Ever the optimist

30 Mar

It could have been worse. Your giant container ship may have got humiliatingly jammed across the Suez canal, displaying your company name in huge letters to the world as it wrecks global trade, but at least it’s got a nice name. Ever Given. Whoever it was at Evergreen Marine Corp who decided on that poetic prefix – many of the company’s ships are called the Ever Something – may have done their employer a bit of a favour.

Ever given, never withheld. It’s enigmatic enough to work as the name of a deserted starship in an epic videogame; its hint at romantic surrender also makes it a possibility for Mills & Boon. It has the same non-specific but appealing aesthetic as the title of the film The Beat That My Heart Skipped. That bears almost no literal relevance to the thriller it belongs to, but it works superbly nonetheless – as it would for almost anything, from a romantic comedy to a baffling 90s arthouse pic in which nothing happens.

Evergreen’s naming policy has produced other winners too. Ever Lambent is a phrase Keats might have written. The Ever Gentle sounds immediately disarming. The resonance of “always” or “forever” is vague, but intriguing. Many people are predisposed to like the sea anyway; just as Nato reporting names add excitement to a military aviation story, you do wonder if a good ship name helps, just a little, to take the edge off negative coverage when something goes wrong.

Is that fanciful? Well, consider what might have happened if Prince Jefri of Brunei had got into difficulties in his custom-built superyacht, the Tits, or how Gary Hart’s presidential ambitions foundered after a dalliance with a woman on the good ship Monkey Business. And perhaps Evergreen itself has also dodged a bullet: it’s easy to imagine the po-faced excoriations of multilateralism that would have ensued if this had happened to the Ever Liberal. And think how unbearable Twitter might have been if the vessel that had got wedged in the entrance to a narrow passage had been the Ever Uranus.

Photograph: kees torn via Wikipedia

East-west relations

16 Mar

On the Tube a few months ago, I saw this:

I was familiar with the poem, an ecological updating of Brecht’s Alles Wandelt Sich, but I had only ever seen it printed in book format, with one verse below the other. When you read it like that, understanding comes slowly: you only grasp the parallelism of the construction bit by bit as you progress down the page. But here, your eye is tracking from left to right naturally: as it overruns slightly at the end of the line, it can’t help but glimpse what is to come. As you see in your peripheral vision the same words as you’ve just read, you start to understand what’s going to happen before it happens, and the genius of Brecht’s original conception becomes clear sooner: all the same phrases, but arranged in two different orders to create two contrasting emotions.

And that same design strategy – of using the eye’s movement from east to west as well as from north to south – is one of the few remaining areas where print holds an advantage over digital. The problem with web news articles, as my boss the production editor is fond of saying, is that once you’ve clicked through to them from the homepage, they all look the same: the most explosive splash and the most routine weather story are identically formatted, with the same size of headline, same size of standfirst, same shape of picture at the top and same livery colours (unless you’re really pushing the boat out for a campaign, in which case the last of these might change).

More importantly, the experience of reading them is an isolated and purely vertical one – once you have left the homepage, you are simply scrolling down through a column of text, with nothing to catch the eye on either side: no larger headline to the left, no smaller text box to the right to draw you across or place what you’re reading in the context of other developments.

And even the homepage itself – cluttered as it is with dozens of unrelated stories – can’t hope to achieve the same depth of visual rhetoric as a good double-page spread can. Take this example from the New York Times’s travel section:

The front page hints at what is to come, by starting two separate stories in adjacent columns and turning them both to the spread, but it is the side-by-side display of the spread itself, as with Herbert’s poem, that really tells the story. The photos may vary but the layouts are, essentially, identical: same size main picture, identically formatted smaller picture grouping, headlines that mirror each other. As you look from left to right, the message seems clear before you’ve read a word of the text – that Vegas on $1,000 a day and Vegas on $250 a day are different, but also essentially the same.

