The Times letters, July 31, 2018

Whether the letter writer got it right or wrong, this should be ‘forebear’. From Style Matters:

fore/for: The prefix ‘fore’ means ‘ahead of’ or ‘in front of’. It might be helpful to remember that golfers shout ‘Fore’ when striking a ball. Thus ‘forebear’ means an ancestor. The prefix ‘for’ may indicate prohibition or abstention, thus ‘forbear’ means to abstain, as in ‘he forbore to comment’. Similarly, ‘forego’ means to go in front of, while ‘forgo’ means to do without.


The Times, July 25, 2018

Here is one of those absurd captions that come up with amusing regularity. You can rule out the two ladies as being Lord Wade, and you can assume that Times readers can identify the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, so you don’t need to point out that Lord Wade is the remaining figure. The smallest amount of thought would have made this obvious.


Leighanne added: ‘I asked if they could move him temporarily into another class so he is away from the people involved but they poo pooed the idea.

Mail Online, July 17, 2018

Sometimes I just can’t resist Mail Online. ‘Poo’, as very nearly everyone knows, is a childish word for excrement. The expression for dismissing an idea is ‘pooh-pooh’.


The Times, July 17, 2018

Even the compilers of Times crosswords can no longer be relied upon to understand English. The clue for 8 across is ‘Imply, no fire’ and the answer (as you can see from the puzzle completed by my husband) is ‘inferno’ (‘imply’ = ‘infer’ + no, thus ‘fire’). But imply and infer are not synonyms. To imply is to hint or suggest, as in ‘he implied that the man was of questionable honesty’. To infer is to deduce from the evidence, as in ‘he inferred from the state of the body that the victim had been dead for weeks’.



The Times, July 7, 2018

This is quite instructive. ‘The firing line’ is the squad which carries out an execution. If you are the target, you are ‘in the line of fire’. In other words the phrases have opposite meanings.

The Times’s own style guide agrees with these definitions. Then it adds: ‘In common usage, the strict sense of firing line is almost never needed and the distinction is now quite lost; there seems little reason to object.’

To which I would say: (1) Presumably the Times will never again carry a story which mentions firing squad executions past or present, or if it does, it will be quite happy to mix up the terms; (2) By whose reckoning is the distinction ‘now quite lost’? Not mine; not that of many readers of the Times who expect (forlornly) to see accurate use of English; (3) The two expressions are of almost identical length: by my calculations the first is the equivalent of 12 characters and the second is 13, so you can’t claim you need one or the other to make a headline fit.

I find this acceptance of completely wrong usages very depressing. In my time I have been accused of being a pedant for wanting to use the right word or even the right spelling. For the Times to condone incorrect usage shows just how far  standards have sunk.

This is further illustrated in an internal memo from Times assistant editor Ian Brunskill. Dealing with the ‘line of fire’ topic, he remarks that ‘our critics would insist’ on the right usage. How tiresome of them! To insist! Who do they think they are?

He goes on to a really thorny matter: ‘begging the question’. This is very widely misused. This is my entry in Style Matters:

begging the question: This is also known as a circular argument, involving making a firm conclusion on the basis of an arguable proposition. For example: ‘Why did God make parasitic worms?’ This begs (or avoids) the question of whether God exists. This is obviously a very specific usage, and suffice it to say that 99 times out of a hundred the writer actually means to say ‘this raises/leads to the question . . .’

Mr Brunskill writes: ‘We used beg the question when ask or raise the question was all we meant, infuriating a reader who urged us to resist “an ignorant, tiresome misuse of an expression which has its own, different meaning”.  He almost had a point.  The style guide acknowledges that the specialised meaning of the term “seems worth preserving”.  However, as with line of fire,  a national newspaper will rarely have occasion to use beg the question in a strict or technical sense (to describe in logic an informal fallacy whereby an argument assumes its own conclusion).  So we may as well use it as most other people do, if we have to use it at all.’

So he knows better than his own paper’s style guide. One therefore wonders what the point of it is. It is obvious that Brunskill regards the ‘infuriated’ reader who ‘almost had a point’ as an old buffer. No doubt we can look forward to the complete abandonment of any attempt at correct use of English. Oh, wait a bit – it’s already happening.




The Times, July 10, 2018

This is a good example of how to kill a story. You have got to make the reader think it is worth continuing, not give it all away in the first line. Given that you have pictures, I would do it like this:

This is the dramatic moment when a gunman opened fire on a woman driver at point-blank range.

If I had been subbing this I would have wanted to know who took the video and why it has taken nearly two months to release it. I would also not have used the expression ‘dark-skinned black man’, which sounds silly, and you don’t need to put 5ft 8in ‘tall’. This is the way to do a description:

Police said the attacker was black, about 5ft 8in and of medium build.

A balaclava by definition covers part of the face. If it didn’t, it would not be a balaclava.


The Times, July 3, 2018

What does the word ‘rescue’ mean to the average English speaker? Does it mean ‘bringing to safety’ or ‘finding someone who may continue to be stuck in a perilous situation for an indefinite time’ as the story clearly says? I cannot understand how a headline on the front page of the Times can show such a lack of comprehension of the language. It should say ‘Found’ rather than ‘rescued’.


i newspaper, June 30, 2018

(44 words) A requirement of subbing is that you give at least a cursory consideration of the words you are sending from your screen, even it means looking away from social media or card games for a moment. ‘Under the hammer’ is not only a cliche which I must have seen 10,000 times in stories about auctions, but when you are dealing with something fragile such as a sculpture it conjures up an obvious silly image.

This could have said ‘when it is auctioned’ and ‘series of sales’.

It would also have been more interesting to say that the work had just re-emerged after being forgotten for 200 years than giving the tedious name of the series of sales.

And what does that headline mean? Anything at all?

This is how I would have done it:

Forgotten but
still worth £1m

A sculpture last seen in public 200 years ago is expected to fetch £1million when it is auctioned at Sotheby’s in London on Wednesday. Antonio Canova carved Bust of Peace for his British patron Lord Cawdor but its origin was forgotten as it passed down the family. (47 words)