Errors & Omissions: Mistakes – we’ve made a few, but not too few to mention

Grammar glitches, style stumbles and gay porn stars in the last week of the printed Independent

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We have had our successes. You don’t see as many hanging participles in this newspaper as you did a few years ago. And the pernicious label “moderate Muslims” doesn’t seem to have appeared for a while. 

But I can’t help being struck, as I survey the last week of the printed Independent, by the bad habits we have failed to root out in the nearly 16 years this column has run. (Yes, it first appeared in 2000, in the dying weeks of the old millennium, commissioned by the then editor, Simon Kelner – my thanks to him. I thought it would last six months before I ran out of things to say. That I didn’t is due in no small measure to those eagle-eyed readers who have written in with things they have spotted in the paper – my heartfelt thanks to them also.)

µ Who would have thought, for example, that we would still be having trouble with that slippery little word “both”? This is from an analysis piece published on Wednesday: “In the course of the debate, both sides have used the highly emotive question of security to further their view.” 

No, “both” is plural, whereas “each” is singular. So, each side may have a view, but both sides have views. Of course the waters are muddied here by something that has definitely changed since 2000 – the use of they/them/their as a gender-neutral singular pronoun has become normal. 

It is a huge improvement on “he or she”, the appallingly clumsy term we were all using in the immediate wake of the second-wave feminist revolution, but has undoubtedly added to the general confusion about number agreement – a confusion that shows no sign of abating.

µ What about “who” and “whom”? The long death-agony continues, I’m afraid. Last Saturday’s profile contained this: “Gawker published a post about a married media executive from a rival firm, whom it alleged had solicited a gay porn star for sex.” 

Whom had solicited a gay porn star? No, of course not – and the interposition of “it alleged” makes no difference. The relative pronoun remains the subject of the verb “solicited”; it does not become the object of “alleged”, so it should be “who”.

µ And the same old malapropisms keep turning up. Rowan Atkinson, according to a news story last Saturday, “hopes to challenge the reticence of audiences to accept an older comic persona”. The word the writer was looking for is “reluctance”, which means struggling against doing something. Reticence is the unwillingness to speak freely.

µ Atkinson popped up again in an arts piece on Monday about his portrayal of Inspector Maigret. Apparently Georges Simenon’s novels about the detective have sold “an eye-watering 853 million copies worldwide”. No. We have seen too much “eye-watering”. 

µ Of course, good old-fashioned journalese will always be with us. “Refugee deal sparks chaos on Greek islands,” said a news headline on Monday. William Boot would feel at home.

A selection of Guy Keleny's Errors & Omissions columns, published in 2012 

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