Errors and Omissions: Nothing unique in allowing rhetoric to trump logic

Our peerless pedant and Letters editor examines the flaws in this week's Independent

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The Independent Online

The following is a familiar point, beloved of pedants everywhere, but still true. Last Saturday, a sports article commented on the participation of the violinist Vanessa Mae in an Olympic skiing event: “She was pretty unique already: at 13, she became the youngest soloist to record both the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky violin concertos.” “Unique” means like no other. It is an absolute quality; there are no degrees of uniqueness, so “pretty unique” is meaningless. The writer has unwisely allowed rhetoric – “pretty unique already” has the right rhythm – to trump logic.

And here is a writer who has unwisely allowed logic to trump the imagination. This is from a business story published on Wednesday: “Philip Clarke also said £200m will be spent on price cuts, the slowdown in store openings will accelerate and focus on hitting its 5.2 per cent profit margin has come to an end.” In strict logic “the slowdown in store openings will accelerate” makes sense. New stores will continue to be opened, but less frequently; the new openings will continue to get rarer; and the rate at which they get rarer will increase. However, abstract logic is not everything; the human mind insists on making pictures, and “the slowdown will accelerate” leaves it struggling to make a picture of something getting slower and faster at the same time.

Here is another failure of logic, this time from an article on Tuesday about a polar expedition: “That was three weeks ago, and the journey was completed, successfully, six days later.” How could a journey be completed unsuccessfully? Show no mercy to “successfully”. You can usually strike it out on sight.

Blurbs are never easy to write. Here is one that adorned a feature article on Tuesday: “Holocaust survivor Alice Herz‑Sommer, who has died aged 110, said that Beethoven was her ‘religion’. Renowned pianist Stephen Hough explains what she could have meant.” I think “explores” would have been better than “explains”. “Explains what she could have meant” implies that somebody treating art as a religion is a strange phenomenon requiring explanation. On the contrary, since the Aesthetic movement of the late 19th century, if not before, it has been commonplace. So the blurb fails in its mission of intriguing the reader.

This sentence is from a news story published last Saturday: “Mr Cameron last night met the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, whom he regards as another potential ally in his efforts to reshape the EU, at Chequers.” Mr Cameron won’t have much success in reshaping the EU if he tries to do it at Chequers. Brussels would be the place for that. In news reporting there is always a compulsion to give prominence to the people at the centre of the action, and fill in the details of time and place later. But in this case it has crippled the sentence. It really does have to begin with: “Last night at Chequers, Mr Cameron met …”