Facing trial 😊

19 Jan

Meanwhile, in an Israeli small claims court, a landlord is suing a prospective tenant for pulling out of a rental agreement, and the verdict is in:

“This is the place to refer once again to those graphic symbols (icons) sent by Defendant 2 to the Plaintiff. As stated, they do not, under the circumstances, indicate that the negotiations between the parties have matured into a binding agreement. However, the sent symbols support the conclusion that the defendants acted in bad faith. Indeed, this negotiation’s parties’ ways of expression may take on different forms, and today, in modern times, the use of the “emoji” icons may also have a meaning that indicates the good faith of the side to the negotiations. The text message sent by Defendant 2 on June 5, 2016, was accompanied by quite a few symbols, as mentioned. These included a “smiley”, a bottle of champagne, dancing figures and more. These icons convey great optimism. Although this message did not constitute a binding contract between the parties, this message naturally led to the Plaintiff’s great reliance on the defendants’ desire to rent his apartment.

And so, by virtue of the emojis in the following text message – one of which is a chipmunk

“Good morning 😊  we want the house 💃🏻👯‍✌️☄️🐿️🍾  just need to go over the details …When suits you?”

– the judge found in favour of the landlord and awarded him 8,000 shekels to compensate for lost income.

The case, in 2017, excited a lot of legal comment, as one might imagine. Some agree with the judge that the smiley, in particular, helps to “convey to the other side that everything is in order” when it in fact is not. Others, such as the legal scholars Gabriella Ziccarelli and Eric Goldman, disagree, pointing out that “emojis are frequently used as emotional supplements to preceding words or sometimes even used as a punctuation substitute”, so cannot be relied upon as the court suggests. But nearly everyone accepts one thing – that the emojis cannot simply be overlooked. As Ziccarelli and Goldman say: “We can’t just consider the text and ignore the emojis … Because we must assume the prospective tenant included them for a reason, how do the emojis modify or supplement the initial text message’s words?”

Their discussion of that topic runs to considerable length, even theorising as to why the tenant might have used the “double bunny girls” emoji instead of the “single bunny girl” variant. (Even they are defeated by the chipmunk, however.) Elsewhere, in an extensive article on Slate, Amanda Hess describes numerous cases in which the courts have attempted to decode non-verbal messaging, including one in which “an anonymous comment posted to an online message board that appeared to accuse a city worker of corruption was negated by the inclusion of a tongue-out emoji”.

The confusion that even well-known emojis have caused in these cases is perhaps warning enough never to try to use them in headlines (not that there’s much call for that on a broadsheet). And that’s before you get to the confusing ones: the emoji of a person blowing hard through their nose – 😤 – is widely interpreted in the west as signifying anger, whereas in many parts of Asia it is seen as expressing pride or dominance: a bull-snort of power, drawing from manga iconography. Its official name is “Face with Look of Triumph“. Emojis are far more compact than words, but – probably for that reason – far more ambiguous.

And another lesson for editors is, once again, how grindingly literal a court can be about anything – anything – you might publish. We have previously discussed instances in which a judge released a criminal 10 years early because of a typo in a document – in the full knowledge that it was a typo – and where a biker was given only a year in jail for GBH because mistakes in the drafting of the law made it impossible to pass any other sentence. The judicial system can be agonisingly prescriptivist and unimaginative: lawyers are trained to pursue meaning narrowly through thickets of poor drafting and make a limited determination of meaning based on what was actually said, even contrary to evidence of intent. Ambiguity is cute in linguistics, but not in court, and it’s wise to edit with that in mind.

Get your rebuttal in first

5 Jan

It doesn’t happen all the time. But every now and then, the BBC launches a major news investigation on its website, and then stops it after three paragraphs. Like this:

That piece is approaching 3,000 words long, peppered with graphs and in-depth analysis boxes, but the rebuttal comes so high up in the story that you’re inclined to stop reading there and then. And the same is true here:

In that piece, the contradiction comes after 75 words, even though there are another 900 to read below it. And in this article, the government response comes so quickly it’s almost the first line of the story.

