The first uncontested crackerjack of grammatical expertise to appear in film

18 Jan

With a flourish, Alumna (Elisabeth Moss) spins round from a prodigious piece of sentence diagramming on a blackboard and fixes the camera with a proud glare. And another sub-editor (probably) enters the ever-increasing pantheon of Hollywood copydeskers.

This all happened some months ago, of course; given the necessity for masks, this blog is currently unable to attend the cinema without its glasses steaming up, so it has only just caught up with Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch on home premiere. Nonetheless, the story of the Dispatch and its last ever filings from Ennui-sur-Blasé back to Kansas features a strong corps of production types to go with its gifted writers.

I say “probably” a sub-editor because Alumna is a wide-ranging, influential figure whose job is not specified in the credits. It is even suggested in some quarters that she might be a reporter, but look at the photograph. Does a reporter know how to do that? (To save you the trouble, the sentence reads: “They will fail to notice the torn ticket-stub for an unclaimed hat which sits alone on the upper shelf of a cloakroom in a bus depot on the outskirts of a work-a-day town where were apprehended Nickerson and his accomplices.”) She’s also described as the Dispatch’s “uncontested crackerjack of grammatical expertise”, which doesn’t sound much like a reporter either.

However, it’s not 100% clear exactly what she is. If she’s a sub-editor, wouldn’t she have been tempted to intervene in that 41-word sentence rather than simply diagram it? (The verb-subject inversion at the end might have to stay; the Dispatch very much seems to be a writer’s paper.) Also, she seems to be in charge of editorial conference, demanding progress reports and worrying about pagination like a managing editor while Arthur J Howitzer, publisher, sits and listens. Most sub-editors know how hard it is to get in to the interesting meetings, let alone run them.

Furthermore, also in conference is a more junior figure, “The Proof-Reader”. When asked about one piece in production, she reports “three dangling participles, two split infinitives and nine spelling errors in the first sentence alone,” suggesting (i) that she might be more of a sub-editor?; and (ii) that this must be another sentence as long as the example on the blackboard.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with split infinitives, as we know; no doubt that is why Howitzer gently intervenes to say: “Some of those were intentional.” Also, one is left wondering what has happened to the Dispatch’s editorial processes if all these things are only getting picked up at proof stage.

No such problems exist with Howitzer’s very poorly typed will, which appears on screen covered in editorial blue pencil, including at one point where the “permanently” in “permanently cease” has been deleted with the note “cease alone is clear”. However, another hand has firmly struck out this correction and marked “stet”. Quite right too: for a matter as consequential as this, it’s worth a little redundancy to make the meaning quite clear.

Meanwhile, the lawyer is raising distinctly sub-editorial concerns about Herbsaint Sazerac, the “Cycling Reporter”, and his vivid account of Ennui’s lowlife. “Impossible to fact-check. He changes all the names and only writes about hobos, pimps and junkies,” he complains. (Howitzer responds soothingly: “These are his people.”)

So perhaps it’s the kind of small, freewheeling newsroom where everyone does a bit of everything. Certainly the net for opinion is cast wide at conference. Staring at the flatplan on the wall together, Howitzer turns to the waiter from the bar downstairs, who has just brought the drinks. “What do you think?” he asks. The waiter looks at the board and shrugs expressively. “For myself, I would start with M Sazerac.” And so they do.

Images: © Searchlight Pictures 2021

In this remarkable dispatch

4 Jan

May I present: the Ten Minutes Past Deadline Self-Promotion Phrase Generator.

luminoustour d’horizon
fiercely intelligent

It was while we were discussing the headline “Celeste Barber mocks backflipping athlete in hilarious new post” a few weeks ago, apropos of another matter, that Picky, that acute observer of the editorial scene, asked: “How hilarious is it?”

That is a good question. The assertion of salience, or quality, is one of the most uncomfortable techniques of newspaper rhetoric that a sub-editor has to negotiate. When you claim it in relation to the work of a third party, as in that case, you come close to confronting the often circular process of news editing (Why are we running this? Because it’s hilarious! Who thinks it’s hilarious? Er, we do!). But the discomfort is at its most acute, or I find it so, when you have to puff up your organisation’s own work.

