Red alert

8 Nov

This correction isn’t wrong, as far as it goes. But I’m not sure it’s right either.

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 13.52.48

For sure, Antonov, based in Kiev, is domiciled in and owned by what is now the independent state of Ukraine. But the famous company was not exactly a pre-Communist symbol of national aviation. It was founded after the war as Soviet Research and Design Bureau No 153 in Siberia, under a Russian, before moving to Ukraine in the 1950s.  And the An-26 – Nato reporting name “Curl” – is a proper Cold War relic too: the first one flew in 1969; the last one was built in the year Gorbachev came to power. They were conceived at the height of Soviet influence, by a Kremlin-sponsored constructor operating in a highly centralised union that extended across 15 states. Is it historically meaningful to insist that they were “Ukrainian-made”? Or has the strife that has split the countries today created a retrospective sensitivity to a distinction that was much murkier then than it is now?*

Or perhaps the objection is simply related  to the continued use of “Russia” as a metonym for “Soviet”. Certainly, it’s hard to think now, amid the complexity of national tensions in the region, that the word “Russia” used to be taken to include Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states at a stroke. But it did, ubiquitously: during coverage of the Cuban missile crisis; in this piece written in 2007 by Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita; and in this one on Soviet design written earlier this year, to take just three examples from the Guardian itself. In each case, “Russia” appears in the headline for “USSR”; in the latter two, commenters regularly adopt the same usage below the line.

So it’s not quite clear why this correction has suddenly come up. Not, as I say, that the readers’ editor is wrong. The meaning and resonance of “Russia” is changing, and the best solution, here and probably every time this issue comes up, is to say “Soviet-made”. Perhaps it’s timely: stories about the eastern bloc will be high up the news list this weekend as we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down.

But when there’s an old Cold War turboprop droning into British airspace over Kent and RAF fighters going supersonic to intercept it, it takes you straight back to 1981. No wonder the writer reached for the comforting Iron Curtain terminology that people of my age grew up with. Enemies are like jokes: the old ones are the best.

 

An Antonov An-26 of the Hungarian air force. Photograph: Adrian Pingstone

An Antonov An-26 of the Hungarian air force. Photograph: Adrian Pingstone via Wikipedia

 

* And, if enforced, would this rule also applies to other eastern bloc products? Trabants are the vivid automotive symbol of the differences on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall; would they now be described as “German-made” because the DDR no longer exists? 

 

 

Errors and omissions excepted

29 Oct

Wow:

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 13.09.46

Kevin Langston, the New York Post reports, who was given 15 years in jail for his part in a gun-running operation, “is about to get sprung from the slammer early”  because of a mistake: the court’s official record shows he was only given a sentence of five years. According to the Post, “prosecutors say the transcript showing the shorter term was missing a ’1′ due to ‘an error by the court reporter’, who has since retired and can’t be found”.

The Brooklyn district attorney is clear that this is a straightforward mistake:

“It is our position that this defendant benefited from a court reporter’s error,” said a spokeswoman for DA Ken Thompson. Langston, she said, “heard the judge sentence him to 15 years. The sentencing judge gave him 15 years, and that is what he should serve.”

But the appeals court does not see it as being nearly so straightforward, and has now ruled that Langston had “acquired a legitimate expectation of finality” with the five-year sentence. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle points out, although the court did have the power to amend the errant transcript, it went uncorrected for seven years.

The ultimate decision in the case – the DA’s office is reportedly “weighing its options” – will be a complex one, likely to involve discussions of double jeopardy (for example, whether any change in the transcript would mean Langston was being sentenced twice for the same crime).  But the central problem is a very familiar one to anyone who, like me, used to work as a legal editor: in court, typos are not a trivial matter.

Years ago, while working on a book about bills of lading and maritime law, I was proofreading extracts from widely used bills quoted in the text against the original documents. Quite by chance, I discovered that a significant chunk of one popular bill’s terms and conditions had gone missing from the latest official reprinting of the form. They were present in our book, quoted from the previous version, but absent from the small type on the new document itself.

I drew the author’s attention to this as a curiosity. Somewhat to my surprise, he not only got in touch with the issuing authority – which confirmed this had been an accidental omission – but insisted on reopening that chapter to explain what was absent, concluding that, legally, “the effect of this is unclear, to say the least”. Whatever the upshot of a hypothetical dispute over the missing clauses on that form might have been, it was clear that they could not simply be taken as read.