At the Tribune, where the sub-editor formats articles for web as well as print, I would have no idea how to reproduce that effect for the online reader – they would either have to be two individual stories, separate from each other as web articles always are, or attached to each other in a fundamentally vertical way, with the second story following the first. It would take a special web design project to get them to sit side by side like this, and even an interactive presentation of some kind would still encounter the problem that faces all online publishing: that the space north to south is infinite, but the space east to west is severely constrained by the size of the reader’s screen.

The east-west effect is so powerful, in fact, that it can operate even when the designer doesn’t want it to, and lead to unintended consequences, like this:

As @jcodfishpie, who tweeted the clipping out almost 10 years ago, observes, Brighton’s top gay should be ashamed of himself.


2 Mar

This hasn’t come into focus at the Tribune yet, and perhaps it never will, but it will need thinking about if it does. What happens if a writer objects to the italicisation of words in one of their native languages during the publication process?

Levels of italicisation vary between style guides – some do it for films and book titles, some not, for example – but the Tribune’s style guide is brief and to the point about other languages: “Use italics for foreign words and phrases (with roman translation in brackets)”. There is some look-and-feel guidance about words that have become totally familiar in English, such as cafe, which should not be italicised and do not take diacriticals (as a former edition of the style guide used to say, “that would be a debacle”). But unfamiliar words take italics in our publications. Which then raises the question: unfamiliar to whom?

Although it is written by an editor for editors, this blog has always had at least a scrap of sympathy for writers who are unhappy about changes made to articles after they’ve written them. If you unsplit an infinitive in the cause of readability under someone else’s byline, the sticklers’ complaints will go to the writer, not to you, and you may be faced not only with the ire of peevish readers, but the ire of the reporter as well, who is inclined to agree with them. In such cases, an editor can end up isolated in opposition to both the author and the audience.

A disagreement over italics would probably be different, and might essentially become a debate with the author over who the presumed audience actually is. The person who wrote the tweet is a Korean American children’s author whose books are about young people of a similar background exploring their heritage. It is therefore probably essential for her that Korean words are not “othered” by being italicised to draw attention to their presumed unfamiliarity. (In fact, it would appear from the context of her thread that she has control of the process and has made that ruling for herself.)

This debate borders on the related issue, discussed many times in this blog, of news organisations allowing different dialects of English in the different countries in which they operate. The newsrooms set up by British news organisations elsewhere in the anglosphere are intended to speak to a domestic audience, not simply to report back to London. That’s why you sometimes end up reading articles about a “tradie” (a uniquely Australian term for tradesperson) startling a gigantic “huntsman” (a species of spider unknown in Britain) on the Daily Mail’s UK homepage.

The unspoken assumption is that Australian readers are the significant audience; if non-Australian readers see it, they will be able to figure it out. (As one of the supportive responders to the original tweet says, “if I see a word, I don’t understand, I’ll look it up.”)

On the other hand, it’s worth restating the traditional general defence of italicisation – that too great a presumption of understanding can alienate and discourage a potential audience who are unfamiliar with the subject. Italics, quotes and signposts to the reader such as “so-called” can all encourage them to navigate new intellectual or cultural territory, whatever it may be, and educate themselves. Another responder to the tweet, suggesting an exception for neologisms, writes that they could accept italicisation for a completely made-up word: “italic would let me know its ok to not understand it because its not a real word.” But doesn’t that principle – “it’s ok not to understand it” – apply to anything that might confuse the intended reader?

None of which helps solve the fundamental question in this debate, which is: who is the intended reader? Do you agree with the author about that? And if you don’t agree, which one of you decides?

O Capt, my Capt

16 Feb

Captain Sir Tom Moore? Sir Captain Tom Moore? Not everybody got it the right way round when the Burma veteran and beloved fundraising champion died earlier this month, but on our subs’ desk we were wrestling with a different question. Should we be abbreviating his rank?

