Knowing when to shut up

My ex chief sub, the excellent Kit Davies, sent me this link to an article in The Independent today. It’s a photograph of the moment the tsunami hit a beach in Odaka, Japan. The caption below the picture reads: “Below the waves, you can see the wreckage of an uprooted truck destroyed by the earthquake minutes earlier.”

There are five reader comments below the picture. Two are about the tsunami, and one is about I don’t know what. (“Close enough for government work.”) The other two are complaints about the language in the caption.

John Small comments:

The words “uprooted” and “destroyed” are entirely inappropriate here, trucks don’t get uprooted because they aren’t rooted to the ground in the first place. It would be a pretty useless truck if it were rooted to the ground. And it’s not been destroyed either, it’s been tipped on its side and can be tipped back upright and driven off.

This isn’t a tabloid so cut out the hyperbole and present the plain facts.

I agree with him. In fact, I’d go one further and say that any kind of descriptive language, even if accurate, is unnecessary here. The photo says all that there is to say. The caption should cover what, when and where – just that.

There’s a time and place for descriptive language – and it’s not when the facts say more than words ever can.

I noticed something far worse in this article in the Metro last week, in a story about how Japan is struggling with the vast number of corpses following the earthquake and tsunami. One week on, we’ve grown used to hearing about body bag and coffin shortages, temporary morgues and overwhelmed crematoriums. But when I read this story, it was the first time I’d considered this grisly aspect of the disaster. So the insensitivity of the language struck me doubly.

Crematoriums were overflowing and rescue workers ran out of body bags on Monday, as the country struggled to cope with its worst disaster since World War II.

In the town of Soma, the crematorium was unable to cope with the crush of bodies being brought in for funerals.

Overflowing crematoriums? Crushes of bodies? Surely this kind of language isn’t called for. The facts, in a story such as this, are quite enough.
  • Note for the pedants (ah, that’ll be all of you):
I’ve plumped for crematoriums over crematoria, although initially my instinct was to go with the latter. I did so because of the two style guide entries below, from The Times and the Guardian respectively. I don’t want stadia, conundra or fora, so I guess it’s only fair that I can’t have crematoria either.
The Times:
referendum, plural referendums, as with conundrums, stadiums, forums and most words ending in -um. But note millennia, strata
The Guardian:
Latin Some people object to, say, the use of “decimate” to mean destroy on the grounds that in ancient Rome it meant to kill every 10th man; some of them are also likely to complain about so-called split infinitives, a prejudice that goes back to 19th-century Latin teachers who argued that as you can’t split infinitives in Latin (they are one word) you shouldn’t separate “to” from the verb in English. Others might even get upset about our alleged misuse of grammatical “case” (including cases such as dative and genitive that no longer exist in English).

As our publications are written in English, rather than Latin, do not worry about any of this even slightly.


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