We the people

22 Jun

Apologies if you’re having lunch, but something has come up in the world of anglophone news. From the Mail’s UK homepage a couple of weeks ago:

The issue is not the shock value of this report from Daily Mail Australia, unpleasant though it is. Nor is it a lack of geographical specificity, something about which this blog has previously complained: the country of origin is clear. The issue comes at the end of the headline when the international mask slips and the sub-editor refers to “our” waterways.

At the Tribune, the audience team don’t like us saying “our” in the furniture. They have an eye to the global visibility of the website and want things to be accessible to all English-speakers. You can see their point: directly addressing a community to which some readers do not belong has an exclusionary effect. But at the same time, this kind of assumed familiarity becomes hard to avoid when one of your international newsrooms is writing a home news story for its home audience – all the more so when it is under instructions to cater to its home audience first, and not the mothership in London.

And the problem is not confined to accidentally identifying yourself as part of a community. Should you be making local jokes and allusions in headlines, like Guardian Australia does here?

Or do you take the International Herald Tribune approach and retreat from all signals of national identity? (For readers outside New South Wales, I should explain that the Big Banana here is not, as you might think, Russell Crowe: it refers to Coffs Harbour itself, which prospered in the banana trade and now has a large theme park of that name.)

And you’d need to be very local to New South Wales, I think, to grasp this headline first time:

The key is to know that the state police force has a squad known as the “fixated persons unit”, which investigates potentially violent lone-wolf offenders. Even with that information, you might find that a nine-word noun phrase is going it a bit for a headline: the verb-seeking reader does tend to fasten on “fixated” as a likely candidate and get confused.

Friendlyjordies itself is a YouTube channel that satirises Australian politics: not really a name to conjure with, then, across the anglosphere. But if you’re already in for “fixated persons unit”, you’re probably in for that too. And how else could you really put it? “Arrest of member of Australian satirical political YouTube channel by anti-terrorist New South Wales police unit… “? You solve the problem of alienating audiences, but then you run out of space. Localisms can be essential for compression and communication – but then, just as surely as if you’d said “we”, you’ve circumscribed the size of the audience you’re talking to.

Northern Star

8 Jun

Stopwatches at the ready: how long does it take you to “get” this Daily Star front page?

British readers will be at a considerable advantage here. But I’m British and write headlines for a living, and I had to stare at it for almost a minute in Sainsbury’s before I worked it out.

This is the Star, of course – the national newspaper that puts stories about escaped hamsters on its front page – but it’s not a joke or “silly” article. It’s a perfectly legitimate piece of media news, albeit one that could sit comfortably on an inside page.

If you still need pointers: it’s a story about a decision to give British regional accents more prominence on the BBC, and the headline is written in Yorkshire dialect as a form of illustration. This much you might gather from the pun on “happen” (or ‘appen) in the strapline. In Yorkshire, “happen” can be used as a sentence adverb that functions in the same way as “perhaps” or “maybe”, and means essentially the same thing (so the sense is “perhaps it will happen”).

It’s a classic Yorkshire-ism that would set most British readers on the right path, but what comes after in the main head is still a challenge. What they’re trying for, you eventually realise, is a rhyming pun on “News at 10” using the Yorkshire phrase ’Ow do?, meaning “how [do you] do?”. I think what makes it particularly difficult is that, having started marking the dropped h’s with apostrophes in the strap, they then abruptly stop, so I was stuck on “OW” (cry of pain) and “DOS” (Microsoft operating system) for about 45 seconds before the light dawned. ’OW DO’S might need a lot of punctuation for a five-letter phrase, but it would have been clearer.

I mean, I say it’s difficult, but that may only be an indication of how painfully southern I am (born in London, raised in Sussex). Perhaps a lot of people got it straightaway. Still, given that the story is about unseen continuity announcers rather than well-known frontline newsreaders, it’s not 100% clear what Sophie Raworth (Surrey-born, crisp RP) is doing on the front page, or why she has acquired a northern accent and flat cap. News anchors being required to fake a dialect? I may be behind the curve slightly on this, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what it says in the text.

Culture clashes

25 May

Oh for goodness’ sake!

I’m sick and tired of these basic errors about Diphilus of Siphnus slipping through. (Diphilus of Siphnus? You know, the Cycladean physician of the third century BC, notable chiefly for being quoted in the writings of Athenaeus of Naucratis).

