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10 April 2012

Native-speakers misusing English #1: Tom Cary in the Daily Telegraph

The Daily Telegraph Formula 1 correspondent ought to give Russians struggling with English hope: he can’t write properly either.
     In this morning’s paper, Mr Tom Cary has a piece which opens with a sentence that will be widely misunderstood. The story concerns the reluctance of Formula 1 teams to visit Bahrain for the forthcoming Grand Prix because they think they will not be physically safe there, given the current political unrest. Mr Cary writes:
The castle where the grammatical buck ought to stop
as far as the Daily Telegraph is concerned.
The proprietors are probably too busy enjoying the view.
“Formula One’s teams began the long trip to China yesterday ahead of Sunday’s third race of the season, but the sport’s attention remained centred almost exclusively on next weekend with some outfits now briefing off the record that they would prefer not to travel to Bahrain.”
     If the teams are going to China for “Sunday’s” race, how can they be considering going to Bahrain “next weekend”, a time which many people would assume includes Sunday? Is this coming Sunday not “next Sunday”? It is true that some British people use “this” weekend when they are referring to the one before “next” weekend, to the confusion of (amongst others) the many Russians who have asked me about this over the years. But amongst the sort of international audience which the Telegraph aspires to, this is likely to be misunderstood. Since Mr Cary's dateline for the earlier piece quoted below was Kuala Lumpur, he ought to have been conscious of foreigners. Why did he not say, “the following weekend”, which would have been clear to everybody?
     This is an example of the common English problem of insiderish language, as if London journalists are all writing for each other, rather than for the whole English-reading world. The same impression comes across when Cary calls the teams “outfits”, which is matey, saloon-bar English. Does the bulk of the Telegraph’s audience understand that word in that context?
     And why note that the teams are “briefing off the record”, as if they were politicians? “Saying quietly” would have sounded less contrived, though it is true that would not have conveyed the impression that Mr Cary has some sort of “inside track”. Self-advertisement is the enemy of good journalism.
     Finally a smaller point, more of style than comprehensibility, is that when Cary says the teams “would prefer not to travel to Bahrain”, he surely means they would prefer not to “visit” Bahrain, or race there. The journey is not the problem; it is the place which worries them.
     This is sloppy writing. But not quite so sloppy as the opening sentence in his linked piece, dated 25 March, about contract negotiations for next year. I defy anyone, native speaker or non-native speaker, to read it through once only and infer the correct meaning:
“Mercedes are the only remaining manufacturer-backed team yet to reach any sort of agreement with Bernie Ecclestone, with negotiations becoming increasingly discordant.”
     To begin with, two misused words. First, “team” is a singular noun and “are” is a plural verb. Perhaps Mr Cary think “Mercedes” plural, which presumably means that you can have a single “Mercede”. Secondly, “discordant” means out of tune, and implies a lack of harmony where there should be harmony, which is not usual in fierce contract negotiations. But the larger problem is that there are so many words strewn round this sentence, like discarded crisp packets, that you have to read the next couple of paragraphs before it becomes clear what the writer was trying to say. It was not actually very complicated. A fair copy might read:
“Mercedes is the only manufacturer-based team which has not yet reached agreement with Bernie Ecclestone, and the negotiations are becoming increasingly difficult.”
     When a London newspaper that espouses traditional values employs correspondents who cannot write traditional English, it is either sad or a sign that the publication has fallen into the clutches of anti-social Scottish millionaire property developers—which the Telegraph has, in the shape of the weird Barclay twins, who live reclusively in a huge castle on a tiny island off Sark, a fascinating British dependency in the Channel Islands. (see picture) They have probably sacked all their sub-editors, thinking them as much a waste of money as it was employing literate motoring correspondents. The result is that the Telegraph has become increasingly unreadable.

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