Errors and Omissions - A comedy of errors

Eleven years ago, Guy Keleny began the column that would become Errors and Omissions. Now, 600 editions down the line, John Rentoul presents a selection of his finest pedantry.

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The Independent Online

Guy Keleny is a legend. Or he would be if he had not written so eloquently earlier this month about the misuse of “legend” when applied to people who are really good at something and still alive.

His Errors & Omissions column has been one of the best things in The Independent for more than a decade, appearing in a remarkable 600 editions (give or take a couple of sick days). You, dear reader, probably know that already. What you may not know is that he is also one of the best of colleagues, an open-minded pedant who knows a lot and thinks clearly without being dogmatic.

How often have I appealed to him to settle a dispute that has broken out in another part of the office, each time to be surprised not to receive an instant and definite verdict. Even if it is something as obvious – to me – as the distinction between jealous and envious, he will pause, think about it, and consider the question from the other side. On that one, he accepted that there was a difference, but did not think that it mattered as much as I did.

On another occasion, he defended an older use of "plethora", saying that it would be "a pity" to lose a word that means "a harmful excess of something which, in due measure, would be beneficial". That seemed to me to be choosing an unwinnable battle, but, as ever, I learnt something.

Any reader of any of his columns leaves it a wiser person. His recent short disquisition on a "well-painted door", which began, "Warning: this item contains high-strength grammar", was a model of erudition, brevity and clarity. I now know when to hyphenate compound adjectives.

His mini-essay – it was only a paragraph – on how biceps is singular, and the form "bicep" an erroneous back-formation, was another gem (the Latin plural is bicipites). He recommended, pragmatically, that biceps should be used both as singular and plural.

His honesty might have got lesser people into trouble. Simon Kelner, the previous editor, shared my high opinion of his column and asked him if he could write more regularly. There was a pause. "Ah. You mean more frequently," said Keleny.

That was when the column was called Mea Culpa, which was a silly title because (a) it was in a dead language and (b) it suggested that Keleny himself was responsible for the grammar crimes, mixed metaphors and stylistic horrors contained within. Still, we loved it all the same, and were sad to see it go. But then we realised that Guy himself was what we liked about it. And he still is. As I say, he is a semi-mythical figure from ancient history.

John Rentoul is the author of 'The Banned List: A Manifesto Against Jargon and Cliché', and sometimes stands in for Keleny in the Errors & Omissions column.

A selection of Guy's gems of wisdom.....

December 9 2000

Should I really start with a small criticism of Andreas Whittam Smith? He is a columnist now, but he was the inventor and founder editor of The Independent. Without him, you would not be reading this newspaper, I would have been differently employed for the past 14 years, and the editor would not have asked me to share with you each week my thoughts - hitherto published only in bulletins to my colleagues - on points of grammar, logic and English usage. We owe a good deal to Andreas, but his Monday column this week still should not have said, “Of course, share prices decline when institutions bail out...”

There are two expressions of unrelated origin but similar resonance, both spelt “bail out”. One means to throw water out of a boat to stop it sinking, the other to put up a financial surety for the release of a prisoner. “Bail out” has the meaning of rescuing somebody or something from danger.

Andreas was not writing about anything of that sort, but the opposite - about financial institutions selling their shareholdings in a company when they have lost confidence in its management. What he meant was “bale out”. That means to parachute from an aircraft. I believe the expression arises from the sight of a stick of parachutists tumbling out of an aircraft like bales of straw from a combine harvester. By analogy, “bale out” means to escape from danger by making a hasty exit - as investors in a dodgy company are likely to do.

December 16 2000

Misfired metaphor of the week: “A carefully orchestrated operation of media spinning... gave the Prime Minister an almost cast-iron insurance policy...” What is almost cast iron? Molten iron ready to be poured into the mould? The writer cannot have meant that. Incidentally, how did cast iron become a byword for infrangibility when it is actually quite brittle? Cast-iron piano frames can be smashed with sledgehammers. I suppose people assume that a material that is hard must be tough as well. In fact, wrought iron is tougher.

Unparliamentary language: Several people wrote complaining about the language used by the parliamentary opponents of the legislation to bring in an equal age of consent for gay teenagers.

