Archive | March, 2015

Hear me rort

26 Mar

I’m sorry, a what?

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A couple of months ago, we were tripping over a story on the Guardian’s most-read list that gave no clue that it was about Australia until about two paragraphs into the body text. Not much danger of that happening this time: whatever a “rort” is, it brings you up short before you’ve even clicked on the link.

And it turns out that this is a Guardian Australia story too: a “rort” is Australian slang for a “dodge” or a “scam”. As Google puts it:

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Collins suggests that it’s a back-formation from the adjective “rorty” (“boisterous, high-spirited”), which I have come across in the northern hemisphere before (specifically in car magazines); this is a first for me with the noun, though.

It sticks out on a long way on a British web front page, but this is the same phenomenon we encountered last time with regard to multi-newsroom operations. This may have sneaked through the content management system into another hemisphere, but it’s an Australian story for an Australian audience about Australian tax affairs: of course it should be written in Australian English.

Language and locality questions aren’t always as simple as that, though. What if this were an Australia-bureau story ordered by and for the US newsdesk about a presidential visit to Canberra? What if it had been a Super Bowl preview from the New York sports editor, produced in the US but written as a primer for viewers in Britain? Or what if – as with an article I worked on last week – it were a feature by a UK-born but US-based writer about a major American corporation, commissioned by the London desk to brief a British audience, but still with half an eye on readers in the States?

The feature was about Starbucks’s controversial RaceTogether campaign – its attempt to stimulate conversations on the subject of race relations between baristas and customers at the counter. In the end, the idea was seriously rethought less than a week after it started, but not before one of our feature writers was sent out to canvass opinions in the district of Brooklyn where Starbucks’s founder, Howard Schultz, grew up. And one of the people he spoke to lived in – well, that was the problem.

The expatriate reporter, who now writes largely in American English, called it “public housing”. British readers won’t quite be sure what that is – they’ll almost know, but not quite. In the days before the Tribune had an internationally ambitious website, I would have changed this immediately to “housing estate”. But I’m aware that that term isn’t really used in the US, where a more usual synonym would be “housing project”.

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So: what to do? Change it, for the British readers for whom the piece was commissioned? Leave it, for the American readers who may ultimately make up the bulk of the article’s readership?

In stories written in, by and for one country, these choices are easy. Even for articles written in one newsroom at the request of another, they aren’t too difficult, as long as it’s the bureau that ordered the piece that then takes responsibility for editing it. But what about stories written for more than one audience?

And it’s not simply a matter of word choice: the audience you have in mind will also dictate the news angle, presentation, tone and style the article ends up with. It will determine which bits of background or explanation you feel confident to cut and which must be left in.

Imagine, let’s say, a funny-photo story in which the US president takes the prime minister to a baseball game, and the photo shows the entire White House entourage leaping to its feet to cheer a triple play while the PM, the only one still seated in the photo, looks bemused. If you’re writing it up for the UK edition, you’re going to need to explain why a triple play is so rare; but a beginner’s explanation would alienate American readers. Even if you choose to skirt around it for the UK edition and just call it “a spectacular play on the field”, US readers are going to be curious about what the play was.

In the earliest days of the Tribune’s international operations, the flow of overnight stories from Australia was so novel that many of them found their way onto the UK front page, until it was gently pointed out that British readers might be seeing slightly too much of Tony Abbott in the morning. With websites as a whole, that’s easy to fix: you can just serve a different homepage to visitors depending on location, and curate their content accordingly.

But you can’t do that with an article: one piece of text is all you get, visible all across the internet. And, linguistically speaking, there’s no neutral ground: you have to pick sides. Maybe that explains the Guardian’s advertising banner for its expanded Major League Soccer coverage this season: “Follow our MLS stories. Soccer or football, whatever you choose to call it.”

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The uses of formality

6 Mar
Photograph: Acción Ortográfica Quito via the Guardian

Photograph: Acción Ortográfica Quito via the Guardian

If all prescriptivists were this cool, descriptivism wouldn’t stand a chance:

In the dead of night, two men steal through the streets of Quito armed with spray cans and a zeal for reform. They are not political activists or revolutionaries: they are radical grammar pedants on a mission to correctly punctuate Ecuador’s graffiti.

Adding accents, inserting commas and placing question marks at the beginning and end of interrogative sentences scrawled on the city’s walls, the vigilante editors have intervened repeatedly over the past three months to expose the orthographic shortcomings of would-be poets, forlorn lovers and anti-government campaigners.

