Mea Culpa: instances of the incidence of incidents

Questions of style and language in last week’s Independent, reviewed by John Rentoul

Saturday 23 October 2021 21:30
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<p>Priti Patel, the home secretary, speaking on TV after the killing of Sir David Amess </p>

Priti Patel, the home secretary, speaking on TV after the killing of Sir David Amess

We confused incidence and incident(s) a few times last week. In a report of failings of the Metropolitan Police, we referred to “a suspected incidence of domestic violence”. In a report of waste falling from aeroplanes we said that a local councillor “asked whether there had been similar incidences in the past”. And last Sunday we quoted Priti Patel, the home secretary, who said that we have to learn “from incidences that have taken place”.

Thanks to Richard Parry for drawing these to my attention, and for sharing his theory that the confusion may be influenced by the word “instance”. I think he may be right: it’s not just that the plural of incident sounds the same as incidence.

Anyway, incidence is a statistical term for the rate at which something occurs, or a geometric term to refer to the angle at which lines or surfaces intersect, and it is rarely plural. I don’t know what Patel actually said, but we should have changed it to “incidents”.

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