The unholy see

The Telegraph stylebook says:

see: only an animate object can see anything. Avoid tabloid usages such as “last year saw a sharp increase in the number of deaths” where saw is a lazy substitute for resulted in, caused or simply “there were”.

Bravo. We get this sort of thing a lot: “2007 saw street parties to celebrate Gordon Brown’s ascent to power” or “the NHS reforms will see patients enjoy perfect health in perpetuity” or “chapter 6 sees the hero making some jam out of plastic fruit”.

I’ve tried to make sense of the idiom, even as metaphor, but I don’t get it. A period of time as the witness to the events it contains? A cause as the witness of its effects? I guess there’s some poetic value, but do the journalists who use the phrase have the clear purpose of personifying the setting or the cause? Rarely, if ever. And nothing is surer to drain the poetry from a phrase than a media flogging.

And it’s always sight, never another sense. You don’t get “2008 heard what sounded like trouble in the Middle East” or “next month will be overwhelmed by the stench of a gathering of G20 finance ministers” or “the rise in superinjunctions is fondly caressing a new threat to press freedom”.

But it’s not new. The OED gives as one meaning of “see”: 

Of things, places, etc.: To be contemporary with and in the neighbourhood of, to be the scene of (an event); to be in existence during (a period of time). Also of a period of time: To be marked by (an event).

1739 … Hail the Day that sees Him rise, Ravish’d from our wishful Eyes.

1837 … Eighteen rivers have seen their navigation improved.

1839 … These are the funeral and Tartarean years of which St. Augustin speaks, like that when Rome saw five consuls.

1895 … A bright cold morning saw us in the saddle at 6.15.

1907 … In 1906 Cambridge saw three or four of her most learned men compete for the Greek chair.

Hmm. Well, I don’t like it. I don’t bloody like it, that’s what. But this probably means it’s legit.

And yet… this string of venerable precedents only covers being the setting of some event – not being the cause. In those cases, I’m sure it is just the same sort of laziness that the Guardian style guide chastises here:

set to

It is very tempting to use this, especially in headlines, when we think something is going to happen, but aren’t all that sure; try to resist this temptation. It is even less excusable when we do know that something is going to happen

(Why the Guardian opposes “set to” but not “see” and the Telegraph vice versa I cannot say.)

“Set to” is a cop-out that allows (among other things) vagueness about what causes what; “see” can do the same.

What’s more, both have become such journalistic habits that they creep in even when all they do is take up space – weakening rather than strengthening the text. Look at this BBC headline from yesterday:

Why not “UK economy returns to growth”? Shorter, simpler, clearer, better. See?

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