The first images of this guerrilla nitpicking exploded across social networks in December, but despite their global notoriety, the group – Acción Ortográfica Quito – have kept their identities secret and have never given a media interview until now.

Imagine swooping through the neon-lit urban landscape with a spray can and that firm a grasp of Spanish diacritical marks. Imagine graffitising the graffiti of protest itself. Imagine just belonging to an organisation called “Acción Ortográfica”. These are lawyers with punctuation-derived street names in their thirties, on a mission to educate and entertain – and judging by the photograph at the top of the page, with an attitude to ellipses that’s almost as hostile as IMDb’s.

And yet … in the light of the just-departed National Grammar Day, and its gleeful celebration of nitpicking, this also feels like going a little bit too far. Shorn of the wit and the big-city coolness, is this actually any better than Lynne Truss’s grumpy attempts to assault greengrocer’s signs with a felt-tip pen?

Mindful of the tendency for prescriptivist festivities to get out of hand at this time of year, John McIntyre at You Don’t Say wrote this on the eve of National Grammar Day:

Item:  Do not aspire to be a grammar Nazi, and don’t indulge people who use the term. Nazis are not funny unless you are Jerry Seinfeld or Mel Brooks. You are not Jerry Seinfeld or Mel Brooks …

Item: It is not your job to correct misused apostrophes or other errors in signage. Resist the temptation … keep in mind that English has many dialects, each with distinctive properties. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

And that’s the problem. There are, as descriptivists are fond of saying, “many voices”, of which formal English is only one. Indeed, it’s more than one: as You Don’t Say goes on to observe: “Just as there is no one English but a variety of dialects, there is not even one standard written American English, but a spectrum.” Graffiti is written English, but not formal English. It doesn’t need to be entirely correct.

Other things, however, do.

Very formal English – the kind found in our venerated 18th and 19th-century usage guides – is little more than a collection of antiquated grammar, mistakes, Latinate superstitions and quixotic innovations. But however dubious its antecedents – and they are often shaky or even baseless – it has been, and remains, the English of government, the police, the corporate attorney: the voice of those who have power to command. Fowler’s suggestion on “which” and “that” in restrictive clauses has found its way into more than a dozen state legislature drafting manuals. Copies of Strunk and White are, or were, sent out to those newly admitted to the bar of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Unsplitting infinitives,  moving prepositions away from the end of the sentence, using “whom” in the right place: in the most formal circumstances, these are not just superstitious efforts at “correctness”, but something more: they are a raising of the rhetorical stakes, an appropriation of the register in which the most serious matters are discussed. Relationship therapists teach something called “tone-matching” to help people who struggle to get their point across in arguments. If someone is polite, you are polite. If someone becomes curt, you become curt. If someone raises their voice, you raise it too – not more, not less, but exactly the same amount.

The capacity to detect and respond to changes of tone is an essential part of doing well in disputes, and the same applies to writing as it does in speech. Litigators don’t use slang, and neither do leader writers. The register they use might crumble to dust on close inspection of its antecedents, but it still sends a powerful signal: that the matter is grave, and that gravity is expected in reply.

And this is why people seek guidance from editors, or Fowler, or Strunk and White. Not for advice on informal English: nobody needs help with that. They need help with formal English: they need their tone to match the tone of their interlocutor.  They need to sound as forbidding to the solicitor as the solicitor sounds to them, or as authoritative and competent to a new employer as a successful candidate should.

So, if a friend applying for a job asks you whether it should be “whom” in the sentence “My former employer was Joe Dough & Co, from whom you may obtain references”, the correct answer is not “there are many voices”; the correct answer, this time, is “yes”. In this context, in this tone, at this stage in the relationship, formality is advisable and “whom” is the correct choice. What is nitpicking and tin-eared in one register is resonant and appropriate in another.  As editors, we can weigh audience, tone, register, changing patterns of usage, and still come to a conclusion. We can make those calculations effortlessly: that is why they are asking us.

In that sense, the zombie rules of the 18th and 19th century prescriptivists are almost beyond criticism. They have become embedded in the law and the classroom, and in a generation of usage manuals that have still not been superseded in the common imagination. Like so much language change, they were born out of misapprehension and error, and yet have become part of English nonetheless; they are now as much an inexplicable descriptivist phenomenon as surfer slang or the changing meaning of “iconic”. In an English of many voices, formality is a voice too.