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Errors and Omissions: Don’t try telling George Osborne that 36 per cent is a majority

Our legendary pedant stares into the abyss of this week's metaphorical mix-ups.


The most important thing when writing a headline is to read the story carefully. A news report published on Monday began thus: “For the first time in a decade, public opinion has started to turn in favour of seeing more spent on public services, even if it means higher taxes.”

Scrupulous regard for truth forces this column to record that, in the story as published, the word “on” was omitted, but that is not the point I am making. In other respects, that sentence was carefully written to get the best story without overstepping the bounds of truth. That is fair enough, but there is always the danger that somebody will assume the story is even better than it is.

And so it turned out. The headline said: “Bad news for Osborne: most voters want more public spending.” Almost right, but not quite. The story says that the proportion of people who want more public spending is increasing – which is indeed bad news for Osborne – but not that they constitute a majority. In fact, it says further down the report that the figure is 36 per cent.

Body of evidence: I am grateful to Peter Henderson for pointing out a bit of creative spelling, from a news story published on Tuesday. “Smokies, which involve an unskinned sheep carcus being flame-cooked without the spine being removed, are banned in the EU.”

There are plenty of daft spellings in English, but few words with more than one accepted spelling. One such is the noun denoting the dead body of an animal intended for eating. It can be spelled either “carcase” or “carcass”. Why?

The Oxford English Dictionary, after giving numerous ancestor words in Latin, Old English, French and Italian, throws up its hands in despair: “Ultimate derivation unknown; both forms are common.” Only one thing is for sure: nobody needs a third version. So “carcus”, though it is probably just as good as either of the accepted spellings, should be avoided.

Not me, guv: This is from a leading article, published on Tuesday: “All too often, it seems, ministers feel the need for an alibi to take decisions for which they already have an electoral mandate.”

How far should we stretch the meaning of “alibi”? It is a legal Latin word meaning “elsewhere”. “Alibi” is certainly overused. You frequently see it used to mean an excuse. We don’t need another synonym for excuse.

But what of Tuesday’s leader? Well, in the strictest sense we are not speaking of an alibi. The ministers are not claiming to have been nowhere near the scene of the crime. They are arranging for somebody else to take the blame. Perhaps the right word from the criminal lexicon is not “alibi” but “fall guy”.