Mea Culpa: issues with ‘issues’, a Marmite among words

Hackneyed, unnecessary and rarely useful words in this week’s Independent 

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There is always a better word than “issue”. On Thursday, in our brilliant account of how Monarch Airlines came back from the brink of bankruptcy, we said: “The negotiations for a cash injection were so protracted because of the sheer range of issues facing the airline: the puny pound, the UK Government’s ban on flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, a slump in demand for Turkey because of fears over terrorism and ferocious competition between short-haul airlines.”

It was bad enough having to quote a Tesco spokeswoman as saying, “We are currently experiencing availability issues on a number of Unilever products”, without adding to the global euphemism glut ourselves. “Problems facing the airline” would have been better. (While we are at it, I would have changed “fears over terrorism” to “fears of terrorism”.)

Onward, ever onward: Similarly, we have to quote sports and business people using the phrase “going forward” often enough without having to use it ourselves. But on Tuesday we said that the US Supreme Court ruling on the smartphone patent dispute between Apple and Samsung expected next year “could have a long-term impact for designers and product manufacturers going forward”. Two words where none will do. 

Notorious: Last week I disparaged the use of iconic to mean simply “famous”, and a colleague asked if “famous” or “famously” were ever necessary. Just to prove that I am not an absolute curmudgeon, let me say that they can sometimes help to remind the reader of a controversy or a notable event. In our comment on San Marino scoring against Norway in a World Cup qualifier on Tuesday, for example, we said: “San Marino famously scored after just 8.3 seconds in a World Cup qualifying match against England in November 1993.” 

But this does not apply to quotations. On Wednesday an article about learning programming languages began: “‘Software is eating the world,’ venture capitalist Marc Andreessen famously declared.” And in a review of Picasso Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, we said, referring to one of Picasso’s subjects: “Maar once famously declared: ‘They’re all Picassos. Not one is Dora Maar.’” I was unfamiliar with both quotations. I may be ignorant, but there is no need for The Independent to tell me so. 

Prince among arbitrary rules: We wrote on Tuesday about Bengt Holmstrom, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has won the Nobel Prize for Economics for his work on the pay of chief executives. We explained that Holmstrom “in the 1970s demonstrated how a principle, for example, a company’s shareholders, should design an optimal contract for an agent”. 

As Richard Harvey pointed out, this should be “principal”. It is a slightly legalistic use of the word, and particularly confusing because it applies to a plural, a company’s shareholders. “Principle” means a rule or belief; “principal” is usually an adjective meaning main or most important, but can be a noun meaning (as here) the most important person, or the original sum of money before interest accrues. 

The difference in spelling is arbitrary and pointless – especially as both words come from the Latin princeps (also the source of “prince”). But, as I have said often enough, it is in our interest to get it right because many readers use conformity with such rules as an indicator of quality.

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