The code-phrase at the Tribune is “remarkable dispatch”. When the editor wants attention drawn to the quality of one of the offerings, he makes an expansive gesture and says: “And the standfirst needs to be, you know, ‘in this remarkable dispatch, our foreign affairs editor’, etcetera.” We don’t have to use those exact words, but we are on notice that self-promotion will be required.

So we do it, but in an embarrassed, broadsheet way. Redtops, by contrast, although not ones to hide their lights under a bushel, do surprisingly little puffing-up of individual articles, beyond a terse “SUNSPORT EXCLUSIVE” above the byline. The real home of self-certified brilliance is the mid-market tabloid, by which of course I mean (mainly) the Mail. So for those like me who find their innate self-doubt gets in the way when having to write this sort of thing, Derry Street offers a masterclass.

For a start, very few things at the Mail are described as “coruscating”, which will come as a relief to style guide editors everywhere.* (In fact, the phrase “coruscating dispatch” seems to be a googlewhack – that is to say, a search for it on Google only returns one result anywhere on the internet.) Some things are “excoriating” and others “searing”, but fewer than you might expect. There is a scattering of “devastating critiques“, but what there is a lot of – an awful lot of – on Mail Online is “gripping dispatches“:

Perhaps that’s the way to do it: pick a phrase that works and stick with it. But which phrase? Well, why not try the all-in-one, mix-and-match Self-Promotion Phrase Generator, specially tailored for broadsheets? Pair any two and see how you get on, or keep it bookmarked for those occasions when what you’re editing isn’t really a “dispatch” (or – whisper it – all that remarkable).

*The Tribune’s style guide says the following: “Coruscating means sparkling, or emitting flashes of light; people seem to think, wrongly, that it means the same as excoriating, censuring severely, eg ‘a coruscating attack on Clegg’s advisers’.”

Happy Chriftmafs

21 Dec

The Tribune celebrated a birthday recently – not a milestone one, but still a pretty impressive number (it’s quite venerable, the Tribune). To celebrate, we reproduced an advert from its launch in the 1790s, and it’s striking how the stated mission then still resonates today, two centuries later.

Unbiaffed by Prejudice? Yef. Uninfluenced by Party? Abfolutely. Whofe Object is Truth, and the Diffemination of Every Species of Knowledge? How can you doubt it? (20 BEST POTATO RECIPES – FROM SAAG ALOO TO PERFECT CHIPS – FREE INSIDE!) Difpatched from London early on Sunday Morning? Give or take. (“Is there late football? I said is there late football? Well, that gives us at least 20 more minutes, doesn’t it? So we can we look for a better picture? We must have a better picture than this. Ask pics if they’re coming through yet. Look, it’s ‘news’. Some ‘news’ has happened and we’re a ‘newspaper’, so I was thinking we ought to try to get it in…”). Delivered in every Part of Great Britain with the utmoft Expedition? Well, see above. (“Whoever told you 7.20 for first wants shooting. We’ll have nothing for Scotland if you miss the trucks, and they may have to run long on the third at Manchester, in which case it’ll be fourth edition central London only and no slips, I don’t care if Elvis comes back to life, once the plate’s on that’s it, and we’ll have to talk about this on Tuesday because it’s SLIDING and we can’t HAVE IT.”)

Heaven knows what it must have been like trying to produce a national newspaper before there were railways, especially on the sabbath, and with the threat the mail coach might be waylaid by highwaymen just outside Finchley. Launching on 4 December, too – just in time to catch the Christmas advertising rush, although presumably they missed out an issue, as I can’t imagine that, three weeks after the inaugural paper, they published on Christmas Day. (This is one of the many unlooked-for benefits of working for a Sunday newspaper: every seven years, Christmas Day falls on a Sunday and, as all the newsagents are shut, you can have the whole of the previous week off.)

