Times, May 27, 2020

Many papers do not seem to have noticed that we are in an era of 24-hour news. In the morning, when there are up-to-the-minute reports available online and on TV, the phrase ‘last night’ sounds like ‘old news’. In any case, if Johnson was struggling with this situation last night, he will still be struggling with it today. Much better to say:

‘Boris Johnson is struggling to contain . . .’




Times, May 25, 2020

This is a common error, but that does not mean we should be happy to get it wrong. 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 word needed here is ‘implied’, meaning to hint or suggest.


i newspaper, May 23, 2020

It’s local paper day in the i. I suppose all subbing rules have gone out of the window now that everyone knows best, but there is usually a good reason for them. In this case, you don’t put the name of the town in the heading because those who are not interested in Norwich, Edinburgh or Chipping Sodbury (which is most readers) will consciously or subconsciously think: ‘That is of no relevance to me’  and move on, saying: ‘This is a really boring paper, nothing in it I want to read.’ If the subs at the i have discarded this rule, I wish them luck.

Let’s look at the lemur story in more detail.

(72 words). It is not the young lemur which is endangered (though it may be if they don’t look after it properly) but the species. I would not say something the size of a tennis ball was tiny (you can leave that to the reader to judge) and why ‘but its birth is crucial’? ‘But’ means something surprising, so are we suggesting that if it were the size of a football its birth would be less crucial? We have said that it is critically endangered, so it is obviously ‘rare’. Frankly, what a team leader has to say is not as interesting as getting in a few more facts.

This is how I would do it, having spent five minutes or less on Google:

Zoo lifeline for
threatened lemurs

A critically endangered species has been given a boost with the birth of a Lake Alaotra gentle lemur at the Wild Place Project in Gloucestershire, part of Bristol Zoo.

The primate is close to extinction in its native Madagascar because of  hunting, destruction of the reed beds on which it feeds and illegal capture for the pet trade – Gerald Durrell described it as a honey-coloured teddy bear – with only 2,500 remaining. (72 words)

By the way, if you want to see how much work the i put into this story, see this press release.




Times, May 22, 2020

When quoting someone you must obviously try to be accurate, but there is such a thing as being ridiculously obsessive. Here we have an unidentified woman who presumably said ‘. . . my son told me he thought the books might be valuable.’ Perhaps to avoid repeating ‘books’ in the quote, the reporter or sub has changed ‘the books’ to [they]. Let us imagine what might have happened if square brackets had not been inserted to show that it was a paraphrase.

Unidentified woman – an apology

On May 22 we reported that a woman who sold a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at auction for £36,300 said: ‘. . . my son told me he thought they might be valuable.’ We are now informed that the woman said: ‘. . . my son told me he thought the books might be valuable.’ We apologise for the error, which was introduced in editing, and for any embarrassment caused.

This kind of thing comes up repeatedly. Use your judgment and if you are keeping the sense of what was said, that’s fine. To be honest I can’t see the point of paraphrasing the quote – that is how people talk, with repetitions.  We should not expect them to be orators.


The Times, May 8, 2020

Here is a good example of someone putting zero thought into a cross-reference and being content with rubbish. A swap means an exchange and it is obviously nonsensical to suggest that shoes could be exchanged for compost. A better word would have been ‘wellies’, perhaps, or ‘gardening clogs’ – something which is the opposite of high heels.


The Times, April 30, 2020

This could have been set as a test paper for aspiring subs. In this case, the candidate failed miserably.

First, it is not clear how many chicks have hatched. The intro says two, but the rest of the copy suggests only one at time of writing. The intro also says ‘this week’ when the first chick is said to have hatched yesterday. You should never waste a yesterday line – ‘this week’ sounds like a local paper.

Second, of course they were unaware that they were being watched – they are birds. This kind of statement of the obvious is juvenile and tiresome.

In the third par, we have ‘hatch’ twice and ‘hatching’ once. One is enough. The second sentence could have been: ‘The whole process takes about 72 hours from pipping, when the shell is breached by the chick within.’

Par 4: ‘the female was laying on the eggs’. This is badly wrong. ‘Laying’ is a present tense form of ‘to lay’, which is a transitive verb, meaning that it is accompanied by an object. Examples would be ‘She is laying the table’ or ‘the bird is laying eggs’. Presumably the word was meant to be ‘lying on the eggs’, a present tense form of the word ‘to lie’. But birds don’t ‘lie’ on their eggs, they ‘sit’ on them.

Par 5: ‘Raise’ means to lift, to gain height, so ‘up’ is redundant.

In the third leg, if you are telling the story of the development of the chick, do it chronologically. Don’t start with it flying, then go back to being newly hatched. I have shown how the pars should be re-arranged.

‘Weigh in’: Jockeys weigh in after a race, and this is the only use for the expression. Babies or chicks weigh a certain amount.

Last par but one: We know the birds have a chick so by definition they are ‘successful’. Another redundant word.

Last par: We have established quite thoroughly that the story is about peregrines, so you don’t need two more repetitions of the name.




This is the weekly column which deals with readers’ criticisms of perceived inaccuracies in the Times. Oddly enough, the readers are often in the wrong. You would expect such an oracle to have a perfect grasp of English.

The Times, April 25, 2020 (I managed to cross out ‘added’ by accident)

‘Bonus’ means added or extra. ‘Added bonus’ is therefore a tautology, or a way of saying the same thing twice, as in ‘razed to the ground’.


i newspaper, April 24, 2020

I wonder how many times a day the word ‘people’ is used? Are we likely to be talking about aliens? Fish? Giraffes? It is obvious that the homes belong to people so you don’t need to say it. You should weigh every word to see if it earns its place.



i newspaper, March 3, 2020 (I think – forgot to note the exact date)

(51 words) I keep saying that shorts are the finest form of subbing. Any clot can tick up 500 words but boiling that down to 50 is an art.

This effort, with its literal and its repetition and its gibberish, is pathetic. How was the shirt recovered? Who wore it? Never mind the replica value, what is the stolen one worth? What is the design that is so terrible?

Obviously this should have been schemed with a picture, as should any story which involves the appearance of something. You can see it here.




Even so, this is how it could be done:

A rare Celtic shirt stolen from the National Football Museum in Manchester last weekend has been posted back anonymously. The Number 10 shirt was worn by Charlie Nicholas in the 1991/2 season and valued at £600. Last year the jagged lightning design featured in ‘the 20 worst ever strips’.

As for the heading, why would anyone say ‘restored’ rather than ‘returned’? I would suggest:


‘Worst’ football shirt
is sent off by thief


The Times, March 10, 2020

Veteran? At 52? I suppose if you are fresh out of university that is how it seems but you need to remember that most readers of newspapers are at least 52 and will not take kindly to being called ‘veteran’. The same applies to ‘elderly’ and any other reminders that we are not as young as we were.