Mea Culpa: Joe Biden, someone with a lot on his plate

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

Saturday 15 May 2021 21:30
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<p>Understated: Joe Biden, a modest president</p>

Understated: Joe Biden, a modest president

I mentioned the problem with the formula “cannot be understated” last week. It trips us up so often that we should train ourselves not to use it, not least because it is a cumbersome way of expressing a simple point. Even when it is used correctly, as in a headline last week, “There’s no point in underestimating Biden’s challenges,” I think it gets in the way of understanding. All that headline says is that Joe Biden faces some big challenges, which is not exactly a surprising insight about the president of the richest and most powerful country on Earth.

As Richard Thomas wrote to point out, in addition to under- and over-estimate, there are other pairs that are often confused. In an editorial last week about David Cameron’s attempt to defend his lobbying, we said: “Mr Johnson must no doubt be extracting much satisfaction from the exquisite squirming of his successor.” That should have been “predecessor”. Ancestor and descendant is another pair that is sometimes mixed up. Constant vigilance is required.

Cause and effect: That editorial about Mr Cameron also said: “The reason why no previous prime minister has been hauled before a parliamentary committee in this way is because none has behaved in this way.” First, “the reason why” is perfectly natural spoken English, but it is not necessary: just “the reason” is more elegant in formal writing. And “the reason … is because” is taking colloquial superfluity too far. “The reason … is that” is all we needed.

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