In fact, that’s going to happen next year: now there’s a cheery festive thought. On which note, may the blog take the opportunity to wish everyone an early happy Christmas, a freedom from all alphabetical viral variants and a lot more of what may conduce to the Happinefs of Society in the new year.

Who, what, why, when, wherever

7 Dec

For a second, I thought we’d done it – I thought we’d found the first anglosphere news story that gives you no clue whatsoever about where it happened.

Comedian Celeste Barber, nationality unspecified, has made fun of influencer Adelina Lazarova, nationality unspecified, in a parody video following a storm over Barber’s mocking of model Emily Ratajkowski, nationality unspecified. And where did all this happen? That remains unspecified.

Lazarova was being mocked for backflipping out of a convertible Lamborghini in high heels on social media, and Ratajkowski was being teased over a seductive bikini videoclip, so the real answer to the question “where did this happen” is, of course, “on the internet”. Nonetheless, we have a Russian-born, Emirates-based influencer doing gymnastics (in New York, as it happens) and a British-born American model famous for her globetrotting, and finally we seem to be floating free in the borderless kingdom of online news …

Except that there are still one or two clues to bring us back to earth. That “copping” in the headline: that’s redolent of a certain southern-hemisphere flavour of English. And further down, it is reported that Barber is about to tour Australia. Why would that be of interest to anyone except people living in … ah, yes. A closer squint at the byline, in Mail Online’s pale, self-effacing font, confirms it: “By Caleb Taylor for Daily Mail Australia”. The reason that Barber’s location isn’t stated in the piece is not because it doesn’t matter any more – “hey, a story’s a story!” – but because she doesn’t need to be identified to an Australian audience. This is a case of the Mail trying to sound Australian, not trying to sound stateless.

But still, with regard to the Five W’s of reporting, this is the first anglosphere news piece I’ve seen that doesn’t make any explicit effort to answer the question “where?”. Indeed, if there hadn’t been a passing reference to Lazarova’s showing-off taking place in the US, there wouldn’t have been a geographical locator anywhere in the text. And, you might argue, in cases like this there doesn’t need to be: if the news (OK, “news”) happens on Instagram, then it happens everywhere at once. The mainstream media is hesitantly becoming stateless, expanding into markets bounded only by language, but social media doesn’t even have that constraint: you can sign up to all three protagonists’ accounts in a home-country native version of the app wherever you are. The only thing that may hold you back after that is the captions to Lazarova’s selfies, which are frequently in Cyrillic.

Credible edibles

23 Nov

Regular reader Steve has spotted this in Charles County, Maryland, where a potentially alarming incident involving some schoolchildren seems to have lost something in translation on the website of WTOP-FM, Washington’s top news radio station.

If you’re as hardened and streetwise as, er, a sub-editor, you may know that “edibles” in this sense is starting to mean “way of consuming marijuana orally rather than by smoking”: it refers to the modern equivalent of cannabis brownies and so on. If not, you may be more than slightly puzzled as to what all the fuss is about.

That definition hasn’t made it into Collins, the Tribune’s house dictionary, yet, but it is now on Merriam-Webster Online. Even the dictionary, however, may not be able to help us with this paragraph:

You sense the first sentence may be missing some key words before “contained”. But I’m not sure what kind of garble has taken place in the second one. It’s positively alarmist: as Steve says, does this mean inedible candy is probably safer?

Thankfully, everyone seems to be all right:

(Hang, on I thought you said earlier they’d definitely eaten some?) But if the principal’s letter to parents went out with anything like that muddle over “edible candy” in it, who knows what the queues might now be like outside the county’s sweetshops.

Bars to understanding

9 Nov

What’s going on with this graph in the Mail?

It says “Tory poll lead falls after standards row”, but it seems to show the Tories pulling well ahead of their hated rivals, the Tories, while Labour loses ground inexorably to the Labour party of last week.

Squinting at the small print, we discover that the lighter coloured bars represent the current polling, and the darker bars the previous week’s results. However, the later figures have been placed to the left of the earlier ones, not the right, in reverse chronological order – a methodology applied equally to all parties, but one which, visually, gives the opposite impression to what’s intended. It looks like a picture of continued blue success and red failure.

