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Errors & Omissions

Errors & Omissions: Those rampaging nouns have been on the loose again

The 1960 science-fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz concerns a community of Latin-speaking monks surviving in an America devastated by nuclear war.

In an early scene one of them puzzles over a sign on a wrecked building: "Fallout survival shelter". How perverse the English language was, he reflects, with its sloppy habit of piling up nouns one in front of the other, each seeking to qualify the next.

You wouldn't need to be a Latin-speaking monk to have had similar trouble with this headline, which appeared on a business page last Saturday: "Double dip worries weigh on blue chips." I defy anybody to get it first time. At first sight "worries" looks like a verb and you expect to be told what it is that the double dip worries. "Weigh" doesn't fit in with that idea, so you go back to the beginning, and realise that "worries" is a noun, and the noun phrase "double dip" is being used adjectivally, qualifying "worries". It's a "fallout survival shelter" construction.

A hyphen would have been a big help: "Double-dip worries" is more or less clear. But I'm still not crazy about it.

Verbiage: On Thursday we published a piece about the caterers who do canapés for fashion shows. It contained the following sentence: "Lyndy Redding is something of an old hand when it comes to making canapés."

"Something of" and "when it comes to" are just floppy verbal material extruded for no reason by the idling human brain. Compare the sentence "Lyndy Redding is something of an old hand when it comes to making canapés"with "Lyndy Redding is an old hand at making canapés". The longer sentence offers nothing – neither information nor imagery – that is not in the shorter. Just more words.

Flashing and flaying: Anthony Day has written in to point out this sentence, from Adrian Hamilton's Thursday comment column: "The key part of the draft which the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, sought to water down is the clause in which the Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, cast coruscating comments on the behaviour of the British authorities."

Now, it may be that his Lordship's judicial prose is so brilliant that it may be said to throw off flashes of light, which is what "coruscate" means. However, in the context it is more likely that the writer wanted to comment on the severity of the judgment, suggesting that to be at the receiving end of it was like having your skin ripped off. The word for that is "excoriate".

The erroneous use of "coruscate" for "excoriate" is so common that I suspect we may be witnessing a shift in usage that will eventually have to be acknowledged by dictionaries and allowed to stand. But for now, let's try to get it right.

Imperfect storm: In a tribute to the fashion designer Alexander McQueen, published last Saturday, Susannah Frankel wrote: "Alexander McQueen showered his Plexiglas catwalk with rain one season and caused it to burst into flames the next. He created a larger-than-life snowstorm, peopled by the world's most glamorously attired ice-skaters ... An elevated glass wind-tunnel through which a lithe young model made her way in a heavily embroidered kimono that billowed behind her like a cloud. It was not uncommon for McQueen's audience to be reduced to tears by the sheer loveliness and audacity of his vision."

That is fine, vivid writing, obviously inspired by genuine love. Only one thing: what is a "larger-than-life snowstorm"? The phrase seems to imply that real-life snowstorms are of a particular size, which was exceeded by McQueen's artificial one. That can't be right. It seems that "larger-than-life", as used here, is just a high-sounding way of saying "really, really enormously huge".

Initial setback: A feature on Thursday about modernist architecture displayed this disastrous picture caption: "Simmons Hall, MIT, Cambridge, Maryland."

I bet I know what happened. Somebody read the agency caption on the picture of this weird but engaging university hall of residence. It would have said that the hall was in "Cambridge, MA". Maryland, right? No, Maryland is MD. MA is Massachusetts.

The hapless perpetrator would have been put on the right track if they had reflected on what MIT stands for. It's a fair bet that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would be in Massachusetts.