Don’t touch that tweet

27 Oct

Can you name the president who transmitted this communique (lightly edited for tone and redundancy)?

Never threaten the United States again, or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few have suffered. We are no longer a country that will stand for your demented words of violence and death. Be cautious.

That’s right, of course: it was President Trump. Only he didn’t write it like that. He wrote it like this, on Twitter:

And the fact that he wrote it like that – shouting, emphatic, out of control – is as significant as the words themselves. If you were to intervene as above, by taking it out of caps (and tidying up the pleonasm), you would be editing back in a presidential register that the president either fails to understand or has chosen to abandon.

On social media, and on Twitter particularly, orthography tells a story and contains a subtext. It’s not just an anarchy in which the rules of formal English have lapsed: it’s that a different set of rules has partly supplanted them. That’s why – tempting though it is for older editors – you should never edit tweets.

Even we veterans can spot uppercase as signalling a register of speech: as Wired magazine says in an article about Trump’s tweet, it pre-dates the internet, and was one of the few typographical tools at hand in the earliest online chatgroups:

Philip Seargeant, a senior lecturer in applied linguistics at the Open University, says that the shouty all-caps convention really came into its own around the 80s and 90s, on early internet forums such as Usenet groups and bulletin boards. “The different ways of emphasising things were limited,” he explains. “Nowadays, we’ve got bold, italics, emoji, all sorts of things – in those days you had no opportunity for that.” You could put things in asterisks, space letters out to show you were being very deliberate in your speech, or use all-caps.

But what about its orthographical opposite – a tweet entirely in lowercase? In fact, that too carries a clear signal for the online-literate. On Twitter a couple of months ago, the videogames journalist Lucy O’Brien asked:

And the answers poured in, including this one from the Audible executive Maz Hamilton (citing mIRC, another internet chat system from the old days):

So the tone that’s being struck in all-lowercase is casual, often droll – the small voice at the back of the room – and not at all serious.

The millennial writer and humorist Joel Golby almost never uses capitals on Twitter, because almost all his tweets are ironic. For example, the absence of orthographical formality and the run-on sentence in this tweet

leads you to conclude – correctly – that he isn’t actually angry or ranting over the phone to the commissioning desk. But if you edit it into formal English, suddenly all the irony evaporates:

I went to the pub and it actually shut at 10pm. Column coming tomorrow: this is absolutely unacceptable.

Now it’s a notice of intent from a clarion of liberty at the Express.

Tweets look glaringly informal and unedited in formal, edited news writing. But that informality is often deliberate and coded, and created for a world in which formality is the exception, not the rule. (In fact, formality on social media can be so rare as to seem pointed: this is at the core of the neverending to-do about young people being offended by full stops). It may look awful (and that’s before we even consider the typos), but it was probably meant that way. Don’t edit it.

The Rebel effect

13 Oct

If you were, say, an ambitious anglophone news operation with sites in the UK, the US and Australia, and you wanted to test how well those operations were gelling, here’s one subject you could start with: Rebel Wilson.

Australian, US-domiciled, tabloid-friendly and popular everywhere, she regularly seems to present a test to the three-newsroom model. We have already seen the Mail and the Guardian stumble over the subject of her $4.5m libel win three years ago (Australian dollars? US dollars? Not sure!). Now she’s dieting furiously on Instagram, and inadvertently creating another weights and measures problem.

She announced* last week that she was only three kilos away from her goal, kilos being the measure that Australians commonly use for body weight.

In the article, even though it was produced by Daily Mail Australia, this is translated in the opening paragraph to 6.5 pounds, presumably with a northern-hemisphere audience in mind. On the UK homepage, the stories briefly appeared next to each other on Tuesday: one in the celebrity highlights box, the other in the Sidebar of Shame, one with the kilos measurement, one with the pounds.

At the end of the first paragraph of text, a British-friendly conversion into stones and pounds is added in brackets, for the full suite of anglosphere measures,

but further down, in a picture caption, a (presumably Australian?) sub-editor has fallen back into the system they know best (with the conversions given slightly different priorities).

Does it matter? These are just details: as we have discussed before, it doesn’t stop you understanding the heart of the story. Rebel’s diet is going well; Kylie is being generous; Big Lizzie has arrived in New York. But weights and measures are always redolently local and surprisingly resistant to change. And while small things like this remain so difficult to marshal for an international audience, readers are still being left with the subconscious impression that they’re reading a story meant for somebody else.