As this blog has previously observed, if you’re not sure whether you’re reading a broadsheet or a tabloid, a correction like this will tell you. In this case, the distinction is even more obvious when you read the footnote in the context of the paragraph that precedes it:

Only a broadsheet – perhaps only the Tribune – could manage to mention Diphilus of Siphnus in a tart recipe.*

Indeed, the arts and lifestyle pages always seem to bring out the best in a broadsheet corrections column. Away from the legal deletions and mis-spelt names of the news section, the patient erudition that is the hallmark of the readers’ editor can shine through:

At last someone in the building has got a grip on the Queen Mary’s Marriage Act (passed 1554; not repealed, presumably out of an abundance of caution, until 1863).

And along with that historical discernment comes a talent for diplomacy, born of years of placation and mediation between the opinionated. For instance, why say “due to an editing error” when you can signal culpability as gracefully as this?

“Restore” – smoothly done. (You can imagine a puce-faced music critic bellowing down the phone: “Do you think I don’t know the difference??”).

Elsewhere in this elegant intellectual landscape is the cryptic crossword. As these are an almost exclusively broadsheet phenomenon, readers’ editors in the quality press are alone in being required to tackle the rarefied mistakes they throw up:

Very disappointing for all concerned, especially the setter; whereas 9pm is very much in the heart of TV primetime, 11pm is not. It still works as a clue, but you know – it’s not as clever.

It’s only when popular culture – alas – intrudes into the arts section that the spell can be broken. Let’s hope nothing goes wrong when we review that notoriously scabrous animation about foul-mouthed Coloradan schoolchildren:

Oh dear: television always spoils things. Perhaps we’ll have done better with a more middlebrow show about one of America’s founding fathers?

Oh dear.

*Actually, on further review, doesn’t the maths in this correction seem a little odd? If the error is a simple question of confusing the third century AD with the third century BC, how is it that Pliny’s writings can be one century later in the first instance, then three centuries later when corrected? I think there’s a word missing: it should probably read “… three centuries later, not one century earlier.

Noun pile growth threat fear

11 May

The noun pile is a firmly established part of British journalistic life, but it’s fascinating to look back at the first pioneering steps in its creation (or at least as Michael Frayn imagines them in his satire The Tin Men):

If Goldwasser was remembered for nothing else, Macintosh once told Rowe, he would be remembered for his invention of UHL.

UHL was Unit Headline Language, and it consisted of a comprehensive lexicon of all the multi-purpose monosyllables used by headline-writers. Goldwasser’s insight had been to see that if the grammar of “ban”, “dash”, “fear”, and the rest was ambiguous, they could be used in almost any order to make a sentence, and if they could be used in almost any order to make a sentence they could be easily randomised …

UHL, Goldwasser quickly realised, was an ideal answer to the problem of making a story run from day to day in an automated paper. Say, for example, that the randomiser turned up


By adding one unit at random to the formula each day the story could go:




and so on. Or the units could be added cumulatively:






Of course modern sub-editors no longer have to restrict themselves to monosyllables, or even common multi-purpose words: great news for those working to tight headline counts, such as those on the BBC website. Nowadays we can effortlessly produce noun piles like this:

So, to parse it from back to front, as one should: a teacher has been banned. Which teacher? The strip club teacher. Which strip club teacher? The Longridge Towers school strip club teacher. Which Longridge Towers school? The one in Northumberland.

Actually, that last bit seems odd. As far as Google can ascertain, there seems to be only one Longridge Towers school in Britain. “Northumberland”, then, isn’t serving to narrow down a series of options, as it would in a classic noun pile. As we have previously discussed, in the internet age, the syntax of Unit Headline Language has at times been adulterated by the addition of good SEO words, presumably on the basis that there are so many nouns in the phrase already, who’s going to object to another one? But it does disrupt the progression of specificity that is the hallmark of the classical form.

Even given that problem, the noun pile headline remains invaluable, particularly for those legally tricky stories where using a verb might get you sued. And it sounds like that aspect of the technology was perfect right from the start:

Goldwasser had had a survey conducted, in fact, in which 457 people were shown the headlines




Asked if they thought they understood the headlines, 86.4 per cent said yes, but of those 97.3 per cent were unable to offer any explanation of what it was they had understood.

We’re scarcely able to improve on those numbers today.

