Errors & Omissions: partisan language causes confusion when bad comes to worse

Our chief pedant scans the pages of this week’s Independent for our better understanding

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The Independent Online

Last Saturday’s Letter from the Editor remarked that George Osborne needs to soften his image, adding: “Scrapping the spare room subsidy, better known as the bedroom tax, would be a good place to start.”

One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, and those who remember the last Tory government will not have forgotten the community charge, better known as the poll tax. People call the same thing by a different name according to whether they like it or hate it.

The passage above reads as if the spare room subsidy and the bedroom tax were the same thing. In fact they are opposites, and the widespread partisan use of language is here even more confusing than usual.

The Coalition – now Tory – policy is to abolish what the Tories call the “spare room subsidy”; that is the situation whereby some people in social housing are allegedly receiving state subsidies to live in homes that are bigger than they need. Opponents of the Government’s policy call it the “bedroom tax”. So the “bedroom tax” is a measure to abolish the “spare room subsidy”.

There is also something called the “under-occupancy penalty”. I’m not sure, but I think it is a name for the “bedroom tax” used by supporters of the policy. I don’t know whether the “spare room subsidy” also has a different name for use by people who approve of it.

• In the old days of hot-metal printing, they used to say a news story should always be written in such a way that it could be cut at the end of any paragraph.

A tall order. But it is reasonable to expect that the opening paragraph at least reads properly by itself. Not like this, from a news story on Tuesday: “A Scottish security guard was unlawfully killed by a colleague who had not been properly vetted to work in Iraq, a coroner ruled yesterday.”

“What’s all this about Iraq?” exclaims the baffled reader (particularly if English). “I thought we were in Scotland.” It would have been less of a jolt if the victim had been identified as British, rather than Scottish.

• “If the worse comes to the worse, they say, Mr Cameron could allow Tory MPs a free vote,” opined a piece, published on Tuesday, about the coming dramas over Europe. Surely, the familiar expression is “if the worst comes to the worst”.

Come to think of it, though, it is an odd thing to say. How can the worst “come to the worst” if it is already the worst? “If the worse comes to the worst” would be more logical.

• A charming homophone error enlivened our election night coverage last Saturday. In the BBC television studio, around dawn on Friday, the psephologist Professor John Curtice spoke “from his eerie above David Dimbleby’s head”.

An eerie apparition indeed. The writer intended to liken Professor Curtice’s perch on a gantry to the nest of a bird of prey – an eyrie. “Eerie” means inspiring supernatural unease.

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