Errors & Omissions: When it comes to overused phrases and verbiage...

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The Independent Online

Two sentences published this week illustrate the use and abuse of the overused phrase "when it comes to ...".

First, the abuse. This is the opening of a news story published on Monday: "He may have fashioned a career out of creating beautiful things, but when it comes to spats with his neighbours the clothes designer Pierre Cardin is not afraid to turn ugly."

Oh, really? When does it come to spats with his neighbours? Every other Tuesday, perhaps. Read on and you discover that it doesn't "come to spats with his neighbours". He is involved in a single dispute about changes he has wrought in a village where he owns a chateau. Here, as usual, "when it comes to" is verbiage. In this case it serves to bolster a spurious contrast between "creating beautiful things" and "turning ugly". Is there really an inconsistency between artistic creation and a quarrelsome nature? No, this "beautiful/ugly" thing is just a pun.

But anyway, back to "when it comes to ...". Does the expression have a proper use? Yes. Here is Terence Blacker, writing on Tuesday: "It may be a tough sell when it comes to the Olympics, but there is something refreshing about this small-scale, local brand of patriotism." And when will it come to the Olympics? Why, next year in London, of course.

Forensic argument: Is "forensic" a lost cause? Here is a headline from Thursday: "Lawrence trial forensic expert admits: 'I made crucial mistake.'" Old-school chief sub-editors would take you out and shoot you for writing "forensic experts" when you mean "forensic scientists".

In ancient Rome the law courts sat in the forum. The related adjective forensis means "in the courts", and so does its English derivative "forensic". So you can speak of the forensic skill of a barrister. And science applied to criminal investigation is forensic science.

So far so good, but the trouble starts when policemen start referring to the police forensic science department as "Forensic". Now "forensic" means not "relating to court proceedings" but " relating to the scientific investigation of crime". Of course words change their meanings in the passage from one language to another. Look at "referendum", "argument" and "exit". But "forensic" appears to be in an uncomfortable adolescent stage, with different meanings running in parallel.

Journalese: Here is a picture caption from Thursday's paper: "The Paralympic silver medallist Monique van der Vorst, 27, was confined to a wheelchair for 14 years until a freak accident last year prompted a miracle recovery enabling her to regain the use of her legs."

That is one for the cliché museum – a freak accident and a miracle recovery in the same sentence. A freak once meant a sudden capricious change of mind. Now it is a "freak of nature", something monstrously different from the usual run of things. In journalese it is nearly always either a "freak wave" or a "freak accident". Usually they are not freakish at all, and so it is in this case.

The Dutch athlete had been paralysed from the waist down after an operation went wrong. She used a hand-propelled bicycle. Last year she was injured in a collision with another cyclist – and gradually recovered the use of her legs. Now her recovery could indeed be seen as a miracle; perhaps not the result of divine intervention, but still something to be wondered at – the basic meaning of "miracle". The objection to "miracle recovery" is simply that the expression has been cheapened by overuse. But "freak accident" is absurd. What is freakish about falling off a bike?