Netflix elliptical

12 Jun

A few words. A glimpse into the heart of conflict. But there’s no space here for specifics.

And that’s the trouble when you’re browsing through Netflix. The way the screen is laid out, there’s only the briefest space to grab your attention when you happen across an interesting film/TV series/documentary. In about 20 words, it’s got to try to engage you, so the summaries are strong on emotion: anger, vengeance, honour, fear, justice, family, love. But they do tend to be a bit vague.

You notice this particularly if you read them shorn of their accompanying title and image. Take this one, for example

It’s so non-specific as to be almost featureless. Could it be The Tempest? Yes. The Count of Monte Cristo? Easily. (In fact, it’s Deadpool.) Similarly, this description of tough action thriller Close Range

could serve quite well as a plot summary for The Code of the Woosters.

If you’re a journalist who has to get your headline through an audience team before it can go up on the web, you see immediately what’s missing here: keywords. What the homepage links need is some SEO. And that’s what they get, eventually, on the more detailed summary page you get if you follow the link. So, none the wiser as to what Close Range might be about, but eager to find out, you click to discover a second sentence, only slightly longer, containing everything to put you in the picture:

Ex-soldier/kidnapped niece/crooked sheriff/drug cartel. Got it. And that’s only 24 words (admittedly with two compounds) compared to the first summary’s 19.

Similarly, this

becomes a lot clearer when some detail is added,

not least the key information that it’s a kidnapping/imprisonment drama set in Thailand.

The more you look, the more you start to think that journalism skills are slightly more transferable to other spheres than is often  believed. It wouldn’t be difficult, for a sub trained to spot a news angle and move it to the top of the article, to fix these. I wonder if Netflix would ever employ any editors? Facebook does, sort of, although not for this.

A man with a remote. The glimmer of an idea. This time, anything could happen.

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The 18th type of headline

29 May

One edition of the New York Post, two page leads that give pause for thought for anyone who, a week earlier, might have ambitiously been attempting to compile a taxonomy of headlines:

The back-page headline is of a recognisable type: the question is, which type? The Post is understandably jubilant about the Mets’ series triumph over the Arizona Diamondbacks, but that doesn’t fully explain what it means by SWEEP SNAKES. As the team that lost all three games on their visit to New York, it wasn’t the Snakes that were doing the sweeping, as the headline implies: the Snakes were the ones being swept.

So this could be one of two things. It could just be another unparseable tabloid pun (headline type 12): aspects of the story jammed together to create a homophonous phrase without too much attention paid to syntax. But the presence of a verb and an object along with the obvious absence of the subject, especially in an American publication, also entices one to think that it might be a flying verb (headline type 14): that the intended sentence is in fact METS SWEEP SNAKES.

In the UK, the Sun also comes up with headlines very like this – ones that make more grammatical sense if you assume the subject is implied – but there’s no tradition of flying-verb constructions in Britain and the assumption in those cases has to be just that sense has been sacrificed in the pursuit of the joke.

That would certainly seem to be the case on the Post’s front page headline too, at least for the part in big type: there is not much actual grammatical sense to be found in the phrase WEED MY LIPS. But the preamble above, “De Blasio to NYPD”, recalls a famous American headline from days gone by, still regularly reproduced today, that is harder to categorise:

The original appeared in New York in 1975, when President Ford made a speech declining to approve federal assistance to the near-bankrupt city authorities, to the fury of the Daily News. As the New York Times remembers, FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD was originally notorious for its perceived lack of fairness – was it really accurate to summarise the president’s words in such a belligerent way? Ford himself blamed it for his losing New York, and by extension the presidency, to Jimmy Carter in the following year’s election, even though by that stage he had relented and loaned the city money. But as a form, its rhetorical efficiency is so obvious that it has outlived its controversial origins and become a reliable construction in its own right.

It’s not quite a voice-of-the-author (headline type 5) because it attempts to speak in the voice of the protagonist, rather than the writer. And it’s not quite an annotated quote (headline type 4) because the intent is clearly to editorialise the message rather than simply reproduce it. It therefore qualifies, I think, as an 18th type of headline, and the list will be updated accordingly. (A scant two weeks after being published. Still, I did say it was hubristic).

