Errors and Omissions: There are better ways to label an article about France than ‘les’

Our Letters Editor and chief pedant checks this week's Independent for howlers

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The Independent Online

If you are a monoglot English-speaker who thinks everything French is weird, this headline, from yesterday’s paper, on a story about French footballers going on strike, will have suited you down to the ground: “Les strikers: French football walks out in super-tax protest”.

If, on the other hand, you know a bit of French, you will have uttered a weary sigh at yet another instance of the journalese habit of shoving a French definite article (“le”, “la” or “les”, as the case may be) in front of an English noun, as a rib-nudging signal to the reader that those Froggies are up to their fun and games again. It works only with readers who don’t know any French. Anyone else, seeing “les strikers”, will merely scratch their head in puzzlement.

For the pun on “strikers”, unsurprisingly, doesn’t work in French. Industrial strikers are “grévistes”, while a striker in the football sense is “un buteur”. Unless “striker” has gained a Franglais currency of which I am unaware, “les strikers” is simply nonsense.

Verbiage: Here is the beginning of a news story published last Saturday: “Deadly violence in the occupied West Bank has increased in the past month, undermining a period of relative calm that has existed in the area.”

“That has existed” is an example of the  kind of explanation of the obvious that sometimes just drifts out of the brain, if you fail to think about what you are saying. How could you undermine a period of calm that has not existed?

Come to think of it, can you undermine a  period of calm at all? “Undermine” is a  metaphor from medieval siegecraft. It invites the reader to think of a massive stone wall, and the besiegers digging a “mine” under it. When they have dug a big enough hole, they will set fire to the wooden props supporting the roof and get out of there. With any luck, a section of wall will collapse into the hole, and a storming party will then assault the breach thus formed, a most hazardous operation.

For what could too easily happen next, see Shakespeare’s Henry V, Act 3. You can undermine only something which, if deprived of support, will collapse in ruin. I don’t think a period of relative calm can be pictured like that.

Negative outcome: Robin Phillips writes in to point out this, from an obituary published on Monday: “Hancock’s role cannot be understated.” It seems obvious to me that something that cannot be understated would have to be infinitely small, but some people seem to have difficulty with that idea, so maybe Mr Phillips can help.

He writes: “I wish that those addicted to this contorted construction would remember to test a sentence before firing it off. Try saying ‘Hancock’s role can be overstated,’ or ‘Hancock’s role can be understated,’  and other permutations, until you are able to work out what you really mean to say, and then, for preference, say it another way!”

Well said, Mr Phillips.