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Errors & Omissions

Errors & Omissions: Who would have thought it? Michael Barrymore is one of the people


News, as we all know, is about people.

That is one of the first principles of journalism (although Lord Justice Leveson is currently exposing, day by day, some of the awful things that can happen when the principle is taken to extremes). What, then, to make of the jam label that appeared above a News in Brief item on Monday? (A jam label is a line above the headline indicating the subject of an item: "Health", "Crime", whatever.)

The headline said: "Barrymore arrested on drink and drugs charges after car accident." The little label above said "People". Well, blow me down, a story about people, whatever next? Or had we slipped into French? The English word "people" has in recent years entered the French language, but with a shift of meaning: in French les people means "celebrities". That would fit Barrymore all right.

Jargon: "Coastguard and RNLI lifeboats braved gale-force conditions yesterday in a determined effort to save five sailors after their ship sank," said a news story on Monday. Gale-force winds we know about, but what are gale-force conditions? Just gales with their best Sunday clothes on. Whenever you see the word "conditions", get out the scalpel.

Nothing like a dame: A news story published on Tuesday concerned the chair of the Care Quality Commission, Dame Jo Williams. At the second mention, she was called "Dame Williams". As if that were not agony enough, we were at it again on Wednesday, recalling an interview with Dame Carol Black when she was president of the Royal College of Physicians. In the next paragraph she became "Lady Black".

Two tries: no cigar. Here's what to do. The styles of Dame and Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire are knighthoods for women. Treat them the same as knights: at second mention it's first name only. Just as Sir John Smith becomes Sir John (not Sir Smith), so Dame Mary Smith becomes Dame Mary.

There are people who think all this flummery doesn't matter much. They're right: it doesn't. But why look like an ignorant yokel?

Cliché of the week (1): On Tuesday we published a feature on the death of the film director Ken Russell. The introductory blurb said: "Hollywood has lost one of its most visionary and underrated talents." Well, yes, sort of. The article said: "He worked in the UK and in Hollywood, on TV and on the big screen." It is not actually wrong to associate Russell with Hollywood, but he was the most British of directors; nobody thinks of him as a Hollywood figure. You do suspect that the writer of the blurb just blurted out "Hollywood" as shorthand for "the film industry".

Cliché of the week (2): "Comedy of errors? Lenny Henry barely puts a foot out of place" – headline published on Wednesday. If you're going to use a cliché, get it right. It's "put a foot wrong" – or if you are talking about the man's dapper appearance you might say that he had "barely a hair out of place".

Journalese: Gyles Cooper writes to point out an overexcited headline from Wednesday's paper. "Hundreds flee gangway fall on HMS Belfast" stood above a story of how 185 people (hundreds? – just about, maybe) had to be taken off the ship by boats after the collapse of a gangway trapped them on board. They were unable to flee.