Errors and Omissions: As a soothsayer, let me predict this outbreak of banality

Our letters editor on fanciful introductions, dummy text, and mad metaphors


This is the opening sentence of a fashion piece in last Saturday’s Radar. “You don’t need to be a soothsayer to predict that the release of Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby this month will have us all reaching for our flapper dresses.”

No, of course you don’t. You can predict anything you like, whether you are a soothsayer or not. The only difference is that if you are a soothsayer you are more likely to get it right.

Or, rather, you aren’t. Does the writer, or do the readers, really believe that soothsayers can reliably predict the future? No, they don’t; this is 2013, not 1320. The writer seems to be saying to the readers: “Look, let’s all pretend that we believe in soothsayers, so I can dress up a banal thought as an insight.”

If it was put in simple language, the piece would start: “You can confidently predict that …” or even “I think that …” A bit dull? Better say something fanciful about soothsayers.

Scary picture: On a sports page on Thursday, we ran a spread of photographs of notable events from the career of Sir Alex Ferguson. In early editions of the paper, five different photographs carried the same caption. Anybody who has been responsible for the editorial production of newspapers in the past 30 years will mutter: “There, but for the grace of God …”

I say “in the past 30 years”, because back in the days when newspaper pages were made up using “hot metal” type, such a thing was impossible. The pages were put together by hand, using slugs of type cast on a Linotype machine. Until the right type turned up to fill each space there was nothing there but air, and you can’t print air.

Today pages are designed in cyberspace, using “dummy” copy to delineate the space allocated to each article, headline and caption. Before the page is sent to the printing works, each bit of dummy copy should have been replaced by the right words. Only vigilance can make sure – though it helps if the dummy copy is random drivel, not anything you can mistake for the real thing.

Hi-ho, Silver! Phil Davison writes to comment on the item last week about the new film The Lone Ranger. I had a bit of fun with a film preview that described Tonto as the Lone Ranger’s “Native American companion”. The word “companion” may sound twee today, but Mr Davison points out that it was used in The Lone Ranger television series of the 1950s.

The voiceover that accompanied the opening credits referred to “his faithful Indian companion Tonto”. “Errors and Omissions cannot change history,” writes Mr Davison – and he is right.

Metaphor madness: Our Thursday report of the Queen’s Speech said: “A package of policies … saw the Conservatives shelve plans to bring in a minimum unit price for alcohol and plain packaging for cigarettes.” Can a package really see anything – whether it is a metaphorical package containing policies, or a literal package containing cigarettes?

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