Double exposure

27 Sep

I wish Agence France-Presse would stop doing this, because it’s perilously easy to make a mistake:

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It’s an unusual name, you think, but a resonant one: puts you slightly in mind of Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the late king of Saudi Arabia. Unfamiliar though “Alhalbiameer” may be, it has a strangely correct ring to it – a patronymic, maybe? An unfamiliar theophoric name? Except of course, it’s nothing of the sort: AFP, as is its unvarying practice, has repeated Ameer Alhalbi’s name twice without a break in the middle. And that’s the kind of thing that can easily get transcribed from the credit across onto the page when you’re in a hurry:

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It happens with other AFP snappers with non-anglophone names too: Aref (Karimiaref) Karimi, Mandel (Nganmandel) Ngan, Louai (Besharalouai) Beshara and Ilyas (Akenginilyas) Akengin have all made it into publication.

Very obvious once it’s pointed out, of course, and very embarrassing when it happens. But in a world with naming conventions as diverse as Burma’s and Spain’s, it’s not entirely surprising that a striking-looking ‘middle name’ might sometimes slip through. As we have discussed before, pictures and captions have a shorter route into publication, and pass under fewer eyes, than anything else on the website or in the paper.

Fortunately, because it’s the Tribune’s practice to put photography credits on the end of the caption, this is the kind of thing one is prompted to notice in print – if only because there’s so little space in a standard two-column caption that your heart sinks when you see a long name. But come on, AFP: we’re working at speed here. Everyone understands why you’d want to repeat names for clarity, but at least put a space between them. Give us a break.

Too chill for comfort

13 Sep

If you were looking for snark, the official Twitter feed of a major American-English dictionary might not be the first place you’d look. But, oh boy.

A few days ago, Gabriel Roth of Slate unwisely allowed his inner prescriptivist out for an airing after reading the following tweet from Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

Articulating the silent twinge that many editors and writers feel at the sight of descriptivism in action, he wrote:

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And then unexpectedly this reply, from the dictionary itself, appeared:

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Ouch. Owned. Or – to use the correct spelling of the word in this context – “pwned“. As a rueful Roth wrote later, “I find myself wistfully remembering the days when tweeting at brands was a safe, innocuous pastime”. And other responses to M-W’s intervention have been broadly favourable: the tweet was rude, yes, commenters thought, but also uncompromisingly truthful about the ineluctable nature of language change.

However, scrolling down through M-W’s Twitter feed, it emerges that this is not the only time it’s taken a bold line in such matters. Five days earlier, in similarly lively terms, it made the following observation:

Well, hang on. Yes, “enormity” can indeed mean “great size”, and has done for centuries. But, no, it’s not “fine”: currently, as a word, it’s totally skunked. As we discussed last month, “enormity” is hovering uneasily on the brink of a permanent change in meaning, but is still tending to drag its other meaning of “moral horror” into simple discussions about size. It’s a very tricky word to be employing at the moment; a while ago, for example, we saw fit to remove it from a news story about the heated subject of the Scottish referendum because of its overtone of opprobrium. It’s far from clear that, in these circumstances, a major dictionary should be recommending it quite so breezily. Authorities are looked up to; these things get taken seriously.

As this blog has had occasion to remark before, people don’t require help with informal English. They speak it well. They do not seek the assistance of their editor friends when composing a tweet or posting on Instagram; but they do, sometimes, when updating their CV or writing to a solicitor. What they want is help with formal English: a register whose social significance they grasp, but one in which they perceive themselves not to be fluent.

This is when they turn to the dictionary: to be briefed on the meaning of a legal idiom, or the appropriate use of a word in their own reply: to find out, perhaps, whether “enormity” means what they think it means. But they are doing this at a time where one of the prime objectives of linguistics is the debunking of the prescriptive maxims about language that have been taught during last two centuries. An unsatisfactory dialogue has therefore developed between linguists and the public in which queries about the niceties of formal English are met only with assurances about the validity of informal English. For the last several decades, it seems, lexicographers have been talking about what’s changed in the language while their readers have been asking about what hasn’t.

The spirit behind this objective is democratic to a fault, and the efforts to expose the frailties of formal English are intellectually impeccable. But nonetheless, they are starting to amount to the total deconstruction of a dialect that many people still have no choice but to speak.

The ghosts of Fowler, Strunk and White still haunt the sphere of formal discourse. It is highly commendable that more modern authorities like Merriam-Webster should be getting involved in the conversation about usage. But burning a grumpy prescriptivist on Twitter? Waving off debate about a word in difficult transition?  That isn’t advice; it’s advocacy. Roth is right: counsel as blasé as this is just a little too chill for comfort.

