Errors and Omissions: Do we need a history lesson when it comes to Napoleon?

An unnecessarily detailed biography is just one slip that's drawn the attention of our Letters editor this week

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The stripped-down language of headlines can easily topple over into gibberish. This appeared on Wednesday: “Family split forms after Pistorius’ father attacks ANC.”

The first picture that came into my mind was a family splitting a sheaf of forms. “OK, Mum, you fill in the census form and Dad can do the television licence application …” After a moment you realise that can’t be it, and what we have here is the formation of a family split.

The reader is not helped by the slovenly way the English language uses the same form of the same word as either noun or verb. When you make the mistaken reading of this headline, you see “split” as a verb and “forms” as a noun; in the right reading it is the other way round.

Who he? Here is the opening of a news story published on Tuesday: “It is widely considered the greatest movie never made, and now it may finally reach the screen – as a television show. Steven Spielberg has revealed that he is developing a mini-series based on the late Stanley Kubrick’s unrealised screenplay Napoleon – an ambitious biopic about the 19th-century French Emperor originally conceived more than 50 years ago.”

Oh, you mean that Napoleon? The weird thing about this passage is that it assumes the reader knows who Spielberg and Kubrick are, but it needs telling that Napoleon was 19th-century French emperor.

It is often difficult to know how much knowledge to assume. In this case it is the “19th-century” bit that patronises the readers by supposing that they have never heard of Napoleon. Just “the French emperor” would have been all right, because it implies “the French Emperor of whom we know”.

Spendthrift: Here is another misfired headline from Wednesday’s paper: “It’s a lot easier to spend a billion in Britain than it is to make one.”

Well, of course it is. I have no idea how to make a billion, but I am sure I could spend one without too much difficulty. And why “in Britain”? Surely the same would be true anywhere.

The article actually said something different: “Britain is not the place to become really, really rich. It is a place where it is easy to spend money, not one where it is easy to earn it.” That is a comparison between Britain and other countries as to the ease of earning and spending money. The headline mis-summarises that sentence, turning it into a comparison between earning and spending money in Britain – and turning an interesting observation into a banality.

Homophone horror: A very common error appeared on Thursday, in a picture caption accompanying a story about the death of Hugo Chavez: “Mr Maduro has quietly managed to hold the reigns since December.” That should be not “reigns” (what the Queen does, from the Latin “regnum”), but “reins” (straps used to control a horse, derivation doubtful).

The embarrassing thing is that the story got it right – “Mr Maduro has taken the reins.”

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