The new normalcy

2 Feb

We’ve got a newsroom in New York run by an Australian, a newsroom in Sydney run by a Briton and an editor-in-chief who’s been in charge of all three offices (UK, US, Australia). But the Tribune’s style guide is still edited from London and views the world from an essentially British-English point of view.

Or at least it did: but maybe that’s starting to change. The last hardback edition of the Tribune’s style guide (still available in some good bookshops) was published in 2010. But the online version, which is what we use in the office, has been continually updated over the last five-plus years. And as the paper has spread around the world over the past four years, you can clearly see that it is beginning to pull the style guide out towards it.

For example, in 2010 the hardback edition simply said:

aeroplane not airplane

Now, in 2016, the website says:

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Six years ago, all that was necessary in this entry was to clarify a distinction over capitalisation:

Aborigines, Aboriginal uppercase (uc) when referring to native Australians

aborigines, aboriginal lowercase (lc) when referring to indigenous populations

Now, after two years of producing news in Sydney, it says this:

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And so it goes on. Then:

A&E accident and emergency


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telephone numbers should be hyphenated after three or four-figure area codes, but not  five-figure area codes: 020-3353 2000, 0161-832 7200; 01892 456789, 01227 123456; treat mobile phone numbers as having five-figure area codes: 07911 654321


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And several entirely new entries have appeared in the online version to cover British usages that we never previously suspected were unfamiliar:

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The Tribune’s international expansion programme is happening very much by design rather than by accident. And, as we have previously discussed, it was never likely, or even desirable, that projects deliberately intended to function as native news organisations in different countries could stick rigidly to British style abroad. The paper’s faint institutional distaste for Americanisms, and its genuine unfamiliarity with Australian idiom, were quickly driven out once actual Americans and Australians began using the same document. A style guide changes with time, but it also changes with geography, it seems; not by moving with history, but simply by moving abroad.

And, when it does, what you end up with is something that’s bigger and more nuanced than it was before, fuller than ever of distinctions and exceptions and special cases. That doesn’t mean chaos, or that there are suddenly three right answers to every question: but it does need an especially sensitive ear for audience, writer and tone to make the right choice. And who better than a sub-editor for a task like that?

Here’s looking at you

18 Jan

Version 2

This looks like the best picture choice for the spread. It’s striking, personable, colourful: there’s a sort of Kitchener-esque directness to it that engages the reader. It breaks the fourth wall. The only reason not to use it would be in the unlikely event of it somehow clashing with one of the adverts when the flatplanning software places them.

Let’s call them in now, just to be sure.


Oh damn.

Snap judgments

6 Jan

The web production editor writes:

A reader has pointed out that generally when a Greek place name begins with Skala eg Skala Kalloni on Lesbos, the skala part means “harbour” or “landing place for boats” and it is used to distinguish it from a nearby inland town of the same name (minus the “skala”) eg Kalloni on Lesbos.

As such, please avoid just using the name Skala to refer to a town because it is nonsensical (unless, of course, that is its only name).

The caption on the agency photo on page 6 today referred to refugees arriving at the village of Skala on Lesbos. This was all the information provided by the agency so if we can’t verify the full name of the village it is better to avoid using it altogether if we can. (Emphasis added)

Mistakes in photographers’ caption information are a problem. They bypass the experienced eyes of the writer of the article; even when a photographer accompanies a reporter on the job, the reporter rarely sees the pics and almost never the caption details. They also often bypass the commissioning desk: news editors will try to familiarise themselves with their picture options when briefing the page designer, but not in every case; no one consults the head of foreign news on every downpage cutout or mugshot. And at the Tribune, with the amount of news being edited and published online every day, sub-editors have direct access to the photo library to select their own pictures, so many photographs launched on to the web even bypass the picture desk.

The result is that photographs and their captions have a shorter route into publication than any other piece of content except the Sudoku puzzle. In a fact-checking process that runs from reporter to news desk to sub to revise sub to (if you’re lucky) proofreader, the caption skips the first two stages altogether and, on the web, gets published after the third one, to be revised later on.

That explains why newspaper captions can tend to echo the present-tense descriptive style peculiar to agency photo information (“a man is seen waving …”) and their all-too-familiar verb choices (“celebrates”, “gestures” etc); captions get less polishing than other parts of the body text. It also explains why so much classic corrections-column material arises from how photographs are treated in the production process.

But when the error originates with the agency, what little protection there is against error disappears. If, as in the uncomfortable case of this Guardian correction, a reputable photo agency sends out a picture of a private individual who has been thrust into the news, and it turns out to be the wrong person, it’s basically uncheckable:

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Just as a sub-editor can be the single point of failure on picture choice and caption-writing, the photo agency is the single point of failure on veracity. Very few people except those acquainted with the individual in the news will know it’s a mistake, and not many of them are likely to be in the newsroom, so the first person to hear about it will probably be the readers’ editor. In the Guardian case, there was also internal miscommunication over a recall from the photo agency, but in any situation where there is a significant delay between release and retraction, the picture will be all over the web, and in Google’s caches, long before remedial action can be taken.

