Errors & Omissions: Use equine metaphors correctly or risk falling out of the saddle

John Rentoul
Saturday 30 January 2010 01:00 GMT

Andy McSmith's entertaining feature on Saturday about the intersecting Oxford careers of politicos that are now famous included a variant spelling that is now so common that it ought perhaps to be legitimised by the College of Cardinal Pedants.

He wrote that it might be assumed that "the extroverted Boris Johnson was a shoe-in for the title of 'pushiest fresher' when he arrived at Balliol in 1983". The phrase was originally shoo-in, referring to a horse in a rigged race that needs only to be shooed over the line. But as more of us these days have experience of putting on footwear than of herding livestock, it is often assumed that it refers to the ease of slipping on a comfortable shoe. The title of pushiest fresher might have fitted Johnson like an old shoe – although it turned out that it fitted Nick Robinson, now political editor of the BBC, even better. The problem with shoe-in, though, is its closeness to the idiom, more common in America, "to shoehorn", which means to squeeze in with difficulty.

Same stable: A similar homophone occurred in our report of Jon Gaunt's appeal against being sacked as a radio presenter for calling someone a Nazi. Martin Howe, his lawyer, said: "It is crucial that the media has a free reign to test and probe without looking over its shoulder to the bureaucrats at Ofcom." As with shoo-in, you can see why people might think it means something else, in this case the freedom to exercise power widely. But, as with shoo-in, it is to do with horses, and should be free rein – allowed to gallop over people's sensibilities in this case.

Return to sender: Also on Saturday, there was what we call a "pageturner" on page 2 that was too long. A pageturner is a line or two set into a page designed to intrigue readers and encourage them to turn to another page further in to the newspaper. This one said: "The Iraq inquiry has boomeranged back on Brown, page 12." Inquiry should have had an initial capital, as it is the proper name of the committee, but more importantly everyone knows that almost the whole point of boomerangs is that they come back.

Slippery ice: Elizabeth Young writes to point out two instances in which we misused may and might last week. On Saturday, in a piece on climate change, we wrote: "These claims may not have gone much further." But we know that they did – the claims that climate change would melt the Himalayan glaciers by 2035 – so that should have been "might". On Tuesday, we reported that "Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, will suggest that the pair may have spoken out", but he was talking about Elizabeth Wilmshurst and her boss Sir Michael Wood before the Iraq invasion, and we know that they did not, so that should have been "might" too.

Pluralism: Ms Young also noticed that we described Janeane Garofalo, an American radio person, as "a famous alumni of Saturday Night Live". That is a pitfall into which we are more likely to fall if we use foreign or dead languages when there are perfectly good English words available. Graduate would have done, and then there would have been no confusion between plural and singular.

Mismatch: Great to have Donald Macintyre's well-informed and well-judged commentary on the state of play in Israel-Palestine on Monday. So it is ungenerous to cavil, but that is what this column does. He quoted, "Hillary Clinton's remark last week that in the end 'this has to be between the Israelis and the Palestinians'." And then wrote: "Actually, it doesn't." It is a nice device, but missed the right note, because Ms Clinton said the peace process "has" to be between the two parties, while he responded that it "does" not. To have and to do fail to match exactly. He could have written, "Actually, it hasn't," but that does not quite work as a colloquial rejoinder. Perhaps it should have been: "Actually, it doesn't have to be."

Barely numerate: How many ministers and officials resigned over the Iraq invasion? According to John Kampfner on Thursday, apart from Robin Cook and Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the answer is "barely a single person". Hm. How many is that? One and a bit, or a bit less than one person?

Guy Keleny returns next week

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