In descriptivist linguistics, what is meant ultimately takes precedence over what is said: this is why double negatives become intensifiers, “head over heels” means “upside down” and “irregardless” means the same as “regardless”. But in law, and in legal editing, it is frequently the other way round. What is said can trump what is meant – even if there was no confusion about intent; even if there was a mistake. This is why when you’re editing a court report – or writing a headline that might one day appear before a judge – descriptivism may not be enough to save you. When the lawyers are hovering, it’s not enough to know what you meant; you have to know what you’ve said.

 

Publish the bans

9 Oct

Most things aren’t banned,  not even in style guides. They’re “best avoided”, “not preferred”, “overused”, but not banned. House style expresses choices, counsels caution on homonyms, or corrects misunderstood facts and lazy thinking, but those don’t count as prohibitions.

Style guide editors can be withering in the extreme about poor writing without actually proscribing it. The Tribune’s production editor, an expert in being withering, points out about the word “iconic” that it is “in danger of losing all meaning after an average three appearances a day” in the paper. He then, in a separate entry, appends a list of everything we described as iconic “during a heady fortnight in 2010″, which appears to have included bluefin tuna, Kraft cheese slices, Nigel Slater and the parliamentary constituency of Hove. But even that doesn’t result in an outright ban:  “Our advice, even if our own writers rarely follow it, is to show a little more thought, and restraint, in using this term”.

Even with swear words and offensive terms, although there are adjurations to be very careful, we are permitted to print them in full when (for example) reporting stories about hate speech or disciplinary hearings.

No: a proper ban is a blanket prohibition on a word or phrase wherever it appears, even in its correct meaning. A strict-liability offence. And even in our style guide, there are some. This is what’s listed as banned – actually banned – at the Tribune.

authoress along with comedienne*, manageress, lady doctor and male nurse

full-blown Aids essentially meaningless: “people have Aids only when they present with an Aids-defining illness” (Unesco)

black-on-black violence “Imagine the police saying they were ‘investigating an incident of white-on-white violence between Millwall and West Ham supporters’”

committed suicide “suicide has not been a crime in the UK for many years”

dialogue of the deaf  “most deaf people are perfectly capable of conducting a dialogue”

the disabled Use “disabled people”

happy-clappy “avoid”

kaffir lime replace with makrut lime

lepers say “leprosy patients”

mentally handicapped say “person with learning difficulties”

Mid-East “never, even in headlines”; always Middle

north of the border “avoid this expression: we work on national newspapers”

persons “No! They are people”

post-ironic “idiotic”

practising homosexual along with “the equally grotesque ‘active homosexual’”

Siamese twins use “conjoined”

shark-infested on the grounds that a creature cannot “infest” its original habitat

skyrocket “No!”

spinster “has acquired a pejorative tone”

squaw now regarded as offensive

third world described as “outdated (as well as objectionable)”

wrinklies “patronising, unfunny way to refer to elderly people; do not use”

* The phrase “feminist comedienne” recently got quite a long way through the production process before being intercepted.

Defcon substantial

25 Sep

What is it we’re on that the moment – “severe”? Yes, that’s right: it was raised from “substantial” a month ago. Or do I mean lowered?

The UK Threat Level system, introduced eight years ago, is the national indicator for alertness to terrorism threats in the United Kingdom. The possibility of attack is measured on a five-point scale, in ascending order of danger, as follows: low, moderate, substantial, severe, critical. It’s a list full of strong words; in fact, you might argue, rather too full.

With the well-known US defence readiness condition (Defcon) system, which uses numbers, there is no rhetoric in the status beyond the simple raising or lowering of the level, once you have recalled which way the scale runs (five is low, one is high). Colour-coded systems have a little more emotional content to them – red alert! code blue! etc – but remain essentially inarticulate. For example, one of the status levels in the old “Bikini” alerts, the forerunner of the UK’s current system, was the terrifying-sounding “Code Black Special”. It sounded like the designation for a pre-emptive nuclear strike; in fact, it was just the midpoint of a standard threat scale that started at white at finished at red.

But once you employ words instead of colours, you employ rhetoric: you reveal how you want your audience to feel. And your audience, as readers, can begin to evaluate the way you write.

Exactly how much worse than “substantial” is “severe”? In this context, aren’t they almost synonymous? “Critical”, the highest level, is slightly easier to prioritise, as it is well understood as the most acute status in medical bulletins. But in the American Hospital Association’s five-point scale, the next two conditions below “critical” are “serious” and then “fair” at the midpoint. The gradations are much wider and better defined. Less formalised UK hospital bulletins sometimes drop straight from “critical” to “stable”, at other times via “critical but stable”.