The style guide editor emails:

There’s been a divide on this in terms of whether to abbreviate the Captain to Capt, as per the military ranks section of the style guide. That section refers to how to describe serving officers, but in Moore’s case he was retired, and had actually been promoted to honorary colonel last year. Captain Tom was the nickname by which he was known so shortening to Capt Tom seems a bit jarring. 

I understand shortening to Capt might be useful for tight furniture, but doesn’t seem necessary generally. The case seems similar to other examples where a rank has become part of a nickname or refers to a fictional character – we wouldn’t write Capt Beefheart, Col Tom Parker or ground control to Maj Tom.

Accordingly, the style guide now reads:

That seems fairly comprehensive: I don’t think even the Telegraph’s style guide addresses that last issue.

But the good thing about working at a broadsheet is that you never have to stop making distinctions. The deputy production editor replies:

In fact, he had no right to be called Capt Moore [the abbreviated form] anyway. You have to be a Major or above to retain your title in retirement (in the army; a naval captain is a higher rank, so can be retained). https://www.debretts.com/expertise/forms-of-address/professions/the-armed-forces/

Even at a left-leaning, republican-curious publication such as the Tribune, an appeal to Debrett’s like this glows with prestige. (And it can also help with some of those baffling ranks. L/CoH? No, me neither, but it’s “Lance-Corporal of the Horse”, in the Household Division.) Now the only question is: what to do about Adm Ackbar?

On air

2 Feb

A liquid nitrogen tank has ruptured in a Georgia meat plant and six people are dead, from a grim combination of freeze-burns, or suffocation, or both. However, the Tribune’s hasty first report tells readers, in the time-honoured phrase, that “the leak was contained and not airborne”. That sounds reassuring, until a technologist friend messages to say: “Really? In that case it was probably the fact that they cooled the factory to -196C that caused the problems.”

Liquid nitrogen is liquid under pressure, but vaporises at just above -200C, so when it leaks it instantly boils. At ambient temperatures it’s always a gas, and therefore always airborne. In addition to its dangerous capacity to freeze whatever it touches, in a confined space it can also displace all the breathable air and cause asphyxiation. As my technologist friend put it, “in the event that you do have a nitrogen spill, the last thing you want to do is contain it”. The best thing to do is to vent it into the outside air – which is already 78% nitrogen, after all – at which point the suffocation danger evaporates. The less contained nitrogen is, the less dangerous it is.

In the shock of the event, the media wasn’t the only institution that seemed confused about this. The phrase “contained and not airborne” appears to have originated with county education officials, per AP, who kept children indoors at a nearby school – even though, of course, the air inside was already heavy with nitrogen, as all air is everywhere. The authorities also closed the road outside the plant, out in the open air, for over half a mile in each direction.

Why? Because that’s what you do. That’s the natural instinct when, lacking technical insight, you hear of a fatal gas leak. Stay indoors, contain, evacuate. Those are also the kind of questions reporters reflexively ask at press conferences. Has the gas escaped? Is there a cloud drifting over the city? You need a certain level of scientific knowledge to appreciate that a substance can be dangerous without being poisonous and that, if so, the measures to deal with it may be significantly different to those for dealing with toxins.

In a building full of arts graduates, which is essentially what a newspaper is, there may be a dozen people who can dissect a party conference speech, but often not one with reliable knowledge of the fifth most abundant element on Earth. An arts graduate myself, I email the news desk, hesitantly explaining what’s just been explained to me. We decide to delete that line from the story and await developments. Eventually, one of the wire services has the bright idea of calling the experts for comment, and receives the following response:

That explanation finds its way into the Tribune report and everyone else’s (even though in some cases the quote from the school board is also retained). The story is clarified. But it has revealed, once again, a blind spot in the reporting process.

As journalists, we rely on ourselves for political, sporting and cultural analysis, but are almost completely dependent on outside sources in scientific matters. What we have instead is a reservoir of layperson’s assumptions, apparently similar precedents – and, sometimes, cliches – that we draw upon at the first confused press conferences after a disaster.

