Errors and Omissions: Our general knowledge needs brushing up

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


One of those bits of general knowledge that people usually get wrong popped up on Monday in an article about films of the Battle of Stalingrad: “It follows the last days of a platoon of Red Army soldiers and seamen confronting Friedrich von Paulus’s Sixth Army in the wrecked home of a lone Russian girl.”

The commander of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad was General Friedrich Paulus, with no “von”. Many of the German generals of the Second World War were aristocrats with a “von” to their names – Gerd von Rundstedt, Fedor von Bock, Erich von Manstein and plenty of others – so the confusion is understandable. But there were also plenty of middle-class generals without a “von”. Why is it Paulus who is so often put into the wrong group? Nobody, for instance, ever writes about Erwin von Rommel.

A film review last Saturday opined: “Richard Ayoade directs this adaptation of the Dostoyevsky story with the same distinctive visual and comedic sensibility that he showed in his quirky debut, Submarine.” Is there really a difference in meaning between the modish “comedic” and boring old “comic”? And if there is, why has nobody found it necessary to invent the parallel word “tragedic”?

We carried a feature on Tuesday about an annual festival of music and misbehaviour in a distant corner of Crimea. It began thus: “Media coverage of Crimea’s ‘conscious uncoupling’ from Ukraine has missed out one quirky anathema that was already doing its own thing: the self-declared Autonomous Republic of Karantip.”

An anathema is a formal curse pronounced by the Christian church, excommunicating a person or damning a heresy, and hence a thing accursed. It is such a weird word to use of a music festival, even one that many people no doubt disapprove of, that the reader is left wondering: is the writer deliberately using a word in a recondite way, or does he not know what it means?

On Wednesday, the introductory blurb to an obituary described its subject as a “television writer who penned a raft of sitcom classics”. I’ve never heard of penning a raft before: the usual thing is to pole it.

And here is another helping of metaphor soup, from Thursday’s front page: “False dawn: India’s blood-soaked moral Rubicon”. The Rubicon – to cross which is to commit oneself to a perilous course of action with no way back – is a small river in Italy. A river is made of water: how can you soak it?

A story on Tuesday about Peaches Geldof’s last online posting reported: “The image was poured over online last night.” That should be “pored”.

Here’s a subversive thought. These two words, one meaning to emit a stream of liquid, the other to examine closely, are both of unknown origin and are pronounced the same. Since there is no possible ambiguity of meaning, why not spell them both the same, and remove a trap for poor spellers? For no better reason than that English spelling reform seems to be politically impossible.

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