Similarly, what does this graph, from March, suggest to you is happening?

The correct answer is that the Tories have moved out to 45% of the vote and Labour has fallen back to 32%. But is that what you initially “see”? The Tories look to be declining and Labour surging. Isn’t it more usual to place the later figures on the right, as the eye tracks naturally from left to right across the page? And don’t the wide gaps between the different parties encourage you to compare their performance against themselves, rather than the opposition? Also, the brighter blue seems to count as a “dark” colour, but the brighter red a “light” one: going just by what’s most eyecatching, don’t you end up comparing 39% with 35% in the first graph and 45% with 36% in the second, neither of which represents the correct gap?

This isn’t some effort to obfuscate unfavourable findings, or try some Lib Dem-style sharp practice with the visuals: the Mail has been angered by the Owen Paterson/sleaze debacle, and first graph appears under this uncompromising headline:

It just seems that they always do them this way. But in the absence of any visible x-axis, readers are naturally going to read it from left to right, because that’s how nearly all x-axes run in every other graph. Why flip it for this?

Slightly missing links

26 Oct

The trouble with hyperlinks is that, even though they don’t mean to, they add emphasis. They are, after all, in a different colour to the rest of the text, and often underlined. They stand out. Which means you need a bit of an ear for the rhythms of a sentence when you put them in:

“Why at the end of it” stops a little short of the end, as it were, as does the link to the obscure … provision. And although “Dominic Cummings claimed” is fine, “said Johnson told” unfortunately avoids highlighting either of the two salient parts of the sentence: Ian Paisley Junior and the idea of the story.

These are just infelicities of emphasis rather than meaning – rather like the Express’s erstwhile habit of putting sudden capitals in the WRONG place. Occasionally, though, an off-target hyperlink can create more peculiar effects, like this:

Here, even though you’re supposed to overlook these links, it throws you. Semantically, the verb phrase that begins “bring prosecutions for killings” finishes at “to an end”. But the emphatic red text stops three words early and encourages you to think the phrase has come to an end as well. So for a moment you think the government is planning to start bringing Troubles prosecutions again, not stop them.

Of course, you work it out in the end. But we’re supposed to be saving readers as much work as possible, so, along with colliding English-language news agendas and launching without revising, this is another thing old print lags have to get used to. In the old days, we would never underline anything at all; now we do it by accident.

Subs – please check

12 Oct

HMS Ambush on sea trials. © Crown copyright 2012


“We have been regularly referring to the value of the Aus-French submarine deal as $90bn,” writes an astute member of the Tribune’s night shift to colleagues. “But this is 90bn AUSTRALIAN dollars, not US dollars.”

That is an excellent point. “This makes sense for an Australian audience but is confusing for everyone else. Lots of writers and subs are referring back to Aus pieces for their info and copying this sum into stories for a US, UK and global audience. Non-Australia folk: please be on the alert for this (and for similar Australian stories of global import). Australia folk: if a story is very much global, would you consider using the notation A$? Anyway, something for discussion.”

It certainly is something for discussion: this blog has wrestled for years with the problems of anglophone news organisations trying to bestride the globe while remaining part of a national dialogue. The Aukus submarines deal, agreed between Australia, the UK and the US, looks like a perfect anglosphere news story – after all, these are the three countries where forward-looking British papers such as the Tribune now have newsrooms. But although that means the coverage has been panoramic, the small but essential details are proving as troublesome as ever.

Some newsdesks did fall into the trap. Eastern Eye converted the “$90bn” that France stands to lose from the cancellation of its own submarine deal with Australia into “£66bn”:

But that is the sterling equivalent of 90 billion US dollars, not Australian; the correct figure for A$ is about £48bn.