Citations needed

30 Aug

Wow, the episode titles of Ryan Lochte’s old reality show were eerily prescient, given what happened to him in Rio … wait, hang on. Has this been tampered with?

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That’s Wikipedia for you: somebody makes the news and the pranksters come out in force. A quick glance at the edit history of the page reveals a calm lack of activity until 18 August, at the height of the row over the alleged robbery the US swimmer suffered, at which point a brief “edit war” appears to break out:

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The signs are classic: the sudden influx of anonymous users; the addition of 529 characters without explanation; the deletion of 531 characters without explanation; then the intervention by an adult some 10 hours later  (“removed spurious entry”)  to restore the site to its correct state – a state in which, at the time of writing, it still remains:

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This is, as has frequently been pointed out, the uniquely alarming thing about Wikipedia: not that some of it is wrong, or that some of it is badly written, but that all of it might change. As John McIntyre put it years ago:

“This is the most troublesome part[:] the editing is not stable. An editor corrects an error, and an hour later or a day later, someone undoes the editing. You cannot tell, when looking at a Wikipedia entry, whether it is correct at this moment.”

That is true: it would be most unwise ever to cite a Wikipedia article in a book, if only because you would have no idea what the page might be saying in a year’s time. But as a user of the site, clicking on the page to read at any given moment, it’s often pretty easy to tell what state things are in. For example, it wouldn’t be hard to detect the damage in these examples from Wikipedia’s own list of its most vandalised pages:

Oklahoma Christian University  Vandalized a lot given the nondescript nature of the school. Students there vandalize pages and employees there revert them.

Dyslexia  Vandalized daily, multiple anonymous edits, usually with deletions, obscenities, deliberate scrambling of text, or insertion of jokes.

Taiwan  Anonymous vandal with ever changing IP addresses who turns this into an article on the Republic of China

Rove McManus Vandalised regularly by anons who insert scare quotes around the word “comedian”.

That’s not to say vandalism hasn’t caused problems – big ones – in the past. While entries about topics in the news are often monitored closely and re-edited quickly, the dusty historical corners of the site can go unexamined for years, as this hair-raising example – recounted by Wikipedia in its own article about frauds it has suffered – shows:

In May 2010, French politician Ségolène Royal publicly praised the memory of Léon-Robert de l’Astran, an 18th-century naturalist, humanist and son of a slave trader, who had opposed the slave trade. The newspaper Sud-Ouest revealed a month later that de l’Astran had never existed—except as the subject of an article in the French Wikipedia. Historian Jean-Louis Mahé discovered that de l’Astran was fictional after a student, interested by Royal’s praise of him, asked Mahé about him. Mahé’s research led him to realise that de l’Astran did not exist in any archives, and he traced the hoax back to the Rotary Club of La Rochelle. The article, created by members of the Club in January 2007, had thus remained online for three years—unsourced—before the hoax was uncovered.

And journalists have suffered too, not least in the notorious case of the Norman Wisdom Falsehood in the same year, which caught out several newspaper obituarists and revealed just how short – at least in those days – the route was from Wikipedia to the printed page. (For the record: for all his many talents, Wisdom did not write the lyrics to “There’ll Be Bluebirds Over The White Cliffs of Dover”.)

But newsrooms have learnt something in the intervening six years. The Wisdom incident exposed some shameless cut-and-paste writing, but it also perhaps revealed an endearingly trusting approach to encyclopaedias – a pre-digital belief in reference sources as inviolate and trustworthy. A series of embarrassments over the last decade have changed that; our understanding of what a wiki is now is much more mature than what it was then.

For example, it is interesting that, as Wikipedia notes, the De l’Astran article was completely unsourced: nowadays, there would be a large flag at the top of the page pointing that out, and no fact-checker worth their salt these days would rely on a Wiki article without a single footnote. In more borderline cases, or faced with more subtle vandalism, you still have options: you can check the edit history of a page to get a feel for the bona fides of the contributor who made the amendment. Do they have a proper username, or are they just anonymous? Did they leave a note explaining what they had done, which is good wiki practice? Have they amended other pages too? What did they do there? Did anyone undo their revisions? If so, why?

To be clear: Wikipedia is not, and can never be, authoritative. The phrase “Source: Wikipedia” should never appear anywhere in a reputable publication. Nothing in it that is not cross-referred to an external source should ever be taken as true. The Britannica version of a subject is always greatly to be preferred – except that there is no Britannica entry for What Would Ryan Lochte Do?, nor for the many other ephemeral and trivial phenomena about which newspapers write. If you need some briefing on reality stars, talent show winners, Japanese video games or the Doge meme, there often is nowhere else – reliable or unreliable – to turn; just as sometimes, faced with hip-hop lyrics or regional slang that you don’t understand, there is sometimes no alternative but to resort, nervously, to the pages of the Urban Dictionary.