Many things have to fall into line for a mistake in raw copy to get all the way through to print: a misapprehension by the reporter, a fumbled effort at clarification from the desk, a sub who lets through an ambiguous paragraph, a revise sub in a hurry on deadline. But a mistake over an online photograph can happen, as it were, in a flash.

Hits and misses

21 Dec

Perhaps too there will come along soon as ingenious an individual as a young clerk of a large New York firm that used mailing lists for circularization purposes and found it difficult to decide what prefix to use before a woman’s name when there was nothing to indicate whether she was married or single …

This bright young clerk solved the difficulty in so simple a way that it is a wonder that nobody ever thought of it before – by a compromise, the means of settling difficult and disputed points ever since the world began. He used the prefix “Ms.,” equally applicable to married and single ladies. His salary was raised in consequence.”
(Arizona Republic, 22 December 1922)

Linguist Ben Zimmer’s research into the earliest days of “Ms”, published last week on Listserv, uncovers a fascinating story of progressive prescriptivism in action – not the kind of prescriptivism that tries to keep new words out of the language, but the kind that tries to get them in.

As he recounts, the word was unabashedly fabricated to offer a new solution to an old problem: one that was exercising polite society even as far back as the 19th century. The first two appearances of “Ms” in print are both in the form of straightforward, prescriptivist proposals to avoid social embarrassment. In 1901, the Springfield Republican suggested:

“What could be simpler or more logical than the retention of what the two doubtful terms [Miss and Mrs] have in common? The abbreviation “Ms.” is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it according to circumstances’.

Then, in 1912, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, as an aside while discussing the suitability of singular “they“, said:

A more serious need is a common title for Mrs. or Miss to be used in cases where the status of the person spoke of is unknown or irrelevant … In such a case Ms would be at once neat ambiguous and appropriate.

Then, nervously at first, the idea catches on.  In 1921, in a submission to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ann Taylor writes with an anecdote:

An advertising agency wondered how it would address letters to a list of women whose names bore no indication as to whether they were “Miss” or “Mrs.” The No-Less-Than-Authority, the President of Harvard, informed them that it is quite correct if in doubt, to use the prefix “Ms.”

Then a syndicated columnist writing from New York, Lucy Jeanne Price, says:

It is a constant complaint that women no longer add “Miss” or “Mrs.” before their names, and that consequently in writing a business letter to a strange woman, one never knows how to address her. One New York firm has solved the problem by the ingenious adoption of a telescoped prefix, “Ms.”

And the story of the advertising agency catches on, as the Pittsburgh Dispatch relates:

One large New York firm that uses mailing lists for circularization found it difficult to decide what prefix to place before a woman’s name when there was nothing to indicate whether she was married … Finally a bright chap suggested the prefix “Ms.” As a hedging scheme this worked fine. The clerk who made the suggestion received a raise.

Understandably for an out-and-out neologism like “Ms”, a newspaper editorial is not quite enough to persuade early adopters: they are eager for some authority (the president of Harvard), or at least precedent (the mailing clerk) to justify its use. But with an academic and a New York corporation leading the way, there is enough cover for the idea to take root. Later, as related by the philologist Mario Pei, the suggestion found its way into advice and usage guides, the body of prescriptivist authority grew, and a courtesy title was born.

Of course, prescriptivism’s record on innovation isn’t always so successful. For example, the many inventive proposals for an epicene alternative to “he or she” – heshe, hizzer, heesh et al – all foundered in the face of singular “they”. But this is a slightly different case: the neologisms were being proposed not because there were no alternatives – singular they has been in use for 500 years – but because there were objections to the aesthetics or syntax of using a plural pronoun in a singular sense. There was no actual need for a new word; just a desire for a more euphonious one.

In an excellent post earlier this year, Tom Freeman, The Stroppy Editor, suggested that English might be best understood, not as a code or law, but as a kind of linguistic free market:

The people best placed to judge clarity are the people. All of us. We are the ones reading, writing, talking, listening. If we find that one way of using words helps us communicate more clearly than another, then we will favour the better way … Language is controlled by market forces. Nobody is in charge, and that makes our language far more dynamic, efficient, and rich.

The analogy works perfectly to describe the way language functions: it is pointless for conservative prescriptivists to stand in the way of popular demand, or offer new “products” to customers who already own a better alternative.

