Archive | September, 2013

Vagueness is in

26 Sep

Just last week we were praising – or at least reluctantly admiring – “amid” for its compactness, usefulness and, in the right hands, suggestiveness. In the old days of hot metal and headline counts (as far as I understand these ancient things), A-M-I-D would score 1-1.5-0.5-1, for a skimpy total of 4. But every en counts in headlines, and what do you do when there isn’t space for the preposition that says nothing but implies everything? You use an even shorter one: “in”. Total score: 1.5. Capacity to incriminate without distressing the lawyer: almost boundless.

Just like “amid”, it’s superbly vague, annoyingly useful and almost impossible to disallow. In fact, it’s better: whereas “amid” can only serve as a preposition, “in” can function as the hinge of the whole headline, a kind of not-verb that gestures at lurid possibilities without ever embarrassing you in front of the judge. POP STAR IN SEX TEXTS SCANDAL. MP IN NEW CASH-FOR-ACCESS INQUIRY. It works particularly well for crime stories: everyone in some way connected to the illegal acts of others, everyone questioned even in passing by the police, can legitimately be said to be “in” a scandal, even if they are completely innocent. The minute you start using verbs, the possibilities for legal trouble multiply. Prepositions and conjunctions mean never having to say you’re sorry.

Millicent Griffith, the fictional surgeon-general in The West Wing, gets herself in trouble in one episode for saying something controversial about the relative dangers of marijuana and alcohol on a phone-in. She’s hauled before Leo, the chief of staff, to explain herself.  “Six different committee chairs – three in the House, three in the Senate – are all talking about hearings,” Leo complains. “What are they going to find?” Millicent protests. “They don’t need to find anything,” says Leo wearily. “They just need to say your name and ‘drugs’ as many times as possible on television.”

That’s how it works. No verb: just “and”. Present the nouns, and the audience will connect them up for themselves; you don’t have to get your hands dirty.

And avoiding verbs can become  a habit even when you don’t really need to: in this full-width slice of the New York Post’s website, there are two understood verbs and two possessive constructions, but no actual visible verbs, and none of them are particularly tricky stories.

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Not that I object to strong headlines: quite the opposite. Like all subs, when I’m working on a story, I’m wondering how much I can say in the display type, not how little. Journalism is a lot like working in public sanitation: you drag dirt out into the light so that it can be processed and cleaned up. We shouldn’t fight shy of making substantiated accusations, and we shouldn’t be afraid of calling things as they are. But deliberate vagueness isn’t calling things as they are; it’s gesturing towards something we don’t know and can’t prove. Every journalist will tell you that we don’t owe the newsworthy special treatment. But I think we at least owe them a verb.


Amid summer night’s dream

17 Sep

“Amid” is a useful word. Possibly a bit too useful. It’s just a simple preposition – “among, in the middle of”, per Collins – but in the hands of us journalists, it’s startling how much more it can be made to mean.

It’s one of those words that gets used far more often in a metaphorical sense than a concrete one. If you’re standing in the way as a flock of panicked Swaledales come rushing down a country lane, you’re “among”, “in the middle of” or “surrounded by” sheep; you probably wouldn’t say you were “amid” them. It’s a less precise and more abstract word than that – a conceptual preposition for conceptual nouns.  Indeed, Merriam-Webster, which provides a fuller definition than Collins, includes an entirely abstract usage: “with the accompaniment of”.

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So it’s no surprise to see it being used that way in copy:

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Except that “amid” doesn’t quite seem to do the relationship here justice. A bad business climate is certainly “accompanying” this news, but isn’t it doing slightly more than that?

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This isn’t just proximity: this is causality. Holden’s caught in a currency crunch and a sales slump, but it’s cutting jobs for some other reason? No. This usage may not be in the dictionary, but the writer here means “because of”, and everyone knows it.

And that understanding, that slightly lazy but uncontroversial inference, can be very useful: exceedingly so when the ground gets more legally precarious and you have to be a little more careful. For example, when there’s a crime, and an allegation, and a resignation, but no jury has pronounced guilt –

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– “amid” is just the word you want. There may or may not be a “cryptic” admission; there certainly hasn’t, at this point, been any finding in a court of law. There’s only one preposition here that really keeps you safe. And this time, if the reader infers some kind of causation from the use of the word – well, we’ve no idea why.  If the audience is getting some kind of inter hoc, ergo propter hoc vibe from the way the headline is written – well, they’re on their own. You can look it up in the dictionary. Our hands are clean.