It’s not easy being the BBC. Like all Ofcom-regulated broadcasters, it has to be scrupulously impartial; doubly so, because it is funded via public levy by the grace of the government. The news division also gets thrust into the unenviable role of refereeing the endless Fleet Street culture war, by choosing to follow up (or not) on newspaper allegations of racism, illegal immigration, tax evasion, “waste”, and a hundred other started hares. It has also had to walk an impossible line down the middle of Brexit, and has now endured three consecutive governments that have more or less openly threatened its status and future. As a result of all these pressures, current and historical, its style guide is agonisingly neutral, its correspondents are intensely scrutinised for bias, and it draws its conclusions more slowly than any other major news provider.*

This is quite a successful approach to adopt when reporting on allegations made by third parties, as is the case with the third story mentioned above. Report the accusation, report the rebuttal (straightaway, in this case), fill in readers on the background. What’s the truth? There is no need to decide: just hand back to the studio.

The trouble is, the first two pieces are not allegations made by third parties: they’re allegations made by the BBC itself. The first is an online special under the general banner of the news division, the second is a companion piece to an edition of Panorama.

Yet it’s as though the he-said-she-said impartiality has become so ingrained that it is introduced even to a self-generated exposé – just as the corporation sometimes quotes its own correspondents as though they worked for someone else. But if you’ve done an original investigation, you ether believe in it or you don’t. You can’t distance yourself from your own allegations. Investigations aren’t “balanced”: they seek the truth on a particular issue and draw definite conclusions. Otherwise, what’s the point?

*For example, two days after the Nashville bombing, the BBC’s headline was “Nashville explosion ‘probably suicide bombing'”. The Mail’s headline the same day was: “Mother, 29, given TWO free homes worth $409K by ‘Nashville bomber’, 63, says she had no idea he signed property over to her a month ago – as feds probe if he blew himself up at AT&T building because he feared 5G is spying on Americans”.

The most wonderful rhyme of the year

22 Dec

I know it’s the season of goodwill, but seriously, what’s going on with the scansion here?

The queue at the Post Office was so long that there was plenty of time to critique the Christmas cards in the display. This one begins crisply, with a line of iambic tetrameter followed by a line of iambic trimeter: dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM/dee-DUM dee-DUM dee-DUM. The pattern then repeats, to create one of poetry’s classic forms: the ballad stanza. Four lines of alternating tetrameter and trimeter, with the second and the fourth lines rhyming (an ABCB rhyme scheme, as we English students like to say). That’s the way the Rime of the Ancient Mariner was written. A strong start.

But no sooner have we got going than the form is subverted in the second verse: we switch to trochaic tetrameter and trimeter (DEE-dum DEE-dum DEE-dum DEE-dum/DEE-dum DEE-dum DEE-dum.) Or at least we do for two lines, before, disconcertingly, slamming back into ballad meter for the next two in a way that really throws you if you’re reading aloud.

Inside the card, the next two stanzas hold the rhythm, give or take the odd syllable. But then you get to the conclusion:

“Amongst” should be on the first line, not the second, to make the tetrameter (you could then insert “of” before “men” to make the trimeter). The third line is fine, but the last line … I mean, it’s great to see a bracchius (dum-DEE-DEE) in the wild, but how would you deliver this in performance? Perhaps it would be best to just break the fourth wall, catch your beloved’s eye and speak it as prose.

This card costs a solid £4.59 and is very high-end – heavily embossed, pretend gold leaf, two appliqué hearts floating on the front. There’s attractive decoration on the inside faces and an illuminated four-page insert. But, alas, the prosody doesn’t come up to the standard of the printing. Even given the amount that foil blocking costs, you’d think there would have been enough margin to bring in an editor for 10 minutes.

But anyway, no matter. Enough of the textualist Scrooging: it’s the thought at the end that counts. To everyone, wife or no, the blog wishes you a very happy Christmas.

Never wrong for … oh

8 Dec

It’s easy to forget things about people – that actor you liked, what year she died, what show she was in, what character she played. Or, as here in the Mail, what her name was.

