Errors & Omissions: Bankers in cahoots in a cabin with their cohorts

Our weekly instalment of high-quality, self-critical pedantry

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The Independent Online

On Thursday, a City comment piece wrote of Lloyds bank: “In cohorts with Morgan Stanley, it has cooked up what it is calling a ‘trading plan’.”

That should of course be “in cahoots”. That is an expression of American origin, meaning “in partnership”, but with a strong suggestion of something underhand or improper; people who are “in cahoots” are up to something. The word is probably derived from the French cahute, meaning a cabin or hut – so the picture is of people sharing a cabin, and thus enjoying an association that excludes others.

“In cohorts” is an error, but an interesting one that perhaps provides a clue to the causes of a common abuse of the word “cohort”. A cohort is a Roman military unit, roughly equivalent to a modern battalion, and hence any band or company. Some writers, however, stretch the word farther to mean a person acting in association with another – a companion or follower. Some dictionaries recognise that meaning, but I don’t think it is found in the best writing. Does it arise from a confusion with the similar-sounding “cahoots”?

• Here is another very common error arising from a coincidence of sound in two words with similar associations but different meanings. It comes from our Monday coverage of the Lima climate agreement: “For the first time the deal brings together richer industrialised countries and poorer developing nations, which have agreed to publish national plans for reigning in their emissions.” That should be “reining in”. “Reign” and “rein” both have associations of control, but the image here is restraining a horse by the use of reins.

• On Tuesday we published one of those headlines that you can’t understand at first reading:

May gives troubled child

sexual abuse inquiry power

to compel witnesses

The problem is the English language’s sloppy habit of using nouns in the role of adjectives (“abuse” qualifying “inquiry”; “child” qualifying “abuse”), compounded by two unfortunate line breaks. The result is that the first line gives the impression that May has given something to a troubled child, and by the end of the second line the reader is wondering what a sexual abuse inquiry power might be. Then you go back to the beginning and work it out again.

• People often write “less” when they mean “fewer”. The opposite error is less common. This is from an article on Thursday, tracing the history of relations between the US and Cuba: “Yet relations between the two countries, separated by fewer than 100 miles of water, were soon under strain.”

The principle is this: “less” for sizes and quantities, “fewer” for numbers. Less milk will fill fewer bottles. It is an arbitrary distinction, and on the positive side “more” fulfils both roles; but to get it right is elegant.

In the present case, the point being made is not the number of miles, but the width of the sea: we are talking not about fewer miles, but less water.