The Tribune does not appear to have gone that far, but by saying “$90bn” in several pieces without context we may have been giving the impression – it’s easily done – that we were speaking of the world’s reserve currency when we were not. And in this article in the Mail, focusing on the Biden angle and with a US political writer leading the bylines,

the $90bn figure also stands unqualified.*

Interestingly, the same article gives comparative costings of various submarine types further down,

and those figures are not in US dollars either. A Virginia-class boat seems to cost about US$3.4bn (which is about A$4.5bn) and a new HMS Astute would set you back about £1.4bn-£1.6bn, which is not as much as $2.6bn in US currency. It would seem that the costs in this US-focused article are being given consistently in Australian dollars, but without ever saying so.

Why would you not specify? Perhaps because, as we have discussed so often, journalists at the Tribune and similar organisations are often encouraged not to. Our purpose in expanding across the anglosphere is to provide local coverage in underserved markets, to bed in as a homegrown news source. So we write in different flavours of English depending on which continent we’re on, and speak of weights and measures as locals would. In which case, as the night sub’s email suggests, adopting international terminology for a national currency is something that very much needs to be “considered” before it is enforced. Too much globalist perspective, too much wire-service neutrality, betrays you as an outsider.

This causes a slight problem when local stories meant for one country’s consumption become visible on another country’s homepage. But it causes even greater problems when the three jurisdictions you cover collide in the same global story. Because then, whose worldview wins?

*“Advanced” warning – I know, I know.

Workin’ for MTA

14 Sep

Somebody else seems to be as intrigued by New York subway signs as this blog is:

It does make a good poem, probably entitled “Z”:

To Jamaica Center

Weekday afternoons.

Express to Myrtle Avenue,

PM rush,



Other times,

All stops

But for a public information notice, it is, as we have had occasion to discuss before, a bit short of words. And this time we’re dealing with the kind of comprehension-bending complexity that only the Metropolitan Transportation Authority can produce. If you find the semi-fast service to Amersham a bit confusing, get a load of this, and imagine trying to put it on a sign:

“The J operates at all times while the Z, operating internally as its rush-hour variant, runs with six trips in each peak direction on weekdays; both services run through the entirety of the BMT Archer Avenue and Jamaica lines, via the Williamsburg Bridge, and the Nassau Street Line between Jamaica Center–Parsons/Archer in Jamaica, Queens, and Broad Street in Lower Manhattan. When the Z operates, the two services form a skip-stop pair between Sutphin Boulevard–JFK and Myrtle Avenue-Broadway. In addition during rush hours and middays in the peak direction, they run express in Brooklyn between Myrtle Avenue-Broadway and Marcy Avenue, bypassing three stations. At all other times, only the J operates, serving every station on its entire route. (per Wikipedia)

So, what we have is:

• a platform from which two services run along the same line, the Z train and the J train


• the Z train is an express that misses out stops, and the J train is a “local” that stops at all stations. Fine.


• The Z train only runs in rush hour, on weekdays, and it only runs in the peak flow direction (ie into Manhattan in the mornings, out of Manhattan in the evenings)


• When the Z train is running, it affects the J train’s schedule: the J train then misses out some (but not all) of the stations that the Z train stops at, and ceases to be a true “local”. They become a “skip-stop pair” (try saying that three times quickly).


• There are three stations that neither the J or the Z stop at, but only during weekday rush hour, and only in the peak direction. At other times the J train will stop there.

So, to return to the sign: this is Essex Street station in lower Manhattan, and trains from this platform are heading to Jamaica Center in Queens, ie, out of Manhattan. This platform is therefore not affected by the Z train in the mornings, but is affected by it in the evenings (the “PM rush”), when the skip-stop comes into operation. Essex Street station also comes just before the three stations that get missed out altogether in rush hour, so trains from here are “express” (ie almost non-stop) as far as Myrtle Avenue station in Brooklyn on weekday afternoons (but only afternoons).

So after an hour’s research, you can start to see what they mean. I still think there’s a problem with the sign, though: for one thing, the Z bullet at the start makes you think that everything that follows applies only to the Z train. In fact, crucially, the J train becomes a skip-stop train too. But the second sentence gives the impression that you can always rely on the good old J to stop everywhere (which you can’t), or maybe that Z trains run in the peak and J trains in the off-peak (which isn’t the whole story either).