That surname is given consistently throughout the text (although, interestingly, not in one caption). But the Mail’s readers were immediately on the case: it should be Chambers, not Chalmers.*

Previously, we have observed the Mail’s revise desk hastening to intervene after a faulty story has gone up, but they couldn’t save the day this time. Not that they didn’t stop by: the article was published at 16.08, then updated at 16.29, then again at 17.50, then again at 21.18. But each time the largest error went uncorrected, to the increasing dismay of the commenters below:

This is not to rejoice at the presence of an error in a rival publication. In fact, something similar happened to a newspaper very close to this blog years ago, when a notable media executive’s name was got wrong, with total consistency, all the way through a story about his career. But in the era of the internet, there is an extra pair of eyes scouring for this kind of error – the readership’s. And now they can let let you know when something’s amiss. Or they can if you’re listening to them.

At the Tribune, there is an industrious Office of the Readers’ Editor, charged with representing the newspaper’s audience back to it in matters of complaint and error. They discharge this duty with impressive assertiveness and what sometimes feels like, but surely cannot be, glee. The heart sinks as an email arrives beginning “CCing subs: I think the reader might have a point here …” above a brusque message skewering another howler that got through the newsdesk and two layers of editing.

The same is true of comments. As the tide of vituperation rolls on, we are less enthused about this kind of interaction than we used to be, but we still allow comments on many pieces, and when we do, they are moderated after posting. The Mail takes a different approach – according to its FAQs, comments are either premoderated (that is, checked before being allowed on the site), or, more frequently, not moderated at all.

Even unmoderated comments can be policed to some extent by other users by using the Mail’s “upvote/downvote” function. Unfortunately, the posts pointing out the Chalmers/Chambers error don’t appear in either the worst or the best top 10 as voted. Lost in the middle of 100-plus contributions, many readers may not see them – and, in this case at least, no one from the Mail is looking at all.

*Also, of course, the “late actress” did not play a “much loved actress”: Alice was a verger. You may also feel that there are some commas missing in that sentence, and perhaps one too few in the first part of the standfirst.

That hint of print

24 Nov

“Sometimes,” says Andrew Marr, halfway through the Sunday paper review, “the best front pages are the ones online.” And he turns to an image of the tabloid Independent.

But of course, as we have previously discussed, the modern Independent front page is a curious thing. It is online, in the sense that it only exists virtually: the paper stopped printing in 2016. But in appearance, concept and execution, it relies on the language of print. It exists almost exclusively to be included in “what the papers say” roundups, where the visual rhetoric of the front page still has greater impact than a web article called up on an iPad. It is not a native digital format: the Independent’s true front page these days is its homepage, which looks very similar to other digital news fronts, and suffers from the same problem of being updated too often and too quickly to ever serve as a snapshot of a calendar day.

Another curious thing about it is that it still looks the same as it did when the paper stopped printing in 2016 – still with a visually dramatic single story next to the distinctive vertical masthead. In fact, that look dates all the way back to 2013; since that time, for instance, the Financial Times, Telegraph and Guardian have all been redesigned. Will the Independent’s digital front page ever be redesigned as well? Or will it have to stay as it is, fossilised by the necessity of reminding viewers of the time when it was a newspaper too?

The wonder of Woolsworths

10 Nov

It turned out not to be true: Woolworths was not reopening in Britain. It was a hoax, announced from a stunted-up Twitter account and unwisely seized upon by numerous British media outlets. And how did people begin to realise it was a fake? Because of the typos.

As the BBC reports, the Twitter feed (now suspended) referred to the brand as “Woolsworths” more than once – deliberately, its teenage creator says – and although some of the media may have been fooled, several people on social media weren’t:

As we have recently discussed, social media is a forum that is highly sensitised to orthography and register. Formality is not the norm between private users, but when it comes to online political messaging or corporate communications, its absence is suspicious. Posts that purport to be from an official body written in casual – specifically, unedited – English seem as jarringly inauthentic as jokey Halloween Twitter handles do in serious news reports.

It is one of this blog’s hobby-horses that formality has its uses: however absurd “proper English” seems to linguists, it is the language authority speaks, and to which it most readily responds. In anyone’s mouth, it has the power to command. And it also serves another purpose, even today: as an implicit guarantor of authenticity. This is why consumer rights groups still advise customers to be alert to language errors on suspicious websites. As Which? puts it: “Watch out for poor English, such as spelling and grammar mistakes, or phrases that don’t sound quite right.”

Scammers and pranksters could solve many of their authenticity problems by hiring editors, of course. But, perhaps fortunately, they seem to have as little respect for the craft of editing as many news organisations.

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?