Apparently those peers and peeresses who loudly feared an outbreak of “buggery” among 16-year-olds should instead have been talking about “sodomy”. Our correspondents seemed to think that the distinction depends on the sex of the person who is the object of this love that apparently does not even know its name. Sodomy for a boy, buggery for a girl? The Oxford English Dictionary says the two words are synonymous. Collins, exotically, restricts sodomy to humans of either sex, but allows buggery to embrace beasts as well. Enough of that. We are getting beyond the most overheated imaginations on the Tory benches.

January13 2001

Mixed metaphor of the week: “Here, surely, was a story that exposed the vacuity of the Prime Minister's mantra of 'education, education, education'. It should have provided the Tories with an open goal. But where was Theresa May, the shadow Education Secretary? Opportunities for oppositions to score easy runs are rare. This was an excellent chance passed up by Mrs May.”

Presumably the poor woman was too busy tearing off her football boots and grabbing her bat and pads.

January 27 2001

Paris in the winter: The haute couture shows are here again, visions of glamour sway down the catwalks, charming swags and ruffles of fashion prose adorn the news pages - and the folk who write picture captions seem to lose their heads. This season we have published more than one caption like this: “A model presents a flower -printed shirt with long sleeves and a matching skirt.” Had I not been told she was a model, I would surely have imagined she was a brain surgeon doing a bit of modelling on her day off. What has been forgotten is that this is not a photograph of a beautiful though skinny young woman, it is a photograph of a frock. At this rate we will soon see picture captions on the sports pages beginning “A footballer...”.

June 23, 2001

Basque terrorists, we reported on Wednesday, planned to plant a car bomb on a ferry from Spain to Plymouth. Among the terroristic kit they were carrying when they were arrested were “a detailed plan of the ferry and a full timetable of its sailing schedule”.

Devilish cunning these Basque terrorists. Not just a plan, but a detailed plan. How detailed? We are not told, but it certainly wasn't a plan with no details on it, such as might have been carried by terrorists less desperate and dangerous than these. And the timetable? It was full. Scary. Much more scary than those timetables with half the sailings left out that ferry companies so often publish.

Those Basques certainly had a frightening arsenal of fatuous adjectives and meaningless cliches. At the trial we shall no doubt learn the full details.

June 20 2001

Bandits at 10 o'clock: Our introduction to Wednesday's “You ask the Questions” feature, on the architect Richard Rogers, remarked that the Lloyd's building in the City of London “ drew flack for the fact that its high-tech elements broke down too often”.

Rarely has this newspaper published 14 words containing so much to criticise.

First, “flack”. That should be “flak”. The word is a German acronym from “Fliegerabwehrkanone” (not a C in sight), meaning anti-aircraft gun. Like “Lili Marlene”, the word crossed from German to Allied usage during the Second World War, when RAF types said things like “We caught some pretty heavy flak over Hamburg”. Flak came to signify a barrage of criticism. “Flack” is a pretty well forgotten piece of early 20th century US slang, meaning a publicity agent.

Next, “for the fact that”. Any sentence containing the words “the fact that” needs to be recast. It is a useless sound, as of grinding gears, emitted by a brain desperately trying to work out how to get to the next bit of the sentence. In this case “because” would do nicely.

Next, “high-tech”. The Independent's style book prefers “hi-tech”. It doesn't much matter which you use, but having decided on a style we should stick to it.

Next, “elements”. This is the sort of bland abstraction to which writers resort when they are short of facts. What broke down? The lifts? The cabling? The lavatories? I want to know.

Finally, “too often”. How often is too often? What would have been the right number of breakdowns? What is wrong with plain “often”? Or do we mean “sometimes” or “occasionally”? How many breakdowns were there? Five? Fifty? A hundred? Over what period? “Too often” is a way of being deliberately vague.

That leaves “drew” and “broke down”. I can't think of anything wrong with them.

September 1 2001

Cliche of the week: There was fighting at the Leeds music festival on Monday, and, yes, a police spokeswoman condemned the “mindless violence”. Why do the police think that mindless violence is so bad? I should have thought calculated, planned, orchestrated violence was more dangerous.

