Errors & Omissions: A voyage into a foreign language leaves us lost

Grammar and style glitches in this week’s Independent

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The real horrors happen when people think they know something but don’t. On Thursday, we published this headline: “Bon vacances? French roads blockaded as farmers escalate protest against low prices.” (That is the picture, above.)

Presumably the perpetrator was familiar with the phrase “bon voyage”, knew (or ascertained from a dictionary) that the word for “holidays” is “vacances” and, in the hurry of news production, assumed that you could just bolt the bits together.

What they didn’t know (or forgot) was that a French adjective agrees with the noun it qualifies, both for gender and number. And while “voyage” (“journey”) is masculine and singular, “vacances” (“holidays”) is feminine and plural.

So it should be “bonnes vacances”. And that is perfectly good idiomatic French for “happy holidays”. What a pity we spelled it wrong, and in such embarrassingly large type. A foreign language is like a wild animal. Don’t try to make it jump through hoops, especially in public, unless you are thoroughly familiar with it.

• Number agreement in English continues to give trouble. A news story published on Tuesday reported: “But when officers checked out his version of events, they concluded that they were false and began treating him as a suspect rather than a victim, the court heard.”

No, it was not the events, but the version that the police didn’t believe, so it should read “they concluded that it was false”.

And on Thursday a feature article said: “The BBC is one of a tiny number of institutions that holds us together as a nation.” You can make a case for “holds” on grammatical grounds, but it paints an odd picture. We are held together as a nation by the institutions, not the number, so I would prefer “hold”.

• The old headlines are the best. “End of line for trolley service on Southern trains,” said the headline on a news report published on Thursday. I can testify that “End of the line for…” was a familiar headline cliché as long ago as the 1970s. No local paper report of the retirement of a railway employee was complete without it. For all I know, it could date back to the 1870s.

On a different topic, the story said: “On Sunday, the onboard trolleys on Southern trains, which runs services between London and places like Brighton, Eastbourne and Southampton, will take their final trip down the aisle.” Places like Brighton, Eastbourne and Southampton are other places similar to those towns, but not including them. If you want to include those three, along with others, write “such as”, not “like”.

• A picture caption on Thursday said: “The Church of England’s most senior female bishop, the Venerable Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester, after her consecration yesterday at Canterbury Cathedral.”

That can’t be right. The style “the Venerable” is used by Church of England archdeacons, and indeed Ms Treweek’s last job was as Archdeacon of Hackney in London. But now that she is a bishop she must be styled the Right Reverend.