*Or, in Mail-speak, “flaunted”

Technical challenge

29 Sep

I was sure there’d be more and of my ground. And there is! Zeugma has returned to the Sidebar of Shame:

This one’s a bit trickier to parse because of the lure of low attachment, but the verb that all the phrases are hanging off, with positively Flanders-esque ambition, is “had”. (So she didn’t take LSD, an affair and a trip to an orgy etc). After you click on the link (and who’s not going to click on this?), it further emerges that what is meant by “Sex drugs…” is in fact “Sex, drugs …”, not a dangerous cocktail of Viagra and bicarbonate of soda.

The article headline has also attracted a slightly Gollum-esque double plural on “hallucinations”, but the most disappointing thing is that the really click-inducing part of the headline, “affair with her mum’s best friend’s husband”, is absolutely nowhere to be found in the text.

One might surmise that it was in there originally before, perhaps, a nervous lawyer asked for it to be removed? The article went live on 27 September, last Sunday, and reports being modified 24 hours later. If so, it’s slightly alarming that it was removed from the text while remaining in the headline. But, whatever the reason, it’s clear that Mail Online’s revise-desk repair crew hasn’t caught up with this one yet, and at this point, another day later, you wonder if they ever will. That, as we have said before, is the problem with a policy of publishing first and revising later. As colleague Ben in the office puts it, “never wrong for long” often ends up meaning “always wrong for ever”.

Stunning figure (of speech)

15 Sep

New on the Sidebar of Shame, amid the barely-there beachwear, implied-object verbs and discontinuous transitions: zeugma!

And while J-Lo is “teasing her hair and new music”, Lewis Burton almost gets there by “brazenly flaunting his second holiday”, although for the true effect, of course, he would need to have been brazenly flaunting his manly physique and second holiday.

But it’s early days, and  there’s every reason to think Mail Online will master this new classical figure of speech  – after all, look at its command of hyperbole and euphemism. So what’s next? Naomi Campbell covering her face and Vogue Australia? Kim Kardashian pouring herself into a swimsuit and her work?

Just a copy-desk man

1 Sep

© Vintage Classics, 2008

Leaving aside the works of Franz Kafka, there can’t be many novels with more downbeat openings than Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade:

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.

In its sober opening chapter, we discover that the girls’ mother, Pookie, is a woman with aspirations whose “eyes remain bewildered”, and that their father is – yes – a copy editor. And it is he we meet straight away, when they travel down to see him at work at the New York Sun.

They are excited by the prospect: “Anyone could be a flashy, irresponsible reporter or a steady drudge of a rewrite man; but the man who wrote the headlines!” However, although Mr Grimes may be a hero to his daughters, he isn’t one to himself.

As they walked out across City Hall Park in the spring sunshine he held them both by the hand …

“City Hall doesn’t look like much, does it?” Walter Grimes said. “But see that big building there, through the trees? The dark red one? That’s the World – was, I should say; it folded last year. Greatest daily newspaper in America.”

“Well, but the Sun’s the best now, right?” Sarah said.

“Oh no, honey; the Sun isn’t really much of a paper.”

“It isn’t? Why?” Sarah looked worried.

“Oh , it’s kind of reactionary.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means very, very conservative, very Republican.”

“Aren’t we Republicans?”

“I guess your mother is, baby. I’m not.”

“Oh.”

He had two drinks before lunch, ordering ginger ale for the girls; then, when they were tucking in to their chicken à la king and mashed potatoes, Emily spoke for the first time since they’d left the office. “Daddy, if you don’t like the Sun, why do you work there?”

His long face, which both girls considered handsome, looked tired. “Because I need a job, little rabbit,” he said. “Jobs are getting hard to find. Oh, I suppose if I were very talented, I might move on, but I’m just – you know – I’m only a copy-desk man.”

This is what one might call the Andrew Marr view of sub-editors: people with a “sense of insecurity, an edgy defensiveness”, inclined to moroseness and bound to their desks. It’s hard to avoid thinking that Walter’s profession might have been chosen to fit the whole mood of the novel: out on the rim, unfulfilled, looking on at the successful. So near and yet so far: the story of two nearly girls with a nearly man for a father.

But we know that isn’t true, don’t we? We know that sub-editors are the kind of people who can’t help but write 11 off-colour headlines for one story about a burger-chain sex scandal. The kind of people who pursue front-page running jokes that haunt public figures long after they’ve retired. Or the kind of people who put inflammatory words in other people’s mouths (CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS?) without ever giving them the right of reply. However profound one’s concerns about the ethics of such behaviour, it’s hardly the work of the defeated or the marginalised. Sub-editors, especially tabloid ones, are instigators. Not infrequently, we’re the ones causing all the trouble.

