Errors & Omissions: Those pesky metaphors need to be kept in their place

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The Independent Online

Those who report on crimes, wars and football matches or review art exhibitions or fashion shows have, in some ways, an easy life. They may have to travel to out-of-the-way places and witness some grisly sights, but the writing bit is reasonably straightforward. Essentially, they have to describe physical objects and events that they have either witnessed or been told about.

Writers about politics, finance and economics are not so fortunate. Nobody has ever seen proportional representation, quantitative easing or a Labour majority. These are pure abstractions, and the task of the writer is to make them vivid to the reader. There is only one way to do that: metaphor. And when you use metaphors all the time it is easy to mix them.

But you still cannot get away with things like this, from a story published on Monday: "Mr Hague also urged Sir Ian Kennedy, the chairman of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, not to dilute the new blueprint for MPs' expenses published last week."

In fact, there is a strong case for dropping the word "blueprint" altogether, whether diluted or not. If I am wrong, no doubt somebody from an engineering office will put me right, but in these days of computer-assisted design I should be surprised if the 19th-century blueprint process for reproducing drawings were still in use anywhere. In any case, it is hardly a fresh, vivid image any more.

Stuck for a headline: When the damned facts absolutely refuse to arrange themselves in a phrase that sounds exciting, the harassed sub-editor turns to desperate remedies. One is alliteration. Another is to begin the headline with a word such as "When", "How" or "Why". They impart an air of tingling significance. You know the sort of thing: "When Arthur Splodge met his long-lost brother"; "How plywood conquered America".

Would you read an article headlined "Jogging bottoms are the height of fashion"? Maybe not; bit of a flat statement. Let's jazz it up a bit. The headline that appeared on Wednesday's Hit & Run page was "Why jogging bottoms are the height of fashion". That's better; the reader feels that something fascinating is about to be revealed. Only one problem: the article simply reported that jogging bottoms are the height of fashion, without saying anything about why.

If even the "when, how, why" device won't serve, just shove in any old dramatic image and hope for the best. This appeared on a news page on Monday: "Slump in UK air travel laid bare". The poor trembling slump did its pathetic best to cover its modesty, but now the last flimsy veil has been ripped away. Well, sort of. Here is a flavour of the story beneath: "Figures from the aviation consultancy RDC Aviation show that Britain's 33 busiest airports all report lower passenger numbers in the first eight months of the year, which include the main summer break."

Homophone horror: Last Saturday's magazine carried an interview with the singer Skin. She was asked who made her laugh, and the answer, as published, was "Alan Carr. Every time I bump into him he comes out with something that just flaws me."

This is another metaphor problem. Whoever transcribed this has failed to imagine the picture the words are meant to convey. It should of course be "floors me". Skin is likening the impact of Carr's words to a punch that knocks her to the floor. It is difficult to imagine what "flaws me" might mean.

Stand and deliver: "Stood in front of rows of small wooden crosses marking the British dead from Afghanistan, the D-Day veteran said..." That is from a news story on Monday. It should be "Standing in front of...". That is standard English usage. "Stood", like "sat" in a similar context, is I think a regional variation.

The trouble is that for many readers the past participle "stood" carries passive associations, and consequently paints a mildly ludicrous picture. It reads as if the old chap has been stood up there by somebody else, like a roll of carpet propped up in a corner.

Jargon: "Bidders have been given a two-week time frame to table their opening offers," burbled a news story on Monday, about the sale of Camelot. So they have been given two weeks, then?