The Tribune has tried to address this shortcoming in the past. We have had teams of scientists visit us to try to explain what successful new medical trials do, and don’t, signify, and how they should be reported. But perhaps the most useful resource for a hard-pressed former English student is knowledgeable STM friends who are not shy of getting in touch when, say, a basic arithmetical error appears on the website. If you are a mathematician or a scientist and you know a sub-editor, don’t be afraid to call if you’ve noticed something wrong. I promise we’ll be grateful.

Facing trial 😊

19 Jan

Meanwhile, in an Israeli small claims court, a landlord is suing a prospective tenant for pulling out of a rental agreement, and the verdict is in:

“This is the place to refer once again to those graphic symbols (icons) sent by Defendant 2 to the Plaintiff. As stated, they do not, under the circumstances, indicate that the negotiations between the parties have matured into a binding agreement. However, the sent symbols support the conclusion that the defendants acted in bad faith. Indeed, this negotiation’s parties’ ways of expression may take on different forms, and today, in modern times, the use of the “emoji” icons may also have a meaning that indicates the good faith of the side to the negotiations. The text message sent by Defendant 2 on June 5, 2016, was accompanied by quite a few symbols, as mentioned. These included a “smiley”, a bottle of champagne, dancing figures and more. These icons convey great optimism. Although this message did not constitute a binding contract between the parties, this message naturally led to the Plaintiff’s great reliance on the defendants’ desire to rent his apartment.

And so, by virtue of the emojis in the following text message – one of which is a chipmunk

“Good morning 😊  we want the house 💃🏻👯‍✌️☄️🐿️🍾  just need to go over the details …When suits you?”

– the judge found in favour of the landlord and awarded him 8,000 shekels to compensate for lost income.

The case, in 2017, excited a lot of legal comment, as one might imagine. Some agree with the judge that the smiley, in particular, helps to “convey to the other side that everything is in order” when it in fact is not. Others, such as the legal scholars Gabriella Ziccarelli and Eric Goldman, disagree, pointing out that “emojis are frequently used as emotional supplements to preceding words or sometimes even used as a punctuation substitute”, so cannot be relied upon as the court suggests. But nearly everyone accepts one thing – that the emojis cannot simply be overlooked. As Ziccarelli and Goldman say: “We can’t just consider the text and ignore the emojis … Because we must assume the prospective tenant included them for a reason, how do the emojis modify or supplement the initial text message’s words?”

Their discussion of that topic runs to considerable length, even theorising as to why the tenant might have used the “double bunny girls” emoji instead of the “single bunny girl” variant. (Even they are defeated by the chipmunk, however.) Elsewhere, in an extensive article on Slate, Amanda Hess describes numerous cases in which the courts have attempted to decode non-verbal messaging, including one in which “an anonymous comment posted to an online message board that appeared to accuse a city worker of corruption was negated by the inclusion of a tongue-out emoji”.

The confusion that even well-known emojis have caused in these cases is perhaps warning enough never to try to use them in headlines (not that there’s much call for that on a broadsheet). And that’s before you get to the confusing ones: the emoji of a person blowing hard through their nose – 😤 – is widely interpreted in the west as signifying anger, whereas in many parts of Asia it is seen as expressing pride or dominance: a bull-snort of power, drawing from manga iconography. Its official name is “Face with Look of Triumph“. Emojis are far more compact than words, but – probably for that reason – far more ambiguous.

And another lesson for editors is, once again, how grindingly literal a court can be about anything – anything – you might publish. We have previously discussed instances in which a judge released a criminal 10 years early because of a typo in a document – in the full knowledge that it was a typo – and where a biker was given only a year in jail for GBH because mistakes in the drafting of the law made it impossible to pass any other sentence. The judicial system can be agonisingly prescriptivist and unimaginative: lawyers are trained to pursue meaning narrowly through thickets of poor drafting and make a limited determination of meaning based on what was actually said, even contrary to evidence of intent. Ambiguity is cute in linguistics, but not in court, and it’s wise to edit with that in mind.

