Errors and Omissions: A protagonist is one thing that doesn’t travel in pairs

Our Letters editor picks the nits from this week's Independent coverage

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What follows is an oft-repeated point of pedantry, but there is some reason behind it. Last Saturday we ran a story about the tributes paid on the death of the author Sue Townsend. It included this: “She invites us to compare the impending travails of her adolescent hero to those of Paul Morel, the chief protagonist from Sons and Lovers.”

You may be surprised to learn that the problem here is not “compare to” and “compare with” – a staple of pedantry. Here “compare to” is being used properly, to mean noting that two things are similar, as opposed to “compare with”, which means to address the question of whether they are similar or not.

No, it is “chief protagonist” that has agitated the pedantic antennae. “Protagonist” is derived from the Greek words protos agonistes, meaning “first actor”. In any drama there can be only one protagonist, so “chief” is redundant.

The annoying thing is that the writer has got into trouble by using a fancy word he does not fully understand, when there are plain words that would have done just as well: “central figure”, “main character”.

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A picture caption published on Wednesday informed us that the actress Angela Lansbury “was made a Dame by the Queen at Windsor Castle yesterday”.

No, she wasn’t. Dame Angela has been a dame since the award of her DBE was published in the New Year Honours list. At investitures, such as the one at Windsor on Tuesday, people receive the insignia of their awards, not the awards themselves.

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A reporter has to cram into a story a mass of facts, such as the ages and professions of people involved, and some of them can end up in odd places. This came halfway down our Tuesday report from the Pistorius trial: “The first bullet, ‘bullet A’, was aimed at the toilet. It is this projectile that experts on both sides agree struck the 29-year-old law graduate and model in the hip, causing her to fall.”

It’s difficult to blame a reporter working against a deadline to marshal the facts of a court hearing, but a mad picture still rises up in the mind: “As you know, Watson, I am myself the author of a small monograph on wounds suffered by people of various ages and educational attainments. Take for instance, the case of a 29-year-old law graduate struck by a pistol bullet ...”

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Readers of our business section on Wednesday encountered this:

Headline: Facebook: socially useful banking.

Blurb: The social network wants to tap into a new generation of smart spenders by entering the financial services arena.

Text: Reports that Facebook has plans to enter the financial services arena should send out a warning to traditional high-street banks.

We sub-editors are, as everybody knows, the lowest form of journalistic life, but even for us, pinching a whole phrase from the writer’s intro and pasting it into the blurb is exceptionally low behaviour. Particularly when it is a lump of jargon such as “entering the financial services arena”.

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