Errors and Omissions: Total desperation can lead to awkward sentences

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

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The Independent Online

Here is a picture caption from Thursday’s paper: “Couples wait for the start of a mass marriage ceremony in Kolkata yesterday. A total of 65 couples took wedding vows during the day-long event.”

Once and for all, can we drop this “a total of” stuff? It makes sense to talk of a total only if you have mentioned the smaller figures of which it is a total. In this case, as so often, “a total of” is simply a desperate device to avoid starting a sentence with a figure. It is not necessary, at least with figures below 100. I know our style is figures for 10 and above, but I submit that “Sixty-five couples took wedding vows…” is the lesser of two evils.

In the case of this caption, you don’t even have to do that. The sentence is easy to turn round: “During the day-long event, 65 couples took wedding vows.”

A news story on Thursday quoted a speech by General David Petraeus, given to “attendees at an event in London organised by the Centre for Policy Studies”.

“Attendee” is a word that horrifies people who care about the form and history of words. Those who see language as mere encoded information don’t understand what all the fuss is about. I would merely ask them to have mercy on us sensitive souls, and not use “attendee”.

Those words ending in –ee, such as nominee and debauchee, are derived from French. They reflect the French habit of using past participles as nouns. A refugee, for instance, is un réfugié, a having-taken-refuge person.

Similarly, we have a having-been-named person and a having-been-debauched person. On the same principle, an attendee ought to be a having-been-attended person. But since English doesn’t do that trick with participles as nouns, we can easily mess it up. Somehow an attendee has turned out to be an attending person, possibly by an unfortunate analogy with escapee – un échappé, a having-escaped person.

It’s all a disaster, but I fear “attendee” may be here to stay, since it fills a need.

A news story on Thursday informed us that the Iraqi parliament “must chose a speaker and a president”. That should of course be “choose”, “chose” being the past tense. This is evidently a quirk of English spelling that the human brain finds difficult. People often write “lose” when they mean “loose”.

On Thursday we published an article about footballers having sex during the World Cup tournament. Some national teams enforce celibacy, apparently; others take a liberal view.

Naturally the writer indulged in some fun and games, with “nocturnal stamina-training” and players “allowed to play away from the pitch”, but eventually things went too far: “What footballers and elite athletes get up to at sporting competitions has ignited media feeding frenzies before.”

I’m no prude, but this is a family newspaper, and we can’t have a full-frontal mixed metaphor like igniting a feeding frenzy.