Case 25: Got something to say? Then say it!

4th December 2002

Filed by: Officer Taylor

The Offence

The BBC News web-site has a fascinating report on a 1952 experiment on ``cloud seeding'' to produce rain, which resulted in fatal floods in the South of England.

The report says:

Alan Yates, a glider pilot, tells how he flew over Bedfordshire as part of Operation Cumulus, spraying quantities of salt into the air.

Would someone please tell us what the phrase ``quantities of'' adds to this sentence? Would it not convey exactly the same information if it just said ``spraying salt into the air''?

The frustrating thing about this is that lots of other things could have been written here that would have added to the story: the report could have told us, for example, how much salt was involved (``spraying nearly half a ton of salt'') or what form the salt was in (``spraying finely ground salt'').

But no. They chose instead to tell us that the pilot sprayed ``quantities of salt''. What quantity was involved? We're not told. By ``quantities'', does the report mean anything different from ``a quantity''? We can't tell. If the report actually has something to say here, it should say it. If it doesn't, it should shut up.

The Verdict

The BBC are guilty of wasting words.

As it happens, we see something very similar in the classic computer game Zork:

You are in the kitchen of the white house. A table seems to have been used
recently for the preparation of food. A passage leads to the west and a dark
staircase can be seen leading upward. A dark chimney leads down and to the east
is a small window which is open.
On the table is an elongated brown sack, smelling of hot peppers.
A bottle is sitting on the table.
The glass bottle contains:
  A quantity of water

But the Zork designers had the excuse that they were working within the limitations of a computer program that always preceded the name of every object with an article (``a'' or ``the''). So, had they described the contents of the bottle just as ``water'', the program would have said ``The glass bottle contains: A water''.

So we're prepared to let the Zork designers off; the BBC can expect no such mercy.

The Sentence

We sentence the BBC to spend less of the licencepayers money on down-market, zero-content junk TV in a pathetic attempt to emulate its commercial rivals. We admit that the punishment doesn't exactly fit the crime, but it's about time someone made the BBC do that anyway.

Next case!

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