Archive | May, 2013

Jay v Hislop

27 May

I miss the Leveson inquiry. What eventually becomes of the much-kicked-around report on press regulation that resulted from it could be the subject of about 50 blogposts, but the inquiry itself was hands-down the best long-form TV concept of the decade. Jokes keep being made about a DVD box set coming out, but, sad to admit, if it were true I’d seriously consider buying one.

It was an Ashes series of media self-absorption; you could switch on BBC Parliament in the morning and it would fill the day, and the week, with cut-and-thrust, unexpected cameos, tours de force, slow, ineluctable swings in fortune … there’s nothing on telly now anywhere near as gripping, or as badly lit.

So let’s have a quick flashback to two of the stars of the show: the superb Robert Jay, chief counsel to the inquiry  (now promoted to the bench), and Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, whose position vis-a-vis a semi-statutory press regulator is going to be a tricky one:



F@%£! It’s the editor

22 May

When I first arrived at the Tribune, it was everything I simultaneously hoped and feared a national paper would be. The wit, the crackle of purpose in the newsroom,  the in-at-the-deep-end demand for performance, the loud squalls of dysfunctionality, the alarming lunchtime drinking  – and, above all, a proper Fleet Street editor who put every stereotype in the shade.

It’s not actually true that journalists are cynical; at least, not the senior ones. During the time that Pope John Paul II was seriously ill, the editor burst from his office at one stage, demanding (at full volume, as ever): “WHAT NEWS OF THE HOLY FATHER?” A couple of people thought he might be joking and laughed nervously. Staring round his newsroom in incredulity that not everybody was as transfixed by the drama as he was, he bellowed: “I’M MOVED BY THIS!” and disappeared back into the office.

He was obsessed with football, cricket, skiing, climbing and racing, and was constantly round at the sports desk. The sports department, in the best football traditions, called the head of the section “The Gaffer”, and such was his respect for matters sporting that the editor did too, with the result that the leader of a national newspaper with nine years’ tenure, who held the entire newsroom in a sort of high-adrenaline thrall, was frequently to be seen appearing round the corner of the Tribune’s L-shaped newsroom inquiring plaintively “WHERE’S THE GAFFER?”

He was a former sub of great repute on the Tribune’s sister paper and spent far more time on the back bench than he did in his office (and demanded, expected and got far more from his subs than any other editor I’ve worked for*).  On the day John Paul II died, rather than amble out from his office near deadline to see how things were going, he plonked himself straight down next to his long-suffering chief sub, demanded from the picture desk a cutout of the elderly Pope, standing windswept and fragile on a dais with his hand aloft in blessing, and proceeded to assemble the Tribune’s memorial front page around it. “IN, PEARSON, IN! ZOOM RIGHT F@%£ING IN! RIGHT! NOW PUT A 24-POINT BLACK BORDER ROUND IT!”**

Press days were stressful, infuriating and prone to dramatic changes of course in mid-afternoon, making the paper so late that the production staff were almost tearful with remonstration (“I KNOW! I KNOW! WORST DAY OF MY LIFE!”), but they never felt like anything less than an event. When he eventually resigned, six years ago now, the subs’ desk made a presentation booklet for him, full of in-jokes and disrespectful reminiscences, and someone tried to capture the essence of those frantic Saturdays in a page. I’m not sure who it was: although most of us signed our contributions, this one was wisely anonymous. But every word you’re about to read is true. More or less.

Ah, this brings back the memories. And the tension headaches.

9:30am I’m probably unbelievably stupid, but this Focus piece isn’t working. (turning to chief designer) Caz? Caz! We need a f@%£ing huge picture of Kate Moss here!

10.15am Paulo, what’s the latest on General Pips? This standfirst isn’t working. Pearso, this spread is in the wrong place – it should be on 7 and 8. (murmured dissent) It’s simple, just move some ads! (murmured dissent) I’ll f@%£ing well do it myself!

10.55am Gaffer! Gaffer? Gaffer! What won the 1.45 at Wincanton? @%£*&^!&@!!

12.04pm (preparing errand for long-suffering administrator) Edie! Edie? Edie! Here’s a ton – Mulho Star, 2.40 at Plumpton, on the nose. Forget Azertyuiop on that Yankee, shove it all on Mulho Star… What?… No! It’s so simple a biscuit could understand!

1.17pm Page three? Page three? (to news desk) Boffey! Boffey? Boffey! What’s on page three?

3.25pm Thank f@%£, it’s the trolley. (approaches tea trolley) Haven’t you got any of those nice squidgy doughnuts with the custard in the middle and jam all over the outside? And I’ll have four oranges, three bananas and a kumquat. And a large tea. Here’s a 50. Keep the change.

