Errors & Omissions: a pedant addresses his audience about ‘may’ and ‘might’

Also gallows (singular), a blacksmith’s son and more journalese

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“Speaking to an audience in Bogota, Colombia, this week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared to suggest another reason for Glass’s failure to take hold in the public imagination,” opined a news report published yesterday.

And while Mr Zuckerberg was speaking to this audience I imagine he was also breathing air and standing on a floor, but we didn’t bother to report that. “Audience” means people who are hearing something, so any speaker has an audience, unless delivering a soliloquy. Either say who the audience was, or take out the words “to an audience” and file them under “Bleeding Obvious”.

• It may be a lost cause, but I am not going to shut up about “may” and “might”. This is from a news story published on Thursday: “MPs condemned Facebook last year for failing to pass on information that may have prevented the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby.”

That indicates that we don’t know whether the murder was prevented or not. Sadly, that is not the case. Rigby was murdered, so the possibility of preventing his murder is in the past only. “Might” is the past tense – so use it.

“Might” is also used to refer to the future, where it indicates a degree of conditionality. “I might go to London tomorrow” sounds less likely than “I may go to London tomorrow”.

If we lose the distinction between “may” and “might”, the language becomes less expressive. That is why it matters.

• By the time you get to the end of a long sentence, it is easy to forget what you wrote at the beginning. That is just one of the good reasons to prefer short sentences.

This is from an article in last Saturday’s magazine: “Standing at the centre of the prison, set among the manicured lawns and tended gardens – surrounded by the daily cycle of chaos, corruption and abuse – sit the gallows.”

Well, is the gallows standing or sitting? And by the way, “gallows” being a singular noun (there is no such thing as a gallow), that should be “sits”.

• A picture caption in last Saturday’s Radar began with a pithy phrase describing Thomas Cromwell: “Blacksmith’s son turned lawyer, Cardinal Wolsey’s former protégé survives his patron’s fall.”

Too pithy, alas. Even after Cromwell had become a lawyer he was still a blacksmith’s son, so “turned” strikes a wrong note.

• This is from our Thursday report of the row provoked by a judge who suggested a schoolgirl had “groomed” her teacher for sex: “Kerner, a father-of-one from Aylesford, Kent, was found guilty by majority verdicts last month.”

In this story, the man’s status as a parent is relevant, but “father-of-one” is journalese. It reads as if a “father-of-one” was some recognisable kind of person. That may be more plausible in the case of a father (or mother) of, say, six or seven, but the world is full of men and women who have one or two children. It is not a description.