“Amid” has got the kind of flexibility a journalist in a hurry loves. You see it everywhere when you’re editing. Sometimes, in fact, you find it being used in relation to single items that it is impossible to be “among”, even conceptually:

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“Amid a warning”. It’s ludicrous. But it’s so time- and space-efficient; so much shorter than saying “because of”, and so much quicker than trying to think through and express the precise causative relationship.

I try to avoid using it when I can. I think it’s vague,  a little slippery, possibly even a touch disingenuous. But it’s so … useful.

Dashed if I won’t

10 Sep

Remember the discussion a few months ago about Fowler’s commas-and-dashes-together idea – his insistence that a subordinate clause should always retain its closing comma, even if it ended with a parenthesis? Remember how it seemed unlikely that it would ever come up? Well, it’s just come up:

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And, for the first time in an already incident-packed career, I want to put a comma straight after a dash:

”– though the IMF’s position has softened somewhat –, to protect themselves …”.

There are several places in the sentence where you could plug in the final clause. If you’re reading lazily and prepared to allow “the IMF” to be plural, you can almost read straight through the second dash without noticing it. An even likelier candidate is after the first dash – the Lure of Low Attachment again – until you realise, seven or eight words into the last clause, that it’s not really parsing. The correct place is high up in the sentence, after “controls” – and I think a Fowler comma after the dash would send you straight back there, as surely as a GOSUB/RETURN command would in Basic.

Of course, you could avoid any ambiguity by intervening – breaking it up into two sentences or repunctuating extensively, making a careful but denatured version of the original with the same ingredients. But I like this sentence: the rhythm, the length, the nested subordinates. One little extra punctuation mark would make it foolproof.

Except that the Fowler comma never caught on – never came remotely close to emulating the success of his which/that initiative for restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. No modern reader would understand why it was there if you put it in;  you would cite Modern English Usage in vain to the puzzled audience, and even, probably, the writer.

But in a day when hands-off-the-wheel descriptivism is the intellectual consensus – in a time when “literally” is up on the ramp being safely drained of semantic coherence like a junkyard car being emptied of oil – it’s nice to know that, in another linguistics era, somebody cared. Cared enough to want to intervene; confident, or quixotic, enough to believe that things could actually be changed if you wrote with conviction and won hearts and minds. Jonathon Owen at Arrant Pedantry has been researching how professional editors can have an effect on the language, just as youth movements and technology do, if enough people are persuaded of the need for regularisation or clarity. And really, how else does language ever change except when a group of people are persuaded to adopt a usage that they find attractive?

Not this time, though. The only choice here is to trust the reader, or worry about the attachment ambiguity and pull it all to pieces for safety.

I’m going to leave it the way it is. I like it.

The fangirl glossary

3 Sep

Wow, September’s off to a good start this year. That clear, fresh sunlight, that glorious almost-chill in the morning – for about the next three weeks, anyway, until winter and disaster strike, and darkness surrounds us for five months like a blanket. But at least it means that the cultural desert of summer TV is almost past, to be replaced by the gigantic creative and technical labour of the autumn drama schedule.

If you’re a writer or work with writers, it’s heartening to look at the networks’ Fall “sizzle reels” and calculate just how many creative writing jobs there must be in the US entertainment industry. If you’re dazzled by cinematography and editing, or wonder anew every year at how actors do it,  you know what’s about to come will be orders of magnitude better than what you’ve been watching since May. And If you’re a fangirl or fanboy – someone heavily emotionally invested in the characters in a particular series – this must be the most exciting time of the year.

Can’t imagine what it’s like myself, of course, but with the advent of social media, a fanbase can give you a good idea of how it feels. In the weeks leading up to the premieres, and then throughout the season, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr are awash with speculation, exclamations, fan art, animated GIFs, complaints, criticisms, hopes and fears. And everybody gets to take part – there are gifted amateur critics out there on the fansites, some of them semi-officially recognised by the networks and included in preview screenings, but Twitter is there for everyone when something unexpected happens at the end of the season premiere.

