Mea Culpa: problem in the cliche-writing community
Questions of style and usage in this week’s Independent
We are generally good at avoiding needless uses of the muffle-word “community”. This week, for example, we did not use the phrase “community leaders” once. We may have referred to “communities” in Sicily threatened by a possible eruption of Mount Etna, when “towns and villages” might have been better. And we cannot avoid using the word when it is part of the title of a government department, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, however redundant it might be.
However, we did use it in an editorial about climate change, in a way that illustrates the danger of using such a vague feel-good term. We wrote: “‘Balance’ does not mean that some jokey journalist or unqualified politician with a dismissive line about polar bears or a heavy night of snow should be granted the same weight and credibility as almost the entire scientific community.”
Quite right, but I think “community” is the wrong word here, because it suggests the opposite of how scientists are supposed to work, which is that they disagree, challenge each others’ findings, and put their hypotheses to the test. By using the word we are playing into the hands of those who see the science of climate change as a fraud perpetrated by a group of like-minded people bound together by an ecological ideology.
It would have been better to say something like “...almost all scientists.”
Everyday cliche: “Basis” is another of those words that ought to make any writer stop and ask themselves what they mean. We use it a lot in business reporting. This week, for example, we said “retail sales fell by 0.2 per cent on a like-for-like basis compared to the same month in 2017”. That could have been “like-for-like retail sales fell by 0.2 per cent”.
We also wrote about primary school children in Britain, whose lunch menus are “offering processed red meat on a regular basis”. That could have been “regularly”, but we probably also meant “often”, in which case something like “on most days” might have been better.
Then we had a prosecutor in Naples, who “receives reports of crimes by groups of underage children on a daily basis”, and MPs worried about a shocking amount of water “lost through leakage on a daily basis”. In those cases we could have said “every day”.
Astrophysics: We avoided the hackneyed “black hole” in our reporting of the problems of Patisserie Valerie, one of my favourite shops, this week. We said the company could be forced to stop trading “after reporting a multi-million pound hole in its accounts on Wednesday”.
A black hole is a point so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape, but it has become so worn as a metaphor that it is now often used to mean a company or a government having less money than expected. A simple “hole” was all we needed. Congratulations all round.
But then, later in the report we wrote: “The black hole in its finances could cost the company more than £20m…” Oh, well.
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