Errors and Omissions: The facts are brutal enough without clichés

Our Letters Editor reviews the slips from this week's Independent

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“Almost six years after the 21-year-old was brutally killed in the university town of Perugia…” said a news story on Monday, about the new hearing in the Meredith Kercher case. 

What constitutes a “brutal” killing? Why do we never carry reports of civilised, gentle, well-mannered killings? These would be pertinent questions if anybody took any notice of the words “brutal killing”. In fact, the cliché is so familiar that it fails to make any impact on the mind at all.

The same piece, incidentally, refers to Meredith Kercher as “the murdered girl”. At the time of her death, she was 21. By any reasonable standard, a female human aged 21 is a woman; to call her a girl is patronising and sexist.

There is a journalese word for young men that is equally tendentious, though in a different way: it is “youth”. No “youth” ever helped an old lady across a road; “youths” are to be found brawling at bus stations or dealing drugs on inner-city estates. “Youth” is a word that tells the reader what to feel, instead of conveying unbiased information.

 

All right, I confess: This is from the report of an interview with Damian McBride, onetime spin-doctor to Gordon Brown: “He concedes to ulterior motives; keeping the newspapers onside and a keeping a damaging story (often about Brown) off the front pages.”

So nearly right, but not quite. “Concede” comes down to us from a Latin word for “give away”. It means to give something up, or admit that a statement is true. So McBride might concede that he had ulterior motives, or he might concede ulterior motives. “Concede to” is used in a different sense – one may, for instance, concede a point to an opponent in debate.

Alternatively, he could confess to ulterior motives – and that may have been lurking in the back of the writer’s mind.

These distinctions about which preposition goes with which verb are essentially arbitrary, but to get them wrong is to risk confusing the reader.

 

How many is many? This is the last sentence of a news story, published on Monday, about a fashion for men wearing blue suede shoes: “Male shoe spending has soared in recent years, with many age-categories outspending the opposite sex.”

So, into how many “age categories” do those who market shoes divide the male half of the population? Half a dozen? Eight? Not more than 10, surely. And how can some part of a number like that be called “many”?

As usual, “many” proves to be one of the most slippery words in journalism. It serves to create an impression of “Golly, what a lot!”, but doesn’t go so far as to quote a figure that would enable the reader to come to their own view as to whether there is a lot or a little of it about, whatever it may be.

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