Archive | May, 2021

Culture clashes

25 May

Oh for goodness’ sake!

I’m sick and tired of these basic errors about Diphilus of Siphnus slipping through. (Diphilus of Siphnus? You know, the Cycladean physician of the third century BC, notable chiefly for being quoted in the writings of Athenaeus of Naucratis).

As this blog has previously observed, if you’re not sure whether you’re reading a broadsheet or a tabloid, a correction like this will tell you. In this case, the distinction is even more obvious when you read the footnote in the context of the paragraph that precedes it:

Only a broadsheet – perhaps only the Tribune – could manage to mention Diphilus of Siphnus in a tart recipe.*

Indeed, the arts and lifestyle pages always seem to bring out the best in a broadsheet corrections column. Away from the legal deletions and mis-spelt names of the news section, the patient erudition that is the hallmark of the readers’ editor can shine through:

At last someone in the building has got a grip on the Queen Mary’s Marriage Act (passed 1554; not repealed, presumably out of an abundance of caution, until 1863).

And along with that historical discernment comes a talent for diplomacy, born of years of placation and mediation between the opinionated. For instance, why say “due to an editing error” when you can signal culpability as gracefully as this?

“Restore” – smoothly done. (You can imagine a puce-faced music critic bellowing down the phone: “Do you think I don’t know the difference??”).

Elsewhere in this elegant intellectual landscape is the cryptic crossword. As these are an almost exclusively broadsheet phenomenon, readers’ editors in the quality press are alone in being required to tackle the rarefied mistakes they throw up:

Very disappointing for all concerned, especially the setter; whereas 9pm is very much in the heart of TV primetime, 11pm is not. It still works as a clue, but you know – it’s not as clever.

It’s only when popular culture – alas – intrudes into the arts section that the spell can be broken. Let’s hope nothing goes wrong when we review that notoriously scabrous animation about foul-mouthed Coloradan schoolchildren:

Oh dear: television always spoils things. Perhaps we’ll have done better with a more middlebrow show about one of America’s founding fathers?

Oh dear.

*Actually, on further review, doesn’t the maths in this correction seem a little odd? If the error is a simple question of confusing the third century AD with the third century BC, how is it that Pliny’s writings can be one century later in the first instance, then three centuries later when corrected? I think there’s a word missing: it should probably read “… three centuries later, not one century earlier.

Noun pile growth threat fear

11 May

The noun pile is a firmly established part of British journalistic life, but it’s fascinating to look back at the first pioneering steps in its creation (or at least as Michael Frayn imagines them in his satire The Tin Men):

If Goldwasser was remembered for nothing else, Macintosh once told Rowe, he would be remembered for his invention of UHL.

UHL was Unit Headline Language, and it consisted of a comprehensive lexicon of all the multi-purpose monosyllables used by headline-writers. Goldwasser’s insight had been to see that if the grammar of “ban”, “dash”, “fear”, and the rest was ambiguous, they could be used in almost any order to make a sentence, and if they could be used in almost any order to make a sentence they could be easily randomised …

UHL, Goldwasser quickly realised, was an ideal answer to the problem of making a story run from day to day in an automated paper. Say, for example, that the randomiser turned up


By adding one unit at random to the formula each day the story could go:




and so on. Or the units could be added cumulatively:






Of course modern sub-editors no longer have to restrict themselves to monosyllables, or even common multi-purpose words: great news for those working to tight headline counts, such as those on the BBC website. Nowadays we can effortlessly produce noun piles like this:

So, to parse it from back to front, as one should: a teacher has been banned. Which teacher? The strip club teacher. Which strip club teacher? The Longridge Towers school strip club teacher. Which Longridge Towers school? The one in Northumberland.

Actually, that last bit seems odd. As far as Google can ascertain, there seems to be only one Longridge Towers school in Britain. “Northumberland”, then, isn’t serving to narrow down a series of options, as it would in a classic noun pile. As we have previously discussed, in the internet age, the syntax of Unit Headline Language has at times been adulterated by the addition of good SEO words, presumably on the basis that there are so many nouns in the phrase already, who’s going to object to another one? But it does disrupt the progression of specificity that is the hallmark of the classical form.

Even given that problem, the noun pile headline remains invaluable, particularly for those legally tricky stories where using a verb might get you sued. And it sounds like that aspect of the technology was perfect right from the start:

Goldwasser had had a survey conducted, in fact, in which 457 people were shown the headlines




Asked if they thought they understood the headlines, 86.4 per cent said yes, but of those 97.3 per cent were unable to offer any explanation of what it was they had understood.

We’re scarcely able to improve on those numbers today.