Errors & Omissions: In some cases, newspapers should be the last with the news

By Guy Keleny
Saturday 09 January 2010 01:00

"The next person who comes in here and tells me that language is a living thing gets the sack." That was the snarling reaction of the great Frank Peters, night editor of The Northern Echo in the 1970s, to air-headed reporters who tried to argue with his insistence on orthodox grammar and vocabulary.

Peters, who taught me most of what I know about the sub-editor's craft, did concede that, yes, language did change, and not all change was for the worse. But he maintained that newspapers should be the last, not the first, to adopt a new usage. That seems a good principle. Let an innovation prove that it will last before we give it our imprimatur.

So, how do we like this, from a leading article published on Thursday? "Few are enamoured with Mr Brown in the country." Surely that should be "enamoured of"; or are we ready for "enamoured with"? I can't say I am, but conventions of this sort can easily shift. In recent years, for instance, "forbid to" seems to have been replaced by "forbid from". Does that make the language better or worse? Neither, that I can see. It's just one of those things.


Seeing things: "Heavy snowfall sees Met Office put Britain on high alert." As always severe weather brings on a spate of clichés and absurd headlines. This ripe example introduced our coverage of the White Hell of Freeze-Up Britain on Wednesday.

The use of "see" in the abstract sense of "witness" or "experience" is fine when you are talking about historical periods: "The 1930s saw an inexorable spread of fascism." But the idea of a fall of snow seeing something is just silly.

The visionary theme continued a few pages on, with this headline: "Ballot for tickets to see Blair at inquiry." But people who want to attend the Chilcot inquiry are not as keen to see Blair as to hear him. He will not be presenting his evidence by means of semaphore flags.


Sound and fury: This is from a feature article on Monday about exercise. "According to Mintel the average gym membership in 2009 cost £442. That's about £37 per month, with some chains charging significantly more than that."

It is a sad reflection on the innumeracy of the nation that a writer feels she is being helpful, rather than insulting, when she assumes that most readers will have trouble dividing 442 by 12. But that is probably the case, so no criticism of the writer there. The word "significantly" is another matter. Just strike it out; it never adds anything. And what does it mean anyway? What is the difference in cost supposed to signify? Indeed, the whole clause "with some chains charging significantly more than that" can be omitted. We have already been told the £442 is the average. It follows that some will charge more than that, some less. We don't need to be told.


One thing and another: Steve Richards, in his Tuesday column, tripped up over "both" – an easy thing to do. "Such an absurdly early start to the unofficial [election] campaign is not unusual," he wrote. "In 1992, the last time an election was certain to be called within months, the parties took to the stage within days of the New Year. Like now, both parties had no choice but to follow the other."

Use "both" only when it might have been just one. So "both boxers came out fighting" is fine: one of them might have cowered in his corner, leaving only one to come out fighting. But "both boxers traded furious punches" is wrong. It would be impossible for one man to trade punches on his own. That should be "the two boxers traded furious punches".

Similarly, Richards' sentence should be either "Each party had no choice but to follow the other" or "Neither party had any choice but to follow the other" or "the two parties had no choice but to follow each other". But "both" makes no sense.


Is this enough? The usual problem for those who write headlines is that there is not enough space. The opposite difficulty confronted the writer of this, from a news page on Wednesday: "Death of heiress investigated by police." By police, eh? Well it's good to know it wasn't plumbers or ballet dancers.

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