Errors and Omissions: Let's throw the asterisks out (but keep the bad language)

There is nothing incredible about the speed at which people throw things, but to bowdlerise a celebrated line from Larkin? That really is beyond belief


I hope we are not losing the word “incredible”. With any luck, the current modish misuse of “incredible” and “incredibly” as mere intensifiers will be just a passing fad. All the more reason for newspapers to avoid it.

On Thursday, we reported on research that suggests the ability to throw things played an important part in the evolutionary success of early humans. The story said that certain changes to human anatomy “enabled our early relatives to throw missiles at incredible speeds”.

You expect priests, poets and soothsayers to report incredible things, but scientists should stick to the credible. For the record, there is nothing incredible about the speed at which people throw things. Everybody believes it without any difficulty.

Mind your language: This appeared on Monday in a comment piece about the Jeremy Forrest case, criticising the victim’s father: “As for her father: ‘They f*** you up, your mum and dad’. Philip Larkin only knew the half of it.” We should quote bad language only when it is really necessary for readers to know what somebody said, but when we quote it, let us quote it. Asterisks imply that the readers need unpleasant realities to be veiled by net curtains. Mostly, that is just a prissy and patronising habit, but to bowdlerise a celebrated line of poetry is an outrage.

Cliché of the week: Richard Harvey writes in to point out the following headline, which appeared on Thursday above a commentary on the ousted Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard: “She broke the mould – then it broke her.”

One of the signs that a metaphor has become a cliché is that people forget its literal meaning, and start to misuse it. The writer of this headline clearly intended to convey that Gillard had broken through a barrier, as the first woman to become prime minister of Australia. But that is not what “break the mould” means.

“After they made her they broke the mould” means that the person we are referring to is unique; we will never see her like again. And that is really the only proper use of “break the mould”. It’s a phrase we could happily do without.

I think the confusion started with a lot of loose talk in the 1980s and 1990s about how the Liberal Democrats were going to “break the mould of British politics” – that is, destroy it in its present form and create a new version. That is in the same general region as the proper meaning, but we now seem to have moved a long way away.

Journalese: A news story published on Monday informed readers that Nelson Mandela “was rushed to a Pretoria hospital on 8 June”. It’s quite a while since I last read of somebody being “rushed” to hospital. It’s good to know that even in the face of shrunken circulations and the strictures of Lord Justice Leveson, some of the ancient traditions of the Fourth Estate are being kept up.

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