July 6 2002

Cliche of the week: The farce No Sex Please, We're British hit the London stage more than 30 years ago, and ever since we have been putting up with a stream of frivolous headlines, each more desperate than the last. Last Sunday's business section came up with “No techs please, we're British”, which I suppose is a clever enough pun; but what can you possibly say for Tuesday's offering: “No singing Rule Britannia' at the Proms, please, we're British”? Can we stop this now?

Why must people break into foreign languages? Monday's Review brought you a feature about the “ten best cheeses”. Whoever wrote the puff for it on the front page thought it would be a jolly wheeze to make some reference to “big cheeses”. And why not do it in the very language of gastronomy? The result: “Grandes fromages”. Mais, mon cher ami, le fromage, c'est masculin. That should have been “grands fromages”. A few moments with a dictionary would have saved us from de l'oeuf sur le visage.

March 15 2003

Daft headline of the week: You won't have seen this unless you bought Thursday's paper in some far-flung place that receives the first edition. It was drawn to my attention by the eagle-eyed night sub-editor who made sure that civilised parts of the country were spared it. So I shall share it with you now.

“Rats found in hospital praised for cleanliness.”

Thank goodness the rats cleaned their teeth and brushed their fur before invading a hospital.

August 2 2003

The gulf between those who find and write the stories and those who turn the results into a newspaper has always been deep and unbridgeable. Nothing exacerbates it more than false corrections by subs of copy that was all right when the reporter wrote it. I suspect that must be what lies behind this, in a news story from Baghdad on Tuesday.

“It is not known if Tamantin and Thamir are aware that their son and brother are dead.” Looks all right, until you remember what you were told four paragraphs before - that the son and the brother are the same person, a man called Mazen. Tamantin and Thamir are his mother and brother, so the copy should read “... that their son and brother is dead.” I imagine that it probably did, until somebody over-hastily “corrected” it.

Reporters complain bitterly, and quite rightly, about this sort of thing. They forget about the numerous occasions when subs save them from their own, far worse, blunders.

March 27 2004

Watch out: What I believe to be an error so common that it is perhaps not an error at all surfaced on Wednesday in one of Robert Fisk's reports from Baghdad. A hotel receptionist, Fisk reported, was “watching me like the proverbial hawk”. The expression “watch like a hawk” (which, by the way, is not a proverb) refers, I believe, to the practice of old-fashioned falconers, as described in T H White's marvellous book The Goshawk, who used to “watch” a bird as part of its training. The man would stay awake longer than the bird could, until, after many hours, the bird at last consented to go to sleep on the fist. The hawk is being watched, not doing the watching (though the latter may be suggested by the piercing glance of a bird of prey). “He needs to be watched like a hawk” thus means “You can't afford to nod off when he is around.”

July 24 2004

A Europe in Brief paragraph on Thursday assumed a startling lack of alertness in the reader. It began thus: “Police evacuated crowds of tourists from the Eiffel Tower in central Paris yesterday after a telephone caller threatened to attack it.” Oh, you mean that Eiffel Tower? Not the better known one in suburban Sidcup just next to the Blockbuster video store?

It gets worse. The next sentence reads: “Police said the warning turned out to be a false alarm.” Well (as my children would put it), duh, it was a false alarm! I savour the solemnity of “police said” - as if the reader on Thursday morning needed that assurance that the Eiffel Tower had really, officially, not been blown up by terrorists on Wednesday. Was that not sufficiently indicated by the newspaper's decision to report the events in a single paragraph on page 23, rather than devoting its first dozen or so news pages to that story and nothing else? The job would have been done much better by simply inserting the word “hoax” in front of “telephone caller”.

July 10 2004

Is anything more insulting than those homely illustrative units of measurement, the use of which conveys the assumption that the poor dumb reader has no idea what a metre looks like or a kilogram feels like?

Mercifully rarer than it used to be is the “bag of sugar” traditionally employed to express the size of premature babies. The objection to this usage is so obvious that one is almost ashamed to state it. The circumstance that a bag contains sugar implies nothing about its size. A bag of sugar could in principle be the size of a walnut or the size of a car. The reference is, of course, to the bag of sugar conventionally sold in supermarkets. Its use as a unit of measurement implies that the reader is accustomed to define all aspects of life in terms of shopping in supermarkets.