Making a meal of it

18 Aug

Tabloids like a joke even when there isn’t really a story. But even when there is a story, of course there still has to be a joke.

So – unlike a previous occasion in which the Star led with a story about a hamster so that it could reprise a famous headline – here the Sun reports an actual news item. A chief executive of McDonald’s, who departed with a payoff after having an affair with a colleague, is now being sued for his severance package by the company for other alleged dalliances, denied at the time. There’s money, there’s sex, there’s burgers – it’s news. And what’s the headline? MUCKY D’S!*

Or at least, that’s the main headline. But if you look further down the piece, there’s a decorative red and yellow box, scattered with fast-food clip art, that is, in effect, a menu of alternative headlines. It’s not a fact box, or a timeline, or a related story, or additional information of any kind: just a collection of sub-editorial gags that didn’t make it to the top of the page.

So we have Bacon Double Sleazeburger (fair), Happy Ending Meal (yikes), Sausage McStuffin (yikes), Thrillet-o-Fish (weak), Quarter Hounder With Cheese (what?) Supersize Lies (alleged), Sweet Curry Saucy (weak), Bit on the Side Salad (fair), Spicy McRub (what?), Robinsons Fruity Shoot (weak) and Cheesy Bacon Flat Bed (weak, and requires prior knowledge of the existence of the Cheesy Bacon Flatbread).

Obviously, this never happens on broadsheets, where one nuanced headline on the deteriorating political situation in Belarus is usually enough. Not that a little levity to intrigue the reader is a bad thing; Arthur Christiansen might have approved of that. But when handfuls of extra jokes are being thrown in to the bag like sachets of tomato ketchup, you do wonder anew whether redtop readers are buying the paper for the news or the comedy.

*For transatlantic readers: in Britain, McDonald’s is often referred to as Maccy D’s, so via a simple change in vowel sound one arrives at … oh, you’ve  got it.

Death of a Dictionary

4 Aug

Wikipedia; © Merriam-Webster

Manhattan, 1961. He was a charismatic gumshoe with a ready wit, the leg-man for a sedentary detective genius. She was a woman with money and trouble, big brown eyes and a “mouth that would have been all right with the corners turned up instead of down”. In the study of a New York brownstone, fear and murder are about to meet their match. Except there has been an outbreak of descriptivism, so the detective genius is indisposed:

“I’d better explain,” I told her … “There’s a fireplace in the front room, but it’s never lit because he hates open fires. He says they stultify mental processes. But it’s lit now because he’s using it. He’s seated in front of it, on a chair too small for him, tearing sheets out of a book and burning them. The book is the new edition, the third edition, of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged, published by the G. & C. Merriam Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. He considers it subversive because it threatens the integrity of the English language. In the past week he has given me a thousand examples of its crimes. He says it is a deliberate attempt to murder the — I beg your pardon …”

She was staring up at me. “He’s burning up a dictionary?”

He rarely stands when a caller enters, and of course he didn’t then, with the dictionary, the two-thirds of it that was left, on his lap. He dropped sheets on the fire, turned to look at her, and inquired, “Do you use ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ interchangeably, Miss Blount?”

She did fine. She said simply, “No.”

“This book says that you may. Pfui.”

Webster’s Third, as it is known, caused such a stir when it was published in September 1961 that it was condemned in the comment pages of the New York Times, described as a “political pamphlet” by the historian Jacques Barzun and ceremonially destroyed, as we see, by Nero Wolfe in Rex Stout’s thriller Gambit. For lexicographers, It was a landmark in the journey from prescriptivism to descriptivism that had begun in the 1910s; for the first time, a major US dictionary had been explicitly based on observation of words in everyday usage, rather than authoritative declarations of meaning.

As Wikipedia notes, it eliminated the labels “colloquial”, “correct”, “incorrect”, “proper”, “improper”, “erroneous”, “humorous”, “jocular”, “poetic”, and “contemptuous”, among others, leading to charges that it had abandoned the idea of “proper English”. Looking back in a 2012 article in Publishers Weekly, David Skinner wrote: “Pronunciations came to include a dizzying number of variations, all apparently equal in merit. Most controversial of all was [the editor’s] policy on disputed usages: Webster’s Third adopted a position of scholarly neutrality on words more conservative dictionaries rushed to label colloquial or slang or vulgar. It was a pure dictionary, all about the words, but utterly agnostic on many tricky issues dictionary users cared deeply about.”

