A new selection of howlers

Some more evidence of national decline, including valued contributions by (among others) Peter Harvey and Louise Barder:  

"Many middle-class families are struck by financial catastrophy, be it a collapsed pension, a sick relative or a daughter with a vocation for the stage." [Guardian, 9 Feb 07]

“Maybe she was naive to expect the truth. Four years after being killed by an American pilot, Mandy Hull has still to discover why her son was shot by US forces one morning in Iraq.” 
[Observer, 4 Feb 2007 : (“Why won’t the US tell us how Matty died?” by Mark Townsend)]

Mr Blair told his audience: "In politics at the top you get used to the periodic storms and I don't for a moment, incidentally, underestimate the volume of this one and whilst you and perhaps more accurately me are in the eye of it.   
"It can be hard to stay calm as it rages, but however buffeted, it should not change our course or our confidence." [BBC report, 3 Feb 2007]
See Peter Harvey's comment on this one (spotted by him) here.

"The US media is gripped by election fever (Heading)  
The mainstream media dances dutifully… "
[Gary Younge, Guardian 5.ii.07]
("Media… is the plural of medium but is sometimes used in the singular when it refers to the communication media: press, radio, TV; this usage is not generally accepted."  Peter Harvey, A Guide to English Language Usage for non-native speakers.  "When in doubt, use the plural."  Robert Burchfield, Fowler, third ed.)

"Perhaps, though, Mr Haw is a symbol of how the country feels: wanting to give a great roar of inchoate rage in the direction of all politicians."
[Simon Hoggart, Guardian, 10 Feb 07]
(OED: 'Inchoate: Just begun, incipient; in an initial or early stage; hence elementary, imperfect, undeveloped, immature. [Often regarded as unetymologically developed through confusion with CHAOTIC a.]'  With great respect to the OED, however, I suspect (with Robert Burchfield's third edition of Fowler's MEU) that the confusion is more often with 'incoherent' — right, Mr Hoggart?  What would your ("Uses of Literacy") father have said, eh?

"A brave teenager played for his junior football team just minutes after learning his father had died and won the man-of-the match award."
and —
"Eight people who fraudulently used disabled parking badges have been shamed after being hauled before court following an undercover string operation."
[Quoted as howlers by Riazat Butt in the Northerner, Guardian Unlimited's weekly digest of the best of the northern press, 30 March 06]


There are plenty of much worse perversions of our thick-skinned language in other branches of the print media besides the Guardian and the Observer:  it's just that we expect better of them.  Well, I do, anyway.


4 Responses

  1. John Miles says:


    Normally a plural I agree, but how about agenda, incunabula or propaganda?

    "The media is a modern phenomenon," "The media are modern phenomena," or would you chicken out with something like "The power of the media is a modern phenomenon"?


    You're a bit rough on Simon Hoggart.

    It does indeed come from a Latin word meaning "started." The Latin word is actually "incohatus;" I've no idea why the 'h' got itself transposed, but it makes our derivative seem somehow much more lurid.

    "Chaotic" is clearly an etymological error, but time and usage are great sanctifiers; the Shorter OED (two volume edition) gives both meanings, and there are lots of now respectable words in lots of languages which were born on the wrong side of the etymological blanket.

    Eye of the storm.

    I've always thought this was a little patch of calm in the very centre of a tropical revolving storm round which the winds rotate – anti-clockwise in the northern hemisphere and all that – and where the glass is steady at rock bottom.

    When you see satellite pictures of hurricanes or typhoons on the box there normally seems to be a bit of a clearance in their middles.

    I've never been in the eye of a storm, so I don't know what happens in actual practice.

    Is there really a little oasis of calm there? How big is it? How fast does it move?

    Or is this just another urban myth?

    Anyone out there know the answer?

    Brian writes:  John, you're quite right (anyway by implication) about the curious pair of forms of the Latin verb from which inchoate is derived: that 'h' got itself transposed in the Latin, evidently.  From the OED (complete online edition) on the respective etymologies:
    inchoate:  [ad. L. inchoat-us (more correctly incohatus), pa. pple. of inchoare (more correctly incohare) to begin.]
    Chaos: [a. L. chaos, a. Gr. chaos:  ‘any vast gulf or chasm, the nether abyss, empty space, the first state of the universe’, f. vb.-stem – to yawn, gape.]
    [a. F. cohérent, ad. L. cohærnt-em, pr. pple. of cohærre to COHERE.]
    I'm afraid that almost all of those who use 'inchoate' as if it's synonymous with 'chaotic' think they are being very sophisticated to use such an obscure form of the word, when in fact they are being both ignorant and pretentious. (Compare the many people, including some on the Web, who think that 'discrete' is a smart form of 'discreet'.) Sorry if that's too hard on Mr Hoggart jnr.  The fact that some dictionaries are beginning to include 'chaotic, incoherent' as a second sense of 'inchoate' — often pointing out the etymological confusion involved — is merely evidence that there are a lot of pretentious ignoramuses out there, not that the error is acceptable usage (yet).  Dictionaries describe, they don't (generally) prescribe. Incidentally, I take it that your 'inchohate' is just a typo.

    I see no problem with "The media are a modern phenomenon."   Neither of your alternatives sounds quite right, to me anyway. See the authorities (Harvey, Burchfield) quoted in my post.

    We could all write a book about singular or plural verbs after 'agenda'.  'Data' is far from straightforward, too.  I reckon that 'propaganda' should always be treated as a singular noun in modern English.    Incunabula?  Pass! Peter?

  2. John,

    The Eye of the Storm.
     Wiki may help here


  3. John Miles says:

    According to today's Independent Mr Blair, speaking at the Labour National Youth Conferencea in Glasgow, said: "This tragedy (presumably the three shootings over the last fortnight or so) is not a metaphor for the state of British society, still less for the state of British youth today …"

    What on earth is that supposed to mean?

    Brian writes:  I'm not sure what this has to do with the subject of this thread.  Let's try to keep roughly on message, shall we? 

    John replied:  Sorry sir, but I thought we were talking about the way our beautiful language is so often so brutally misused – "more evidence of national decline," and so on.

    Brian responded:  We are talking here about specific words and phrases being misused, not about perfectly correct language having or not having any particular meaning. 

  4. John Miles says:

    Thank you ,Tony, for your Wiki-steer.

    I found it very interesting and llluminating.