Can we do any better with the wording? Last time, we had some success in inserting a few existential clauses, but that won’t cut it this time. Get me rewrite.

Judging by the length of the longest line, I reckon you could get 125 or so characters on the sign if you fill all three decks. Maybe it could say something like this?

Z J to Jamaica Center. Both trains express to Myrtle Ave wkday afternoons and skip stops in PM rush. J all stops other times

At least I think that’s what it means. Input and commentary from people who, unlike me, know what they’re talking about would be very welcome.

And with that bit of wish-fulfilment out of the way – no New York for me this year, what with the global emergency and all – TMPD is off for its late summer break. See you when the leaves are falling faster.

The Lada of success

31 Aug

Along with the headlines we dream of one day writing (my ambition is to get “Crema vs. Crema” on a group test of espresso machines), I’m sure I’m not the only sub-editor to fantasise about making a stunning save on deadline – a last-minute intervention that prevents a disastrous error getting into print, and shows off one’s combination of erudition and alertness. One of those cool foreign-desk moments, pulling an earbud out of one ear to shout over to the desk: “My Pashto’s pretty rusty, but it sounds like the Mullah’s saying ‘retreat’, not ‘surrender’.” Except that, when my moment finally arrived, I didn’t get to say anything as cool as that. Instead I had to go up to the back bench, and, within earshot of most of senior management, mumble “excuse me, I think this is a Moskvich”.

The occasion was a colour feature about Havana and the struggle of its taxi drivers and mechanics to keep their old Lada cars on the road. Vivid, atmospheric, rich in castroismo, it was very Tribune. The trouble was, alongside the enthusing about the Lada’s Italian heritage and classic 1960s lines was the picture above. “A Lada car on the streets of Havana Centro” the caption says, but as someone who spent far too much of their childhood reading The Observer’s Book of Automobiles, I wasn’t so sure.

The picture editor gave me one of those picture-desk stares. “I don’t really know a lot about cars,” he said. “It says it’s a Lada.” “Ah yes, but if you look here below the rear window pillar, there’s a cabin air vent, whereas on a Lada …” “Yes, OK, if you say so.” I returned to the back bench. “Yes, I think we’d better change the pic. You see if you look at this feature here above the rear wheel…” “Yes, OK, can you just make sure it’s right? Thanks.” I returned to the subs’ desk in dorkish pride, looked round at my colleagues, thought about explaining what had happened, and decided to spare them.

(However, for those interested … If you look at the picture above and compare it with this fine machine belonging to the Policía Nacional Revolucionaria, which really is a Lada,

you will notice that the blue car has a small vent on the side of the body, above the rear wheel, whereas the police car doesn’t; instead it has a similar vent actually mounted on the rear cabin pillar.

Then, when you start looking properly, you can see the blue car has a curved crease, or wing line, running the whole length of its side, culminating in a vestigial tailfin, whereas the Lada does not. Also (he continued), although the blue car has lost its lights and badges, you can see that the radiator grille is a different shape and that the indicators, if they were still there, would be in a completely different position. (Could it be one of the very earliest Ladas, you’re asking? Ah, but they had round headlights. These ones, or what’s left of them, are clearly rectangular.) I’m confident that the blue car is in fact a Moskvich 2140 – a model, as we know, developed out of the classic Moskvich 412 – built in the USSR from the 1970s until the end of the Cold War.)

Not only that, but as I hunted for a replacement, it emerged that several other Cuban vehicles in the picture library were being wrongly advertised as Ladas, including this one, which is clearly another Moskvich,

and this one:

Good lord, man, that’s a Renault Dauphine.

But nonetheless, we were spoiled for choice with the images. A Lada with a hammer and sickle decal on its side. A Lada with its occupants waving the bandera nacional triumphantly from the windows. And the winner: a young couple kissing passionately between two parked Ladas in front of a sunlit mural of the revolution. Cuba can make anything look romantic.