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Errors and Omissions: A reading of the stars that goes quite wrong

Up, up and all over the place - our Letters Editor reviews this week's slip-ups

“Edie Campbell’s star is in the ascent,” declared the introductory blurb to a fashion feature published on Monday. Then, on Tuesday, an article about HS2 said: “The opposition certainly appears to be in the ascendancy.”

Quite an achievement, that: in the space of two days to get the same thing wrong in two different ways. The phrase for which both writers were groping is “in the ascendant”.

The term comes from astrology. In the language of that baseless but beguiling science, the “ascendant” is the zodiacal sign that is coming up over the eastern horizon at the time and place of a certain event, such as a person’s birth. The ascendant occupies a prominent place in a horoscope and influences things that begin at that time and place. Hence, in general usage, to be in the ascendant means to exert a strong influence.

“Ascent” and “ascendancy” are less fun. The former simply means going up; the latter is the quality of being in a dominant position.

Night and fog: Mark Miller writes in to point out a sentence from a piece, published last Saturday, about David Irving, the “revisionist” historian of the Third Reich: “Irving, 75, is justly paranoid about security.”

Irving may well be worried about security; plenty of people dislike him. But to be justly paranoid would be beyond his capacity for mental gymnastics. Paranoia is a mental disorder in which the sufferer believes himself to be threatened or persecuted. If the persecution is real, then the belief in it is not a symptom of paranoia. You can’t be justly paranoid.

A person suffering from paranoia might also be in fact the target of persecution. As the old joke says: “Just because I’m paranoid it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get me.” But that would be just a coincidence. The persecution wouldn’t justify the paranoia – though to the sufferer it might seem as if it did.

Mixed metaphor of the week: “Japan’s deflation curse takes a pause as giant stimulus package bites” – headline from Saturday. Have you ever been bitten by a package? Neither have I.

And what about a curse taking a pause? Sounds unlikely. The customer who purchases a curse from a reliable practitioner will surely expect it to work on inexorably until its grisly task is done. Few self-respecting witches, shamans or voodoo priests, one feels, are likely to allow their clients’ enemies a day off on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Headlinese: “Adele’s boyfriend in court trademark showdown with Pepsi”. What is a court trademark, asks the hapless reader confronted with this headline, from Monday’s paper. The space allocated to the headline (the “count” as we old-school sub-editors call it) would have accommodated a version one could understand: “Adele’s boyfriend in court showdown with Pepsi over trademark”.

Redundantness: The gratuitous concoction of clumsy abstract nouns ending in “-ness” goes on apace. Our Tuesday report on Seamus Heaney’s funeral referred to his “sociability, humour and courteousness”. What happened to “courtesy”?