Errors & Omissions: that forgotten 1940s stage sensation, ‘When it Comes to the Artichoke’

Verbiage and confusion from the past week’s Independent

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The Independent Online

Last Saturday’s magazine gave us an outstanding example of that daft turn of phrase “when it comes to …”. It came in the introductory blurb at the beginning of a gardening article: “What’s in a name? Quite a lot, when it comes to the artichoke…”

Well then, when does it come to the artichoke? And in any case, what is this “it” that “comes to the artichoke”? In detail, the parts of “when it comes to …” make no sense; the whole amounts to a mere throat-clearing noise, like “in the matter of …” and “regarding …” and “turning now to …”.

“When it Comes to the Artichoke” sounds like the title of an achingly clever, witty and disillusioned novel, or perhaps a play in verse, that caused a sensation when it came out in, say, 1948, but is now forgotten.

• Here is the opening sentence of a news story published on Monday: “Persistent failures at a maternity unit where up to 30 newborn babies and mothers may have died due to delays in recording medical problems and poor communication are expected to be exposed by an independent report published tomorrow.”

It’s the same old trouble: trying to put all the goodies in the shop window at once, and cramming too much into one opening sentence. An endless 25 words separate the noun “failures” from the verb “are expected”, imposing a feat of memory on the reader. And why are there three boring abstract nouns in there: “delays”, “problems” and “communication”?

Everything becomes clear when you read the second sentence of the story: “It is thought that the investigation will find that mothers and babies were put at risk because midwives and doctors at Furness General Hospital in Barrow, Cumbria, were at loggerheads and that crucial medical notes exposing substandard treatment have since been lost or destroyed.”

That’s the stuff! We’ve struck gold at last! The writer is obviously desperate to get some reference to all that into the first sentence. Unfortunately, it comes out as a string of soporific abstractions – “due to delays in recording medical problems and poor communication”. Just cut those words out and replace them with “avoidable deaths”, and it all snaps into focus.

• And here’s another sadly confused opening sentence, from a news story published on Wednesday. “A mother-of-five was stabbed to death as she tended her horses in the New Forest by a former lover’s son to stop her accusing him of an indecent assault, a court has heard.” You cannot tell whether “him” is the former lover or the son.

• The confusion between “bear” and “bare” is common and familiar. Rarely, though, has it produced such jolly effect as the following, from a TV preview published in Saturday’s Radar: “Unfortunately his bottom line also bares similarities to British Leyland’s back in the Allegro’s day.”

In any case, can anything bear a similarity? Maybe not, but let’s not quibble over such a charming error.