A comma, or the lack of it, can make a big difference. This is from a piece of political analysis published last Saturday: “Not many company bosses are likely to vote Labour but the public statements they make do matter. They send a signal to the middle-class voters wooed successfully by Mr Blair and Mr Miliband will need some of them if he is to win a majority next year.”
At first sight you read that the voters were wooed successfully by Mr Blair and Mr Miliband. Then you get to the end of the sentence, shake your head in bafflement, read it again and realise that a comma is needed after “Blair” to signal the start of a new clause. Clarity would have been further aided by a comma after “Labour” in the first sentence, and the insertion of “who were” after “voters”.
A news story published on Monday began thus: “New parents are being forced to choose between buying food or keeping their young children warm due to the soaring cost of energy bills, a charity warns today.”
There are three things to observe here. First, the problem for energy consumers is the cost of the energy, or the level of the bills, not the cost of the bills. It doesn’t cost much to send out a bill.
Second, have we lost the battle to maintain grammatical logic in the use of “due to”? Possibly, but let it be said yet again: “due” is an adjective, and needs a noun or pronoun to attach itself to. You might say that the parents’ dilemma is due to the bills, or that they are being forced to choose because of the bills. But “being forced to choose ... due to” is not quite right.
Finally, “between ... or”. This is increasingly common but still looks odd. You may say that the parents have to choose either food or warmth, or that they have to choose between food and warmth, but don’t mix and match.
Here’s a picture caption from Tuesday’s paper. It appeared below a photograph of a very tough-looking fur-clad character with a large hooded bird of prey on his fist.
“At first glance the image above looks like a scene set in the frozen northern wastes from the hit fantasy series Game of Thrones. It is actually western Mongolia. Simon Norris, who snapped the hunter (and his pet eagle) as he rested by his house, is one of 25 British photographers shortlisted in this year’s Sony World Photography Awards.”
Well, at first glance anything might look like anything, but so what? Just tell us what it is. We can face reality without everything being likened to something on the telly. And a hunting bird is not a pet. The jaunty tone doesn’t quite manage to disguise the desperation of a sub-editor required to fill too much space with too few facts.
An editorial on Tuesday urged dredging of rivers, noting that the original outlet of one Victorian pumping station is now seven feet below the river bed – “a measure of how much flotsam has piled up over the years”.
No, flotsam is wreckage found floating on the surface; it cannot pile up at the bottom. The word is from the same Latin root as “flotation”.