But sometimes, linguistic demand exceeds supply. The slow, contemporary emergence of “Mx” as a gender-neutral courtesy title is a good example: in this case, it’s not that there are a selection of controversial or ugly alternatives; it’s that there are no transgender honorifics in English at all.  The market in words has failed. So “Mx” – proposed, just like “Ms” a century go, as an unashamed neologism to fill a gap – has found its way into the Macmillan and Oxford dictionaries and (who knows?) may find a slew of interested customers.

Descriptivist linguistics, which observes rather than intervenes in language, is the best model for studying this market. But economists are not inventors, and those who chart the language as they find it can be blind to the words that aren’t there. Sometimes, you need a new coinage from a commentator, a campaigner, a usage guide writer; an invention, if you like, from an entrepreneur. That’s prescriptivism’s chance to shine.

Accents will happen

7 Dec

If you think putting all the accents on Société Générale is a bit of an effort, imagine picking up a story that combines Turkish with Middle-earth:

Picture 15

For years, the software at the Tribune offered only the English alphabet plus the common western European diacritical marks (acute, grave, umlaut, tilde, etc) for editing purposes. But the latest upgrades now offer a splendid range of glyphs, allowing us to range typographically much further into the east and south of the continent. The only question now is: how much should we use them?

The Tribune’s policy for a while was simply not to put accents on any foreign word at all – a bald, if even-handed, approach that raised eyebrows with readers and caused anguish among the multilingual members of the subs’ desk. That policy was subsequently modified to a more common and pragmatic approach commendable for its humility:

accents Use them in French and German words that take italic. In foreign words that have become part of the English vocabulary – cafe, cliche, detente, denouement, debacle, protege etc – no accent is required …

Keep accents on proper names. Thus: ‘Arsène Wenger was on holiday in Bogotá with Gérard Holler’ … In general, other marks such as Turkish should be avoided for fear of introducing errors as much as difficulty in checking

Now, however, with the full expert character set at our disposal, the policy is to go for it all: every unfamiliar word and name rendered as it should be in its native language. That, you would think, is the definitive, unarguable solution. But even this approach – assuming your font library can stand it – raises one or two questions.

The total-accuracy policy does not extend, of course, to languages with entirely non-Roman alphabets – Russian, Greek, Chinese, etc. English-language newspapers don’t expect their readers to be able to understand them. But several Turkic and Baltic languages have many characters that are not classically Latinate and are certainly unfamiliar in English. Turkish, for example, has a 29-letter alphabet, including six letters that don’t appear in English: ç, ğ, ı (a dotless “i”), ö, ş, ü. Their sound and function is a closed book to many general readers. Doesn’t that make them as much candidates for transliteration as π or Σ in Greek?

There are pros and cons for all three of these approaches, as set out below. On balance, I’m glad we’re going for (3), even though there’s obviously a risk we may end up with a broad-based version of (2).

And once I’ve checked all the Turkish, it’ll be time to tackle Hobbit nomenclature!


(1) Removing accents and foreign characters completely

• Impressively and genuinely consistent
• Avoids the slightly uneasy relativism of approach (2)
• Easy to remember and enforce

• Every multilingual reader will see, and frequently object to, what you’ve done
• Faint hint of insularity (don’t they speak any languages?)
• Theoretical risk of confusions over near-homonyms that differ only by a diacritical mark or character  (but, then again, only to readers who speak the language)


(2) Putting in accents and foreign characters for locally familiar languages only

• Relatively easy to remember and enforce
• Fits quite well with your audience’s likely linguistic knowledge
• Possibly as much as your technology can reliably achieve

• Which languages are actually “commonly spoken” in your area? Or are you just paying attention to the ones the chief sub speaks and ignoring the others?
• Can be unconsciously revelatory of the limits of your expertise, or at least your horizons
• Can look very awkward when words in a language you do put accents appear in the same story as words in a language you don’t


(3) Putting in accents and foreign characters for all Latin-alphabet languages

• The gold standard for accuracy
• A genuine editing challenge
• Impressively authoritative and literate

• May be more than your software can manage
• Finer distinctions may be lost on, or intimidating for, readers
• Are you sure you’ll always recognise when there are characters or diacriticals missing? How’s your Lithuanian?*


*32 letters, 5 digraphs

Tense situation

24 Nov

Uh-oh. This correspondent will today choose to write his article in the future tense:*

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No, wait, the present (“describes”):

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No, wait, the past (“came”):

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No, wait, the future (“will try”):

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No, wait, the pres … ah. Now the reason for the strange mix of tenses is becoming apparent: this appears to be a news story (or “write-off”) based on a column by the shadow chancellor elsewhere in the same paper:

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And the full complexity of the situation becomes clear in the next paragraph. This isn’t just an article about a contemporaneous article, but also about a relevant speech due to be given later in the week …

Picture 7

… which comes (will come?) after the most significant event of the party’s year – the general election defeat in April:

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So there are three distinct events – six months ago, today, this coming Friday – but, whichever way you slice it, the timeline is blurred: the tenses have bled into each other and the reader is not being accurately located in the sequence of events. Intervention is required.