The 17* types of headline (*actually 18)

29 May

A bit hubristic to think this is all of them (and there are some hybrid forms), but here goes with a first attempt at a taxonomy:*

UPDATE, 29 MAY 2018: An 18th category of headline has been added: The voice of the protagonist (editorialised).

 

1) The simple declarative sentence

The first option to consider for straight news stories. Works at its best when the story is so good as to not require embellishment: NIXON QUITS, MEN WALK ON MOON, WHALE SWIMS PAST COMMONS. Can be used quite effectively to express opinion as well as facts (eg for leading articles). Doesn’t work for features, where it is important to signal the elevated quality of the writing in the headline, or interviews, where it’s much more interesting to hear the interviewee’s words verbatim. Exists in reversed form at the New York Times, with the prepositional phrase positioned at the start (“In Lower Saxony, An Artisan In Cheese Evokes Fond Memories”).

 

2) The existential emotion

Actually also a declarative sentence, but one that omits an understood existential clause (“There is”, “There are”, “There will be”) at the beginning in order to start with the exciting bit: anger, shock, horror, etc. Distinctively British.

 

3) The killer quote

Just the quote on its own, with no attribution or explanation. Effective when an opportunity to use it presents itself, which it rarely does, because without any annotation the quote will have to be both eye-catching and completely self-explanatory (at least for the web), which few ever are. (Even this one, from the BBC, inserts the word ‘also’).

 

4) The annotated killer quote

Ideal for interviews, vox pops and eyewitness stories: just find the most pithy phrase the subject says, and fill in the background afterwards. However, like the popular shopping-list and zingy-kicker headlines (see below), it usually requires a colon, which can mean the paper filling up quickly with kicker-style heds.

 

5) The voice of the author

A less demanding, paraphrased form of the killer quote, where the headline is written in the interviewee’s (or sometimes columnist’s) voice without actually being verbatim. Frequently begins with “My …”.

 

6) The then-and-now

The best way to approach large measures: however big your headline box is, this technique will fill it. Also works well for standfirsts. All the material you need is there in the body text, which is hundreds of words long: all you have to do is insert as much of the backstory as you need to take up the space, then follow it up with the news item in the first paragraph of the copy. Not useful for one-column NIB headlines.

 

7) The brusque rebuttal (aka the ‘No, the Earth isn’t flat’)

By far the most effective rebuttal headline, and the exception that proves the rule, observed in some newsrooms, that headlines should never begin with the words “No” or “Don’t”. Works because it begins with the denial, whereas any other contentious form has to begin with the subject of the dispute (“The Numbers On Toaster Dials Don’t … “) or a more abstract construction “(Why It Is Not True That ….”), which dissipates the impact. A relatively new form: perhaps that’s because it’s particularly effective when rebroadcast on Twitter, where directness is the standard mode of address.

 

8) The head-scratching question

A world full of questions also tends to generate journalism full of questions. Not exactly a recommended style, but often the only kind of headline you can write on pieces that fail to come to any solid conclusion. Usage per edition should be carefully rationed.

 

9) The insinuating question

Is this the most insidious headline form in Britain? As unscrupulous back benches know, a question headline means rarely having to say you’re sorry in the libel courts. Entirely different from the head-scratching question, because it knows precisely what it wants you to think. Ethically dubious.

 

10) The question-and-answer

The most respectable form of question headline, it at least has the courage to come a conclusion on its own. Good for comment and analysis pieces, as it gives the impression of a position being taken only after due consideration of the issues. Too indecisive-sounding for editorials, where the tone of certainty must be absolute.

 

11) The single-word shocker

GOTCHA! HORROR! WINNERS! OUTRAGE! Usually only for special occasions, or occasions you wish to imply are special.

 

12) The unparseable pun

An exclusively tabloid creation, often comprised of a well-known phrase, apposite to the story, with one word changed to reflect another aspect of the story. You can see the relevance of the first part; you can see the joke in the second part. But you can’t actually extract any sense out of the resulting sentence when you put the two together. A separate category from the standard tabloid pun headline, which is often a readily comprehensible sentence with homophone substitutions.

 

13) The zingy kicker

A joke, sometimes even an unparseable pun, but with an explanation afterwards to help you understand it. Another tempting headline form that requires a colon.

 

14) The flying verb

Omits the subject of the sentence (creating an “implied subject”) and starts with a verb. Almost exclusively American. Often baffling. Now very rare.

