this newspaper treats such collective nouns as singular ("the Government is"), except for sports teams and pop groups. However, there is one good reason for treating "Taliban" as plural: in the original Pashto language, the word is plural. It means "students". For readers who are aware of that, "the Taliban are" looks natural (and such usages as "a Taliban" and "Talibans" look ghastly). Readers who don't know where the word comes from won't mind either way.


Could be a big story: The usual trouble with headlines and blurbs is that they leave out the fine shades, and can sound more definite than the facts warrant. The blurb on a news analysis piece published last Saturday fell into an opposite error: "He came to power as a political rock star. But 200 days on, Barack Obama's honeymoon could finally be over."

Dramatic stuff. Is the honeymoon over or not? Who can tell? Well, in the sixth paragraph of the story came this: "In spring all still seemed possible. But in the US (if not yet in the rest of a world still in quiet euphoria that George W Bush is no longer in the White House) the long Obama honeymoon is over." So, that's it then. There is no "could be over" about it. In the US it is over: elsewhere it is not. The air of drama and uncertainty whipped up by the blurb turns out to be phoney.


Self-conscious: The reflexive pronoun "myself" makes odd intrusions into genteel speech, replacing the simple "I".

This is from an article on fear of flying, published on Tuesday: "Then Air France flight 447 fell out of the sky halfway across the Atlantic. Myself and the rest of the clammy-palmed one-in-three suddenly found ourselves thinking twice about our summer holiday plans."

Nobody would hesitate to write "I suddenly found myself thinking twice..." but insert 10 more words between "I" and "found", and people lose their nerve. Suddenly the bold "I" turns into the meek "myself". It's not just flying that turns this writer's palms clammy.