Distances in North America baffle the European mind. Last Saturday we carried a story, written in London, about the disposal problem posed by the beaching of three dead blue whales on the coast of Newfoundland. It quoted what the town clerk of Trout River told “the local newspaper, the Toronto Star”.
Newfoundland is more than 1,000 miles from Toronto, so that’s rather like saying that the local paper in Inverness is Le Monde.
The local daily newspaper in St John’s, Newfoundland, incidentally, is called The Telegram. Its website carries a trenchant opinion piece denouncing the feeble failure of the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial government to prevent the skeletons of two of the beached whales being removed to a museum in far-away Toronto.
Last Monday, a comment piece dealt with infant mortality rates: “But prominent among the causes given by the researchers were deprivation, welfare cuts, health inequalities, low birth weight and parents who smoke (the last obviously not the fault of the state). Nor is parental neglect or cruelty.”
At this point, the reader feels “Oops! Something wrong” and goes back to see what it is. I don't know whether any usage gurus mention this point; Fowler’s Modern English Usage doesn’t seem to. But it should always be possible to remove any material in parenthesis without reducing the surrounding passage to gibberish.
In the piece above, “nor is parental neglect or cruelty” makes no sense without “the last obviously not the fault of the state”. Both bits are equally important to the coherence of the passage, so it is clumsy to put one of them in brackets. Better to have written: “… parents who smoke. The last is obviously not the fault of the state, and nor is neglect or cruelty.”
“A long-awaited Blackadder reunion floundered after a senior broadcasting executive said there should be more ‘baking’ in the show, the comedy’s producer has said.” Anthony Ingleton draws my attention to that sentence from a news story published last Saturday. To flounder is to tumble and thrash about as if trapped in a mire. The writer almost certainly meant “foundered” – fell down, or filled and sank like a ship overcome by heavy seas.
A football report published on Monday said: “The idea that Felix Magath might embrace life in the English Championship is one that slightly stretches credibility.”
No, credibility is the quality of being believable. The readiness to believe is credulity. So an unlikely idea either lacks credibility of stretches credulity. Don’t mix the two.
Last Saturday’s profile said of Elizabeth Warren: “She looks the part, with her conservative suits, her timeless blonde bob…” “Blond” is a French word for the colour of yellow hair. Its feminine form is “blonde”, which has become a commonly used word in English, meaning a woman or girl with yellow hair. But hair is not feminine, either in French or English, so a blonde’s hair is blond.