Wikipedia is still a hazard for the unwary. Of course it isn’t “safe”. But journalists make a living from assessing the probity of sources, and we can apply the same talent here. After the initial upheavals over vandalism, incompetence and mutability, we are starting to make a mental accommodation for a new kind of reference source: ones that are extremely useful but not entirely reliable. Wikipedia can never truly provide an answer; but sometimes it’s the only thing that can help you understand the question.

The artist Cowabunga

16 Aug

If you’re not sure if you’re reading a broadsheet or a tabloid, check the corrections column. If you see a correction like this, you’re reading a broadsheet:

We confused the endings of two Bresson films in the article above when we said that the donkey hero of Au Hasard Balthazar died to the accompaniment of Monteverdi. The soundtrack to Mouchette’s suicide in the film of that name is Monteverdi, while Balthazar dies to the accompaniment of a Schubert piano sonata. This error has been corrected.

This is mother lode for a broadsheet readers’ editor: French directors, baroque composers, fine distinctions.  It can’t always be that way: too often, this level of expertise is lost in the quotidian struggle to correct homophones and pacify libelled entrepreneurs. But when there’s the slightest glimpse of home ground – a classical reference twinkling in the morass – that unique combination of erudition and patience comes to the fore:

In a feature about the return of the TV series Robot Wars, we said the first season “featured … robots with names such as Killertron and Recylopse”. The correct spelling of the latter is Recyclopse, being a play on the facts that the robot was made almost entirely of recycled material and featured one large eye, like the Greek mythical giant Cyclops

And you need patience, because some people’s grasp of 15th century art just makes you roll your eyes:

A film review on Friday about “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” referred incorrectly to the turtles’ names. Three turtles are named for Renaissance artists whose major works included paintings, not four. (Donatello was a sculptor.)

The size and the horror

2 Aug

We held out for a long time, but it looks like even our resolve is weakening. Witness this exchange on the subs’ email list last week:

From the reader’s editor:

Hi
Can someone please tweak this: [appends link to article]
Style guide:
enormity
It might sound a bit like “enormous”, but enormity refers to something monstrous or wicked, such as a massacre, and is not just another word for “big”
 From a sub-editor:
I’ll have a look at this
From another sub-editor:

this is an odd one as our default dictionary Collins actually says it can be used informally to mean “vastness of size or extent

And then, from the website production editor, this:
I think it’s one of those words whose changed meaning is now used widely enough to possibly warrant a style guide tweak.
Have copied in the house style team for their view.
Best
OK, so we haven’t changed anything yet. OK, so we’re just taking views at the moment. But still, compare this willingness to be descriptivist with what we were saying about enormity two years ago, when an article was summarily corrected to remove any suggestion of bias during the Scottish independence campaign:
A front-page analysis of the Scottish independence referendum said: “With only 10 days to go, the rest of Britain finally awoke yesterday to the enormity of what is happening in Scotland.” The style guide states that enormity “refers to something monstrous or wicked, not big”. The writer was, in fact, referring to the scale and importance of the vote (“Nothing else now matters in British politics”, 8 September, page 1).

I thought then, and I think now, that the word is currently best avoided in either sense. It can’t be relied upon to deliver its old meaning, but nor, as witnessed above, have the prejudicial implications of that meaning been completely extinguished. It is well and truly “skunked“, as Bryan Garner would say.

But nonetheless, the direction of travel is obvious: the “immensity” meaning is starting to appear in major dictionaries, and, in the case of Merriam-Webster, as a formal definition of equal status with the others. More than one senior and discriminating Tribune writer is using the word in relation to size without batting an eye, despite what the style guide may say. And although it is unwise to try to prove anything that relies on context with a Google Ngram, compare the usage graph for “enormity of the crime” (i.e. repugnance) with the one for “enormity of the task” (i.e. immensity):

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Language changes so slowly that we perceive it to be static; we discover with bemusement that “awful” once meant “awe-inspiring” or that “egregious” once meant “eminent”, but we don’t perceive the same shifts to be happening today. Yet they are, and this is a clear example of a word conclusively changing its meaning in front of our eyes. It may still be too early to safely describe a band (as we already have) as “uptempo pop rockers destined for enormity”. But the day is getting closer.

