The one thing you notice

9 Jan

This armchair-continuity-expert thing is getting addictive. Moving on from The Crown to Netflix’s excellent Manhunt:Unabomber – the birth of forensic linguistics in eight parts, featuring Paul Bettany in a beard, Sam Worthington in a suit and Chris Noth in giant ’90s spectacles – the following subtitle screen appears:

Like the costumes and the hairstyles, it all seems redolently in-period. That’s the old San Francisco airport control tower, not the new one that was opened in 2016. The 747 on the right looks convincingly retro in Air China’s old-fashioned livery.  But what about that plane on the left?

The lettering says “United”, but the logo on the tail, an outline globe over a blue background, is the mark of Continental Airlines – or it was, until United and Continental merged and decided, unusually, to adopt United’s name but use Continental’s livery on all its planes from then on. That merger took place in 2010: which means that this pleasingly period-looking footage cannot be more than eight years old.

How did I notice that? Just by chance. As a frequent flyer to the US, I eagerly hoard my airmiles. The obvious way to do that is by always flying with the same airline: that way, the free flights and upgrades come quicker than they would if you were slowly accumulating credit with multiple carriers. The airline I flew with repeatedly over the years was Continental: so I heard about the merger in customer emails, saw the name change on the website, nervously logged on to United’s loyalty programme to check that my airmiles had been transferred.

I had no idea that San Francisco had built a new control tower: I haven’t been there for years. I didn’t know that Air China was painting its planes to look like that well into the 2010s: I discovered those facts on Google. Now that I look into it, I’m not sure that the flowery logo on the 747’s tail is correct for the period either, or that that model of United Airbus was even around in ’95. But all this would have been a closed book to me before. I’m not an expert on civil aviation: the logo on the tailplane was the one thing I noticed.

And editing can be alarmingly like this as well. Internal inconsistencies in copy – variant spellings, bad maths, impossible chronologies – are obvious from the text. Names, dates and places can all easily be checked with other sources. But even with the highest levels of professionalism and diligence, some errors will only be spotted because you happens to know something.

Sometimes, it would need a baby-boomer editor to tell the difference between Bob Dylan and a Bob Dylan impersonator before broadcasting footage of the latter on the BBC. Sometimes, it would need a Gen-Xer to know where Luke Skywalker and Obi-wan Kenobi first met (hint: not in the cantina). These are the kind of facts that have to be known, rather than checked: there is scarcely time in a daily news routine to compare photographs of musical pioneers or rewatch Star Wars, just in case.

And sometimes, you might need a youngster – someone who understands that users change their names on Twitter for all sorts of reasons – in order not to trip over something like this:


Cut! Print!

24 Dec

The scene: Windsor Castle in the early 1960s, in the grip of a dramatised royal dispute about whether or not Prince Charles should go to chilly, remote Gordonstoun to toughen him up after primary school. At the height of the debate, the Duke of Edinburgh arrives at the castle in his elegant, powerful Lagonda (this isn’t just The Crown glamourising things for its Netflix audience: he really did have one).

Cut to: the aerodrome, where the Duke is going to use his own plane to fly Charles to Scotland (spoiler alert) for his first day at school. Father and son arrive to a media circus on the tarmac, flashbulbs popping, in the elegant, powerful Lagonda:

And then cut to: Gordonstoun, where the gates are swung open to welcome the Duke and Charles as they arrive in … er …  the elegant, powerful Lagonda, which would appear to have been either taken apart into very small pieces and loaded into the back of the plane, or have made the 550-mile journey from London to Scotland faster than the Duke of Edinburgh can fly. Never mind Santa’s sleigh: whichever royal aide caned it up the M1 at that speed needs to be given a job delivering presents.

I’ve always secretly fancied that, as a sub, I might be quite good at film continuity: keeping track of a timeline, checking for inconsistencies, remembering context, organising information: isn’t that what a copy desk does for a living? But in fact, I suspect, a continuity editor’s job is like editing an article by starting in the middle and being forced to read both forwards and backwards, only ever seeing one paragraph at a time, and relying only on your notes to remember which sentence comes after which. Makes deleting “’tis the season” and cutting down the Christmas gift guide to fit on half a page seem very easy by comparison.

So to editors of all types – from those rushing on set to remove a moustache from the male lead’s face to those with an excited political editor talking in one ear and an excited pre-press supervisor in the other – it’s time to say: happy Christmas, everyone. Here’s to another year of checking up on things.

