Errors & Omissions: gadzooks, quoth they, themself and thee

Our chief pedant casts his eye over our reporting of the nuts-for-spices scandal and the rest of this week’s Independent

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It’s been a good week for journalese. What about this headline, from a news page last Saturday? “Food suppliers replacing cumin with potentially lethal nuts, fears FSA.”

The “quoth he” word order of “fears FSA” is an archaic gadzookism found often in newspaper headlines. You can see why it is popular: it emphasises the name of the speaker by putting it last. “I resign, says Cameron” has more impact than “I resign, Cameron says”.

So “quoth he” makes sense when the important thing is not what is being said but who is saying it. And that is often the case with newspaper stories. But not in the example from last Saturday. Here, the interesting thing is that what should be cumin has turned out to be nuts, not the unsurprising fact that it is the Food Standards Agency saying it.

We need to be more discriminating, says I.

• Then yesterday came this opening to a news story: “The tragic death of a mother-of-two caused by an allergic reaction to hair dye has raised serious questions about its use in conjunction with henna tattooing.”

“Tragic” is a piece of verbiage that reporters trot out on such occasions. We all know that such a death is a terrible misfortune and an occasion of grief for the victim’s family and friends; calling it “tragic” adds nothing.

And then comes “mother-of-two”. Nobody uses that outside newspapers, and the assumption that a woman is defined by the number of her children takes us right back to the 1950s. I have two sons, but I don’t think that turns me into a kind of person called a “father-of-two”.

This was actually a good story, with a coroner making serious criticisms of the cosmetics industry. A pity to start it off like that.

• This is from an analysis piece last Saturday: “Most of these conversations never see the light of day. But just occasionally something is said which is so explosive that it is irresistible for a journalist to keep it to themself.”

Good reasons to do with gender equality have impelled us in recent years to supply the lack of a gender-neutral personal pronoun in the third person singular. So “he”, “she” and “it” have been joined by “they”, used in a singular sense. Does that mean we will have to accept the corresponding reflexive pronoun “themself”? Yes, I believe it does; you will get used to it.

But there was no need to bite that particular bullet on this occasion. The writer has, in fact, lost his way in a complex sentence and written the opposite of what he meant. The ending should be “… irresistible for a journalist to reveal it”.

• On Thursday, we published a Big Read article about measles. “As an outbreak in the US renews debate about this silent killer…,” burbled the introductory blurb.

Silent killer? You mean unlike all those other viruses that make such a noise?