Mea Culpa: the fish-operated drones are coming for us

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

Sunday 22 January 2023 11:33 GMT
Sharks have not yet evolved the facility to operate unmanned aerial vehicles
Sharks have not yet evolved the facility to operate unmanned aerial vehicles (Getty)

We managed to make a shark scare story even more interesting by putting this headline on it: “British man alerts beachgoers to great white shark with drone.” This conjured up a vision of a shark operating a drone using a remote control, which was not what we intended. A little reordering was needed. Given that it is the Jaws storyline that grabs people’s attention, rather than the nationality of the alerter, we could have recast it thus: “Beachgoers alerted to great white shark by British man with drone.”

House call: The first sentence of a comment article that made the case for the NHS to go vegan read: “The first tenant of a healthcare professional or institution is ‘first, do no harm’.” We changed it to “tenet”, a medium-rare word that comes from the same Latin word, tenent, meaning “he holds”. “Tenant” means someone who holds property, whereas a tenet is a belief that someone holds.

Incidentally, I would have deleted “or institution”, an example of pointless and deadening elaboration.

Any time later: One of the first five phrases on my Banned List was “any time soon”. It is just a longer and more mannered way of saying “soon”. (The others, since you ask, were “It’s the economy, stupid”; “A week is a long time in politics”; “What part of x don’t you understand?” and “Way beyond”.) What has made “any time soon” worse since then has been the tendency to write “any time” as one word. Which we did in a headline about the former prime minister’s book deal: “Don’t expect to see Boris Johnson’s memoir on the shelves anytime soon.” The next phase is inevitable: the whole thing will be written as one word – “anytimesoon”. But not thistimesoon. The headline was changed to: “... for a while.”

Hundreds and thousands: One of the items in our international news in brief section was like a mini-novel, a wonderful story from India about a man who had pretended to work for Abu Dhabi’s royal family, who “fled the Leela Palace hotel in the capital Delhi after living there for four months and raking up a bill of Rs 23,00,000 (£23,022)”.

Thanks to Iain Brodie for alerting me to this remarkable double: not only is it a striking example of Spurious Precision, translating a number given to two significant digits to one with five, but we also faithfully reproduced the Indian number format of a comma before the two zeros when writing about hundreds of thousands.

In India, the number would be called 23 lakhs, or 23 hundred thousand. In the British format that would be Rs 2.3m. But our conversion should simply have been £23,000, as the rupee is now worth about one British penny.

Then there is “raking up a bill”, when I think the usual would be “racking”, although “raking” works too. I enjoyed this line from the report, as well: “The hotel management has also accused him of nicking silverware, a mother-of-pearl tray and other items from his room.” I don’t know if this is Indian English from the Indian news agency that supplied the story, but our style would be “stealing”.

Unbelievable: Finally, I must pass on congratulations to our political staff, who reported that the Conservative Democratic Organisation, a pro-Boris pressure group, “wants to take power from Tory MPs, who have ousted three prime ministers in the last five years, and give it to party members, among whom Mr Johnson remains incredibly popular”.

Sue Alexander wrote to praise our correct use of “incredibly”. This is a word that is often used, she said, “to describe things that are hardly surprising”. But not, she thinks, in this case.

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