Matthew Hoffman: Affected by the effects of striving for perfection

Mea Culpa
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The Independent Online

At Thessaloniki yesterday, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing introduced his new constitution for Europe, which is heralded by a preamble of his own authorship. Consciously echoing the famous opening sentence of the 18th-century Constitution of the United States, with its aspiration "to form a more perfect Union", the former French president writes: "The people of Europe are determined to transcend their ancient divisions and, united ever more closely, to forge a common destiny." (My italics in both quotations.)

I've long had a niggling worry about that "more perfect union". On a literal reading, it's obviously wrong: there are no degrees of perfection; something is either perfect or imperfect. (There are, of course, degrees of imperfection.) And yet, it sounds so good; it can't be plain wrong. Then I remembered that there are degrees of perfection in medieval pictures of heaven. Dante, for example, distinguishes between higher and lower perfections. Perhaps a sonorous echo of these distinctions lingers on in the dry prose of the US Constitution's deist framers.

As to Europe's desire to be united ever more closely, that calls to my mind the unappealing image of the jaws of a vice being pressed together, ever tighter.Not an attractive thought. Someone must be able to come up with a happier phrase.

Living on: Writers of letters to the editor were quick to spot a resurrection of the virtuoso harmonica player Larry Adler in a list of "talented Americans" living in the UK, compiled by our columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. In fact, Adler died in August 2001. Perhaps what journalists need is a piece of software analogous to the "spell-checker", through which we could pass our copy before publication. Even better would be a general fact-checker, but then what price would knowledgeable staff command?

Joking aside: Advice to copy editors - sometimes it's best to put the style book away and think about what you're reading. In order to keep things simple and avoid possible confusion, The Independent reserves the title "Dr" for medical doctors. Although universities grant PhD graduates the right to use Dr before their names, we remove it when referring to them; so, Dr Ian Paisley is the Rev Paisley and Dr Mo Mowlam is Ms Mowlam in our pages. John Reid, the multi-purpose Cabinet minister, holds a PhD in economic history. In a short profile of him following the Cabinet reshuffle, Paul Waugh repeated the quip that, although he was now Health Secretary, "don't go to Dr Reid if you've got a broken leg". Unfortunately, the style book won out over the point of the joke and that came out in the paper as "don't go to Mr Reid if you've got a broken leg".

'So they say': There is a helpful convention in headline writing that allows the paper to convey, without seeming to endorse, the point of an allegation. For example, take this headline from yesterday: " 'Serious failures' blamed for Huntley suicide bid". Without the inverted commas round the first two words, there would be an implication that serious failures had indeed taken place; with them, the alert reader knows that someone is saying so. Still, even a good thing can be abused by overuse. On Thursday, there was this headline: "Men 'filmed woman being raped in pub'". A reading of the story shows that the source is the police, and there is nothing reported to cast doubt on what they have said. It's a fine judgement, but I don't believe we needed to use warning quotation marks in this instance.

The page 3 effect: An alert reader, Rick Shepperd, of Norwich, writes to say that he hates the "effect/affect" confusion, and asks: "Why does it happen with regularity on page 3?" I have no answer to that, but I will pass on his example (clipped from page 3): "A spokesman for Heathrow said operations... had not been effected by the incident."

Musical comment of the week: Phil Johnson on 3 Compositions by John Cage, which is performed on accordion: "The sparsely notated music, with wheezing bellows effect, is the perfect accompaniment to not listening."