Mea Culpa: the debris left by the Gary Lineker tweet storm

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

Saturday 18 March 2023 13:53 GMT
We suffered an outbreak of ‘licenses’, thanks to the Lineker story
We suffered an outbreak of ‘licenses’, thanks to the Lineker story (Reuters)

Future generations may look back on the Tale of Gary Lineker’s Tweet with puzzlement. The storm was so intense that some debris was even washed up in this column. In an account on our sports pages of Lineker’s withdrawal from presenting Match of the Day being followed by his fellow presenters Ian Wright and Alan Shearer pulling out in solidarity, we wrote: “The levy has broken.”

We meant levee, from the French levée, meaning “raised”, referring to the embankments to protect against flooding in Louisiana.

Elsewhere we suffered an outbreak of “licenses”, thanks to the Lineker story restarting one of the dullest debates in public policy, namely over the BBC licence fee. In British English, licence is the noun and license is the verb. The only other thing you need to know is that the licence fee is the worst way to fund the BBC, apart from any of the other options.

Stone the kilos: In our “On This Day” we recorded that Daniel Lambert was born in Leicester in 1770. He grew to be famous for his size: we said that his weight was 739lb and his waist measured 102 inches. “When he died it took 20 men to lower his coffin into the grave.” As Henry Peacock pointed out, giving people’s weight in pounds only is an American style: we British are more familiar with stones (14lb) and kilograms, so we should have given his weight in both: 52 stone, 335 kg.

Amid rocket sparks: In “Business news in brief” on Wednesday, we reported that Centrica, the energy company, intended to extend the lives of two UK nuclear power stations. “The group’s boss Chris O’Shea said the move is part of efforts to ‘bolster security of supply’ amid wider uncertainty in the sector.” That is a “move” and an “amid” in one sentence. “The decision” and “because of” would have been better. There was another “amid” later, as we said the company “last month saw its profits more than treble to more than £3bn for 2022 amid rocketing energy prices that have sparked a cost of living crisis”. Rockets and sparks complete the journalese cliche bingo card, as Roger Thetford pointed out.

Amid aversion: We avoided an “amid” in a report of the first vote on the Illegal Migration Bill thus: “The asylum proposals cleared their first Commons hurdle last night during pleas from Tory MPs for amendments to protect trafficked women, children and modern slavery victims.” Linda Beeley was not sure that “during” is an improvement on “amid”, when we could have said “... as Tory MPs pleaded…”

Linda also objected to this, in another story on the same subject: “There has been a sudden spike of migrants arriving into the UK because of several reasons.” The meaning is clear enough, but “for several reasons” is better.

Spurious precision watch: Finally, Iain Brodie spotted another example of spurious precision in a report of the effect of high gas prices on the Japanese bathhouse industry: “Daikokuyu’s monthly gas bill has more than doubled – from just over $5,000 (£4,145) in January last year to more than $12,000 in January this year.” As the $5,000 is already a rough figure, £4,000 would have been all that was needed.

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