Case 29: Don't panic! Don't panic!

2nd July 2004

Filed by: Officer Taylor

The Offence

In a report on its own Hay Festival, the Guardian reports:

The Guardian Hay Festival began yesterday, with the palaeontologist Richard Fortey's illustrated lecture on the Earth's last four billion years; it ends next Sunday, with a performance by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

We had no idea that the Earth was to end so soon, nor that the Apocalypse would occur to the accompaniment of such a beautiful soundtrack.

The Verdict

In trying to avoid the minor sin of an over-long sentence, the writer here has commited the worse sin of ambiguity. Quite likely the initial version of this report read ``The Guardian Hay Festival began yesterday [...], and ends next Sunday [...]''. Admittedly, that version, with its long sub-clause, is a bit of a mouthful. But it has the great virtue of being explicit: it is clear that what ends next Sunday is the subject of the entire sentence - that is, the Hay Festival.

But the author, or perhaps an editor, seems to have shied away from this version and tried to patch it up with a pitiable semi-colon that is quite unsure of itself. The result is that the ``it'' at the beginning of the clause that follows can indicate either the Hay Festival, as the writer no doubt intended, or the Earth. Oops.

The Sentence

We are inclined to be lenient on the perpetrator, since this case gave us a good laugh-out-loud moment. (He has the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain to thank for this.) Accordingly, we sentence the accused to a slap on the wrist, but with the proviso that this sentence might have to be waived depending on what happens next Sunday.

Next case!

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