Errors & Omissions: We should appreciate the dignified calm of 11 monosyllables

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The Independent Online

It isn't Christmas, so this column has no business being nice to anyone, but just relish this sentence, from a film review by Anthony Quinn, published yesterday.

It is about Roger Corman, veteran director of much-admired horror flicks: "You'd imagine from his CV he's a cigar-chomping, loud-talking maniac, whereas the reality is a stately, smiling gent of whom no one has a bad word to say."

Isn't that lovely? Enjoy the vivid contrast between the Hollywood stereotype of the "loud-talking maniac" and the "stately, smiling gent" of reality; and savour the air of dignified calm created at the end by a string of 11 monosyllables and a fastidious relative clause starting with "of whom".

On reflection, just one criticism: There should have been a "that" to signal the beginning of reported speech: "You'd imagine from his CV that he's a cigar-chomping, loud-talking maniac." That is easier to read. The "that" can be safely omitted when the reported speech follows immediately after the main verb. Here that would mean omitting "from his CV" and writing: "You'd imagine he's a cigar-chomping, loud-talking maniac."

Tortured language: Between headline and text you often find a brief statement of the author's name and what the article is about. In the trade it is known as a standfirst or a blurb. It is meant to be short, simple and appetising; not like this, which appeared on Wednesday: "Patrick Cockburn meets the former soldier who has joined the political prisoners he tortured in Turkey's Mamak prison by suing the generals who led a regime of terror." Oh, and his aunt has a dog called Rover.

Too much information is crammed into one sentence, by means of three relentless relative clauses. Split it up: "Patrick Cockburn meets a former soldier who once tortured political prisoners in Turkey's Mamak prison. Now he has joined his victims in suing the generals who led a regime of terror."

Do your sums: The following appeared in a feature about Swiss banks in last Saturday's magazine: "The Swiss banking industry holds an estimated 6,352 billion Swiss Francs ($7,000 billion) in assets." The rules on converting currencies are simple, if rarely adhered to. US dollars and euros are familiar to readers and do not usually need converting. A sum in any other currency should be followed by a sterling conversion in brackets.

If the original sum is obviously a round-figure approximation, so should the conversion be. It is amazing how often you see something like "The bill came to six million Ruritanian zlotys (£2,934)". Somebody has just looked up the sterling/zloty rate, fed the figures into a calculator and written down the answer. The result looks daft; "£2,900" would have done nicely.

What happened in the above example I do not know, but one thing is certain: the conversion should have been into sterling, not dollars. But could it be that the conversion actually went the other way? The strange precision of "an estimated 6,352 billion" makes the reader suspicious. Could it be that the source material was American, and, perfectly reasonably, gave an estimated figure in dollars?

Two further points. Currency names take an initial lower-case letter, and when dealing with sums of money we contract million to m and billion to bn, both closed up to the figure. So it should be "6,352bn Swiss francs".