Two sisters, middle-aged women, were murdered by the ex-husband of one of them. The police were called, apparently by the killer, but took over an hour to arrive. In due course, after an inquiry, a public apology was offered and reported on the BBC early evening news.


Essential aspects of the case, however, were confused by the syntax used, both by the chief police officer and the television reporter:


I regret very much the distress that the additional delay caused.


Peter Neyroud, Chief Constable, Thames Valley Police.


Despite the delay the two women here may not have been saved.


Margaret Gilmour, BBC Six O’clock News, 6th October 2004.


The first statement is acceptable as it stands; however it looks as if the qualifying additional should apply to the distress, rather than the delay. The delay added to the distress of the murders. Otherwise the distress of the murders is lost sight of and some degree of delay is condoned.


The second statement, through the use of despite, implies that the delay was helpful and conducive to saving the two women. What is probably meant is that the two women may not have been saveable even had there been no delay.


In both cases the point is being muddied and the viewer makes an intuitive but fallible leap from what is said to what is meant. We are used to doing this because people – responsible politicians – frequently do not say what they mean; a taxi-driver commented to me once about a government minister, who repeated, as many do, “I want to make it absolutely clear …”, “That means he hasn’t a bloody clue!”


Though the two individuals here are explicitly committed to making a clear admission and a clear description of culpability, thereby supplying an accurate final narrative of events, old habits die hard.


Dissembling and carelessness with language are close cousins.