Get your rebuttal in first

5 Jan

It doesn’t happen all the time. But every now and then, the BBC launches a major news investigation on its website, and then stops it after three paragraphs. Like this:

That piece is approaching 3,000 words long, peppered with graphs and in-depth analysis boxes, but the rebuttal comes so high up in the story that you’re inclined to stop reading there and then. And the same is true here:

In that piece, the contradiction comes after 75 words, even though there are another 900 to read below it. And in this article, the government response comes so quickly it’s almost the first line of the story.

It’s not easy being the BBC. Like all Ofcom-regulated broadcasters, it has to be scrupulously impartial; doubly so, because it is funded via public levy by the grace of the government. The news division also gets thrust into the unenviable role of refereeing the endless Fleet Street culture war, by choosing to follow up (or not) on newspaper allegations of racism, illegal immigration, tax evasion, “waste”, and a hundred other started hares. It has also had to walk an impossible line down the middle of Brexit, and has now endured three consecutive governments that have more or less openly threatened its status and future. As a result of all these pressures, current and historical, its style guide is agonisingly neutral, its correspondents are intensely scrutinised for bias, and it draws its conclusions more slowly than any other major news provider.*

This is quite a successful approach to adopt when reporting on allegations made by third parties, as is the case with the third story mentioned above. Report the accusation, report the rebuttal (straightaway, in this case), fill in readers on the background. What’s the truth? There is no need to decide: just hand back to the studio.

The trouble is, the first two pieces are not allegations made by third parties: they’re allegations made by the BBC itself. The first is an online special under the general banner of the news division, the second is a companion piece to an edition of Panorama.

Yet it’s as though the he-said-she-said impartiality has become so ingrained that it is introduced even to a self-generated exposé – just as the corporation sometimes quotes its own correspondents as though they worked for someone else. But if you’ve done an original investigation, you ether believe in it or you don’t. You can’t distance yourself from your own allegations. Investigations aren’t “balanced”: they seek the truth on a particular issue and draw definite conclusions. Otherwise, what’s the point?

*For example, two days after the Nashville bombing, the BBC’s headline was “Nashville explosion ‘probably suicide bombing'”. The Mail’s headline the same day was: “Mother, 29, given TWO free homes worth $409K by ‘Nashville bomber’, 63, says she had no idea he signed property over to her a month ago – as feds probe if he blew himself up at AT&T building because he feared 5G is spying on Americans”.

The most wonderful rhyme of the year

22 Dec

I know it’s the season of goodwill, but seriously, what’s going on with the scansion here?

The queue at the Post Office was so long that there was plenty of time to critique the Christmas cards in the display. This one begins crisply, with a line of iambic tetrameter followed by a line of iambic trimeter: dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM/dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM. The pattern then repeats, to create one of poetry’s classic forms: the ballad stanza. Four lines of alternating tetrameter and trimeter, with the second and the fourth lines rhyming (an ABCB rhyme scheme, as we English students like to say). That’s the way the Rime of the Ancient Mariner was written. A strong start.

But no sooner have we got going than the form is subverted in the second verse: we switch to trochaic tetrameter and trimeter (DEE-dum DEE-dum DEE-dum DEE-dum/DEE-dum DEE-dum DEE-dum.) Or at least we do for two lines, before, disconcertingly, slamming back into ballad meter for the next two in a way that really throws you if you’re reading aloud.

Inside the card, the next two stanzas hold the rhythm, give or take the odd syllable. But then you get to the conclusion:

“Amongst” should be on the first line, not the second, to make the tetrameter (you could then insert “of” before “men” to make the trimeter). The third line is fine, but the last line … I mean, it’s great to see a bracchius (dum-DEE-DEE) in the wild, but how would you deliver this in performance? Perhaps it would be best to just break the fourth wall, catch your beloved’s eye and speak it as prose.

