When I was taught how to report court cases, at Sunderland magistrates’ court in the 1970s, it was made very clear that there were some things you must be sure are present and correct. Among them are the name of the court, and the charges the defendant faces. Obvious, you may think.
Not to the writer and editors of this opening paragraph of a News in Brief item published on Thursday: “A Briton was sentenced to eight years in jail for killing his girlfriend in Crete. Luke Walker, 25, of Brierley Hill, West Midlands, was convicted of grievous bodily harm over Chelsea Hyndman’s death in May 2010. A court heard he beat Miss Hyndman so badly she died of acute peritonitis.”
You start off assuming that the court hearing took place in Greece. Then you come across “grievous body harm” which is the name of an offence in English law. But hang on, if she was dead, it can’t mean grievous bodily harm in the English sense. GBH is a very serious offence, but it leaves the victim still alive. So, concludes the desperately struggling reader, the trial must have been in Greece, and the charge was – er, presumably something Greek that sounds like grievous bodily harm but actually means something like murder. All this could have been avoided if somebody had thought to say where the trial took place, and to translate the charge intelligently into English.
No sweat: Last Saturday, a “Fantasy Band” story referred to an American rapper who goes by the name of Earl Sweatshirt: “I think he’s the youngest member of Odd Future – he’s only about 19.” Wikipedia says that Mr Sweatshirt, born 24 February 1994, is indeed 19 years old. So why “about 19”? It makes it look as if the writer can’t be bothered to look it up. But hey, it’s only rock’n’roll.
Firm decision: We may talk about popping round to the chippie or the butcher, but would you say you had visited “the architect”? A news story published on Thursday reported that “one of Britain’s leading architects suffered a blow yesterday when its managing director quit after embarrassing emails criticising him were leaked”.
The reader pauses for a moment, fearing a misreading. Surely an architect is a person? Shouldn’t that be “one of Britain’s leading architectural firms”? Yes, it should.
Homophone horror: Simon Horobin, the Oxford professor who called for some simplification of English spelling, may have a point. A comment piece on Tuesday spoke of the International Space Station: “Inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers is one of the principle justifications for spending colossal sums of money on what some have called ‘that huge turkey in the sky’.” That should be “principal”. There are etymological reasons for the distinction between “principle” and “principal”, but in the actual use of the language it serves no purpose, which is why people so often get it wrong.