Errors & Omissions: Square brackets [like these ones] really don't help the reader


Guy Keleny
Friday 06 July 2012 19:57

Square brackets are an elegant device to indicate matter inserted by an editor into a quoted passage. They let the reader know who is speaking. But don't overuse them – that way madness lies. The following is from a sport report published on Wednesday:

"I want to take this green jersey [of points leader] all the way to Paris now, although [Mark] Cavendish" [who could take his 22nd stage win today] "remains a serious threat," Sagan said.

Blimey! Notice first that the quotation marks after "Cavendish" and those before "remains" are otiose, merely duplicating the effect of the square brackets. If the writer or editor can't work out what is going on, what hope has the reader?

You have to wonder whether readers of Tour de France reports really need to be told the first name of a leading British contender, or what the green jersey signifies. And if you don't know about the green jersey the three words "of points leader" are unlikely to offer much enlightenment. If you do think the reader needs to be told these things then you just have to use indirect speech:

Sagan said he now hoped to wear the points leader's green jersey all the way to Paris, but he admitted that Mark Cavendish, who could win today's stage, "remains a serious threat".

Leering off course: Peter Henderson of Worthing writes in to draw attention to this sentence, which cropped up in our coverage of the banking scandals last Saturday: "Ministers are leery of instigating for an inquiry."

First, "instigating for" is obviously a slip. You may press for an inquiry, call for it or hope for it. But you instigate it. The verb takes a direct object. That is logical, given its derivation from a Greek verb meaning to prick – hence to goad or incite. So instigating an inquiry is like prodding an animal to move.

Next, "leery". Mr Henderson writes that it sounds like slang to him. So it is, but venerable slang, dating from 1796. It is related to the verb "leer" – to glance with a sly expression. The ministers are not leery. They are wary of instigating an inquiry.

Simple mistake: "It's too simplistic to demonise banks," said a headline published on Thursday. So, how simplistic would be all right?

"Simplistic" means thinking in a way that ignores the complexities of the subject. "Simplistic" is always bad, so there is no acceptable degree of it. "Too simplistic" is a tautology. You mean either "too simple" or just plain "simplistic".

Video stars: The following is from an article, published on Monday, about YouTube video blog stars. "VidCon began in 2008 as an informal gathering of YouTube enthusiasts in a New York park. In 2010 it morphed into a traditional conference, attracting 1,000 delegates to an Anaheim hotel."

Are the people who attend this gathering really delegates – that is to say people designated to act on behalf of others? I think not – they are just fans who turn up on their own initiative.

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