Old-school wrap

27 Apr

There’s nothing this blog likes more, as a rule, than a vintage front page layout. But perhaps not this one:

There are 19 headlines on the page and they are all the same size, set in sans caps ranged left, centre and right, with the result that (i) huge amounts of unintended white space are created, and (ii) almost every kind of word has to be omitted to make them fit. Not just nouns, although there is a flying verb in there – WILL SING MESSIAH – but verbs (REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION AT CLEVELAND) and prepositions (BROTHER DYING CONDITION) too.

The page is presented, more in sorrow than in anger, by Radder and Stempel in the second edition of their book Newspaper Editing, Make-up and Headlines, the 1940s treasure trove of old-school techniques first brought to our attention by HeadsUp for its clear chapter-and-verse about using flying verbs (or as it likes to call them, “implied subjects”). It also contains this spectacular example of overdisplay, or “circus make-up”, from the Denver Post:

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a headline above a masthead before, and in practically the same size type as well.

But what’s most interesting about the many front pages in the chapter is not the layouts, good though most of them are, but something else: the number of semicolon headlines they have. I had previously assumed that these were almost unique to the New York Times, and only then brought out for special occasions, but here – in papers large and small, on busy news days and quiet ones – they seem to be quite a regular thing after all.

This edition of the book was published in 1942, and most of the contemporaneous front pages are war-related. So what these headlines all seem to encapsulate is what we at the Tribune would call a “wrap”: a roundup of the day’s events on a number of fronts without a particularly strong lead item. This is something else the semicolon head is suited for: not just huge stories where every paragraph might deserve its own headline, but long-running stories that require a wider perspective to grasp them fully. Give or take a major breakthrough, it seemed newspapers understood even at the time that the war was so all-encompassing as to only be properly understood in the round.

None the less, it’s interesting to see wrap stories running as front-page leads. At the Tribune, they are very much second-order items, destined for an inside spread; you know when you pick up “polswrap23” from the queue that it can be cut without too much anguish from management.* In 1940s America, it was clearly different: perhaps because the war was always the biggest story in town, like the pandemic is today. Even so, though, modern Fleet Street papers would never settle for a roundup as the splash; in their ferociously competitive market, they would usually try to lead with a single-aspect scoop on Covid, however manufactured it might be, and save the wrap for page seven.

Wherever they end up, though, you’ve still got to write furniture for them, which is another reason to mourn the unpopularity of the semicolon hed. The reductive temptation is simply to write a simple headline based only on the first item in the article. If you try to capture the portfolio nature of the piece, modern practice would be to use conjunctions – “as” or “while”. But these hint at a causative, or at least thematic, relationship between the clauses, when what you really want to do is write multiple, unconnected headlines. Semicolons are perfect for that; if only journalism wasn’t so afraid of them.

*In this respect, wrap stories differ significantly from the blow-by-blow, long-form features that back up major front-page investigations. At the Tribune these are, rather unexpectedly, known as “guts”, meaning that otherwise cardigan-wearing desk editors start sounding like Vince Lombardi when they’re late: “Where’s the gut? Have we got the gut?”

Zeroes and ones, part five

13 Apr

This week on Journalists’ Adventures in Maths: percentage changes are not reversible, or why a 75% rise from 4 to 7 is not a 75% fall from 7 to 4.

Dutifully checking the numbers* in the copy as they come up, I first get a result at variance with the reporter’s:

and then, by swapping the numbers around, get one that agrees:

However, the minus sign at the start of the second answer is the clue: the numbers in that sum are declining from over 400,000 to less than 300,000. But the copy talks about a rise.

The same thing happens with the second pair of numbers: the percentage rise is calculated as though it were a percentage fall.

Why is it not the same? The difference between 8,276 and 12,092 is always constant: 3,816. But in a percentage, of course, you can relate that constant difference to different comparators, and 3,816 is a much larger proportion of 8,276 than it is of 12,092.

This will hardly come as news to people who can do maths. But for arts-heavy newsrooms, this is slightly more perilous territory than the answer just being wrong – it is wrong, but it seems right if you do the sum the wrong way round. You need the strength of mind to remember which number you’re starting with and stick with it. It seems somewhat analogous to the evergreen error of mistaking ancestors for descendants, or confusing “overestimating” and “underestimating”. It’s not just the relationship between the two things that’s important, but the direction of travel too.

*Use of a percentage calculator is highly recommended, of course; I like this one, with its clear, question-based approach.

Ever the optimist

30 Mar

It could have been worse. Your giant container ship may have got humiliatingly jammed across the Suez canal, displaying your company name in huge letters to the world as it wrecks global trade, but at least it’s got a nice name. Ever Given. Whoever it was at Evergreen Marine Corp who decided on that poetic prefix – many of the company’s ships are called the Ever Something – may have done their employer a bit of a favour.

