Errors & Omissions: There’s no logic to this distinction. But it matters

Plus mixed metaphors, etymological confusion and faulty Bible knowledge from this week’s Independent

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The Independent Online

Here is a picture caption from a Monday news page: “Ten times as many people are getting skin cancer than in the 1970s.” That should be “as in the 1970s”.

“Than” has to follow a comparative adjective or adverb. “More people are getting skin cancer than in the 1970s” would be fine. But otherwise it has to be “as”.

The distinction is arbitrary. The meaning of the caption is perfectly clear, even with the wrong word. Some other languages get on perfectly well without having two different words. French uses que in both roles. Hungarian uses mint in the same way.

Sorry, let’s not get carried away. This newspaper is written in English, so we need to respect the distinction between “as” and “than” – logically unnecessary though it may be.

• A comment piece published last Saturday lamented the way social media encourages oafish behaviour. When the Labour MP Frank Field suffered a heart attack, a Green Party activist apparently tried to photograph him. The final sentence of the piece commented: “This Easter, just imagine if a bunch of Green activists had been present at the stoning of Christ.”

On that first Good Friday, Jesus suffered not only crucifixion but also scourging (above, 17th-century Ligurian School) and some verbal abuse that was indeed worthy of modern internet trolls. But no stoning.

It may not be a coincidence that this was the final sentence of the item. With the winning post in sight, the concentration of both writers and editors can flag.

• “Shock US jobs figures force Yellen to put rate hike on back burner.” How do you put a hike – an upward movement – on to a gas cooker? No one will be surprised to learn that this mixture of metaphors appeared on a business page last Saturday. Stories about the abstractions of finance cannot be told without a plethora of metaphors, and things can easily go wrong.

• Thursday’s news story about the police shooting in South Carolina reported: “North Charleston is 50 per cent black, but African Americans constitute just 18 per cent of officers.” There is something journalese about that “just”. If you merely want to emphasise the difference between the figures, “only” would do. “Just” introduces a note of whining indignation.

• Our coverage, last Saturday, of the new stricter dress code on Qantas business class included this: “It is tempting to mock these unusually straightlaced Australians.” That should be “straitlaced”.

Oddly enough, both “straight” and “strait” are derived from verbs that express an action of pulling. But their origins, like their meanings, are different. “Straight” is from a Germanic origin, related to “stretch”. A piece of string stretched to its full extent makes a straight line.

“Strait”, on the other hand, comes down by way of French from the Latin verb stringere, meaning to draw tight. It means narrow, tight or restricted. And that is what the laces of a corset are; they are obviously not straight.