Errors and Omissions: Order! Order! Otherwise you’ll confuse the reader

This week's howlers in the Independent

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Last Saturday we ran an article about the five candidates for the presidency of the European Commission. Across the top was a photograph of the five, taking part in a TV debate. Their names were listed in the caption, from left to right: Tsipras, Keller, Schulz, Juncker, Verhofstadt.

So far, so good. But below, arranged vertically, were a series of little pen portraits of the five. From the top they were: Juncker, Keller, Schulz, Tsipras, Verhofstadt. It would have been the work of a moment to transpose Juncker and Tsipras, so that the five were in the same order in both picture and text, making life much easier for the reader.

* “And which” very often means trouble. We reported last Saturday: “A film inspired by the case of a missing child in Canada and which has parallels with the story of Madeleine McCann received its premiere in Cannes yesterday.” The two clauses need to be grammatically consistent. Just leave out the “and”. That gives you: “a film inspired by the case of a missing child in Canada, which has parallels with the story of Madeleine McCann”. That hangs together properly, and makes clear that it is the case in Canada, not the film, which has parallels with McCann – a distinction that was fudged in the original version.

* A column published last Saturday began thus: “Jackie Kennedy epitomised an era when well-bred women kept their mouth shut.” How many well-bred women shared that mouth that they kept shut? Was there any reason not to write “an era when well-bred women kept their mouths shut” – or, even better, “when a well-bred woman kept her mouth shut”?

If our language is to reflect ideals of gender equality, we need a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun, and “they/them/their” has got the job. The price is some slackness about number agreement, as in this case, where “their” makes an unhappy link between the plural “women” and the singular “mouth”.

* On Tuesday we ran a story about John Gummer, the former Tory minister, now ennobled as Lord Deben. The first paragraph called him John Gummer. The second went on: “In an interview with The Independent, Mr Gummer – life peer Lord Deben – acknowledged that…”

Since most of the hereditaries were booted out of the House of Lords, the style for peers has become more relaxed. Many of them sign themselves “John Loamshire” instead of just “Loamshire”. There can be no objection to referring to Lord Deben as John Gummer, which is still his name, but “Mr Gummer” is surely still out. “Mr” implies a certain status, one that his lordship left behind upon being raised to the peerage. You can be either “Mr” or “Lord”, but not both.

* A theatre review on Monday said that the poet Simon Armitage “goes on to extract a rich load from the contrast between the urbane Zeus on Olympus and the decrepit immortal three millennia on”. Maybe the reviewer meant “load”, but “lode” – a vein of precious metal – seems more likely.

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