 

15) The columnist’s imperative

Voice of cold command, using the imperative mood, from the most authoritative figures in the land, viz one’s own opinion writers. Achieves its apotheosis in the form of the “open letter” (“DEAR PRINCE HARRY, don’t assume …”).

 

16) The how/why

Seductive and explanatory (and perilously easy to overuse). Gives the impression of an organisation with a high level of expertise and a mission to enlighten. Often a marker of the more highbrow publication. (The tabloid headline: I SLEPT WITH 1,000 WOMEN. The broadsheet headline: WHY I SLEPT WITH 1,000 WOMEN.)

 

17) The shopping list

Useful for nervous sub-editors confronted by legally complex stories with many moving parts. Also good if neither you or (you fear) the reporter fully understands the relationships between all the players in the drama, because it entirely dispenses with verbs; as we have previously discussed, verbs can get you sued.

 

18) The voice of the protagonist (editorialised)

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Compact and effective quote-style headline in which the subject of the story’s words are pithily summarised, sometimes to his or her disadvantage. Far more editorialised than other quotation heds. Have caused controversy.

 

*I’ve attempted to classify headlines by rhetorical form rather than tone: most of these headline types can equally be funny or serious, punning or straight, while retaining the same essential structure

Bard choices

1 May

Style guide quiz! Does this entry mean

(i) The correct style to use in all situations is “Stratford-on-Avon”, given that the usual approach in the Tribune’s style guide is to give the correct style in the bold heading of the entry?

(ii) This is the correct style to use for the district council and parliamentary seat only, and that another, unspecified, style is correct for other usages? (This is the only entry in the guide that covers the issue, however.)

(iii) If the answer to (i) is no and the answer to (ii) is yes, do you take the second part of the style note to mean

(a) That the use of “upon” by most other local organisations is a guide to what our style should be; or

(b) Only that the sub-editor should be aware of this common variant when giving the names of the organisations in question?

(iv) If the answer to (iii)(a) is no and the answer to (iii)(b) is yes … does anyone know what our style for the town is?

To find a style guide entry with too much explanation and too little instruction is a rare thing: usually, it’s the other way around. For example, AP lists several commonplace and rarely misspelled words, such as “countryside” and “sandwich”, in its guide with no indication as to the reason for their presence. Similarly, the Telegraph’s banned word list contains, without a word of explanation, “huge” and “toilet”. But perhaps the best place for fascinating but under-glossed entries these days is BuzzFeed, which I’m sure is an oversight on its part and nothing to do with the fact that fortysomething broadsheet sub-editors are now being comprehensively left behind by the pace of events:

 

Are you ready for some soccer?

17 Apr

Spotted on the Daily Mail, both on the UK homepage:

Blackburn Rovers’ Bradley Dack and his reality-star ex-girlfriend are bread and butter for the Mail’s British site, and you might argue that the son of Lance Armstrong is too: but for sure neither Bradley nor (one suspects) anyone else in League One has ever been a “preferred walk-on”*. Of course, that’s because the two men operate in entirely different sports: but last week Mail UK had them both playing “football”.

This blog is generally sanguine about the accidental merging of news agendas as media organisations spread out across the anglosphere. A story’s a story, even if confusions occasionally arise over different dress sizes or the fact that more than one country calls its currency the “dollar”. If articles leak across the content management system into other jurisdictions, as one has here, there’s often no harm: British readers are happy to critique an NBA player’s scatter cushions or admire a Jersey Shore star’s $5,000 dress.

But this word, you suspect, is going to be a sticking point. In the US, American football is just “football” and football is “soccer”. In Britain, “football” is the game sanctioned by the FA, and all other games with the same name are qualified geographically: American football, Australian rules football, even Rugby football. American readers might be disappointed to discover that a story about a troubled “football player” doesn’t involve the NFL, and in Britain there would be open revolt if UK news organisations routinely referred to the national game as “soccer”, even though the term is British in origin.

Imposing one style across all jurisdictions is out of the question here. So what to do? This appears to be another case where the sometimes unsatisfactory approach adopted by the Guardian on its transatlantic ventures – that of “honouring the author’s voice” – is the only one that’s going to work. As its former production editor in the US, Maraithe Thomas, explains:

We might be born of a British news organisation but we were here to report on the US and to carve out our own space as a fully American news outlet. But then were we going to change the English of veteran British journalists, who were reporting over here, into American English? That didn’t feel right. …

What we decided to do, as I did my best to explain to the Atlantic, was to honor the individual reporter’s voice. British English would of course be maintained throughout the Guardian newspaper, but online we would follow the reporter’s lead.

