Errors & Omissions: A widow’s tale with an unexpected twist

Time to take the starting gun out and shoot it: a cliché and other misfires from the week’s Independent

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The Independent Online

In last Saturday’s Radar, a sub-headline said: “Robert Altman’s late wife Kathryn says she can’t forgive Kevin Spacey for a low point in her husband’s career.” As Tim Cheatle pointed out, it is Altman who is “late”, not his wife. The trouble must have arisen because the most obvious form of words, “Robert Altman’s widow”, had been pre-empted by the main headline: “The Widow’s Tale.” But that was no excuse for killing off the wrong person.

• Heath Robinson. Heard of him? On Monday we reported that hundreds of his pictures had been “saved for the nation”, a harmless bit of journalese meaning that taxpayers’ money had been spent on keeping the collection for public viewing. But I thought we risked patronising the reader by saying in the second paragraph: “The cartoonist has been cited as an inspiration for the inventions featured in Wallace and Gromit and by Thomas Heatherwick who designed the 2012 Olympic cauldron.”

Later we added that “His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman” had described Heath Robinson as “a great man”. If you don’t know who Philip Pullman is, mentioning His Dark Materials is unlikely to help you, but what was he doing in the story anyway? Famous author (but not so famous that you don’t need to be prompted with the title of his most famous work) said old cartoonist was a great man so he must be important? The pictures with which this story was illustrated were worth more than these words: we should have just made them bigger. (Above: “An early type of engine for cleaning tunnels.”)

• We described a felled redwood tree as having been “as tall as a 30-storey house” in a sub-headline on Monday. One wonders how many double-decker buses or areas the size of Belgium that was, because there cannot be many houses that are 30 storeys tall.

• Also on Monday we lapsed into another form of journalese on our foreign news pages, with a headline: “Yemen set for civil war as Houthi rebels close in on Aden.” Sometimes “set to” is a useful device, but here it just reads oddly, as if Yemenis had decided to have a civil war but hadn’t quite agreed on a start date. I suspect “Yemen on brink of” or “braced for” didn’t fit the space, in which case “Yemen fears” would have been better.

• We reported on Tuesday the Prime Minister’s unexpected self-limiting ordinance, saying that his words ruling out a third term “risk firing an early starting gun on the race to succeed him”. You’ve seen sprinters jumping the gun by starting too early, but not often starters firing the gun before the runners are ready.

• The “impossible to under or overstate” formula is as likely to misfire as not. A comment article on Tuesday said: “It is impossible to underestimate the importance that Ed Miliband had attached to the debates as originally conceived.” This was the opposite of what was meant. It is impossible to overstate the importance of avoiding this hackneyed tripwire at all costs.

Guy Keleny is away