4.24pm (approaching picture desk) Greg! Gregster! (applies vigorous shoulder massage) Where are those gorgeous snaps of Kate Moss with Mandela and the alligator? Just keep looking! Jimbo, weren’t you showing me them earlier? You must remember!

5.09pm Caz? Caz! There’s a fabulous f@%£ing Kate picture here … Nobody ever listens to me, but I think we should go for a 4-1 on the front, but we have to have a column five.

5.57pm No! No! It’s very simple. The lead is khaki and that turns to 7 and the off-lead is rape with a f@%£ing huge turn to 2, and we’ll take in the Kate pic – big, Pearson, f@%£ing huge!  – on 2 as well, and if the turn doesn’t fit just make some f@%£ing room on 12. It’s so easy! Look, I’ll do it myself!

6.47pm  Never mind the bloody regionals. Come and have a glass of champagne and don’t be such a f@%£ing killjoy.

* “Horses let you down more frequently than subs. Just.”

** There really was quite a lot of swearing in those days. To preserve the feelings of a family audience, I’ve used the time-honoured device of rendering the f-word as its initial letters followed by a series of colourful non-alphabetic characters. However, you may agree with Charlotte Brontë that “the practice of hinting by single letters those expletives … however well meant, is weak and futile. I cannot tell what good it does – what feeling it spares.” If so, you may wish to avert your eyes from what follows.

Who they?

16 May

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the pros and cons of singular “they”. Just to make a quick point as the last blog through the door on the subject:

I’m broadly in favour of “they” as a replacement for “he or she”. Yes, I’m not thrilled about the frequently discordant semantics, but we desperately need an epicene pronoun and this is by far the likeliest candidate. Well-meaning efforts over the years to popularise hisher, heesh, hizzer, shehe, h’se, tey, shem  and all the others have got nowhere (because, as may have been observed before, not even the most eminent language-improvers were ever in a position to “impose” an idea on an unwilling populace). So now we have a more-or-less functional alternative that has emerged, in impeccably descriptivist fashion, out of common usage.

It’s not quite perfect in all situations, though. When you’re using a plural-indeterminate pronoun to stand for a singular subject, for instance,  following up with “they” can force the subject, willy-nilly, to be taken as plural.

For example, imagine you are concealing the identity of a source in a story, and it is important to make clear that your information has come from one whistleblower, but no more than that (because the whistleblower is anxious to protect colleagues from a multiple-suspect witch-hunt, say). If you were to write “I can’t reveal who wrote to us, but they were proved to be absolutely correct”, there is a clear implication from “they” that more than one author was involved – with possibly unpleasant consequences for the likeliest suspect’s close colleagues and associates. If you were attempting to conceal the identity of a single author without being more misleading than necessary, you’d be more or less forced back into using “he or she”.

Stop it, dash it

15 May

Having talked about one of Fowler’s ideas that caught on widely across the English-speaking world, here’s another idea he championed that didn’t go anywhere at all.

In Modern English Usage (mine is the revised edition by Gowers; it may be slightly different in the original version), HW writes as follows on the subject of parenthesis symbols in the lengthy section “Stops”:

“1. Parentheses may be indicated in any one of four ways: by square brackets, by round brackets, by dashes, and by commas …

2. After the second bracket or dash any stop that would have been used if the brackets or dashes and their contents had not been there should still be used.”

Well, after brackets, of course. That’s something that, infrequent though it is (and it is fairly infrequent), most people remember to do.* But does he really mean it should be done after dashes as well? He surely does:

“After the second bracket this is sometimes forgotten; after the second dash it is seldom remembered, or rather, perhaps, it is deliberately neglected as fussy. But, if it is fussy to put a stop after a dash, it is messy to pile two jobs at once upon the dash, and those to whom fussiness is repugnant should eschew the double-dash form of parenthesis except where no stop can be needed.”

As ever, there are some worked examples, showing sentences without the required stops and then a note (here in red) indicating where they should go:

“So far as it is true – and how far it is true does not count for much – it is an unexpected bit of truth (read much – , it). | If he abandons a pursuit it is not because he is conscious of having shot his last bolt – that is never shot – it is because … (read never shot – ; it is).”

So, just to reiterate what he’s suggesting: if you insert a parenthetical remark inside dashes at the end of a clause – something like this one –, you have to include at the end both the dash that ends the parenthesis and the punctuation mark that would otherwise have terminated the clause (in this case the comma).

In 18 years of editing, I’ve never seen anyone even try this, let alone defend it when challenged – which they could easily do by pointing to the book and saying “It’s in Fowler”, just as those who observe the which/that distinction can.