It’s not aways easy to know what to say: art is difficult to write about, and words can be hard to find when you’re right in the grip of the drama. Social media is audio- and video-capable, of course, and visual memes often work better when words are failing you: Spongebob and Patrick’s facial expressions, for example, bespeak emotion in a way that eludes even the broadest vocabularies.

But if you’re live in a chat forum or on your phone, it’s not always convenient to get a picture organised. So what’s emerged is a collection of forms, memes and idioms that, rather than avoiding the inarticulacy, actually relish it, so that the inexpressibility becomes part of the enjoyment. They start in English, but move easily into other languages, sometimes untranslated, as popular shows spread around the globe.  They do need a bit of translating, though, for people – such as myself – who like to keep a cool and objective distance from the work they are appraising. So here’s a primer:

*_* (starry-eyed) Emoticon indicating adoration

XD (huge smile) Emoticon sometimes indicating laughter, but often used in fandom communications to indicate delight – the X representing eyes closed in ecstasy and the D representing a large grin (note for older readers: some emoticons are best viewed sideways on). Can be emphasised further by adding extra smiles: XDD


Air, what is? Expression used to indicate that the correspondent is suffering from hyperventilation

OMG they’re holding hands WHAT IS AIR???

BRB crying I’ll be right back, I’m in tears: used to excuse oneself from a forum when things have got too much watching the latest episode; also often used rhetorically in discussions after the event

BYE! Broadly equivalent to I’m dead or BRB crying; also in French as ADIEU

Dr Gardner saying ‘I love you’? Nurse Penny leading him by the hand into the medicine cupboard? … BYE!

OMD ses yeux verts au-dessus de ses lunettes ADIEU

Can you not Please stop torturing me with spoilers/leaks/alarming speculation about my favourite show. Not to be confused with I just can’t or Lost the ability to can

‘Two major characters will experience life-altering moments as the cable car stops in midair – Variety’ CAN YOU NOT :-0

I just can’t Expression of wordless admiration at the gifts of favourite actors or triumphs of favourite writers after a particular dramatic highlight. Translates well to German as Ich kann es nicht. A complete sentence in itself; never takes an infinitive, can be used with an indirect object preceded by “with”. See also Lost the ability to can and the semantically distinct Can you not?

God the love! The character development! I just can’t with this show sometimes

Ich kann es nicht See I just can’t

I’m dead Self-explanatory indicator of cognitive/emotional status after an intense scene or episode. See also We’re f*cked

I’m fine Expression indicating that the correspondent is not fine

Right, so he’s just left the pasta simmering to go and join her in the shower. I’M FINE. NO REALLY

jahsgdjahs jas gsjad fas (spelling optional) Phenomenon known as “keyboard smashing'” in which the power of expression temporarily deserts an overwhelmed correspondent and is replaced with free-form alphabetic composition

Keep Calm and… Ubiquitous British World-War-Two-poster-cum-general-purpose-meme, but particularly appropriate for TV fanbases as season premieres or finales approach, with appropriate adjurations of support or expectation added at the end (Or sometimes not: “Keep calm and … I CAN’T F*CKING KEEP CALM”)

Lost the ability to can/Unable to can Idiom deriving from the absence of an infinitive in the popular expression I just can’t, in which “can” is creatively misread as the main verb in the sentence rather than the modal

Look at the way she looks at him omg CAN’T, SORRY. LOST THE ABILITY TO CAN

OMD French abbreviation for “O Mon Dieu”; apparently in some danger, judging by Twitter searches, of being supplanted in French youth culture by the near-ubiquitous Anglo-Saxon OMG

Single/Taken/… Popular meme in which the simple personality profile tick-box is extended and adapted for more complex emotional states


Squee High-pitched onomatopoeic exclamation representing a delighted squeal; also vb intr (to squee; squee-ing; squee-ed): to make such a noise

tho Etymologically derived from “though”; when used after a celebrity’s name,  indicates the sentiment “… is seriously attractive/has major game/is a total badass”. Often used in conjunction with the starry-eyed emoticon

Bill Walsh tho  *_*

We’re f*cked Expression of complete satisfaction, after viewing a preview, at the prospect of eight more months and 24 more episodes of angst,  heartbeak, cliffhangers, love scenes, rows and zingy exchanges over critically ill patients as the autumn dramas return from their long hiatus to lift and carry their fans all the way through to spring. Man, only three weeks to go now. For them, I mean. Not me.