Errors & Omissions: How a simple news story set off a philosophical debate

Knowing and unknowing, fighting for life and a geographical glitch in this week’s Independent

Click to follow
The Independent Online

John McInerney writes in to raise a fascinating question that inhabits the debatable territory between English usage and philosophy.

On Tuesday we published a story about the discovery by Australian scientists of some very old extinct volcanoes on the bed of the Tasman Sea (above). The volcanoes, we reported, “have remained inactive, and unknown, for an estimated 50 million years”.

Not really, says Mr McInerney: “Homo erectus was arguably the first species to actually ‘know’ anything, and he didn’t appear until at most two million years ago – so these volcanoes cannot logically be said to have been ‘unknown’ for any longer than that. The storyline was therefore a bit overdramatic!”

This is a view that I have not encountered before. To me it is obvious that if there is nobody to know anything then everything is unknown – including volcanoes at the bottom of the sea, and our story is fine.

Mr McInerney, however, sees things differently. If I understand him aright, he defines the unknown as the realm of things that lie beyond human knowledge. So if there is no human knowledge, then nothing can be defined as unknown. Could be. Is that what is meant by known unknowns?

• A retrospective feature article about Wimbledon, published last Saturday, stated: “Some of it was beautiful to watch and there were tension and drama too.”

This column has often noted faults of number agreement, nearly always the use of a singular verb where a plural is called for. In this case it is the other way round.

I think in this sentence we should treat tension and drama as one thing, and use a singular verb – “was”. To treat tension and drama as two separate things implies that there might have been tension but no drama, or drama but no tension, which doesn’t make sense in a tennis match.

• On Monday a news story reported: “Ms Bell was taken to Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, where she lost her fight for life shortly before 7am yesterday.”

In the whole journalese lexicon, is there an older, riper, more rotten cliché than “lost her fight for life”? Who witnessed this heart-rending “fight for life”? Not the reporter, certainly. Stick to the facts and make it “died”. Incidentally, “Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital” is also journalese, though much less objectionable. Anywhere outside a news report it would be “the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow”. What’s wrong with that?

• I am grateful to Keith Giles for pointing out this, from a news story published last Saturday: “The 26-year-old British mezzo-soprano has flown to Rome and is currently in rehearsals for her performance at Caracalla for Unicef next week.”

Oh dear. It seems that somebody thinks Caracalla is a place. Caracalla is a person, the cruel and tyrannical Roman emperor (reigned AD211-217) who built the public baths among whose massive and picturesque ruins this concert is to take place – the Baths of Caracalla.