Mea culpa: a problem solved
John Rentoul’s round-up of errors in last week’s Independent
We had this headline on an editorial about the former prime minister’s nomination of his father for a knighthood: “Boris Johnson’s final resignation honours list is indisputably problematic.” What we meant was that it is causing problems – in the first instance for Rishi Sunak, Johnson’s successor, who has to approve the nominations.
“Problematic” is on the Banned List because it is often used as a way of saying something is bad without saying why. We could
have said the list was “indisputably tawdry”, or something like that. Tawdry is a good word, full of meaning, unlike the prim committee-speak of “problematic”. Tawdry: showy but cheap and of poor quality; a contraction of St Audrey’s lace, cheap finery sold at St Audrey’s fair in Ely.
Inconsiderate: We had a striking case of word order causing ambiguity in this news story: “Rishi Sunak’s proposals to deport asylum seekers who arrive on small boats without considering their claims are a ‘clear breach’ of international law, the UN Refugee Agency has said.” We solved it by deleting “who arrive on small boats”, which was unnecessary, and in any case was made clear later. The idea that asylum seekers might be penalised for failing to think through their claims sounds like something by Joseph Heller.
Not waiving: Elsewhere on the same subject, we reported that Emmanuel Macron, the French president, had disagreed with Sunak, and that “sources made clear Mr Macron had not waivered in his position”. That was changed to “wavered”, which means “showed indecision”, whereas waiver is a legal term that means to give up (a right).
Up to many: The opening words of a report of the Hamburg shooting said: “At least several people died... ”. It may be that this originally specified a number and was changed in haste. These things happen, especially with a breaking news story. At least a few readers wrote in to point it out, though, including Richard Thomas, who said it “could win the Rentoul Prize for the most meaningless wording of the year”. I rather like the idea of the Oscars of Pedantry.
Flying clergy: In a caption beneath a picture of a brave person who waved the flag of Europe at a protest against a law to suppress “foreign influence” in Georgia, we said: “A woman brandishing an EU flag was hit by a water canon.” I had a brief vision of a wet church person barging into her, but I don’t think they have canons in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Water cannons and other such artillery have an extra “n”. The two different words were both spelt “canon” until about 1800, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
At most a few: A “World news in brief” headline struck Professor Richard Lewis, one of our readers, as odd. It said: “Clean air breathed in by less than 1 per cent of the world.” This wasn’t wrong, but what the report actually said was: “Only 0.001 per cent of the world’s population breathes air considered acceptable.” That is indeed less than 1 per cent, but a more informative headline might have said: “Clean air breathed in by only 1 in 100,000 people in the world.”
Also, you do have to wonder how useful a measure of “acceptability” the World Health Organisation’s guidelines are if nearly everyone in the world breathes “poor quality” air.
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