It had previously been this blog’s position that there is never any need to write a print news story in the simple present tense. If you assume that the point in time from which a newspaper is written is early in the morning of the date on the masthead, then the future tense will do for any events happening later that day (which is to say, almost all of them). Anything that started the previous night should be written about in the past tense, or the present continuous if it is still going on.

But that overlooks the special case of a newsworthy statement being made by a public figure elsewhere in the same issue of that day’s paper. In this case, the news event is exactly contemporaneous with the publication of the paper – indeed, it is the publication of the paper.  That means that, for all its slightly self-conscious, declamatory tone, the simple present tense is the only one that really fits the situation.

And if you allow yourself to use it, the past-present-future of the story becomes easier to separate. Matters relating to McDonnell’s column: present tense throughout (“John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, today promises…”). Matters relating to his speech on Friday: future tense throughout (“the McDonnell speech will come as …”). Matters relating to the general election, of course, remain in the past tense; the imperfect “his promise came” in the third par, because it relates to the column, moves to the present.

News reports about your own newspaper’s content are curious items. They’re hardly unknown on the front page – if, say, you’ve got a political heavyweight declaring his defection to another party in print – but the less significant ones further back in the run are sometimes only a few pages away from the comment section in which their source material appears. But if you’re going to run them, they need to be in a present-tense time bubble of their own: so today Ten Minutes Past Deadline decides that it is changing its mind.


*Further discussions on whether “future tense” is even a meaningful term in English are welcome, although this blog remains of the opinion that “will” offers more than mere modality, and marks a kind of non-continuous, non-habitual future state that approximates very closely to a separate tense.

Surely he means baseball?

10 Nov

“Crickets”? What do you mean, “crickets”?

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This dropped into the subs’ queue, complete with question marks added by a baffled production editor, last week. It’s part of a piece about US presidential hopeful Ben Carson, written by a high-profile Capitol Hill commentator who regularly weighs in for the paper, so the OED probably wasn’t going to be the first place to look for an answer.

In fact, none of the heavyweight dictionaries, not even the American ones, record this usage. It’s only properly covered in the Urban Dictionary, which offers this nicely phrased explanation –

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– and, in the process, makes it clear that the writer has got the metaphor slightly wrong. “Crickets” would not be heard from his faith-based supporters; in fact, it is the absence of comment on the part of those supporters that allows the crickets, who have been chirping throughout, to be heard.

So the figure of speech will need to be repaired. But that’s not the end of the questions that this piece throws up. In one of the multitudinous permutations of author, subject, commissioning desk, production desk and audience now possible in a multinational news organisation, this piece was written by an American, about America, in response to a request from the UK, and handed to subs in the London newsroom to produce.

Its intended home was the UK Sunday print edition of the paper, but of course it will be going up on the web to a global audience, some of whom will understand “crickets” and some not. So do you fix the metaphor, but leave it unexplained? Take it out and replace it with a British metaphor? Take it out and replace it with something neutral?

Of all the potential pitfalls like this that lie in wait for the globalised newsroom, many are negotiated with great success. Australasian reality stars make their debut to showbiz fans in Berkshire without adverse comment. Local news stories sneak onto global most-viewed lists and engage a far wider audience than they were ever intended for. Live blogs on major incidents are handed over from bureau to bureau to bureau, Sydney to London to New York, in a race to stay ahead of sunset and keep the news alive. Home news stories with no international pretensions can take themselves around the world without assistance and survive; strangely, the ones that struggle – the only ones that really cause trouble – are those written in one country specifically for consumption in another.

What used to be a staple of foreign-desk reporting – the what’s-happening-in-Washington dispatch written by an American for Britons – is becoming almost impossible to edit, because you become trapped between its intended print audience (British English speakers who want a primer) and its likely audience on the web (American readers with an appetite for Beltway news who may already follow that author). Add more newsrooms across the anglosphere and the problems multiply. Do readers feel more alienated by exotic localisms such as “white-anting”* or “bodega”**, or by having something they already know explained to them like novices? Because you can’t edit to please them both.

This time, we decided to remove “crickets” altogether and replace it with a simple reference to silence. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to remove a metaphor from the copy of a brand-name columnist, but it’s equally uncomfortable to wave through something that provokes open bafflement in your own newsroom.

It’s still not clear what the solution is to this problem; it’s a coin toss every time. But it’s possible that it might solve itself: given how well unmediated news seems to travel these days, the whole genre of letter-from-abroad explainers might soon become a thing of the past.


* (Austr) Metaphorically, to undermine or hollow out an organisation or movement; to destroy something from the inside, in the manner of a white ant or termite.

** (US, particularly New York) A local food and wine store, especially if of Puerto Rican ownership; a cornershop


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