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Errors and Omissions: When a manner of speaking isn’t a manner of writing

Our Letters Editor casts his eye over this week's grossest Independent mistakes

“For too many men, sexual violence is the norm,” declared the headline on a comment piece published on Wednesday. So, how many is too many; and what would be the acceptable level of belief that sexual violence is the norm?

This loose use of “too” is quite common, and you may say that it is just a manner of speaking. Well, yes, one might exclaim: “This is just too bad,” implying that a lesser degree of badness would be acceptable. But when you grumble: “It’s far too easy for young people to get hold of drugs”, you begin to invite the question, “How easy do you think it ought to be?” And when a manner of speaking becomes a manner of writing readers are liable to treat your language with a logical rigour that listeners would not employ.

Metaphor soup: A news story published on Wednesday reported that the President of Mexico “has unveiled a major shake-up of the country’s creaking tax system aimed at broadening the abysmally low tax base”. “Low” is not the opposite of “broad”. The President might hope to broaden a narrow tax base, or to raise a low level of revenue, but he cannot mix the two without becoming absurd.

Cut it out: On Wednesday, we published the news that Tesco is pulling out of the US grocery business. An accompanying comment piece carried the headline: “Much-needed prune isn’t cause for panic”. Tesco is indeed pruning back its operations in several countries, but I don’t think there is a noun “prune”, meaning an act of pruning. The only prune I have ever heard of is a dried plum, often served with custard. What could a “much-needed prune” possibly be?

Wrong word: A common malapropism turned up in a story, published on Wednesday, about cruelty to children among members of a religious cult in Germany: “He simpers, as a middle-aged woman drags him downstairs into a dimly-lit cellar.” A simper is a false, self-conscious, ingratiating little smile. The more likely reaction of one who fears a cruel punishment is a whimper – a broken, whining little cry.

Star-crossed: Thursday’s business pages kicked off with a full-page report of the troubles at Hibu, the company that publishes the Yellow Pages directories. It was illustrated with a scene familiar to anyone over the age of 45: an elderly man talking on the telephone, smiling delightedly at good news. The caption: “The classic Yellow Pages advert starring J R Hartley – first shown in 1983.” No. J R Hartley was a fictional character. The star of this classic television advertisement was an actor called Norman Lumsden. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Making a row: Michael Kilgarriff writes in to draw attention to this, from last Saturday’s profile: “For the second year in a row, Forbes has named Vergara the highest paid actress on television.” You need at least three points to make a row. “For the second year running” would have been all right.