Even sillier is the use of the football pitch as a unit of land area. Correspondents to our letters page recently pointed out that the rules of association football actually allow a good deal of variation in the dimensions of the pitch.

But perhaps daftest of all is the double-decker bus. This was, I think, popularised as a unit of length by the motorcycle stuntmen who were fashionable 20 or so years ago and used to perform ever more daring feats of jumping over longer and longer lines of vehicles.

Wednesday's paper solemnly informed us - copying, presumably, from a press release - that the giant roof arch of the new Wembley Stadium has “a span as wide as 275 double-decker buses”. Is that 275 double-decker buses placed side to side or end to end? Either way, why specify double- deckers? They are neither wider nor longer than single-deckers, just higher.

In any case there is something wrong, for the next paragraph discloses (for the benefit of those of us who can sign our names and tie our own shoe-laces) that the actual span of the arch is 315m. That would imply that the size of each bus (presumably the width) is 1.145m (or about 3ft 9in for those who left school a very long time ago).

There are no buses that narrow. One figure or the other must be wrong. It could be that the double-decker bus figure is really 27.5, placed end to end. That would give a length for each bus of 11.45m, which looks about right. But I'm past caring.

October 15 2005

Daft headline of the week: 'Millionaire's death could see Constable masterpieces back in the UK' (Saturday). Is this a scene from the fevered imagination of some decadent 19th-century Expressionist: the robed figure of Death stalking a dimly lit gallery to inspect the Constable masterpieces, his very glance blighting innocent English landscapes? Sadly not. This is just another example of the irritating use of 'see' to mean 'be the occasion of'.

December 31st 2005

Horror: 'Customers help stamp out Turkey's sex slaves', yelled a headline on Wednesday. Headlines inevitably compress the ideas they convey, sometimes to the very edge of reason, but whichever way you look at it there is a crucial difference between stamping out slavery and stamping out slaves.

September 30 2006

Monday's paper contained a crashingly uninformative picture caption. On the Labour conference page was a “stand-alone” picture with no story. The caption said: “Cherie Blair wears a mask as she tosses a pancake during a tour of the stands at the G-Mex Centre in Manchester yesterday.” That was it. Mrs Blair was in fact wearing not a mask but a blindfold, as the picture shows. But why was she trying to toss a pancake blindfolded? And did she succeed? Whoever allowed this deplorable caption into the paper clearly did not credit the likes of you and me with the alertness to raise such questions.

December 8 2007

Pedant confounded: Will Self wrote in his Psychogeography column in last Saturday's Magazine: “Chicago is the grid city ne plus ultra: the principle avenues and cross streets are at mile intervals.” That should be “principal”, which means most important or foremost; a principle is a truth or rule of conduct. It is a common error, but a bit embarrassing in a writer who has just used a term as fancy as ne plus ultra and, as he tells us, quoted Seneca to a bemused hotel clerk.

Pedant confounded (2): Still, this column can't talk . Last week we remarked upon the charms of the actress Keira Knightley. Dangerous territory for susceptible old geezers. Somehow one's mind wandered, and her surname came out as Knightly.

June 21 2008

Rye smile: Another news-in-brief item on the same day bore the headline “Pi in the rye”. The story told of a crop circle designed to illustrate the mathematical symbol pi, created in a Wiltshire field of ... barley.

Sorry to be a spoilsport, but barley and rye are two different grains. The headline was therefore not true.

Yes, I know, I know. It was a great headline, pithy, witty, a real gem. A tragedy to miss it. And its author was honest enough to leave the true information in the text, so no one was deceived. But what we are paid for is making up clever headlines that fit the facts, not making up the facts to fit a clever headline. The former is more difficult than many people outside this business (and some inside it) appreciate: the latter is cheating.

August 2 2008

Risk assessment: Hugh Minor writes in from Cardiff to point out a logical glitch in a picture caption that accompanied an article on Thursday about deluded women who apparently imagine that men will fancy them more if they have weird surgical operations on their breasts.

The caption said that “breast augmentation carries the same risks as any operation”. Mr Minor remarks: “I shall find this a great comfort if I ever need brain surgery.” What the caption was trying to say was that, like any operation, breast augmentation carries risks. But the risks are not the same. Some operations carry more risks than others.