Ever given, never withheld. It’s enigmatic enough to work as the name of a deserted starship in an epic videogame; its hint at romantic surrender also makes it a possibility for Mills & Boon. It has the same non-specific but appealing aesthetic as the title of the film The Beat That My Heart Skipped. That bears almost no literal relevance to the thriller it belongs to, but it works superbly nonetheless – as it would for almost anything, from a romantic comedy to a baffling 90s arthouse pic in which nothing happens.

Evergreen’s naming policy has produced other winners too. Ever Lambent is a phrase Keats might have written. The Ever Gentle sounds immediately disarming. The resonance of “always” or “forever” is vague, but intriguing. Many people are predisposed to like the sea anyway; just as Nato reporting names add excitement to a military aviation story, you do wonder if a good ship name helps, just a little, to take the edge off negative coverage when something goes wrong.

Is that fanciful? Well, consider what might have happened if Prince Jefri of Brunei had got into difficulties in his custom-built superyacht, the Tits, or how Gary Hart’s presidential ambitions foundered after a dalliance with a woman on the good ship Monkey Business. And perhaps Evergreen itself has also dodged a bullet: it’s easy to imagine the po-faced excoriations of multilateralism that would have ensued if this had happened to the Ever Liberal. And think how unbearable Twitter might have been if the vessel that had got wedged in the entrance to a narrow passage had been the Ever Uranus.

Photograph: kees torn via Wikipedia

East-west relations

16 Mar

On the Tube a few months ago, I saw this:

I was familiar with the poem, an ecological updating of Brecht’s Alles Wandelt Sich, but I had only ever seen it printed in book format, with one verse below the other. When you read it like that, understanding comes slowly: you only grasp the parallelism of the construction bit by bit as you progress down the page. But here, your eye is tracking from left to right naturally: as it overruns slightly at the end of the line, it can’t help but glimpse what is to come. As you see in your peripheral vision the same words as you’ve just read, you start to understand what’s going to happen before it happens, and the genius of Brecht’s original conception becomes clear sooner: all the same phrases, but arranged in two different orders to create two contrasting emotions.

And that same design strategy – of using the eye’s movement from east to west as well as from north to south – is one of the few remaining areas where print holds an advantage over digital. The problem with web news articles, as my boss the production editor is fond of saying, is that once you’ve clicked through to them from the homepage, they all look the same: the most explosive splash and the most routine weather story are identically formatted, with the same size of headline, same size of standfirst, same shape of picture at the top and same livery colours (unless you’re really pushing the boat out for a campaign, in which case the last of these might change).

More importantly, the experience of reading them is an isolated and purely vertical one – once you have left the homepage, you are simply scrolling down through a column of text, with nothing to catch the eye on either side: no larger headline to the left, no smaller text box to the right to draw you across or place what you’re reading in the context of other developments.

And even the homepage itself – cluttered as it is with dozens of unrelated stories – can’t hope to achieve the same depth of visual rhetoric as a good double-page spread can. Take this example from the New York Times’s travel section:

The front page hints at what is to come, by starting two separate stories in adjacent columns and turning them both to the spread, but it is the side-by-side display of the spread itself, as with Herbert’s poem, that really tells the story. The photos may vary but the layouts are, essentially, identical: same size main picture, identically formatted smaller picture grouping, headlines that mirror each other. As you look from left to right, the message seems clear before you’ve read a word of the text – that Vegas on $1,000 a day and Vegas on $250 a day are different, but also essentially the same.

At the Tribune, where the sub-editor formats articles for web as well as print, I would have no idea how to reproduce that effect for the online reader – they would either have to be two individual stories, separate from each other as web articles always are, or attached to each other in a fundamentally vertical way, with the second story following the first. It would take a special web design project to get them to sit side by side like this, and even an interactive presentation of some kind would still encounter the problem that faces all online publishing: that the space north to south is infinite, but the space east to west is severely constrained by the size of the reader’s screen.

The east-west effect is so powerful, in fact, that it can operate even when the designer doesn’t want it to, and lead to unintended consequences, like this:

As @jcodfishpie, who tweeted the clipping out almost 10 years ago, observes, Brighton’s top gay should be ashamed of himself.


2 Mar

This hasn’t come into focus at the Tribune yet, and perhaps it never will, but it will need thinking about if it does. What happens if a writer objects to the italicisation of words in one of their native languages during the publication process?

