Errors and Omissions: Significantly overstating the significance

Our Letters editor takes to task this week's Independent coverage

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The Independent Online

 “Labour is drawing up plans to go into the next election with a manifesto pledge to increase NHS spending significantly should the party be returned to power,” declared the opening sentence of Monday’s front-page lead.

Thank goodness the word “significantly” was there. Otherwise the reader might assume that we had chosen to lead the paper with news of something insignificant.

“Significantly” should always be struck out. You may think you need it, but you don’t. “To increase NHS spending” conveys as much information as “to increase NHS spending significantly”; it also paints the same picture in the reader’s mind.

Seeing is believing: We continue to attribute to abstractions a strange power of visual perception. This is from a news story on Tuesday: “Last month’s decision has seen Google swamped with requests from people wishing to erase their digital history.” A decision that can see things: I picture it as something like Yoda from Star Wars – a funny little wrinkly creature with big eyes and a judicial air.

Never explain: This is from Wednesday’s report of the Clegg-Cable drink in the pub: “Clegg’s people, determined that nothing should disturb their peaceful photocall, locked reporters out from the Queen’s Head, creating a scene reminiscent of the climax of Shaun of the Dead, the classic spoof horror movie in which the heroes and heroines are trapped in a pub with a horde of demented zombies in the street outside.”

Ideally, no illustration or simile should need to be explained. If it’s not immediately obvious, it is a bad illustration. If you feel you have to help some readers out, keep it short and casual. This should do: “... a scene reminiscent of the pub besieged by a horde of demented zombies in Shaun of the Dead.”

At all costs avoid a plodding exposition of the plot of a “classic spoof horror movie”, which makes the reader feel as if trapped in a pub by a horde of obsessive film buffs.

39 words too many: This comes from a theatre review, published on Thursday: “But she brings a terrific impatient energy to Cleopatra’s capricious changes of mood and a wry spontaneity of spirit to the compulsive histrionics that ensures the performance steers well clear of the terminally self-knowing raddled drag queen act.”

At first reading it is difficult to tell whether it is only the “spontaneity” that “ensures”, or if the “energy” also does some ensuring – in which case “ensures” needs to be “ensure”. However that may be, a sentence of 39 words, of which eight are abstract nouns – energy, changes, mood, spontaneity, spirit, histrionics, performance, act – gives the reader a hard task. It needs to be split up – or just taken out and shot.

Order, order: On Tuesday, we reported on the forthcoming auction of what is believed to be the world’s rarest stamp: “Later this month, that same scrap of reddish octagonal paper is expected to sell for up to $20m.” No, it is an octagonal scrap of reddish paper: there is no such thing as octagonal paper.