Errors and Omissions: A lesson in the art of flattering the reader

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On Wednesday we reported that Kevin Spacey was to star in the play Clarence Darrow, “about a pioneering lawyer in 19th‑century America”.

That implies that the reader has never heard of Clarence Darrow. That is not flattering, and newspaper readers, like anyone else, prefer to be flattered. Most people, surely, have at least heard of the Tennessee “monkey” trial of 1925, the most celebrated occasion on which Darrow (1857‑1938) stood up for civil liberties – in this case the liberty of a school teacher to teach the theory of evolution.

It is not difficult to cater both for readers who know about Darrow and those who don’t: just say “the lawyer who …”, not “a lawyer”, before giving the details about him. That way everybody is happy. Calling Clarence Darrow “a lawyer” is like calling Kevin Spacey “an actor”.

And lose the bit about 19th-century America, since Darrow’s career extended well into the 20th.

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“This will be a central plank of the Tories’ election pitch as they tell voters it’s not safe to ‘give the keys back to the people who crashed the car’.”

That sentence, from an analysis piece published last Saturday, demonstrates once more the danger of metaphorical mix-ups in political writing. I guess the “pitch” comes from baseball. When you pitch an idea to a film producer or a programme to the electorate, you are like the “pitcher” pitching the ball to the “batter”. No planks are involved. After that, the switch to giving someone the keys to a car is dizzying.

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Here’s a bit of hackneyed language that has lost touch with its original meaning. It comes from an analysis of the Scottish independence campaign, published on Tuesday: “The President of the European Council had already warned that new break-away states would need to join the queue using ‘known accession procedures’ – diplomatic shorthand for ‘get in line’.”

Well, “known accession procedures’ may be diplomatic language for “get in line”, but it’s an odd “shorthand” that is longer than the words it is shorthand for.

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Figure this out, if you can. It is from a news report published on Tuesday: “Prisons across Europe are suffering from overcrowding, but Italy’s problems are severe. Almost 67,000 inmates are housed in Italian facilities that were designed to hold only 45,000. This means that they are at a capacity of more than 140 per cent.”

No, they are not at a capacity of 140 per cent. They are at an occupancy rate that is 140 per cent of their capacity.

But why bother to give the percentage? Anybody can see that 67,000 is more than 45,000. Does expressing it as a percentage make it any more vivid? It would make sense, of course, if the piece had gone on to compare the Italian figure with percentage occupancy rates for prisons in other countries, but it didn’t. Could it be that an editor cut that bit out, without realising that there would then be no need for the percentage at all?

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