Errors & Omissions: The multimillion-pound cliché that’s lost its power

Our letters editor casts his eye over last week’s Independent, including a report about the new Birmingham library (pictured below)

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The Independent Online

Here is the opening of a news story published on Monday: “When Birmingham’s multimillion-pound new library announced it was being forced to slash its hours because of budget cuts less than two years after opening, the humiliation looked like it might turn the architectural landmark into an expensive white elephant.”

Breathe slowly and calm down. All this journalese excitement can’t be good for you. Let’s take things one at a time.

First, “multimillion-pound”. This cliché has lost all power to amaze. A million pounds might still seem a lot of money to you and me, but it is a long time since you could build any sort of public library for less than that. Any substantial public or commercial project is going to cost multiples of a million.

Next, “slash”. Come off it. We’re talking about the opening hours of a public library; don’t try to summon up images of bloodspattered walls and screaming victims. And, “looked like it might”? No, prefer “looked likely to”.

What about that “white elephant”? Another misused cliché. A white elephant, a badge of royal grandeur and sacredness in Thailand, is something big, expensive and useless. The library is big and expensive, certainly, but reducing its opening hours would hardly render it completely useless.

And why add the word “expensive”? A white elephant is by definition expensive, and we have already been told that the library cost several million pounds.

• Here are two instances of another journalese word, “trigger”, both from news stories published on Wednesday.

“A study on laboratory mice has shown that anxious and depressive behaviour brought on by exposure to stress in early life appears only to be triggered if microbes are present in the gut.” And this: “Turning street lights off late at night to save money does not seem to trigger an increase in either traffic accidents or crime.”

I think the first “trigger” is fine, but the second ought to be “cause”. Squeezing the trigger of a firearm releases the pent-up chemical energy of the charge, initiating a preordained sequence of events that is just waiting to happen. The trigger doesn’t cause the events; it merely allows them to unfold.

Incidentally, in the first sentence, “only” should come immediately before “if”. Making sure that “only” is always as close as possible to the words it qualifies may not be essential, but it is elegant.

• Wednesday’s lead story concerned the police issuing a warning that they may no longer be able to visit every person whose home has been burgled. Headline: “Burglary victims told: don’t expect an inspector to call.” Eh? Who expects a police inspector to react in person to every domestic burglary? The most I would expect would be a visit from a detective constable. Furthermore, JB Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls is about uncovering the dark secrets of a respectable family, not a mere burglary inquiry. This cultural reference just doesn’t fit.

This column appeared in the print edition of The Independent on 1 August

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