January 24 2009

Wrong picture: A headline on a news page last Saturday said “Academic jailed for two years for vandalising antique books.” The story was about a man who cut pages from books in the British Library and the Bodleian to fill gaps in his own book collection. He seems to have been motivated by an outrageously excessive lust for books. In this context the word “vandalising”, which does not appear in the story, only the headline, really will not do.

The Vandals were one of the Germanic peoples who overran the western Roman Empire in the fifth century. They settled in North Africa and sailed to Italy to plunder Rome in 455. That event made them a byword for wanton and violent destruction, especially of valuable and beautiful things by the ignorant who do not appreciate them. What the man in the court case did was almost the opposite of that. Not all illegal damage is vandalism.

February 14 2009

Fowl play: We entered realms of fantasy in Thursday's leading article about the resignation of Sir James Crosby from the Financial Services Authority. The decision to appoint him, we opined, “smacked of putting a fox in charge of the chicken coup”.

To the barricades! The chickens are staging a coup! And who knows, with a fox in charge, they might succeed. Or could this even be a mangled report of the latest offering from an avant-garde celebrity chef: chicken-flavoured ice cream or coupe de poulet?

Alas, no. It should have read “chicken coop”.

September 5 2009

It was like being forced, at school, to read T S Eliot's Four Quartets . The language is apparently English, but the words convey no meaning. This sensation of baffled helplessness was induced by the following passage, from an interview with the actress Zooey Deschanel, published on Tuesday.

“She's thoughtful when asked if she believes in love at first sight: 'I believe everything is out there. Love is such a universally appealing theme. It just depends on your point of view. In some way, it exists in thought form. If it has a name, then you are creating it. I think people who try to force a relationship that's not happening are just insane.' ”

Ms Deschanel is not to blame. Anybody can get an attack of the burbles, and she was brought up in California, where, it is said, everybody talks like that. But the interviewer surely had a duty to flush out her meaning with a supplementary question. Failing that, somebody should have cut the passage out.

Having read the quotation three or four times, I think Ms Deschanel is saying that she does not believe in love at first sight; that people are told about it and convince themselves they are experiencing it. Or it could be that if you believe in love at first sight, then it may exist for you. Dunno really.

April 17 2010

Old bird: “Veteran osprey lays her first egg of 2010”. It is not easy to pin down a single reason why this headline, which appeared over a news story on Wednesday, is so delightfully absurd.

It suggests that the bird is not only old (she is in fact 25, which is indeed old for an osprey) but that she has been an osprey for a long time. That raises the question of what she was before she was an osprey.

But mostly, I think, the comic effect is created by the desperate journalistic desire to pass judgement , to use language that suggests how the reader ought to react. To describe the avian mum-to-be merely as “old” would suggest some implied criticism. Being old is bad. But this story is good. So how can we find an upbeat way of saying “old”? Ah, I know: “veteran”!

If we were in America, I suppose the maternal raptor might have ended up as a “senior osprey”.

August 21 2010

Journalese: On Monday we reported on a jewel raid in the City of London. Sure enough, the crime was committed “at the exclusive Royal Exchange shopping centre”.

There are two problems with calling shops “exclusive”. First, it is meaningless. To be sure, the shops at the Royal Exchange are exclusive in the sense that, in effect, they exclude people who cannot afford the prices of the goods they sell. But so does my local Sainsbury's.

And second, expensive and luxurious shops look “exclusive” only to people who cannot afford to use them. To their customers they are just shops. By assuming that our readers will identify with the word “exclusive” we imply that they are among the ragged urchins with their noses pressed to the glass. Not very flattering.

Immortalised on film: On Wednesday we carried a story about the young actress who has been cast to star in a forthcoming film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The headline said: “The girl with the very bright future.” There is nothing wrong with that heading; it is actually quite good. But I fear it heralds some horrors in the years to come.

Some film titles get stuck in the brains of those who write headlines. We have all grown weary of the endless variations on A Bridge Too Far, The Godfather, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and others. If this new film is a success, and if there are still such things as headlines in 2050 or thereabouts, some of them will certainly begin with the words “The girl with the ...”. Thank goodness I shall not be here to see it.

