Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Just in time, a word shows up instead

with 14 comments

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Image by marttj via Flickr

More on stringing words together to make a meaningless statement. Look at this headline in today’s Guardian:

Sexual grooming of children far worse than thought, says minister


1. Than who thought?
2. How bad did the unnamed people/person think the sexual grooming was?
3. Just how much worse is it, in fact, than the unnamed people/person erroneously thought?

You can read the article. Answers come there none.

I’ve edited it for them, free of charge:

Extent of sexual grooming in UK unknown, says minister

See also:

Empty words, headless MPs and flowers

The past might be the future – and sophistry


It’s exactly where a thought is lacking
That,  just in time, a word shows up instead.

Goethe (1749-1832)


14 Responses

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  1. This post is much more interesting than previously thought. Who’d have thought it? Oh, that’d be me.

    Lizi Brown

    18/05/2011 at 11:56 am

    • You and many others. It’s thought.


      18/05/2011 at 11:59 am

  2. In Indian newspapers, such headlines are common. I never gave it any thought; considered it normal. I would naturally think it’s us (general public) in ‘who thought’. Now I realize the risks.

    The minister said that the extent of sexual grooming is worse than generally thought. So your correction (extent unknown) too may not capture the meaning fully as the problem “is more widespread than previously recognised”. Your headline may suggest to a newcomer (who will skip the article and only read the headline) that the minister is unsure of the extent or is defending his government’s policies on children, whereas it is clear that the minister is painting a sorry picture.

    PS: I didn’t read every word in the linked Guardian article.

    • Hi, Vikas — thanks for your interesting thoughts on this. Your careful analysis of my alternative suggestion highlights the perils of headline writing. I’ve always admired skilled headline writers; it’s not a craft I’ve ever mastered!


      18/05/2011 at 12:08 pm

  3. In the article, a paragraph states:

    “The profile of domestic child grooming and trafficking was raised in January after the jailing of a gang of Asian men in Derby who had been grooming girls as young as 12 for sex. The same month nine men in Rochdale were arrested under suspicion of rape, inciting child prostitution, allowing a premises to be used for prostitution and sexual activity with a child.”

    Would they put this instead:

    “”The profile of domestic child grooming and trafficking was raised in January after the jailing of a gang of WHITE men in Derby who had been grooming girls as young as 12 for sex.”

    I doubt it. Quite why issues of race are important in cases of abuse is baffling to me. The victims and committers of this crime are people from all races and backgrounds yet this newspaper and others I might add always like to put the word Asian in there.


    18/05/2011 at 6:03 pm

    • That is an excellent point. Thanks very much for making it, Aky.


      18/05/2011 at 6:11 pm

  4. I felt odd pressing a “like” button since the subject of the poorly-worded article is so tragic. I did value your examination of the ambiguity. Sources say you are correct.

    Invisible Mikey

    19/05/2011 at 12:41 am

    • Thanks very much, Mikey

      The ‘like’ button can be strange. I’ve sometimes read things that I valued but somehow the ‘like’ button seemed inappropriate; I know exactly what you mean.

      I’m presuming those are either high-up or trusted sources. Or at the very least, thought to be.


      19/05/2011 at 6:40 am

  5. This thread reminds me of the phrases people use a lot in conversation and frequently in writing: “As they say” or “So they say” or “You know what they say”. When they’re said to me, I often poke fun by asking, “Who’s they?” When they answer “It’s just a figure of speech,” I add insult to injury with, “Seriously, who’s ‘they’?” Maybe that’s why no one sits next to me anymore in the neighborhood bar.

    Don Bates

    19/05/2011 at 4:00 pm

    • How to Win Friends and Influence People is a good book, so they say.

      Seriously, though, mine’s a double. I’ll sit (way) over there.


      Thanks, Don! I’m only kidding (feel free to throw peanuts at me). It’s often interesting, for all sorts of reasons, to consider everyday phrases such as the ones you’ve highlighted. Not only because they can be meaningless, but also because many reinforce often unthinking prejudices and bias. Something I’ve been known to bang on about just very occasionally on days ending in ‘y’.


      19/05/2011 at 6:38 pm

  6. Bad headlines are often the source of some of my best ideas as I try and imagine what the article could be about before I actually click.

    The Good Greatsby

    23/05/2011 at 5:41 am

    • Hi, GG

      Headlines can be very funny — often because they’re written in a hurry and sometimes because the sub is being (appropriately enough) subversive. I like these (real) examples:

      One-armed man applauds kindness of strangers
      Psychics predict world didn’t end yesterday
      17 remain dead in morgue shooting spree
      Missippi’s literacy program shows improvement
      Drunk gets nine months in violin case
      Federal agents raid gun shop, find weapons


      Woman in sumo wrestler suit assaulted her ex-girlfriend in gay pub after she waved at man dressed as Snickers bar

      I know you already (deservedly) have a ton of people bustling around at the Good Greatsby mansion, but I hope lots more people find your very funny and clever blog.


      23/05/2011 at 8:04 am

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