Levels of italicisation vary between style guides – some do it for films and book titles, some not, for example – but the Tribune’s style guide is brief and to the point about other languages: “Use italics for foreign words and phrases (with roman translation in brackets)”. There is some look-and-feel guidance about words that have become totally familiar in English, such as cafe, which should not be italicised and do not take diacriticals (as a former edition of the style guide used to say, “that would be a debacle”). But unfamiliar words take italics in our publications. Which then raises the question: unfamiliar to whom?

Although it is written by an editor for editors, this blog has always had at least a scrap of sympathy for writers who are unhappy about changes made to articles after they’ve written them. If you unsplit an infinitive in the cause of readability under someone else’s byline, the sticklers’ complaints will go to the writer, not to you, and you may be faced not only with the ire of peevish readers, but the ire of the reporter as well, who is inclined to agree with them. In such cases, an editor can end up isolated in opposition to both the author and the audience.

A disagreement over italics would probably be different, and might essentially become a debate with the author over who the presumed audience actually is. The person who wrote the tweet is a Korean American children’s author whose books are about young people of a similar background exploring their heritage. It is therefore probably essential for her that Korean words are not “othered” by being italicised to draw attention to their presumed unfamiliarity. (In fact, it would appear from the context of her thread that she has control of the process and has made that ruling for herself.)

This debate borders on the related issue, discussed many times in this blog, of news organisations allowing different dialects of English in the different countries in which they operate. The newsrooms set up by British news organisations elsewhere in the anglosphere are intended to speak to a domestic audience, not simply to report back to London. That’s why you sometimes end up reading articles about a “tradie” (a uniquely Australian term for tradesperson) startling a gigantic “huntsman” (a species of spider unknown in Britain) on the Daily Mail’s UK homepage.

The unspoken assumption is that Australian readers are the significant audience; if non-Australian readers see it, they will be able to figure it out. (As one of the supportive responders to the original tweet says, “if I see a word, I don’t understand, I’ll look it up.”)

On the other hand, it’s worth restating the traditional general defence of italicisation – that too great a presumption of understanding can alienate and discourage a potential audience who are unfamiliar with the subject. Italics, quotes and signposts to the reader such as “so-called” can all encourage them to navigate new intellectual or cultural territory, whatever it may be, and educate themselves. Another responder to the tweet, suggesting an exception for neologisms, writes that they could accept italicisation for a completely made-up word: “italic would let me know its ok to not understand it because its not a real word.” But doesn’t that principle – “it’s ok not to understand it” – apply to anything that might confuse the intended reader?

None of which helps solve the fundamental question in this debate, which is: who is the intended reader? Do you agree with the author about that? And if you don’t agree, which one of you decides?

O Capt, my Capt

16 Feb

Captain Sir Tom Moore? Sir Captain Tom Moore? Not everybody got it the right way round when the Burma veteran and beloved fundraising champion died earlier this month, but on our subs’ desk we were wrestling with a different question. Should we be abbreviating his rank?

The style guide editor emails:

There’s been a divide on this in terms of whether to abbreviate the Captain to Capt, as per the military ranks section of the style guide. That section refers to how to describe serving officers, but in Moore’s case he was retired, and had actually been promoted to honorary colonel last year. Captain Tom was the nickname by which he was known so shortening to Capt Tom seems a bit jarring. 

I understand shortening to Capt might be useful for tight furniture, but doesn’t seem necessary generally. The case seems similar to other examples where a rank has become part of a nickname or refers to a fictional character – we wouldn’t write Capt Beefheart, Col Tom Parker or ground control to Maj Tom.

Accordingly, the style guide now reads:

That seems fairly comprehensive: I don’t think even the Telegraph’s style guide addresses that last issue.

But the good thing about working at a broadsheet is that you never have to stop making distinctions. The deputy production editor replies:

In fact, he had no right to be called Capt Moore [the abbreviated form] anyway. You have to be a Major or above to retain your title in retirement (in the army; a naval captain is a higher rank, so can be retained). https://www.debretts.com/expertise/forms-of-address/professions/the-armed-forces/

Even at a left-leaning, republican-curious publication such as the Tribune, an appeal to Debrett’s like this glows with prestige. (And it can also help with some of those baffling ranks. L/CoH? No, me neither, but it’s “Lance-Corporal of the Horse”, in the Household Division.) Now the only question is: what to do about Adm Ackbar?