February 5 2011       

Theme music: “The skill of a great film composer is to marry moving images with sound in such a way that they seem organically linked.” That was the opening sentence of our news report on Tuesday, telling of the death of John Barry. How true, how very true. Now tell me something I don't know already.

May 21 2011

Connoisseurs of classical journalese were delighted to see this headline on a news page on Thursday: “Bride-to-be saved from death leap.” Vintage stuff. As long ago as 1938, Evelyn Waugh's Fleet Street satire Scoop has a genial, bone-headed reporter remarking: “On Monday afternoon I was in East Sheen breaking the news to a widow of her husband's death leap with a champion girl cyclist.” Brides-to-be have no doubt been with us as long as death leaps. And of course if all goes well after the “happy day” they soon turn into mums-to-be.

Thursday's story, however, turned out differently. This unfortunate young Chinese woman had been jilted by her fiancé. Wearing her wedding dress, she tried to jump from a high window, but was pulled to safety. So she wasn't a bride-to-be at all, but a bride-not-to-be. The headline was not only journalese but wrong.

Sept 10 2011

Pouring oil on troubled waters is one of the most popular demonstration displays at the Museum of Ancient Metaphoric Curiosities, almost as popular with the kiddies as the daily demonstrations of battening down the hatches and changing horses in mid-stream.

A visit to the museum might be profitable for the writer of this sentence, from a comment piece published on Tuesday, speaking of Alistair Darling's  memoirs and the damage they have done to Gordon Brown's reputation: “I suspect he is alert to the damage. He looked nervous in his interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday. At one point he said: 'If Gordon is watching this ...' The image of Brown watching his old friend pour oil on the wreckage of his reputation is enough to make anyone nervous.”

Apparently, you can reduce the turbulence of water by pouring a film of oil on to the surface. It sounds unlikely to me, and why would anyone want to do it? But there you are; that is what the metaphor is all about. Pouring oil is meant to calm things down. What Alistair Darling  is doing to Gordon Brown's reputation sounds more like pouring petrol on a fire. (Unfortunately, health and safety regulations have forced the museum authorities to suspend that once popular display.)

March 10 2012

Tuesday's Trending page reported that Scarlett Johansson  is to act the part of Janet Leigh, star of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho - “which beggars the question: is there a more intimidating role to take on than that of another celebrated actor?”.

There are two layers of error here. First, the writer has confused “beggar belief” with “beg the question”. So, which ought it to be? In fact, neither.

First, the story is obviously nothing to do with beggaring belief. The use of “beggar” as a verb dates back to the 16th century. To beggar someone is to reduce them to the status of a beggar, by exhausting their resources. Hence, the slightly odd, but perfectly respectable expression “beggar belief”. An idea “beggars belief” if it is so unlikely or outlandish that it exhausts our capacity to believe it.

So, what about “beg the question”? This is probably the most widely misused expression in the language. I don't propose to explain what it means. People with degrees in philosophy have no trouble understanding it. The rest of us find it virtually ungraspable. There are only two things you need to know about “beg the question”. The first is that it is not the same as “raise the question” - which is the expression the writer of the Johansson item should have used. The second is this: don't write “beg the question” - ever.

April 7 2012

Romantic lead: Yesterday's Arts & Books section carried an interview with the actor Liam Neeson. At one point the report's logic suffered a glitch: “Off-screen he famously dated Helen Mirren as well as capturing the romantic attentions of Julia Roberts, Brooke Shields, Cher and Sinead O'Connor. Neeson proved the ultimate gentleman, never kissing or telling.” What, no kissing? It is impossible to believe that Neeson, who is I am sure a real man as well as a real gentleman, proved such a disappointment to such a succession of glamorous women. That should have read “never kissing and telling”.

June 30 2012

Number crunching: A leading article on Saturday said: “It is here that the substance of the arguments come in.” No, the arguments may come in, but the substance comes in. There is nothing much to be said about this failure to tell the difference between singular and plural, except that there is far too much of it about, and I don't know why. Every day the public address system at my local station says that “for your safety and security, CCTV and 24-hour monitoring is in use”. It's all I can do not to alarm my dead-eyed fellow commuters by screaming: “Are! CCTV and 24-hour monitoring ARE in use!” (And by the way, what is the distinction between safety and security?)