Archive | November, 2015

Tense situation

24 Nov

Uh-oh. This correspondent will today choose to write his article in the future tense:*

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No, wait, the present (“describes”):

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No, wait, the past (“came”):

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No, wait, the future (“will try”):

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No, wait, the pres … ah. Now the reason for the strange mix of tenses is becoming apparent: this appears to be a news story (or “write-off”) based on a column by the shadow chancellor elsewhere in the same paper:

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And the full complexity of the situation becomes clear in the next paragraph. This isn’t just an article about a contemporaneous article, but also about a relevant speech due to be given later in the week …

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… which comes (will come?) after the most significant event of the party’s year – the general election defeat in April:

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So there are three distinct events – six months ago, today, this coming Friday – but, whichever way you slice it, the timeline is blurred: the tenses have bled into each other and the reader is not being accurately located in the sequence of events. Intervention is required.

It had previously been this blog’s position that there is never any need to write a print news story in the simple present tense. If you assume that the point in time from which a newspaper is written is early in the morning of the date on the masthead, then the future tense will do for any events happening later that day (which is to say, almost all of them). Anything that started the previous night should be written about in the past tense, or the present continuous if it is still going on.

But that overlooks the special case of a newsworthy statement being made by a public figure elsewhere in the same issue of that day’s paper. In this case, the news event is exactly contemporaneous with the publication of the paper – indeed, it is the publication of the paper.  That means that, for all its slightly self-conscious, declamatory tone, the simple present tense is the only one that really fits the situation.

And if you allow yourself to use it, the past-present-future of the story becomes easier to separate. Matters relating to McDonnell’s column: present tense throughout (“John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, today promises…”). Matters relating to his speech on Friday: future tense throughout (“the McDonnell speech will come as …”). Matters relating to the general election, of course, remain in the past tense; the imperfect “his promise came” in the third par, because it relates to the column, moves to the present.

News reports about your own newspaper’s content are curious items. They’re hardly unknown on the front page – if, say, you’ve got a political heavyweight declaring his defection to another party in print – but the less significant ones further back in the run are sometimes only a few pages away from the comment section in which their source material appears. But if you’re going to run them, they need to be in a present-tense time bubble of their own: so today Ten Minutes Past Deadline decides that it is changing its mind.

 

*Further discussions on whether “future tense” is even a meaningful term in English are welcome, although this blog remains of the opinion that “will” offers more than mere modality, and marks a kind of non-continuous, non-habitual future state that approximates very closely to a separate tense.

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Surely he means baseball?

10 Nov

“Crickets”? What do you mean, “crickets”?

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This dropped into the subs’ queue, complete with question marks added by a baffled production editor, last week. It’s part of a piece about US presidential hopeful Ben Carson, written by a high-profile Capitol Hill commentator who regularly weighs in for the paper, so the OED probably wasn’t going to be the first place to look for an answer.

In fact, none of the heavyweight dictionaries, not even the American ones, record this usage. It’s only properly covered in the Urban Dictionary, which offers this nicely phrased explanation –

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– and, in the process, makes it clear that the writer has got the metaphor slightly wrong. “Crickets” would not be heard from his faith-based supporters; in fact, it is the absence of comment on the part of those supporters that allows the crickets, who have been chirping throughout, to be heard.

So the figure of speech will need to be repaired. But that’s not the end of the questions that this piece throws up. In one of the multitudinous permutations of author, subject, commissioning desk, production desk and audience now possible in a multinational news organisation, this piece was written by an American, about America, in response to a request from the UK, and handed to subs in the London newsroom to produce.

Its intended home was the UK Sunday print edition of the paper, but of course it will be going up on the web to a global audience, some of whom will understand “crickets” and some not. So do you fix the metaphor, but leave it unexplained? Take it out and replace it with a British metaphor? Take it out and replace it with something neutral?

Of all the potential pitfalls like this that lie in wait for the globalised newsroom, many are negotiated with great success. Australasian reality stars make their debut to showbiz fans in Berkshire without adverse comment. Local news stories sneak onto global most-viewed lists and engage a far wider audience than they were ever intended for. Live blogs on major incidents are handed over from bureau to bureau to bureau, Sydney to London to New York, in a race to stay ahead of sunset and keep the news alive. Home news stories with no international pretensions can take themselves around the world without assistance and survive; strangely, the ones that struggle – the only ones that really cause trouble – are those written in one country specifically for consumption in another.

What used to be a staple of foreign-desk reporting – the what’s-happening-in-Washington dispatch written by an American for Britons – is becoming almost impossible to edit, because you become trapped between its intended print audience (British English speakers who want a primer) and its likely audience on the web (American readers with an appetite for Beltway news who may already follow that author). Add more newsrooms across the anglosphere and the problems multiply. Do readers feel more alienated by exotic localisms such as “white-anting”* or “bodega”**, or by having something they already know explained to them like novices? Because you can’t edit to please them both.

This time, we decided to remove “crickets” altogether and replace it with a simple reference to silence. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to remove a metaphor from the copy of a brand-name columnist, but it’s equally uncomfortable to wave through something that provokes open bafflement in your own newsroom.

It’s still not clear what the solution is to this problem; it’s a coin toss every time. But it’s possible that it might solve itself: given how well unmediated news seems to travel these days, the whole genre of letter-from-abroad explainers might soon become a thing of the past.

 

* (Austr) Metaphorically, to undermine or hollow out an organisation or movement; to destroy something from the inside, in the manner of a white ant or termite.

** (US, particularly New York) A local food and wine store, especially if of Puerto Rican ownership; a cornershop