You can see why it hasn’t caught on; it does indeed look fussy. And faced with the looming prospect of a missing stop or unwanted elision, there are usually several options for rewording available. Certainly, the second of Fowler’s examples would be much happier broken into two sentences:

“If he abandons a pursuit it is not because he is conscious of having shot his last bolt: that is never shot. It is because …”

On the other hand, you might argue, if we put the stops in after the brackets, why aren’t we doing it for the dashes too?

I don’t know if this practice was more prevalent in the punctuation-heavy Victorian prose with which Fowler grew up. But precisely nobody does it now, which I think says something about how even the most authoritative prescriptivist needs to win hearts, minds and the vote of popular usage before starting to have any influence on the language.

For all the occasional descriptivist anxiety about rules being “imposed”  on a language, there’s no Academie Anglaise to mandate any of these ideas. A language writer makes a suggestion, or perhaps even claims a rule, in a book. The idea, perhaps, gets passed on in school as a basic tip for the benefit of non-specialists who will be dropping English as a subject as soon as they can. In desperation, perhaps, faced with a class of inattentive 12-year-olds, the teacher simplifies and toughens the idea into an absolute – “you should never start a sentence with ‘and’!”. Perhaps some of them remember that on the rare occasions that they sit down to write. Perhaps it even enters the collective consciousness about the language.

But that’s all that ever happens. There is no “imposition”. If there were, surely Fowler would have been imposed in toto, and we would all be punctuating our interjections with scrupulous care. But we aren’t – which persuades me to think that prescriptivism’s great popular successes, like which/that, are almost as much of an inexplicable, descriptivist phenomenon as slang and meaning change.

So, who knows?  It might be worth experimenting with the idea here on the blog to see if, belatedly, it might catch on. Get ready for a lot of sentences that, though lengthy – and who is to say that length is not  a virtue? –, are punctuated beyond all possibility of confusion.

* I’ve remembered to do it in this sentence, for example.

So heinous they always to warrant

9 May

You sit down with your coffee, log on at the terminal, pick up something by one of the Tribune’s top operators, and the first thing you see is this:

Picture 20

Oh, don’t be such a stickler about it! You know what he means! Right?

Over at You Don’t Say, John McIntyre is becoming concerned about the terms we use to describe ourselves, and he’s probably right that the p-word will make linguists nervous no matter how much we soften it with adjectives. But deep down, I know what I am, and I’m not ashamed: I’m a prescriptivist.

I don’t think it’s what we’re called that’s the real problem. It’s what we do. We intervene. We step in front of the data. We influence the corpus before it even becomes the corpus. Descriptivists are never going to be entirely comfortable about that.

But look at that sentence. It won’t do.

I’m a prescriptivist, and I’m going to change it.

It’s literally war

7 May

Mark Twain used it. Thackeray, Hardy and Maupassant too. “Literally” in the non-literal sense, that is; “literally”  meaning “metaphorically”. And they’re not the only ones: millions of English-speakers do it all the time in conversation and correspondence. It’s been used that way for years.

That doesn’t stop it being one of the most explosive and frequently written-about topics in English usage, of course. The latest entry in a long list is Professor Ben Yagoda’s thorough and perceptive breakdown of the arguments for and against at Lingua Franca. But his conclusion, “to the literally users, to the literally haters and the literally defenders” is quite a downbeat one: “You’re all wrong.”

If he’s right, that leads to the rather depressing conclusion that the word no longer means anything at all. No editor likes to think that. In such cases, we resort to the dictionary, for the reassurance that words can still be found and a clear definition can still be made.

But doing that proves slightly unusual in this case. Of course, you can find the word under “L” and an explanation of its conventional meaning. But if you want the customary seven- or eight-word encapsulation of its new, non-literal sense, you have to look quite hard.

Buzzfeed’s splendidly excitable contribution to the debate some weeks ago (“This is figuratively the worst thing ever!”) trawled through several definitions in modern online dictionaries. One was Oxford, which chooses not to define the new meaning directly,

(adverb) in a literal manner or sense; exactly: ‘the driver took it literally when asked to go straight over the roundabout’ …

informal used for emphasis while not being literally true: ‘I have received literally thousands of letters’

and then immediately issues a usage note:

In recent years an extended use of literally (and also literal) has become very common, where literally (or literal) is used deliberately in non-literal contexts, for added effect, as in ‘they bought the car and literally ran it into the ground’. This use can lead to unintentional humorous effects.

