Mea Culpa: Lord Who? Let's use more democratic names

Grammar glitches and style stumbles in The Independent this week

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The Independent Online

The Independent’s style guide says we should have called him Lord O’Donnell in our report on Wednesday of the former cabinet secretary’s comment that it would take 10 years to negotiate the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. We ignored that and called him Gus O’Donnell at first mention, and Lord O’Donnell only later on. To show that I am not (just) a traditionalist grouch, I think this is right. 

Our purpose is to convey the story to the reader. If the reader remembers the former head of the civil service at all, it would be as Gus, or Sir Gus, O’Donnell. (He might possibly be better known as GO'D, his nickname in the civil service, although that might be confusing in other ways.) We ought not to be so respectful of titles that they get in the way of using the name by which someone is most likely to be recognised. 

It made good sense to use his first name and surname first, and then to use his title. That is, after all, how the style guide says we should refer to "commoners" in news stories: first name and surname, then Mr or Ms Surname. The way we did it was not only easier for the reader, it was more democratic.

Cull of euphemisms: When Ronnie Corbett died on Thursday, we said that the other of the Two Ronnies, Ronnie Barker, “passed away in 2005”. I imagine we used this genteelism to avoid repeating “died”, but writers worry too much about repeating words. The search for synonyms produces some of the worst offences against style – I remember Giles Coren railing against the description of Kylie Minogue at the second mention as “the diminutive Antipodean chanteuse”. There is nothing wrong with repeating words, especially if they are short and easily understood. But in any case, “passed away” is a euphemism that should be allowed to die.

Significant figures: A report of the revenues of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on Thursday gave a couple of figures. The film had “reportedly grossed $501.9m worldwide” and is “set to turn a minimum profit of at $207.9m”. The numbers are too precise; nothing would have been lost if they had been $502m and $208m, and the information would have been easier for the reader to absorb. Three significant digits is good enough for most journalism.   

Up and down: I am an enthusiast for Spotify’s feature for finding new music, Discover Weekly. One of the fine tracks it found for me is Home Again by Michael Kiwanuka, so I read our review on Thursday of his gig at Cadogan Hall. It referred to his “upcoming second album Love & Hate”, which gives me the chance to repeat one of my favourite newspaper stories. Bernard Kilgore, editor of the Wall Street Journal 1941-67, sent a memo to staff on the lower floor saying, “The next time I see ‘upcoming’ in the newspaper I will be downcoming and someone will be outgoing.”

This weekly missive is a replacement service for Guy Keleny’s Errors & Omissions column, which came to an end with the print edition of the Independent last week. With his permission, we are reviving his column’s old name, Mea Culpa

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