No logos

12 Dec

Go on then, pronounce this: forward slash; lower case regular “s”; lowercase regular “h”; lowercase italic “r”; lowercase italic “b”.

It appears that you say “shrub”; the company has named itself after the product it manufactures – a sweetened, flavoured vinegar syrup used as a base for non-alcoholic drinks during Prohibition. Neither the italics or the punctuation seem to make any difference to the sound of the word. But they would make a big difference to readability if you reproduced them in the middle of a printed sentence – and because the Tribune is the kind of paper that follows companies’ own preferences for nomenclature, in theory we’d have to.

But, as the late editor and author Bill Walsh once said, “punctuation is not decoration”. And /shrb may be the kind of extreme corporate branding – of the type he foresaw more than 10 years ago – that might require a firmer line from style guides in future.

Writing in his book The Elephants of Style, in 2004, he said:

This is a multifaceted issue, and although I remain a purist, I will admit that it presents some difficult decisions on where we, as editors, should  draw the line … To me, the asterisk in the name of the company that wants to be called E*TRADE is a stylised hyphen, the same as the funky old seal  in the [masthead] of the Arkansas Democrat-hyphen-Gazette.  So when I write about the internet brokerage, it’s E-Trade. I maintain that the asterisk is being used as decoration, not punctuation, and should be left out in the same way publications leave out … the Democrat-Gazette seal and other symbols that cannot be reproduced. But the asterisk is right there on the keyboard. Some would argue that that is where the line should be drawn, and I can’t say that’s a wholly unreasonable position.

It does present difficult decisions, and in fact even the Tribune allows itself a little leeway. Our style guide says:

Company names A difficult area, as so many companies have adopted unconventional typography and other devices that, in some cases, turn their names into logos. In general, we use the names that companies use themselves: c2c, Capgemini, easyJet, eBay, ebookers, iSoft Group, etc. Some of these look odd, particularly when used as the first word in a headline, although some are becoming more familiar with time.

Exceptions include Adidas (not adidas), ABN Amro (not ABN AMRO), BAE Systems (not BAE SYSTEMS), Toys R Us (do not attempt to turn the R backwards), Yahoo (no exclamation mark).

As Bill Walsh concludes, “you have to draw the line somewhere”. The truth is, we already do. And I think /shrb gives us a couple of  pointers as to where more clear lines could be drawn.

First: partial italicisation within a proper noun is almost certainly meaningless, and can be ignored. Variations of weight or face, although they can be reproduced on every setting system, are probably going to be baffling to the reader, if they notice them at all, and clearly fall into the category of design rather than syntax.

Second: names that begin with punctuation marks will have to be modified for publication. Perhaps we have become used to the sight of Yahoo!’s exclamation point in the middle of a sentence, but it does follow a well-known exclamatory word, and it does come at the end of the word, not the beginning. Having a punctuation mark at the start – especially a slash – is hugely distracting after a word space: there is no natural language I can think of in which a stroke would be expected in that position.  At the end of a sentence, it looks like an uncompiled HTML tag: /shrb. The slash can be reproduced using a standard keyboard, but it shouldn’t be.

Having said that, I’m still not sure what style we would ever end up adopting: Shrub? Shrb? shrb? Thank goodness we haven’t had to write about them yet.

A new hopefully

28 Nov

I fear the people who don’t like sentence adverbs are not going to like this:

And, although I don’t normally have a problem with “hopefully”, for once I might agree.

Sentence adverbs – or, as linguists call them, “modal adjuncts” – are adverbs that, rather than modifying the verb in a sentence, express an attitude towards the sentence itself. They frequently appear at the start of the sentence, set off by a comma: “Hopefully, I’ll find them”; Honestly, you may not”; “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Although all such words can operate as standard adverbs* – “she looked up hopefully”; “he spoke honestly for the first time”; “his eyes gazed frankly into hers” – when placed in certain contexts they take on a higher function: one of commenting on the thought being expressed.

Of all the common sentence adverbs, “hopefully” is the one that resonates with editors most, because it became the subject of a brief but heated usage debate about 50 years ago, as Geoffrey Pullum recounts in a blogpost on Lingua Franca:

The 1960s saw an increase in the frequency of modal-adjunct use for another adverb: hopefully. Alongside They’ll wait hopefully (“They’ll wait with hope in their hearts”), it became increasingly popular to use sentences like Hopefully they’ll wait (“It is to be hoped that they’ll wait”).

