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Andrew Marr starts the week badly

Start the Week this morning was chaired by Andrew Marr. It was about the increasing importance of India. Marr, after announcing the speakers, introduced the subject by saying: "This rise of India is jolly good news for we Brits [sic]." I've come to expect this kind of thing from reporters on the BBC, but not from a journalist of Marr's eminence.

Comparative sentences with parts that don't match

I see this quite a lot, especially in American articles. Here is the latest, from the BMJ. It's in today's issue, in a leader titled "Time to question the NHS diabetes prevention programme". The sentence in question reads as follows.

Using HbA1c to identify non-diabetic hyperglycaemia defines twice as many people as "prediabetic" than does the gold standard but impractical glucose tolerance test.

If you have "as" in the first part of a comparison you must continue with "as" in the second part; you can't have "than". So the sentence should have read "defines twice as many people as "prediabetic" as does the gold standard ..."

Admittedly the revised version is ugly, with "as" repeated three times. The author could have avoided that by restructuring the sentence, perhaps like this: "Using HbA1c to identify "prediabetes" results in too many false positives compared with the gold standard but impractical oral glucose tolerance test, which finds only half as many cases."

Heard on the BBC

Yesterday I happened to hear the last instalment of Radio4's adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. One of the characters said, "You go this way and I'll go that way. That way, he won't be able to get away."

I don't know how any one could write that in any format, let alone in a play that was to be broadcast on sound radio. Talk about a tin ear.

"Towing" the line or "toeing" it?

Like a lot of people, I'm an addict to the Danish TV drama The Killing. In a recent episode there was a subtitle reading "towing the line". I've no idea if there is an equivalent idiom in Danish, but in English this is not a nautical metaphor, as one might expect from "towing". It should be "toeing" the line, because it comes from boxing. When boxing was being established as a sport in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a line would be drawn in the sand which the combatants had to come up to in order to be able to continue the contest. Hence "toeing the line" meant being in a fit mental and physical state to continue fighting.

Nice mixed metaphor from the Defence Secretary

Defending the Government's latest position reversal (this time on the choice of aircraft for the new carriers) the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, said that being prepared to change your mind when conditions changed was better than "burying your head in the sand and ploughing on regardless". Because you wouldn't be able to see where you were ploughing, I suppose.

This is SO annoying

Quite recently there has developed a habit of prefixing answers with an illogical and gratuitous "So". Listen to almost any interview on the radio to hear some examples.

Q. Why is it that we hear so many reports of whales beaching themselves these days?
A. So there are various theories about this but no one really knows.

"So" imples a consequence of some kind. "Whales beach themselves so we are trying to find out why." But it is actually quite difficult to think of a question to which it would be logical to give an answer starting with "So". In fact, offhand I can't think of one. The best I can come up with is something like:

Q. Why did you steal a million pounds from the bank?
A. So that I could have a nice holiday in the Bahamas.

But this use of "So" is different from the one I am referring to here.

In this new and annoying usage, "so" is really a meaningless interjection, which is in some ways equivalent to the longer-established habit of starting with "Well". Yet it is curiously addictive; more and more people are doing it, and I have an awful feeling that I shall soon catch myself falling into the habit as well. So I shall try hard to avoid it.

Paragraphs again

I've grumbled here more than once about a tendency to write text without paragraphs. This seems to happen on the Internet quite a lot but it is spilling over into other writing as well. An example in today's Independent: Rhodri Marsden's "Cyberclinic" has a piece containing 105 lines without a paragraph break. Perhaps this is has something to do with the fact that Marsden is the paper's computer correspondent, but anyway, it means that his piece will remain unread so far as I am concerned.

Homeopathy in the NHS

The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons concluded in February that homeopathy is a placebo treatment that should no longer be provided by the NHS, mainly because it entailed deception of patients which could do damage to the doctor-patient relationship. In its official response, published on 26 July, the government said: "... we do not believe that this risk amounts to a risk to patient trust, nor do we believe that the risk is sufficient enough for the Department to take the unusual step of removing PCTs' flexibility to make their own decisions."

Whatever one may think about the government's view (which seems to me to be a first-class example of buck-passing), "sufficient enough" is an absurd pleonasm.

Misuse of "than"

The American usage "different than" always jars on my ear but that isn't what I'm writing about here. I don't know what to call the error I'm describing so I'll give an example from today's Independent. It comes from a piece on falling fish stocks by Steve Connor.
... fishing fleets have to work 17 times as hard to catch a given amount of fish than the largely sail-powered vessels of the late-19th century.

"Than" should have been "as", since the sentence expresses a comparison. Alternatively, Connor could have said: "... 17 times harder to catch a given amount of fish than ...". But he seems to have blended the two to make a locution that doesn't work.

I've come across this mistaken usage a number of times recently. It seems to be infectious.

"Mitigate against"

The BBC news this morning perpetrated the increasingly common misuse of "mitigate". In an item on the clarification of the law on assisted suicide we were told that the Director of Public Prosecutions would provide guidance on "what factors might mitigate against someone being prosecuted".

To mitigate is to lessen the severity of something, such as a threat. But you don't "mitigate against" anything. Probably what was meant was "militate against", which would at least be grammatical though perhaps not a good choice of words in this case. I don't know what I'd do if I were a BBC news reader and found myself expected to read out this kind of stuff.

Home Secretary's linguistic howlers

On Today this morning the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, used the expression "what it means to you and I" and several times mentioned "reticence" when what he meant was "reluctance" or "unwillingness". (Admittedly, the interviewer, Evan Davis, also misused "reticence" but that's no excuse.) I suppose we should be grateful that Johnson is no longer Secretary of State for Education and Skills, but even so ...