Registered™

19 Jul

My iPhone is biometrically coded, offers encryption that baffles the FBI, and can connect me to global news and networks that defy the reach of political censorship. But it does want me to capitalise ‘Polaroid’:

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Digital freedom means many things, but apparently not the right to appropriate trademarks.

The extent to which registered trademarks enter common language, or “genericisation”, is one of the hard knot of editing issues, along with libel and legal reporting, where editors can really earn their money – high-stakes prescriptivism, so to speak. Lawyers representing dominant companies live in fear of their trademarks becoming nouns or verbs that define an entire market, not just  their clients’ products (see, for example, “googling”, “photoshopping”, “thermos”, “sellotape”, and once, long ago, “aspirin”). Once a word has “entered the language”, the courts are inclined to take that as a fait accompli and deny any further copyright infringement cases; so the lawyers have to act fast and early to prevent genericisation ever happening. They email, write, phone, demand corrections, suggest alternatives (Velcro likes you to say “hook and loop fasteners”). They are language change’s sharpest and best-resourced opponents.

And that’s why the Tribune’s style guide on the issue says the following:

trademarks (TM)
Take care: use a generic alternative unless there is a very good reason not to, eg ballpoint pen, not biro (unless it really is a Biro, in which case it takes a cap B); say photocopy rather than Xerox, etc; you will save our lawyers, and those of Portakabin and various other companies, a lot of time and trouble

The editor’s natural interest in enforcing distinctions chimes well with the lawyers’ determination to have them enforced, even if the legal vigilance gets a little grating at times. Portakabin, notably, used to send round a letter a week before the summer music festival season – long before any transgression had actually taken place – to “remind” editors that their clients did not provide the toilet facilities for Glastonbury, so on no account were festivalgoers to be described as using “Portaloos”. This would reliably cause the kind of grumbling, even among hard-nosed copydesk veterans, that one might almost have described as descriptivist. However, one can see the point: in court cases, one of the determining factors of a word being deemed to have entered the public domain is to what extent it appears in a general sense in media reports.

That said, it’s still not entirely clear what Apple is hoping to achieve with its suggestions on QuickType (as the predictive typing aid in iOS9 is called). As an experiment, I tried out Facebook Messenger with single-word nouns given as trademarks in the Tribune’s style guide.

Whenever it recognised the word (it didn’t in all cases), QuickType invariably suggested an initial cap, with the sole (and slightly baffling) exception of Jacuzzi (trademark of the company founded in 1915 by Giocondo Jacuzzi in Berkeley, California.)

But is that enough? As the style guide suggests, the best practice when trademarked words come up is to change them to a generic alternative – at least, better practice than scattering the copy with ™s and ®s. Is a capital letter, without more, enough to escape accusations of aiding genericisation? Is the fact that your operating system is suggesting a semi-proper noun less likely to annoy the lawyers, or more?

It might be argued that proposing some acknowledgment of copyright is enough to absolve you of blame; certainly better than offering a lowercased suggestion. But the best practice recommended to lawyers is to use the trademark as an adjective not a noun (“Xerox brand copiers”), and QuickType seems happy to suggest nouns. It may be that QuickType is following the dictionary practice of capitalising trademarked nouns when defining them; but dictionaries always quickly make clear that such words are trademarks, and QuickType does not.

In the end, the genericised fate of escalator, kerosene, laundromat and trampoline suggests that the battle – like nearly all battles against language change – may be futile. Certainly, Xerox have fought doughtily against “xeroxing” as a verb and kept their trademark protected: but there are many fewer photocopiers in today’s broadband-connected offices than there used to be, and it may be that the word will die out with the practice. But in the meantime, the letters will keep on arriving. And the lawyers aren’t the amateur grammar grumblers of the letters page: these people peeve for a living.

 

Sketch writing

5 Jul

You can tell when he’s finished by the sound of the hairdryer starting up. A couple of hours before deadline, looking up from his watercolour box and reference boards full of politicians’ faces, the Tribune’s cartoonist will put down his brushes and pick up the office dryer to blow-dry the paint on his cartoon before bringing it over. (No time to wait for it to dry, of course; this is a newspaper). Then, he’ll casually carry it across the office, colours glistening on the cartridge paper, and hand it to the production desk – a fragile, analogue piece of journalism in a digital world.

Before that moment, of course, ideas have been discussed, copy read in preview, and a detailed rough sketch has been presented. That’s when we on the subs’ desk swing in to action, checking captions, lettering, speech balloons and so on. Everything gets edited. No tiny detail escapes us. Especially not on the bewildering and unhappy subject of Britain’s departure from the EU, summed up by an ugly portmanteau word that now echoes, to our shame, around the world.

Here’s this week’s:

Brexitsketch

Yep, that looks fine.