Archive | April, 2015

The surnames flowchart

30 Apr

For years, I didn’t know this about Burmese names:

Burmese people do not have first names or last names in the western sense (although in informal speech many people use shortened nicknames). Thus when referring to Burmese people … you should always use the full form of the person’s name. For example, Mi Mi Khaing should never be referred to as just “Khaing” or “Daw Khaing”.

It’s not in our style guide, but it is in Wikipedia’s. And not only is there no forename/last name, but the name itself may contain honorifics that disappear or change over the course of a person’s life.

Foreign names in copy are a constant trap for the unwary. For example, it might be unwise to truncate the noms de guerre of jihadists or other fighters in the Middle East: “Abu Qatada” means “Father of Qatada”, so shortening it to “Qatada” can, it may be argued, suggest the writer is talking about the son, not the father. Then there is the question of Spanish names, with their patronymics and matronymics (Gabriel Garcia Lorca) – do you mention the matronymic at all, or once at first mention, or use both throughout (or, as occasionally happens, use the matronymic alone)? Transliteration of mainland Chinese names (generally two words) differs from transliteration of Taiwanese and Korean names (generally three). And any rule for any country can be overridden by an individual’s own preference for spelling or form of address.

But before you get to the problems that foreign names present, or even the special rules for kings and queens*, you have to think about something even more complex and nuanced: domestic names.

Other cultures’ naming customs may be less familiar, but the style-guide rules for them are shorter and more definitive. With English names, familiarity itself is the problem: we are all too aware of the shades of courtesy or offence potentially contained in the use of honorifics, diminutives, first names or surnames.

So, when editing, you have to be aware that style of address can be different for different ages and circumstances; for real and assumed names; for before and after criminal convictions; and even for different sections of the newspaper. And so the question of how to refer to someone in a news article isn’t easy to sum up in a sentence or two: rules of thumb aren’t enough. For this, you really need a flowchart.

This is the decision tree for English names as it stands at the Tribune. To use it, start at the top and go down, and if the answer to any of the questions is “yes”, turn right and follow the appropriate path. We are a paper that generally omits honorifics except in leading articles: further wrinkles of complexity would be added at a paper in which honorifics are generally used but with exceptions (e.g. for criminals), or at a paper that drops honorifics for commoners at second mention but retains them for peers (which was the Tribune’s former policy).

Click on the flowchart to open it, then click to magnify. See you at one of the endpoints.



* Brief title and forename in full at first mention (“Queen Elizabeth II”); never Her Royal Highness or HRH; forename only thereafter.

Film editors

14 Apr

Another submission to IMDb, another response it would be fair to characterise as “robust”:

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 22.51.51

We first encountered the robot editors of the Internet Movie Database last year, attempting to get an episode summary past its stern battery of automatic parsers. Recently, though, another artificial writing assistant, Grammarly, has come to prominence following a high-profile marketing campaign in which the company attempted to grammar-check EL James’s Fifty Shades Of Grey when the film of the book premiered. It ran James’s text and that of several famous historical authors through the system, and presented its findings in a lively press release.

Grammarly is a hugely ambitious undertaking: an algorithm that attempts to read and parse text like a human editor, and check spellings and punctuation in context. Unfortunately, the marketing push didn’t go as well as might have been hoped. As was widely observed, notably by Jonathon Owen at Arrant Pedantry, the worked examples contained several infelicities or mistakes, including some questionable overpunctuating and a suggestion that The Tempest be corrected to “We are such stuff on which dreams are made on“. As Arrant Pedantry concluded, many of the things Grammarly found in its press release weren’t errors and, where it intervened, “the suggested fixes always worsen the writing”.

The IMDb parser is a much less ambitious undertaking. It doesn’t work on free-form text or purport to “read”: instead, it controls inputs tightly by using step-by-step data entry. And yet somehow, it feels so much more like being edited.

Above all, it’s the tone. As ever, the rejection notice at the top is brisk but not wholly discouraging, like a copy editor intercepting a reporter with a question. Then there’s the fact-checking and the resultant queries, and the automatic corrections for house style (surname, first name), done without a song and dance. Then there’s the institutional memory and the ever-so-slight weariness that goes with it: there are 3,304 attributes like this already – are you sure you want to create a new one? Then there’s the encouragement not to touch the type: “If you don’t understand how the ordering should be formatted, please leave it blank.” And, as we saw last time, it enforces word counts ruthlessly and threatens to reassign material elsewhere if it’s not cut to fit.

Maybe Grammarly wouldn’t have stumbled over the cap ‘W’ in “Written” and asked for guidance; IMDb doesn’t do line-by-line context and only really spellchecks the proper nouns already in its database. But this is big-picture, organisational editing for accuracy and factual consistency. Rather than entering the murky, and often highly debatable, world of comma use and the passive voice, it just aims to get things cross-referred and reliable.

In fact, quite a lot of real editors’ work is like the kind of  “database editing” IMDb does. Is that how we normally spell it? Haven’t I read that paragraph somewhere else? Someone else has written a piece about this: what does that say? The parser may not be able to write a headline, but it can certainly keep control of a multi-contributor encyclopaedia.

Assertive,  detail-oriented, unbending about style, weary but polite – and, as we see from the “override” tickboxes, stoical about the possibility of being ignored: doesn’t that sound just like an editor? These robots are getting more lifelike by the day.