Mea Culpa: Keeping the home fires radiating

Questions of style and language in The Independent over the past week, reviewed by John Rentoul

Sunday 09 October 2022 15:13 BST
The power of the sun does not extend to making batteries talk
The power of the sun does not extend to making batteries talk (Getty/iStock)

In an article about the “significant risk” of a gas supply emergency, we noted that eight in 10 households in Britain use gas to heat their homes. But we illustrated the report with a photograph of an electric radiant heater. As John Harrison pointed out, the power cable was even visible.

Battery flattery: In a report about a breakthrough in battery technology, we referred to “a tandem solar cell that compliments traditional silicon-based cells”. There is an arbitrary spelling rule that marks the two different meanings of the word: “complement” means “add to and improve”, whereas “compliment” means “say nice things about someone”.

And in an item about clothes airers we advised readers: “Clip the hanger to the bottom of heavier items such as sweaters and dresses to pull them taught and minimise drying times.” It was changed to “taut”, which is related to “tight”, rather than the past tense of “teach”.

Behoof: We part-quoted and part-paraphrased the words of Sir Leigh Lewis, a former permanent secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions, who was not impressed by the sacking of Sir Tom Scholar, the Treasury’s top civil servant: “The move reflected ‘a worrying and total misunderstanding’ of the role of the civil service on behalf of Liz Truss’s administration, he said.”

Thanks to Richard Thomas for letting us know that this should have been “on the part of” rather than “on behalf of”. The way we wrote it implied that an unknown third party acting for the government had misunderstood the role of the civil service.

How not to do it: Roger Thetford drew our attention to the dangers of double negatives. The first sentence of a news report read: “Conservative minister Steve Baker has said he is ‘really sorry’ to the EU for ‘not always behaving’ in a way that did not foster trust.” We adjusted it to omit the second “not”, which had resulted in our saying the opposite of what we meant (or not saying the opposite of what we didn’t mean).

It always used to be a rule at the Daily Mirror, so Alastair Campbell once told me, that you must not have “not” in a headline, or in the first sentence of a news story. It is a good rule.

Inelegant variation: We reported that the Treasury had deleted a misleading claim about the supposed benefits of Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget, but in the second paragraph we tried to avoid repeating the word “Treasury” and called it “the finance department” instead. That sounded as if we were talking about the people in accounts in a large company. We could have called it “Mr Kwarteng’s department” if we wanted another way to refer to it.

Dispossessed: In “Home news in brief” we told the sad story of a woman who fell off a yacht. We said a body was pulled from the sea “which belonged to a woman in her 40s”. As Mick O’Hare pointed out, it was the body of a woman in her 40s, which is not quite the same thing.

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