It was, then, a classically descriptivist book: admirably humble and egalitarian in its intent, but maddeningly silent on the socially enforced niceties of discourse that readers nonetheless had to navigate. Like much descriptivist literature, it resembles an etiquette book that lectures you on the tyranny of dress codes when all you want to know is how to knot a tie. And although it is widely hailed for its great scholarship, its symbolic role in the culture wars makes it hard for some people to acknowledge even to this day.

In the historic gay rights case Bostock v Clayton County, decided in June, the US Supreme Court ruled that the employment protections of the Civil Rights Act did indeed extend to those unfairly treated as a result of their sexuality. The lead opinion was written by the Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch – a judge on the right of the court. But although he may have surprised liberals by finding in favour of Bostock, he was apparently still too much of a conservative to rely on Webster’s Third in doing so. As the lawyer and linguist Stephen Mouritsen points out on Twitter, Gorsuch used Webster’s Second (1954) to find a definition of “discrimination” as it was understood at the time the Civil Rights Act was passed, even though Webster’s Third was seven years closer in time to the passing of the Act in 1964.

A major consolidation of US civil rights for a minority suffering injustice? By all means. But not with the assistance of That Book.

It’s possible that this view of Webster’s Third has hardened over 60 years, but I’m not sure. One gets the impression that attitudes may have been entrenched right from the moment it was published:

There wasn’t much of the dictionary left, and, while I counted, five-hundreds and then C’s, he tore and dropped. I counted it twice to make sure, and when I finished there was no more dictionary except the binding.

“Twenty-two grand,” I said.

“Will this burn?” he asked.

“Sure; it’s buckram. It may smell a little. You knew you were going to burn it when you bought it. Otherwise you would have ordered leather.”

The Christiansen Method

21 Jul

‘I did not see anything about the Liberal transport proposals’: Christiansen on screen. (BFI)

Thinking further about Arthur Christiansen’s wooden yet commanding presence in The Day The Earth Caught Fire reminded me of a thought that frequently occurs to this blog: that journalists are only famous to other journalists, and even then not always for long.

He was editor of the Daily Express from 1933 to 1957, hailed as one of the great press innovators and a genius of presentation, but I wonder how many people in Britain today remember who he is. I had only barely heard of him until I saw him on screen, and even at the Tribune he is never mentioned as a guiding light in the way that others such as CP Scott and Harold Evans are. (Of course that may be because the Tribune is a broadsheet that only looks up to broadsheet figures; I’m sure he is venerated to this day at the Express).

In his glowing but not uncritical account of Christiansen in How Journalism Works (1964), Roy Nash writes:

Time may well prove him to have been the greatest of all creators of the commercially successful popular newspaper image. Night after night, for nearly a quarter of a century, he designed an ingeniously eye-catching paper so compelling in appearance that it had to be read … He and his work almost totally dominated Fleet Street, conditioned and moulded its life, and only now are the rivals of his Daily Express trying to free themselves from his powerful influence.

But, Nash adds, his drive to “capture the reader’s interest … and lead it along by the hand” had unforeseen consequences:

Reporting in the Christiansen manner called for great skill in writing and especially in sub-editing. Sub-editing was, in fact, for the first time raised to a high professional level. But the technique had its dangerous traps into which the unwary fell. The logical step in trying to present every story in a totally simplified fashion was to assume that most news was, inherently, composed of simple black and white elements …

This led to something that Christiansen had neither intended nor wanted; a return to embroidered reporting. News tended, in the Fleet Street phrase, to be “hardened”. Events that were compounded of the indecisive greys and off-whites of news were turned into apparently clear-cut blacks and whites. Selected aspects of many of the highly complex problems that Britain faced immediately after the war were reduced to ludicrous levels and treated with alarming irresponsibility.

The Express was still broadsheet-sized at the time Christiansen edited it, but what Nash is describing here sounds like, in effect, the birth of the modern tabloid: a combination of vividness, exaggeration and jumping to conclusions that one associates more these days with the likes of Paul Dacre and Kelvin MacKenzie.

As editor, Christiansen used to write a daily bulletin to his staff, and the former Express journalist Geoffrey Mather has collected many of the most engaging quotes from them on his website. They’re fascinating. And they do, as Nash suggests, hint at a journalist of a somewhat different type to Dacre and MacKenzie: one constantly struggling, not always successfully, to reconcile the instinct to excite with the desire to be high-minded. (At one stage, for example, he writes: “Watch out for loaded stories. There is a tendency for reporters to write copy which, sentence for sentence, seems innocuous, but which adds up in detail to the dangerous business of creating a prejudicial atmosphere.” Well, quite.)