But in neither case could you confuse the midpoint word with the highest word. The trouble with the UK terror threat scale is that it contains three terms that each, at a pinch, could pass for the highest one. The result is that you get dispiriting announcements to the effect that “the threat level has been lowered to severe“. Lowered to severe. The words are so close in meaning as to create a kind of unrelieved despondency whichever one is used, even when the threat of attack is relenting.

This is not to underplay the seriousness of the situation: heaven knows, no one who has lived or worked in London for the last 20 years needs to be reminded of how real terrorism is. But the danger  is that, by making such fine distinctions between such strong words, you lose the chance of galvanising the public at a time of crisis. Instead, you simply generate an exhausting, permanent vigilance that can vary only in the small range set by the scale.

Terrorism alertness systems are an important signal from government of awareness and action; properly used, they can call an entire nation to alert, and perhaps even reassure them afterwards.  But they need to be better written than this.

Big problem

11 Sep

This email from the Tribune’s deputy production editor goes in pretty strongly:

Just a reminder about the definition of enormity (sinful, wicked, morally wrong … not v big).

Now that’s a position that would be contested in many quarters. I hear the word used to mean “v big” far more often than I do to mean “morally wrong”. And the dictionaries tend to disagree too. Collins, our house dictionary, sticks largely on the traditional meaning and allows the idea of size only informally:

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 14.28.47

But Merriam-Webster includes the third meaning on an equal footing with the others, holding that it is, officially, ambiguous:

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 14.38.14

So, is the deputy production editor a stick-in-the-mud? Well, maybe not when you read the opening sentence of the article he was concerned about:

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 22.38.26

Scottish independence is the most hotly contested issue on our website at the moment. Thousands of comments flood in for every article; fierce and sometimes hostile debate spills over even into pieces that only touch on the issue briefly. A misreading of “enormity” as a pejorative in the first sentence might have caused anger, creating extra work for those moderating the comments on the article, as well as an uncomfortable postbag for the writer, and possibly the editor, the following day.

However, as the deputy production editor says:

Thankfully the … piece on the front of today’s paper was clear-headed and even-handed enough for eagle-eyed readers to realise it was just a simple misuse of the word rather than an intentionally trenchant intro…

It’s possible that all readers either took the word at its more informal meaning, or, if they didn’t, kept reading until they understood that that was what was meant. But if the latter, we may have been fortunate: as Slate has found, most site visitors only read half of any story they click on, and a disappointingly high number don’t scroll down a story at all.  The tone that’s set in headline, standfirst and opening sentence is often the tone that readers take away with them.

As has been suggested here before, if you are helping an author into the cauldron of a debate like this, you have to watch their back. Yes, of course, language changes; it changes especially quickly when, as here, established professional writers start to embrace emerging meanings of words in their published work.

But precedent like this doesn’t eliminate the standing definition of the word at a stroke; language change takes years. If a reader took “enormity”, the 17th word of the article, in its traditional sense and objected to what he thought was being said, you couldn’t rely on authority to convince him he was wrong. You could point him to the bulk of the content of the piece and invite him to reconsider his interpretation; but all that mollifying substance comes after, not before, the most potentially inflammatory word in the piece, and may have already coloured everything he went on to read.

As editors, we can’t let that happen. Sometimes, we can sit back and observe the language changing, but not this time. We need to intervene on the writer’s behalf and ensure that a word that unstable doesn’t get near a subject that inflammatory.  It’s not true to say that “enormity” doesn’t mean “v big”; but, at the moment, it means other things too.

Just a dash

29 Aug

I know, I know: I keep going on about this. And the ship sailed a long time ago. But look at this:

Picture 70

It’s a perfect example – the best I’ve ever seen  – of when a Fowler comma is not only desirable but necessary.

Fowler, as we have discussed before, took a strict line on parentheses in Modern English Usage, advising as follows:

1. Parentheses may be indicated in any one of four ways: by square brackets, by round brackets, by dashes, and by commas …

2. After the second bracket or dash any stop that would have been used if the brackets or dashes and their contents had not been there should still be used.

Unlike his proposal for separating the use of “which” and “that”, which has been widely applied and misapplied in formal English, this idea – that if you add a dashed parenthesis at the end of a subordinate clause, you must still retain the closing comma of the clause – has been totally disregarded. That’s not surprising: it looks very peculiar, however you arrange it – even like this –, when you include every mark.

But look at the sentence above, describing the way that reality show Educating Yorkshire was filmed. The dashed parenthesis in the middle, “64 automatic cameras and microphones rather than intrusive film crews”, looks normal. But, in fact, it has been placed in the middle of a list, and inserting it has caused one of the delimiting commas to disappear.