This unremarkable little piece of linguistic evolution might have gone unnoticed, if the aging usage specialist Wilson Follett had not bristled. It is “un-English and eccentric” to use the word that way, he asserted dogmatically (Modern American Usage: A Guide (1966), page 170), even though (as he said) the German equivalent “hoffentlich” is fine in modal-adjunct use.

Follett was dead by 1963 (his posthumous usage book was completed by Jacques Barzun and others), but he left a legacy: By the late 1960s, using hopefully as a modal adjunct was widely taken to be a grammatical sin.

As John McIntyre observes in You Don’t Say, Follett’s language was ferocious enough to have quite an impact – “how readily the rotten apple will corrupt the barrel”, he says at one point – and the disapproval spread to other style manuals. But it proved to have shallow roots: faced with popular usage and the existence of other unproblematic sentence adverbs in English, such as “mercifully”, people began to retreat from their positions. As Prof Pullum says:

For a few years, battles raged and peevers fumed. But the opposition peaked when disco was young, and Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra were hot. By 1979, [conservative language columnist] William Safire had accepted the modal-adjunct use of hopefully … The dispute was basically over.

It was, having started and finished in less than two decades – although Associated Press, out of an abundance of caution, prohibited the usage until 2012 before finally caving in.

But although the acceptability of “hopefully” as a sentence adverb is now settled, that does not mean that it succeeds as one in all situations. While it is certainly not true that modal adjuncts always need to be at the start of a sentence, or even set off with commas, to work, as Prof Pullum shows in the following example –

Compare “He was flirting with her too obviously”, which comments on the manner of the flirting, and “He was obviously flirting with her”, which doesn’t.

– there is nonetheless something amiss with the Gary Younge standfirst that prevents “hopefully” from functioning as intended.

The sentence is an intricate one: the main subject and verb, “I decided”, is then followed by a long, comparative construction: “ignoring a feted white supremacist was more dangerous than hopefully exposing him”. In fact, the comparative construction functions as a complete sentence on its own; the main verb is “was”, and the subject of the sentence is “ignoring a feted white supremacist” – a verb phrase functioning as a noun, or, in other words, a gerund.

The object in the more/than construction is also a gerund – “exposing him” – and it is this idea of exposure that “hopefully” is trying to comment on, rather than directly modify. But, if anything, it really only succeeds in doing the latter and creating the idea of “exposing in a hopeful manner”.

It is possible to use modal adjuncts with gerundive constructions – “Hopefully, going to the coffee shop won’t make me late” – but I can’t think of an example where they succeed other than when placed at the start or the end of a simple sentence. In this standfirst, however, we have a “sentence adverb” that is neither intended to modify the verb that it sits next to, nor the sentence as a whole, but instead act as a comment on one of two gerunds contained in an independent clause. Setting it off in commas might help a bit, but, I fear, not enough. Sentence adverbs can do a lot, but I don’t think they can do that much.


*Also known as “manner adjuncts”.


14 Nov

Spotted on holiday. Probably largely preheated and nonfat. Let’s hope it isn’t parboiled, halfbaked, overdone or indigestible: if so, it’ll be left uneaten.


British subjects

31 Oct

Hot on the heels of HeadsUp’s discovery of a 1940s style guide covering flying verbs, which advises against their  use “if the verb might be understood to be in the imperative mode”, here’s a good example of an imperative and a flying verb side by side:

Seeing them in close proximity, you realise how easy it is to distinguish one form from the other when that golden rule is followed: “Hid” (clearly implied subject: third person, unknown) against “Go” (clearly implied subject: you). There is none of the confusion caused when, for example, POLICE ARREST DANGER MAN becomes ARREST DANGER MAN.

Nonetheless, it’s still quite ambitious: I’ve never before seen a flying verb headline introduce a second, explicit, subject (“we”) before clarifying who the implied one is (“him”). And the most striking thing of all is that this appeared on the BBC news website: only the second flying verb I have ever encountered in a British-English publication. The article headline itself contains an explicit subject, so the distinctively transatlantic omission on the homepage is presumably only for space reasons. But still, if the classic British existential headline* is now starting to appear in the US, as HeadsUp has observed, perhaps a full-scale cultural exchange is under way?


*Those starting FURY AS… , OUTRAGE AS… , JOY AS… , etc

Flying on holiday

9 Oct

While Ten Minutes Past Deadline is on its short break, your attention is drawn to this fantastic discovery from Fred at HeadsUp – a US newspaper manual from the 1940s that lays down chapter and verse on the use of the flying verb (sorry, “implied subject”), including warning about the risks of their being misread as imperatives, and even has advice to offer about claim quotes. Says well worth a close read.