Rhubub, Shephards Pie and why journalists are rubbish at sums


Following my rant about the illiterate racist (see previous blog), I had a more gentle laugh at some comical mis-spellings I saw recently. A local farm shop is currently selling “rhubub” while a greasy-spoon café down the road has “Shepards Pie” among its gourmet dishes. Meanwhile, a little old lady round the corner earns some pocket money selling plants on a stall outside her house, including those popular herbs “corinder” and “basel”.

Mind you, it doesn’t pay to be too up-yourself about such things. On the LinkedIn writers’ forum there are a lot of what one contributor termed “pedants, contrarians and grammarians”, who make it their business to contradict even the most apparently well-argued remarks, citing high-brow academic sources on the subject of grammar and making the rest of us feel rather foolish and unscholarly.

Furthermore, those who have a good way with words are often rubbish when it comes to other stuff. While working as a sub-editor I’ve come across journalists who were simply incapable of understanding and correctly interpreting statistics that they’d been given. A good journalist should be aware of the various possible interpretations of statistics, because there might be a really good story hidden in the figures, but some get into such a tizz when confronted with numbers that they take the lazy option of simply parroting the interpretation put on them by the press release. Or worse, they make such a dog’s breakfast of attempting an analytical approach that they end up with a news angle that is plain inaccurate.

Some writers, for instance, don’t know how to calculate percentage increases and decreases correctly, a bit of a handicap when so many stories involve writing about changing figures – in crime, sales, trade, population or whatever. Even worse, one writer – who was supposedly an economist – was so intimidated by monthly import/export statistics he didn’t even bother trying to interpret them – he would merely provide a table of numbers and leave it to the poor sub to try and work out what the news angle was, what the figures meant.

But I’m no mathematician myself. I played in a pub darts team a long time ago and was treated like the village idiot because I couldn’t do the mental arithmetic needed to quickly work out and chalk up the current scores. I had to work it out laboriously in my notebook, by which time the game was finished and the players had retired to the bar. They probably thought that an ability to keep track of a major sporting contest was way, way more useful in everyday life than being able to spell rhubarb.

PS Apologies for the split infinitive, to any pedants, contrarians and grammarians reading.

One thought on “Rhubub, Shephards Pie and why journalists are rubbish at sums

  1. Jane Crawford says:

    Saw a sign outside a building on Piccadilly requesting that cigarette ‘buds’ be left here – makes them sound quite pretty……………….

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