Mea Culpa: Above and beyond the proverbial call of duty

Style glitches and a misplaced reverence for experts in this week’s Independent

John Rentoul
Friday 15 July 2016 13:54 BST
Prima Europe tabula. A copy of Ptolemy’s 2nd-century map of Roman Britain
Prima Europe tabula. A copy of Ptolemy’s 2nd-century map of Roman Britain

We had a “proverbial pond” in a comment article last Friday. It was about “voluntourists” who go to war zones to help with aid efforts. The author criticised a book about travels in the Democratic Republic of Congo, saying it “isn’t the only time a hapless westerner courted danger across the proverbial pond”.

I don’t know any proverbs about ponds. If we were using “proverbial” to mean “idiomatic”, the phrase “across the pond” usually refers to America, across the Atlantic. But here we were talking about Africa and “orientalist ventures” including in China, so the pond might just mean the sea around the British Isles. In which case, we needed a better synonym for “overseas”.

Expertese: Michael Gove didn’t quite say that “the people of this country have had enough of experts” – the rest of his sentence was “from institutions with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong” (he was referring to the OECD and the IMF and their views on the euro). But we at The Independent certainly haven’t had enough of experts. They keep appearing on our pages as disembodied sources of authority.

On Thursday, for example, we reported that the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change had been condemned by “politicians, campaigners and experts”.

We quoted Ed Miliband, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, but the closest to an “expert” was an environmental economist from the New Economics Foundation. I’m sure he knows a lot about environmental economics, but the subject is essentially political, so it is better not to imply that there is an impartial scientific consensus on the best arrangement of Whitehall brass plates to deal with climate change.

Above and beyond: A prime minister needs to be a good butcher, we noted in an editorial on Thursday. “If so, then Theresa May has demonstrated a preternatural skill with the cleaver.” Preternatural, from the Latin praeter, “past, beyond”, means unnatural, with a slight implication of the supernatural. It is one of those words that comes up editorials and the grander commentaries. I find it distracting. “Outstanding” would have done fine.

Court case: We ran a headline on Thursday: “Labour donor to legally challenge Jeremy Corbyn’s ballot ruling.” Yes, it was a split infinitive, but that wasn’t the problem with it. I am relaxed about split infinitives that sound like natural speech, but this doesn’t. Nor could it be unsplit easily: “legally to challenge” or “to challenge legally”. We needed to start again. What we meant was: “Labour donor to go to court over Jeremy Corbyn’s ballot ruling.”

I should say that the offending headline was the short one on the front page of the website. The fuller headline on the story page once you had clicked on it was “Labour leadership election: Major party donor mounts legal action against Jeremy Corbyn ruling”, which was fine. Sometimes infelicities creep in when headlines are rewritten for the shorter space on the front page.

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