Mea Culpa: the famously subtle art of insulting the reader

Usage, style and ‘may’ versus ‘might’ in this week’s Independent

John Rentoul
Friday 16 March 2018 13:26 GMT
The ‘famous’ Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in Britain. Photo: Getty
The ‘famous’ Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in Britain. Photo: Getty (Getty)

We used the word “famously” several times this week. I am not a dictatorial prescriptivist, so I wouldn’t say we should never use it. In an article about Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in Britain, for example, we said she featured in a film about Albert Pierrepoint, the hangman. “More famously,” we said, “Miranda Richardson portrayed Ruth Ellis in Mike Newell’s moving Dance with a Stranger.”

There we were comparing different portrayals of her in an article about the public interest in her case, so the relative fame of each one was relevant.

In most cases, however, we should have simply deleted the word. “As Margaret Mead famously said…”; “Hawking was famously possessed of a sharp wit”; and even, in another article about Ruth Ellis, “She was, famously, the last woman to suffer the death penalty in Britain.”

If the reader knows who Ruth Ellis was, or that Stephen Hawking was funny, or has heard of the Margaret Mead quotation, describing them as famous adds nothing. And if the reader hasn’t heard of them, describing them as famous also adds nothing, except a subtle insult. I am biased because I hadn’t heard of Mead’s supposedly famous words: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

But don’t tell me they are famous: let them stand on their own merits, and I will decide whether they deserve to be.

Sense and sensibility: A comment article this week sought to make the interesting case that not everything about Donald Trump’s presidency is terrible. It argued that the US Constitution is designed to restrain rash and impulsive presidents: “The political system is wired towards something which at least slightly resembles sensibility.”

Sensibility was not the right word here. It means the ability to appreciate complex emotions or art, although I doubt if we would need it if Jane Austen hadn’t put it in a title. It is basically a posh form of “sensitivity”.

We meant “sense” or “common sense”. Thank you to Julian Self for pointing it out.

Not the final score: In a report of the Six Nations rugby last weekend we said: “Owen Farrell’s team kept attacking to the final whistle, and may even have nicked a victory in added time.” As Paul Edwards wrote to say, this could be read to mean that we don’t know how the match ended.

The “may” is the present tense, suggesting the possibility that victory had indeed been nicked, but that the author doesn’t know. It would be better to use “might”, the past tense, meaning that it was a possibility once, but, as we could tell from the score at the top of the article, it didn’t happen.

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