Errors and Omissions: Plunged into chaos by journalistic exaggeration

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

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Full marks to Simon Calder, our travel correspondent, for his weather story on Tuesday. He got through about 500 words without using the journalese word that always pops up on these occasions: “chaos”. Calder treated us to disruptions, delays and cancellations, but no dissolution of the universe into primal disorder.

Pity that the headline let the story down: “Heavy rain and 90mph gales plunge Christmas getaway plans into chaos.” Not only a chaos but a plunge, that time-honoured headlinese horror (“death plunge”, “shares plunge”).

It gets worse. A wind of 90mph is not a mere gale, according to the Beaufort scale, nor even a storm, but a hurricane. And it is not even true. The highest wind speed reported in the story was 87mph. “Gusts” of that speed had been recorded at one location in North Wales. The headline rounded that up to 90, and then implied – with the plural “gales” – that such winds had been widespread. How could you justify that?

Here is the beginning of an arts piece published on Boxing Day: “In no small part thanks to Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in Andrew Davies’ definitive modern screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, BBC1’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice (now, shockingly, getting on for to 20 years old), Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy have become iconic fictional characters”.

That sentence is far too long, packed with too much information. Comprehension is further hindered by the structure of the sentence, with a huge subordinate clause at the start and the main verb four words from the end. The word “shockingly” is a puzzle too. How can it be shocking that something that was created nearly 20 years ago is now nearly 20 years old? Shakespeare knew better. This is from Henry IV, Part 2. Falstaff and Justice Shallow are reminiscing about their misspent youth:

Shallow: Ha! ’twas a merry night! And is Jane Nightwork alive?

... Doth she hold her own well?

Falstaff: Old, old, Master Shallow.

Shallow: Nay, she must be old; she cannot choose but be old.

The passage of time may be achingly sad, but it cannot come as a shock.

Who? What? When? Where? Why? These are the questions every news report should answer. Here is the text of a picture caption published last Saturday. “The 25-metre long mainyard is lifted into place on Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain as preparations began last night for the attraction’s Go Aloft that will allow visitors to step into the shoes of Victorian sailors and scale the rigging.”

Where? Bristol.

Our Tuesday story on the pardon for Alan Turing told of his wartime work on “the Enigma code”. People often say that, but Enigma was not a code. It was a ciphering system that, in effect, created a new code for each message. That was why it was so hard to read.

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