Errors & Omissions: is it relatively risky to eat a pork pie? Absolutely

Usage and abusage in this week’s Independent, recorded by our Letters Editor

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Here is the opening of a news story published on Thursday: “Working 55 hours or more a week can increase the chances of suffering a stroke by a third compared to the risk for those who work 40 hours or less.” Yes, but a third of what? What is the risk for those who work 40 hours or less? The story does not say.

Does it matter? Yes, it does. Suppose it was found that eating a pork pie doubles your chances of suffering a heart attack. Heavens, that sounds serious! But what is the absolute risk? What if with no pork pie the risk is one in a thousand? So it doubles to two in a thousand. You might conclude that that’s a small price to pay for the pleasure of eating a pork pie.

Journalists like relative risks, because they generally produce a bigger, more dramatic figure than the absolute risk. I suspect the journalists are taking their cue from health campaigners, who also like to scare the public.

There is nothing wrong with figures of relative risk, but unless they are accompanied by the absolute risk, they may not give the reader a fair picture.

• Newspapers have a long history of using 19th-century portraits and engravings to illustrate stories about historical or legendary figures from different periods. Today’s front page is a case in point. Sometimes this is unavoidable. Sometimes, though, the captioning renders the practice absurd – with a conjectural representation baldly captioned “Charlemagne”, say, or “Achilles”.

But something similar popped up last Saturday when a news page carried a report of an all-day reading of The Iliad in London by a relay of distinguished actors. There were two illustrations with a common caption: “Rory Kinnear takes part in the reading of The Iliad, the epic poem by Homer (left), at the British Museum yesterday.”

Nobody knows what Homer looked like, so there is something daft about any purported portrait of him in the mundane pages of a newspaper. No picture of Homer can be anything more than an imagined idea of what kind of person he might have been.

In this case we had what looked like a Renaissance pen drawing of a bearded chap. The daftness was compounded by the caption, which treated this legendary archetype on the same level as a colour photograph of Kinnear.

• Last Saturday we reported on the sacking of the singer Sir Tom Jones from the TV show The Voice: “The music veteran said he was let go with no consultation.” Not all “Americanisms” are the work of the devil, but “let go” is hateful, suggesting that the employer is doing the hapless worker a favour by letting him go. Sir Tom was not let go, he was dismissed.

• Another irritating usage turned up in a news story on Thursday: “After his victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, a grateful nation gifted the first Duke of Marlborough land near the Oxfordshire town of Woodstock.” What is the difference between “gifted” and “gave”?