This approach does, of course, create many problems of its own, not least the one of leaving readers to work out which “football” a news organisation is talking about in any individual story. But not every Americanism or Britishism travels smoothly across the Atlantic: sometimes there’s serious cultural resistance. And when there is, whichever sport you’re talking about, it’s unwise to pick sides.

 

*That is, a college player not good enough to be granted a sports scholarship, but nonetheless likely to see playing time (as opposed to normal non-scholarship players, who frequently must hang on tooth and nail just to stay in the squad).

 

Happy anniversary

3 Apr

Ten Minutes Past Deadline is five! I’d like to say “five today”, but in fact it was five last Friday: the first post on this site went up on 30 March 2013.

Although many subjects have attracted its attention, including baseball, cartoons and the rise of IMDb’s formidable robot copydesk, this blog has all too frequently returned to the subject that first inspired it: prescriptivism and formal English. The first post that ever appeared here arose from years of reading two inspiring blogs – You Don’t Say and HeadsUp – and, through them, becoming increasingly engaged with editing’s big issues: ethics, grammar, ambiguity, statistics, and, above all, language change.

Written in response to a debate on how forward-thinking one should be when editing someone else’s writing, that post was motivated by a slightly defensive sense that although formal English was indefensible, it was somehow important too: and that, even though the case against prescriptivist crotchets was unanswerable, deadline was not the right moment to get into an argument with a writer over notional agreement.

Five years later, that debate is as hard to resolve as ever, but the advice, tips and ideas readers have offered over that time have helped move the blog forward immeasurably. Thank you to everyone who’s read, commented, shared, liked, quoted, linked to, disagreed with and retweeted it over the past half-decade. And, by way of celebration, here is a distillation of what Ten Minutes Past Deadline now thinks it thinks (at least currently) about formal English:

 

Formal English is absurd, but unmistakable

There is no academic justification for the ban on split infinitives, or the stricture that forbids qualifying a sentence with “hopefully”, or the objection to ending a sentence with a preposition, or for many of the other rules taught or followed as being “good English”. And yet, taken together, those rules have come to create a recognisable register: a tone, a rhetoric, a voice. However baseless its antecedents, when formal English is spoken, everyone recognises it for what it is: the language in which power speaks and expects to be addressed.

 

Formal English is not imposed from above

The English language has no central authority, not even an ineffectual one like the Academie Française. Everyone who has tried to suggest usage changes, or best practice, or new words, has had to do so from a position as a private citizen – or, at best, as part of a self-appointed body. None of them have had the power to compel correct usage. The mechanism by which, say, a language commentator’s suggestion becomes a teaching point in primary-school English, which is then carried forward into the solicitors’ letters and leading articles of a generation of adults, is an achievement of influence, not enforcement. Prescriptivism in English has to win hearts and minds; there is no state imprimatur to reinforce the message. Which leads us to a surprising conclusion:

 

Formal English is a descriptivist phenomenon

In Modern English Usage, Fowler suggested dozens of improvements to written English, some of which caught on: some, but not all. In the 1930s, a BBC committee invented dozens of words to describe new phenomena in modern life, some of which caught on: some, but not all. Proposing, it appears, is not enough: every piece of language change, from the accidental to the intentional, has to pass the test of usage.

Some of Fowler’s ideas were terrible, but some – such as his forgotten proposals for punctuating parentheses – were just as useful as his “which/that” distinction, which has become a staple of legal English. Similarly, the BBC committee failed in its primary task of inventing a new word for one who watches television (the corporation rejected  “auralooker” and went for “viewer”), but it did successfully popularise the term “roundabout” for the road junction. The unpredictability of these successes and failures suggests that prescription, just like natural language change, is subject to the mysterious processes of acceptance by which English is ultimately formed. That means many prescriptivist initiatives are doomed to failure: but it does suggest that the ones that have survived to create what we now call “formal English” have passed the stern test of public approval.

