Errors and Omissions: Are we in agreement? Apparently not in this case

The trouble with pronouns and why we should ban stories staring with "A man who..."

Share

If English were a heavily inflected language, in which everything had to agree in case and gender, then writers might not be as careless as they are about agreement as to number. Contemplate, if you will, the following opening to a comment piece published on Tuesday:

“There are things that no child should ever have to think about. And there are things that most adults would rather not think about. The Underwear Rule, a new campaign launched by the NSPCC yesterday, recognises that when it comes to protecting children, it is the latter, as much as the former, that really dictates how we behave.”

Note two points. First, lurking in the middle of this cloud of unknowing we find the notorious “when it comes to”, a sure indicator of a writer’s brain not quite in focus. Second, the issue of number. “Things” and “dictates” are separated by such a wide wilderness that it is not easy to spot that we have here a plural subject governing a third person singular verb. “Things dictates” obviously makes no sense. That should be “dictate”.

Any other name: On Tuesday we published a news story about a new play based on transcripts of conversations between a wealthy man and his mistress. It reported: “They were initially collected into a book with the authors using the pseudonyms ‘She’ and ‘He’.”

Close, but no cigar. A pseudonym is a false or fictitious name. “He” and “She” hardly qualify as names.

Who them? More trouble with pronouns in a Notebook piece last Saturday. “No small bookseller can match the Tesco price of the new Dan Brown, and what might have tided them over the year makes very little difference to them.” It seems likely that the first “them” is the bookseller and the second is Tesco, but it is hard to be sure.

Time out of place: “A man who threw a message in a bottle into the English Channel 34 years ago, when he was nine years old, has met the French woman who found it for the first time.” That was the opening of a short news item published last Saturday. It would have been easy to clear up an irritating ambiguity by moving the words “for the first time” so that they came straight after “met”.

Back in the 1970s when I worked on that fine regional daily The Northern Echo, there was a ban on starting stories with “A man who …”. The danger was that half the stories on the paper could have begun thus.

Up to the Mark: Last week this column had occasion to ask whether the French call Mark Antony Marc Antoine. A quick glance at French Wikipedia would have yielded the answer: yes, but with a hyphen. My old friend Mike Duggan sends me this sample: “Après la mort de Jules César, Marc-Antoine hérite un tiers du monde romain.”

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lord Mayor of London Fiona Woolf heads the inquiry  

Why should Fiona Woolf be expected to remember every dinner date?

Mark Steel
Several police officers walk near downtown Ottawa  

Nigel Farage on the Ottawa shooting: It could just as easily happen on the streets of London

Nigel Farage
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?