This card costs a solid £4.59 and is very high-end – heavily embossed, pretend gold leaf, two appliqué hearts floating on the front. There’s attractive decoration on the inside faces and an illuminated four-page insert. But, alas, the prosody doesn’t come up to the standard of the printing. Even given the amount that foil blocking costs, you’d think there would have been enough margin to bring in an editor for 10 minutes.

But anyway, no matter. Enough of the textualist Scrooging: it’s the thought at the end that counts. To everyone, wife or no, the blog wishes you a very happy Christmas.

Never wrong for … oh

8 Dec

It’s easy to forget things about people – that actor you liked, what year she died, what show she was in, what character she played. Or, as here in the Mail, what her name was.

That surname is given consistently throughout the text (although, interestingly, not in one caption). But the Mail’s readers were immediately on the case: it should be Chambers, not Chalmers.*

Previously, we have observed the Mail’s revise desk hastening to intervene after a faulty story has gone up, but they couldn’t save the day this time. Not that they didn’t stop by: the article was published at 16.08, then updated at 16.29, then again at 17.50, then again at 21.18. But each time the largest error went uncorrected, to the increasing dismay of the commenters below:

This is not to rejoice at the presence of an error in a rival publication. In fact, something similar happened to a newspaper very close to this blog years ago, when a notable media executive’s name was got wrong, with total consistency, all the way through a story about his career. But in the era of the internet, there is an extra pair of eyes scouring for this kind of error – the readership’s. And now they can let let you know when something’s amiss. Or they can if you’re listening to them.

At the Tribune, there is an industrious Office of the Readers’ Editor, charged with representing the newspaper’s audience back to it in matters of complaint and error. They discharge this duty with impressive assertiveness and what sometimes feels like, but surely cannot be, glee. The heart sinks as an email arrives beginning “CCing subs: I think the reader might have a point here …” above a brusque message skewering another howler that got through the newsdesk and two layers of editing.

The same is true of comments. As the tide of vituperation rolls on, we are less enthused about this kind of interaction than we used to be, but we still allow comments on many pieces, and when we do, they are moderated after posting. The Mail takes a different approach – according to its FAQs, comments are either premoderated (that is, checked before being allowed on the site), or, more frequently, not moderated at all.

Even unmoderated comments can be policed to some extent by other users by using the Mail’s “upvote/downvote” function. Unfortunately, the posts pointing out the Chalmers/Chambers error don’t appear in either the worst or the best top 10 as voted. Lost in the middle of 100-plus contributions, many readers may not see them – and, in this case at least, no one from the Mail is looking at all.

*Also, of course, the “late actress” did not play a “much loved actress”: Alice was a verger. You may also feel that there are some commas missing in that sentence, and perhaps one too few in the first part of the standfirst.

That hint of print

24 Nov

“Sometimes,” says Andrew Marr, halfway through the Sunday paper review, “the best front pages are the ones online.” And he turns to an image of the tabloid Independent.

But of course, as we have previously discussed, the modern Independent front page is a curious thing. It is online, in the sense that it only exists virtually: the paper stopped printing in 2016. But in appearance, concept and execution, it relies on the language of print. It exists almost exclusively to be included in “what the papers say” roundups, where the visual rhetoric of the front page still has greater impact than a web article called up on an iPad. It is not a native digital format: the Independent’s true front page these days is its homepage, which looks very similar to other digital news fronts, and suffers from the same problem of being updated too often and too quickly to ever serve as a snapshot of a calendar day.

Another curious thing about it is that it still looks the same as it did when the paper stopped printing in 2016 – still with a visually dramatic single story next to the distinctive vertical masthead. In fact, that look dates all the way back to 2013; since that time, for instance, the Financial Times, Telegraph and Guardian have all been redesigned. Will the Independent’s digital front page ever be redesigned as well? Or will it have to stay as it is, fossilised by the necessity of reminding viewers of the time when it was a newspaper too?