Supplementing Buzzfeed’s work with a quick hunt through the Tribune’s bookshelves, I found that our house dictionary – Collins – is very similar, again promulgating a second meaning without directly defining it,

(adv) 1 In a literal manner 2 (intensifier): There were literally thousands of people

and then, again, immediately breaking off for an explanation:

The use of literally as an intensifier is common, esp in informal contexts. In some cases it provides emphasis without adding to the meaning: ‘the house was literally only five minutes away’. Often, however, its use results in absurdity: ‘the news was literally an eye opener to me’.

Chambers’s format allows it to avoid the issue of defining an adverb formed from an adjective, so it only offers a typically wry aside:

—(adv) literally (often used by no means literally)

The bravest effort comes from Merriam-Webster Online, which bites the bullet and writes two direct definitions:

1: in a literal sense or manner : actually <took the remark literally> <was literally insane>

2: in effect : virtually <will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins>

But what they’re all trying to avoid, I think – even MW, with its judicious choice of synonyms – is following the situation to its reductivist conclusion and publishing a definition that reads like this:

(adv) 1 Not figuratively or metaphorically 2 figuratively or metaphorically

Strangely, though, I suspect that’s exactly what the extreme wings of both the prescriptivist and descriptivist movements would rather like them to do, for very different reasons.

And that’s because “literally” is a battleground – a bridgehead vital to the ambitions of both sides in the language wars. Ultra-descriptivists of a deconstructionist persuasion, who seek out ambiguity and paradox for validation, would relish that matter-antimatter collision of definitions, seeing in “literally” a singularity so glorious as to suck in and consume at a gulp Saussure’s ideas of language as a lofty and perfect structure.

And for sticklers exasperated by decades of uncritical, anything-goes inclusiveness, it’s the best and clearest chance of trapping descriptivism in the mistake they feel it was always bound to make. Years of defining words merely by popular usage and nothing else, they believe, has now led to an absurdity so manifest that no amount of corpus data can justify it. And if “literally” is a mistake, then other things might be too: and the long and forced retreat from the prescriptivist certainties of the early 20th century might be at an end.

As for me, to use the meek formulation of the modern professional prescriptivist, I “prefer” the traditional meaning. But all bets are off when you’re on the phone in extremis to the newsdesk, of course:  “We’ll literally be the last people on earth to know about this if you don’t file something soon.”

Rough drafts

3 May

In the previous post on “which”, “that”, Fowler and the jurisprudence of America, Rich Greenhill made an interesting observation in the comments about why the drafters of state laws seem to fight so shy of relying on commas to define non-restrictive clauses.

“They may have been influenced by lawyers’ traditional antipathy towards punctuation,” he writes. “In the UK, acts of parliament did not generally use punctuation (other than periods) until 1850; and even until recent decades the idea persisted that any punctuation should be ignored when construing laws. Much subordinate legislation continued to be drafted without punctuation until around the mid 20th century.”

Then I found this significant passage in Wisconsin’s Bill Drafting Manual:

Picture 44

I think Mr Greenhill is on to something. So, bearing that in mind, and for the sake of completeness, it’s probably worth sprinting through how the remaining states of the union handle the which/that  issue.

Twenty states don’t make their legislative drafting manuals available online,* and another 12 don’t explicitly address the matter in their guidance.** Of the 18 that do, most seem to fall into one of three camps when it comes to Fowler’s rule.

The Wisconsin position Insisting on “that” for restrictive clauses and “which” for non-restrictive, and also insisting on the use of commas to set off non-restrictive clauses: WisconsinArizonaArkansas, ColoradoIndiana, Minnesota, Montana and Utah.

The Texas position Insisting on “which” and “that”, but saying only that commas are “generally” used to set off non-restrictive clauses: Texas and Maine.

The Massachusetts position No reference to commas at all, by implication making “which” or “that” the defining feature of the clause: MassachusettsAlabamaDelawareFlorida and North Dakota.

Special mention must go to Idaho, for this breezy but baffling advice:

Screen shot 2013-05-02 at 10.11.51

and Oregon, which goes in particularly hard on the function of “which”:

Picture 45

“Introduces a parenthetic effect, even if not so punctuated”? Really?

But let’s end with a cheer for Washington, which offers descriptivist-friendly, pro-comma advice that might gladden the heart even of Professor Pullum:

“(ii) A nonrestrictive clause is set off by commas, but a restrictive clause, which is essential to the meaning of the word being modified, should not be set off by commas. Compare the following two sentences, which illustrate a restrictive clause and a nonrestrictive clause, respectively:

Men who hate football should stay home.

Men, who hate football, should stay home.”

* California, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming.

** AlaskaConnecticutHawaiiIllinois,  KentuckyMarylandMissouriNew MexicoOhioPennsylvaniaSouth Dakota and West Virginia.