So when you parse the sentence, you go wrong. The standard editor’s test is that you should be able to lift a parenthetical clause out of a sentence without affecting the syntax or grammar of what’s left, and this apparently passes with flying colours:

The key to the programme is the use of the fixed rigs […] retaining the trust of teachers.

That’s clear: the automatic filming system wins teachers’ confidence by not having disruptive outsiders in the classroom.

But that’s not what it means. It was only when I got to the apparently unnecessary comma after “teachers”, and thought it looked suspiciously like an Oxford comma, that I realised: this isn’t a two-part list, it’s a three-part list. There are three things that are key to the programme’s success: (i) using fixed rigs; (ii) retaining the trust of teachers, and (iii) selecting the right school. There is no causal relationship between the teachers’ trust and the fixed rigs. The insertion of the dashed parenthetical clause has caused the first and second points to merge into one, because we don’t put commas after dashes.

The fix is simple, of course: put the parenthetical clause into brackets.

The key to the programme is the use of the fixed rigs (64 automatic cameras and microphones rather than intrusive film crews), retaining the trust of teachers, and selecting the right school.

But that only works because it is acceptable to punctuate after a closing bracket mark. If you take the comma out, you’re back to the original, mistaken reading. Curiously, we can punctuate after some parenthetical marks but not others.

Too late to do anything about that, of course; if Fowler’s suggestion didn’t catch on in 1926, it’s not going to catch on now. But accidental ambiguities like that haunts the lives of sub-editors.  It’s nice to know that they alarmed Fowler too.

Unfairness and balance

21 Aug

Partiality can be dangerous. Impartiality can be too. Hot on the heels of his last post on “innocence” in the American media, Professor Rosen has developed his theme, seizing on a recent example of excessively balanced reporting, or what he calls “he said, she said” journalism.

The story – about a recently published book on Reagan – appeared in the New York Times, and dealt with allegations of plagiarism made against the author by one of Reagan’s biographers. The Times carefully reported the claims, gave ample space to the author to rebut them, and left it there, without drawing any conclusions. The reader was left to judge the prosecution and defence cases. Unfortunately, as Rosen points out, that isn’t good enough this time:

The problem here is that the Times had what it needed to make a call. “Perlstein plagiarized Shirley” was a checkable claim. Shirley’s accusations were online. Perlstein’s source notes were online. The Times knows what plagiarism is. Its writers and editors have to guard against it every day. Under these conditions, “leaving it there” amounts to malpractice …

In fact, the NYT’s public editor was moved to intervene and came down firmly against the paper, saying the article “amplified a damaging accusation of plagiarism without establishing its validity and doing so in a way that is transparent to the reader”.

As Rosen observes, “he said, she said” is not always the fairest way. “Instead of favoring one side, it pushes the account toward a phony midpoint. [It's] still distortion, but it looks more innocent.”

So perhaps “warrior journalism” of the best kind – partisan, but ethical and conscientious – as advocated by this blog last time is a better model? But, as the always-perceptive Picky wrote in the comments to that post, there are serious potential problems here too, even if every partisan newspaper were to hold itself to the highest standards of fairness.

In that world,  I could (sufficiently resourced) find a story a day about some cock-up or catastrophe somewhere in the NHS, all of them true, and print them. The unstated unproven concomitant (the lie) would be that the NHS, reeling from the government’s cuts, is about to collapse. Or I could by examining the bureaucratic tomfoolery of the European Union find a story a day, all of them true, about the latest bit of ineptitude. The unstated unproven concomitant (the lie) would be that we are ruled by a bunch of Napoleonic idiots in Brussels out to destroy Tunbridge Wells.

Balance, as Rosen makes clear, is not always enough; but, as Picky says, fairness isn’t always enough either. A series of correct and ethically impeccable stories about NHS disasters are fair individually, but not collectively if there is never a story about NHS success or improvement.

British journalism suffers from its own plurality: to grasp the British news agenda, you would need to buy every paper every day. But it is also blessed with the moderating influence of its studiously impartial TV channels. And perhaps the “he said, she said” method is at its best in this environment, with BBC news perched on top of a warring press and synthesising a balance of views. (Even if, as I contend, that forces it to act willy-nilly as an umpire, ruling some subjects in and others out of a national debate that even it does not have the resources to cover in full.)

Britain’s partisan press model is a dangerous one, for sure: it requires not just active regulation at source but also a series of downstream media organisations to act as filters. But maybe it is more robust, and truer to the spirit of the profession, than a system in which conclusions are not drawn even when they could be. After all, not many people go into journalism to be cautious.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 230 other followers