Errors and Omissions: Expats’ relative happiness cannot be safely deduced

The Independent's letters editor and chief pedant spots this week's best howlers



According to the opening paragraph of a news story published on Wednesday, “Britons who chase the sun and migrate to the Mediterranean are actually less happy than if they had stayed at home, a study has found.”

Well, maybe they are, but that is not what the study has found, according to the report. A sociologist from Leicester University asked the expats to rate their happiness on a scale of 1-10, and compared their results with those of people who had stayed behind. After taking account of differences in age, income and so on, it was found that the expats were less happy than the stay-at-homes. But I can’t see how that justifies the line that they were less happy than they would have been if they had stayed at home. Maybe they are just people of a less happy temperament – and one may speculate that it was their habitual discontent that prompted them to emigrate. They may be happier than if they had stayed at home, though less happy than the contented souls who did.

On Wednesday, we published a story about children who have been caught taking weapons into school. A paragraph began like this: “A total of 329 of those found with weapons were charged with a criminal offence.”

That “A total of…” is a desperate device to avoid starting a sentence with a figure. It pops up depressingly often in news stories. Yes, we give numbers from 10 up as figures; and yes, a figure at the beginning of a sentence looks clumsy. But I would rather break house style and write “Three hundred and twenty-nine of those found with weapons...” than resort to that pathetic “A total of…”. However, I may be in a minority.

Another journalese standby appeared in a court report on Thursday: the “brutal murder”. This time there was a twist: the killer “was convicted of the brutal and ritualistic murder of his neighbour”.

At first sight, “brutal and ritualistic” looks like a contradiction. “Brutal” suggests the uncontrolled violence of a beast: “ritualistic” paints a picture of control. In this case, there are features that would justify the use of either word, but the point is this: why bother with “brutal” at all? Overuse has dulled its impact, and in any case the reader would normally imagine, without being told, that a murder was brutal. A caring, sympathetic murder – that would be worth remark.

This is from a news story published on Wednesday: “The announcement has been timed to coincide with what would have been Shakespeare’s 450th birthday today.” Why that cautious “what would have been”? The 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth is still his 450th birthday, even if he is not around to blow out the candles.

We ran a report on Wednesday from Boston, Lincolnshire, where, according to the standfirst, “thousands of migrants settled, strived – and caused tension along the way”. I wouldn’t say “strived” was wrong, but “strove” is so much grander. Remember Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and the “men that strove with gods”.

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