Errors & Omissions: You don't have to know much about football – but it helps

This is from a news story published on Monday: "Downton Abbey [is] facing criticism for substituting dramatic credibility for soap-style pacing and plot twists." My thanks to Andrew Horsman, who drew attention to that.

To anyone no longer young and who doesn't follow football, that sentence is puzzling. Why would a television drama be criticised for abandoning soap-style pacing and plot twists and instead adopting dramatic credibility? For that is what that sentence means. The new thing is substituted for the old.

But not in football. When a substitution occurs it is the player going off the field who is said to have been substituted. I suppose the feeling is that his role is the passive one, which should be reflected by a passive verb. In recent decades the footballing usage has leaked into everyday language – to such an extent that different writers use the words in opposite senses. Not very satisfactory, but I expect the football usage will win in the end.

It won't be the first time that the application of a verb to its object has turned through 180 degrees. One instance is "advertise", which once applied to a person whose attention was being drawn to something. One might advertise the public about goods for sale. Now one may only advertise the goods to the public. And among the Shorter Oxford Dictionary's etymological arcana, illustrating the verb "substitute", we find: "A means of judging how far touch can substitute sight, 1855." Today's pedants would demand instead "how far touch can be substituted for sight". It looks as if the footballing usage of "substitute" is older than you might think.

Journalese: "Mystery chaos bid," as Peter Simple, one of the great satirical columnists, used to headline absurdist items of "news". Headline words need to be vivid and short. One of the most frequently used is "tragedy".

"Red Arrows pilot in ejector seat tragedy," said a headline published on Wednesday. "Tragedy" is useful. It maintains a respectful tone while telling the reader that someone has died in an accident that was worse than a "drama" but not bad enough to qualify as a "horror". And so it was. The pilot was killed when his ejector seat, through some unexplained malfunction, operated when the aircraft was stationary on the ground.

A classic journalese "tragedy", in fact – and what is wrong with that? Well, nothing, except that a mere accident, no matter how grievous, is not at all like the kind of play which, according to Aristotle, purges the emotions through pity and terror; a story of greatness brought low by malign fate, which brings us a deeper understanding of what it is to be human. That is what we really mean by "tragedy".

What was that? "Officers have contacted 450 people who were arrested, despite that many were never charged with any offence related to disturbances at last winter's protests," said a news story on Wednesday. "Despite that" is a new one. It looks as if the writer was desperate to avoid the familiar but monstrously clumsy "despite the fact that", and forgot about "although".

Whom was that? A Monday news story gave the following English version of a statement by Silvio Berlusconi: "Despite the defectors, whom I hope will return, we still have a majority." That should be "who". Consider these phrases: "the defectors, who will return" and "the defectors, whom I will flay alive". Both are correct – but you can't hope a defector.

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