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No newspaper garden is free of weeds

mumbai Updated: Apr 17, 2011 02:35 IST
Sumana Ramanan
Sumana Ramanan
Hindustan Times
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A newspaper trying to prevent errors from cropping up on its pages is like a gardener defending a flowerbed against weeds. Both are waging daily battles, at the end of which they can hope for partial success at best: I am yet to come across an error-free newspaper or a garden with no weeds.

But in order at least to rein in the number of errors, a newspaper must strive for a perfect result by fostering a culture of zero-tolerance for mistakes. For just as weeds can gradually strangle a garden if they begin multiplying, errors can erode a newspaper's reputation if they start proliferating.

Moreover, a newspaper should quickly own up to and correct the errors and inaccuracies that it does not manage to keep at bay.

HT, for instance, has a clear policy on errors. It has a daily Corrections and Clarifications section on its city news pages, in which it publishes corrections to all errors that are brought to its notice, whether from the inside, by staff members, or from the outside, by readers. Part of my job as the newspaper's Readers' Editor is to ensure that the newspaper does this accurately and promptly.

But the Corrections and Clarifications section mostly restricts itself to errors of fact, which are the most serious kind because they pose a threat to the newspaper's credibility; the section does not deal with grammatical mistakes, which in an ideal world should also be monitored but are, in my opinion, less grave than the first variety. Perhaps this is why, in my nearly three years as Readers' Editor, I have never written about matters grammatical.

Nevertheless, I can say now that the HT does have readers who notice them and find them jarring. These errors are the equivalent of mild weed varieties, which may not strangle the flowerbed but give it an unkempt appearance.

Earlier this year, an HT reader, N Kameswaran, for instance, wrote about a grammatical error in one of our headlines, 'Pilot takes ill…', above a story about the commander of an Oman Air flight falling sick on board.

"I get the impression that the English language has undergone a change of which I may not be aware…" he said, a touch sarcastically. "According to the Oxford dictionary, the usage is 'Pilot was taken ill'."

He is absolutely right. The correct usage is 'to be taken ill with something' if you want to say that someone is feeling unwell. The phrase 'to take something ill' sounds similar but it means something quite different: to resent something that was done or said.

While I am on the point of grammatical errors, let me point out one here that keeps rearing its ungainly head in HT: the word 'lesser.' I have seen sentences in which the word is used to mean 'less', such as in 'My father has lesser patience than my mother.' It should actually be 'My father has less patience than my mother.'

'Less' is the comparative term for 'a little', just as 'more' is for 'a lot.' 'Lesser' is used in very narrow, idiomatic contexts to mean 'of a lower calibre' such as in 'Lesser mortals would have crumbled under the pressure; not Tendulkar.'

Then, I have also seen 'less' used wrongly, usually when just 'little' is meant or when 'fewer' should be used.

So you get sentences such as 'Gita had very less money' even though Gita is not being compared with anyone and what is meant simply is that 'Gita had very little money.' I also sometimes see sentences such as 'HT has less mistakes than other newspapers' instead of 'HT has fewer mistakes than other newspapers.'

When you can count something, 'fewer' is the word to use. "Less refers to quantity, fewer to number," explains EB White in The Elements of Style.

For those who have lasted to the end of this hair-splitting exercise, let me clarify that I found only a grammatical error in the last sentence. About the facts, I leave you to decide.