Off-brand

31 Mar

At the Tribune, as we’ve discussed, we allow the US newsroom to write about Thursday ousters and the Australian newsroom to write about docos being spruiked, while the London office is exempted from calling football “soccer“. We “honour the writer’s voice” in each jurisdiction, so as not to foist an alien dialect of English on our intended audiences on different continents. If that means that, say, British readers are baffled by the phrase “spill vote” in an article written for Sydneysiders, then so be it. That has been always been the policy – or it was until we published a piece on the coronavirus paracetamol/ibuprofen controversy, and this email came round:

Now, I appreciate that there’s a war on, and that this may not be a harbinger of the future. But it is instructive that, when a story really matters – when it tramples across national boundaries, as the biggest stories always do – the writer’s-voice policy starts to wobble. You might argue that if the story has already been read half a million times in the US, then readers have successfully translated it for themselves, as they usually appear to do with international celebrity news. We’ve always held that line previously: that the domestic audience for each of the three newsrooms must not be offended by use of language that speaks first to another market.

But lives are at stake now, and in the bewildering blizzard of news about the pandemic, the thought of further confusion being caused by the separations in our common language is hard to bear. If only we could report the news so that everyone who read it could understand it equally quickly. Sadly, however, although we have a global crisis, we still don’t have a global English.

One ‘k’ in TikToker

17 Mar

More confirmation that that small cloud of dust on the horizon is actually the BuzzFeed style guide, racing away from the rest of us towards previously uncharted parts of the language. Some other style guides have a Twitter account, but not a Twitter account like this:

In case you, like me, are wondering what at least half of this means, let’s take it item by item. (I’ve looked things up in Urban Dictionary so that you don’t have to.)

 

Social video app originating in China in which (young) people lip-sync to short bursts of music or perform in other ways and share the results. Hugely popular; worries parents

The number of times you and a correspondent on the video-messaging app Snapchat have exchanged messages in quick succession (yes, they count such things)

Needs no explanation for Gen X-ers raised on The Dukes of Hazzard. Not quite sure why this is new – perhaps just to indicate that it’s closed up, not hyphenated

No, I had no idea either, but it’s short for Fake Instagram (account); a pseudonymous Instagram account that runs in parallel with one’s real Instagram (rinsta) but is made visible only to select friends (and not, one takes it, parents). Used to document unsayable thoughts, disastrous selfies and other unpolished content

Form of pop music sung in Cantonese and strongly associated with Hong Kong; also popular in many other parts of south-east Asia

We don’t have an entry for this in the Tribune style guide, which goes straight from “straitened circumstances” to “Strategic Rail Authority”

Quite surprised this was new for 2019 as well, as even we older types know what it means. To accidentally call somebody by sitting on your mobile phone and activating the screen (or in the old days, by pressing down on the keys)

Becoming widely embraced by baby boomers themselves, a phrase indicating weariness on a young person’s part with constant self-righteous nagging from their elders

An image, phrase, or piece of content likely or suitable to become an internet meme (the frog emoji, I am assuming, refers to the Pepe the Frog meme, in which a non-political cartoon character from an online comic was co-opted by white nationalists on social media and became a coded symbol indicating far-right sympathies)

A character in the latest Star Wars spinoff series The Mandalorian. Although of the same species as Yoda, the wise green sage from the original Star Wars films, it should be noted that the baby creature is not actually Yoda himself, and that the character’s official name is simply The Child

The people for whom this style guide will make the most sense. (To this day, I’m still unclear precisely what the sunglasses emoji is intended to signify)

‘Either is acceptable’

3 Mar

The style guide used to say this about “all right”:

Now it says this:

The Who, noted. Kingley Amis, noted. There are many voices. But what’s the style now? Is it all right? Is it alright? Is it both? (Also, doesn’t the difference between “she got the answers all right” and “she got the answers, alright!” depend on the presence of the comma, not the style of the word?)

Elsewhere in the guide, the entry for “swath” says:

Well, yes, they’re acceptable. They’re just variant spellings – they’re all acceptable. But that’s not the point.

Sometimes, a style choice signifies a particular way of thinking about a topic, a considered taking of sides on an important issue. But even when it’s just choosing between two versions of words that mean the same thing, the choice is still important. Successfully adhering to one style adds to the subliminal impression of an organisation as competent, alert and professional. The Guardian’s catastrophic history with misprints haunts it, in its nickname, to this day, even though there was nothing substantively inaccurate about the stories it published in those typo-strewn days. The accusation was an easy one to make – that imprecise spellers are also imprecise thinkers – and the mud stuck.

The most distinctive style choices can even act as canaries in the verbal coalmine: if the New Yorker ever starts getting inconsistent about the use of the diaeresis in “coöperate”, we will know something’s seriously wrong. Failing to specify a style in such instances may not change the meaning of a sentence, but it might start to change the way that your staff thinks about its job. “Either” should never be acceptable.

Fortunately, however, the style guide remains resonant and clear on the things that really matter:

 

 

Best Implied Object

18 Feb

Oscars night: the biggest night of the year for glitz, glamour and tabloid sentence constructions. And the competition looks  particularly fierce in one category:

Whereas implied-subject (or “flying verb”) headlines rarely make the red carpet these days, implied-object sentences – that is, sentences containing a normally transitive verb but no direct object – go from strength to strength.

To qualify for this award, the object has to be genuinely needed in the sentence; some naturally “unaccusative” verbs don’t require them. For instance, one may “sparkle” or “glow” in the absence of any observers, perhaps involuntarily,

but to “stun” or “dazzle” clearly implies inducing a reaction in a second party. Contenders must therefore rely on the understood presence of an audience to be parsed correctly.

