Voices

Mea Culpa: please delete the pointless expletives – and I don’t mean the swear words

John Rentoul’s regular roundup of our errors and omissions

Richard Nixon was forced to publish transcripts of White House tapes in 1974, with profanities replaced with ‘expletive deleted’

We used the expletive “when it comes to” 33 times this week. I had not realised that an “expletive” originally meant any unnecessary word or phrase used to fill out a sentence. It comes from the Latin ex-, out, and plere, fill, and came to mean a swear word only in the 19th century.

“When it comes to” can often be shortened to “When”. One of our uses this week, for example, was this opening sentence: “When it comes to booking a business class ticket for a long-haul flight, there’s more to consider than just the price.” Nothing would have been lost by writing, “When booking…”

Sometimes the redundant phrase, which tends to take the life out of any sentence, can be deleted altogether. In a comment article we asked if President Trump would last a full term. “While many experts and insiders have opinions on the matter, when it comes to forecasting future events, betting and prediction markets have been shown to be rather more reliable.”

I am not sure whether this is true, but either way we could have deleted the entire clause in commas. You don’t usually forecast past events in any case.

Other fillers-out: Other common expletives are “the fact that”, which appeared in The Independent 61 times this week, and “in terms of” (39 times). In one case, we said the fall in the price of solar and wind power “has provided a truly enormous benefit in terms of the welfare of millions of people”. Nothing wrong here with providing a “benefit to the welfare of millions”, and I doubt if we really needed “the welfare of” either. Let us, like Richard Nixon’s White House, delete the expletives.

Issue-itis: We reported the views of a partner in a law firm that had carried out a pay survey this week. We summed up his view as being that “businesses were in future likely to come under increased pressure to address issues around gender pay gaps”. These may have been the words he used, although we didn’t put them in quotation marks. But “addressing issues around” something is jargon – and abstract, dulling-to-the-senses jargon at that. Almost anything would be better. “Deal with the problem of...” would at least have been straightforward. Plus we didn’t need “in future”, as usual. Given that we were paraphrasing someone, rather than quoting him directly, we were allowed to express his view in a more reader-friendly way.

Yesterday’s metaphor: In an obituary of Sue Grafton, who wrote those alphabet murder mysteries and who had got as far as Y is for Yesterday, we wrote that she “has died aged 77 after a two-year battle with cancer…”

Our style is to avoid using fighting metaphors for fatal illnesses, because they imply that, if only the sufferer had fought harder, they might have survived for longer. We should have written something like “... two years after being diagnosed with cancer.”