Some of his observations are resonant aphorisms for modern journalists that might stand alongside words from Scott or Evans. Some of them are rather less so: dated quibbles about grammar or now-baffling social niceties. And many of them involve discussions of people and scandals that are now – like the journalists who wrote about them – almost completely forgotten:

Yesterday in a story about a broken romance we referred to the the girl’s occupation as that of bottler in a lemonade factory. We used to have a rule that we did not refer to the occupations of people in lowly stations when romance or broken romance was involved. It is a good rule and should be revived. (3 March 1953)

In the early editions at any rate there were too many stories about things and not enough stories about people. Significant news predominated – and while that is fine, you will never get people to digest significant news if there is nothing else on the diet sheet. Contrast is the heart and soul of a newspaper. (Even the Manchester Guardian, on a day pregnant with heavy news, found space on its front page to say that goats are to be replaced by sheep on the Malayan rubber estates.) (17 March 1953)

Many, many stories in the Daily Express today are of violent character. Maybe a leavening of more “thoughtful” news is necessary. I do not see anything about the Liberal transport proposals, for example. We should always seek to balance so-called shock tactics with an appeal to the thoughtful reader. (8 August 1952)

All my journalistic thinking is based on making the news so inviting to people that they read involuntarily news which normally would not interest them. That is why I rejoice when headlines such as “Four Mr Europes woo Miss Britain” are written on a story from the Strasbourg conference. It is the hope that such novel presentation will at least open the door. (27 November 1951)

With the arrival of June weather we should try to make the paper suit the optimism of the masses. Never forget that the Daily Express is noted for its tonic effect. And while on this subject, it might be well to restate the three-fold rule for our paper:

1. Never set the police on anybody.
2. Never cry down the pleasures of the people.
3. Remember our own habits and frailties when disposed to be critical of others. (4 June 1951)

I get queasy about salacious reporting. All the papers are going in for it, and in the case of the Indian doctor it was quite shocking for a family man to have to read so much detail. Surely we can take a decision to print as little salacious matter as is necessary to prove the case for the prosecution or the defence – and no more. A typical example last week was the phrase in the doctor case that there was “intimacy in a car on two occasions on the back seat”. It is the phrase “on the back seat” which leaves little to the imagination. (5 March 1951)

It is the journalistic fashion to concentrate on the first paragraphs of stories. I believe in that. But I believe just as emphatically in the perfection of the last paragraph. (5 February 1953)

Many more here.

 

 

First-paragraph blues

7 Jul

The column opens with a quotation:

Actually, some Googling reveals that the quote (from John Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy) is actually a question and answer – two people speaking, not one – so there should be a closing quotation mark after “Keynesian”.

Actually, hang on. The whole thing is a quotation with dialogue inside it, so there ought to be a closing quotation mark at the end:

And of course an opening quotation mark at the start. The style at the Tribune is for quotation marks that form part of a drop-capital paragraph to be single when they open, and double when they close, in the body text. Thus:

But now that just looks like an opening double quote. Will readers understand that they are in fact two opening single quotes in a row? What if we go double-single?

Yikes. Three giant orange quotation marks. And look what happens to the line breaks.

It looks increasingly – and I hate contemplating this – that I’m going to have to compromise. In extreme circumstances like these, it is sometimes suggested that the opening paragraph can be rewritten. I always refuse to do it: the formatting should serve the writing, not the other way round. And in this case, I’m hardly about to start rewriting Le Carré’s bestselling dialogue to fit the column width.

So it turns out that if you quietly dispense with one of the opening quotes and tighten the gap between the two dropped characters, the paragraph suddenly fits neatly on six lines:

That looks nice. It’s wrong, but it looks nice. It’s good to have something to sweeten the pill of expediency. And it lets the reader get smoothly into the flow of the column without tripping over a picket of inverted commas. Or that’s what I’m telling myself.

What quotes say

23 Jun

Halfway through the paper review on the day after the dreadful terror attack in Reading, Nick Robinson stops at the Mail on Sunday front page – ‘3 KILLED’ BY KNIFEMAN IN PARK TERROR – and taps the closing quotation mark. “‘Three killed’: at the time of this being produced it hadn’t been confirmed; I think it now has been,” he says.

He doesn’t clarify why he’s pointing to the quotation mark. He doesn’t explain how he knows there was some uncertainty in the Mail newsroom last night. He doesn’t say “Claim quotes, although not verbatim quotes, are accepted in some news cultures as an attributional shorthand for unverified statements made by a third party“. He doesn’t need to. He’s speaking to a British audience who got up in time to watch the politics shows. Everyone understands.