And the shock winner is: SHOCKS!

The first foreign-language film to win Best Picture: that really did stun. The Academy never ceases to surprise.

Fast fashion

4 Feb

Baftas style is such big news that Mail Online is not just doing one story about the red carpet, but one story per dress. This should test the fashion desk’s powers of creativity and variation to the utmost.

Oh:

Neil Gaiman recently speculated that a particularly strange Mail article about him might have been written by a bot, or perhaps an elk. I’m not sure bots or elks are quite at that level yet, but there’s no doubt that these Bafta articles could have been created by importing data from a spreadsheet. All you need is the reporter filling in Excel fields with details of name, gender, age, claim to fame, and description of outfit, have the system generate a Daily Mail verb-phrase*, and the job is done.

{#GENDER} is {#CLAIM TO FAME} <break> And {#NAME} {#DAILY MAIL VERB PHRASE} in {#DESCRIPTION OF OUTFIT} at the Baftas.

The “She … And” transition, which was also used in the article about Gaiman, is often crashingly discontinuous, but it’s quick and equally inconsequential in all cases, which gives an air of consistency to the coverage. And if recycling your evening wear is the latest thing, why not recycle your ledes?

 

* “Left little to the imagination”, “put on a busty display”, “poured herself into”, “made the most of her assets”, “marvelled” (in its transitive form), etc

Another day, another dollar

21 Jan

Stories of the disastrous Australian bushfires are winging around the globe, and donors, including celebrity donors, are responding worldwide. But while the multinational anglophone news services – the Mail, the Guardian, the BBC  –  are in prime position to spread the word of the millions being pledged, they are having trouble, not for the first time, deciding exactly what kind of millions they are.

We have previously seen how a libel settlement awarded in Australian dollars was reported around the world, even in the US, as being simply in “dollars”. But this time, it’s not the media that is being vague about currency – it seems to be the celebrity donors themselves.

Elton John announced simply that he would be donating “$1m” to firefighters, speaking live on stage at a concert in Sydney. Chris Hemsworth made the same non-specific announcement in a video on social media. John is a Briton with ties to both the US and Australia, but particularly the former; Hemsworth an Australian who works in Hollywood but now chooses to live in his home country. What denomination of currency does each of them think in when they are speaking off the cuff? What kind of dollars do they mean?

Other celebrities have joined in. The singers Kylie Minogue (Australian, famous in Australia and Britain, somewhat less so in America) and Pink (American, lives in America, popular around the world) both pledged “$500,000”. If one were to guess – and it would only be a guess – one might surmise that Minogue meant Australian dollars and Pink United States dollars. But if so, that creates considerable unease about allowing the sentence “The pop star Pink said she would donate $500,000, which is the same amount Kylie Minogue pledged.” Is it actually the same amount?

The Daily Mirror, which professes less global ambition than some of its British rivals, feels confident enough to convert Minogue’s pledge into pounds on the assumption that she meant Australian dollars: £265k (as opposed to something like £380k if she had meant US).

But they haven’t done the same for Hemsworth, her fellow Australian, who broadcast his pledge at home in Australia but was equally non-specific.

Of course, in a crisis of this magnitude, when aid is urgently needed, this is a detail that should only worry sub-editors. Or perhaps sub-editors and international hard rockers with an eye for detail:

Thanks, Metallica.

 

Let it be

7 Jan

© Jane Draycott, 2016

There are times when one longs not to be an editor – such as, for example, when reading this poem in Jane Draycott’s wonderful recent collection The Occupant. “It Won’t Be Long” is a mesmerising meditation on the fact (of which I was unaware) that With The Beatles, the Beatles’ second album, came out on the same day that John F Kennedy was assassinated: 22 November 1963.

Named after the first song on the album, the poem is set in Draycott’s childhood home on the day in question, where father is struggling to make dinner for the family because mother is ill, and rapidly the political, cultural and domestic all get swirled together. The title of the poem simultaneously refers to the record, the progress in the kitchen and the events soon to occur in Dallas, six hours behind. Mention of the Vesta instant curry brings to mind Vesta, Roman goddess of hearth and home, who then seems to appear, flickeringly, in the outfit Jacqueline Kennedy wore that day (“navy trim and matching pillbox hat“). And because it’s 1963, no one (in the Beatles, presumably) has “even thought of going to India” – at least, not yet.

© EMI Records

But if it is 1963, that brings me to the thing I trip over in the first line, that brings the editor in me to alert and stops me being captivated straightaway (although I end up being captivated in the end). If you are an editor or a Beatles fan, you probably noticed it too. “Here Comes The Sun” isn’t on With The Beatles. It’s on Abbey Road. On 22 November 1963, it was still five years away from being written.

It’s a wonderful first line. And of course the purpose of the sun in the poem is not just to be a Beatles reference but to provide the light source that creates the shadow over America’s future, the globe in black and white, and perhaps even the half-moon faces of the Fab Four on the album’s famous cover. The poem would go dark without it.

Maybe if it wasn’t in italics, I wouldn’t trip over it so hard. Certainly elsewhere in the poem there are anachronistic echoes of lyrics from Come Together and I Am The Walrus (“come together now”, “we are all together”) that intrude less. But the fact that “Here comes the sun” is emphasised, and the fact that it comes directly after the citation “With The Beatles (Parlophone)”, makes it impossible for my literalistic, fact-checking soul to overlook. A lifetime on the desk leaves you mentally Googling everything. There are times when one longs not to be an editor.