Hit to left field

20 Mar

A late night, headphones on,  Spotify’s auto playlist generator running into uncharted territory. And suddenly, this comes on:

I turn my chin music up
And I’m puffing my chest
I’m getting red in the face
You can call me obsessed

Turn up? … What? … I don’t … hang on. Someone ought to tell Nick Jonas that chin music ain’t the kind of music you listen to.

After the Jonas Brothers broke teenage hearts by disbanding in 2013, Nick Jonas returned to the top 10 the following year with this: his first solo hit, Jealous. Lots of people like it, but not everyone is quite sure what he’s talking about.

“Chin music” has two generally agreed meanings, per the authorities: it is a US expression meaning “idle chat or empty talk”, or, specifically in baseball, “aggressive pitching aimed near the batter’s head”. But neither of those senses pairs very well with the song’s clear tunes-and-headphones metaphor. Idle talk is an odd thing to admit to when one is in the grip of strong emotions. And incidents of chin music, or “brushback pitches”, in baseball are sudden, unexpected aggressions that can lead to brawls or to pitchers being expelled from the game; they don’t fit easily with the metaphor of something that’s already “playing in the background”.

The song causes so much confusion that even the lyrics websites are unsure what to do. Lyricsmode.com thinks he’s saying “cheer music“. Google’s own version of the words at one point has Jonas sing

but also (in common with several other sites), this:

So is “cheek”, in fact, what he’s saying? That would make sense: evoking the feeling of a slap in the face or injured forbearance. No, apparently not: Flaunt Magazine actually sought chapter and verse on this in 2014, and got the man himself on the record:

“Prince’s drummer – name drop there – his name is Michael Bland. He was talking to me one time on tour, and I was telling him a story about something, and he was like: ‘Oh, he was giving you chin music?’ It’s like, what? What are you talking about? And he was like, ‘It’s when someone gives you attitude. They give you that chin music.’” At this point Jonas stretches his chin to the sky and pantomimes strumming his neck vertically with his fingers, chest to jaw, like an esoteric guitar. “I went online and there are like 50 different definitions. The most popular one is baseball: someone throws something high inside – it’s chin music. Kind of telling the batter to back up. I loved that as the best representation of the feeling in the song. You’re sorta like, hey, back up a little bit, when someone’s being too, you know, excited about your girlfriend.”

So he does mean it in the sporting sense. I’m not sure it works quite the way he wants it to, but this is hardly the first time that someone has taken a phrase from the game and forced it into a different meaning for everyday life. Sport is a rich field for metaphors, but the ones borrowed from baseball often seem to lose a lot in translation. For example:

“Touch base” (business) For years, this has meant to catch up with a colleague, even though in baseball touching a base – whether returning to it between pitches or stepping on it on your way round to home plate – is usually conducted without speaking to the only other player in the vicinity, who is in any event an opponent rather than a team-mate.

“Pinch hitter” (cricket) In baseball, a pinch hitter is a substitute brought in to bat in place of another player, who leaves the game. (The phrase is probably derived not, as British-English speakers might think, from the substitute “pinching” or stealing the other player’s spot, but from the sense of being brought in “in a pinch”, when the game is close and getting a hit would be vital.)

But in cricket, a “pinch hitter” is simply an opening batsman with a brief to take risks and score quickly at the start of a match, putting pressure on the other team. When this strategy emerged in the 1990s, it was true that the first “pinch hitters” were aggressive middle-order players sent in to bat early: but in cricket, unlike baseball, the starting eleven may shuffle around and bat in any order without losing their place on the field. Furthermore, the start of a cricket match, though important, hardly qualifies as the “pinch”, which, in cricket as in baseball, comes at the end of the game. The phrase has thus become laundered of any sense of “substitution” or “turning-point”, and now really just describes a style of batting.

“Out of left field” (general) Here the debate is not so much what the metaphor means (unexpected/unpredictable/unusual) as what facet of left field (the area of deep field to the batter’s left, as viewed from home plate) is so strange as to have given rise to the expression. The language columnist William Safire conducted an inconclusive campaign for an answer, the Out of Left Field Society offers a pleasing but disputed story about an old stadium with a mental hospital beyond the leftfield boundary, and the Wikipedia entry on the subject disagrees with itself furiously:

That may not be exactly three strikes and out, but the scholarship on the issue would currently seem to be a long way off base.