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The limits of SEO

20 Jul

Do you remember Mohammed Emwazi? Maybe it doesn’t ring a bell. Do you remember “Jihadi John”, though? Emwazi, it seems, was much better known by his Isis sobriquet than his real name: a basic analysis on Google reveals 103,000 hits for the latter versus 403,000 for the former.

But we didn’t call him that at the Tribune. The foreign desk asked us not to. Perhaps a mention somewhere in the copy to clarify that Emwazi was indeed known by that nickname, but never in the headline or at the top of the story. The desk didn’t want to “trivialise a serious situation”, or add tabloid pizzazz to the torture and beheading of hostages. So we didn’t. We’d have got more clicks if we had, but we stopped.

The same applies to the “QAnon Shaman”, the “Yorkshire Ripper” and several others. “It means we sometimes take a hit on search,” the web production editor writes, “but we do it so as not to make light of the individuals and their motives/actions”.

A few weeks ago on Horny Handed Subs of Toil, a member revealed that his publication asks subs to allow “mens”, no apostrophe, in certain circumstances for search engine optimisation, because Google fails to return as many results if you type it correctly as “men’s”. There was consternation, as you might expect, and some doubt as to whether it was in fact necessary, but it illustrated the kind of discussion that we normally have about SEO. Who’s top of the search results? How can we get more traffic? Are we doing the right thing? It’s much rarer, but perhaps more revealing about your organisation, to consider the things you won’t say even when Google wants you to.

With us, the reasons vary. Our coverage of the subpostmasters and subpostmistresses scandal is probably being hampered by our disinclination to say “subpostmasters” or “subpostmistresses”; we won’t use one without the other for reasons of inclusivity, but using both makes headlines unfeasibly long. We are going with “post office operators”, which is probably not what people are typing into their search engines. We insist on “register office” – the correct term – not “registry office”, even though Google Ngrams suggests that the latter has almost always been more popular than the former (and produces significantly more hits in search). And we say Brexiter, not Brexiteer – despite a two-to-one swing against it on Google – simply out of a determination, as strong today as ever, “not to make them sound like jolly pirates”.

Facing trial 😊

19 Jan

Meanwhile, in an Israeli small claims court, a landlord is suing a prospective tenant for pulling out of a rental agreement, and the verdict is in:

“This is the place to refer once again to those graphic symbols (icons) sent by Defendant 2 to the Plaintiff. As stated, they do not, under the circumstances, indicate that the negotiations between the parties have matured into a binding agreement. However, the sent symbols support the conclusion that the defendants acted in bad faith. Indeed, this negotiation’s parties’ ways of expression may take on different forms, and today, in modern times, the use of the “emoji” icons may also have a meaning that indicates the good faith of the side to the negotiations. The text message sent by Defendant 2 on June 5, 2016, was accompanied by quite a few symbols, as mentioned. These included a “smiley”, a bottle of champagne, dancing figures and more. These icons convey great optimism. Although this message did not constitute a binding contract between the parties, this message naturally led to the Plaintiff’s great reliance on the defendants’ desire to rent his apartment.

And so, by virtue of the emojis in the following text message – one of which is a chipmunk

“Good morning 😊  we want the house 💃🏻👯‍✌️☄️🐿️🍾  just need to go over the details …When suits you?”

– the judge found in favour of the landlord and awarded him 8,000 shekels to compensate for lost income.

The case, in 2017, excited a lot of legal comment, as one might imagine. Some agree with the judge that the smiley, in particular, helps to “convey to the other side that everything is in order” when it in fact is not. Others, such as the legal scholars Gabriella Ziccarelli and Eric Goldman, disagree, pointing out that “emojis are frequently used as emotional supplements to preceding words or sometimes even used as a punctuation substitute”, so cannot be relied upon as the court suggests. But nearly everyone accepts one thing – that the emojis cannot simply be overlooked. As Ziccarelli and Goldman say: “We can’t just consider the text and ignore the emojis … Because we must assume the prospective tenant included them for a reason, how do the emojis modify or supplement the initial text message’s words?”

Their discussion of that topic runs to considerable length, even theorising as to why the tenant might have used the “double bunny girls” emoji instead of the “single bunny girl” variant. (Even they are defeated by the chipmunk, however.) Elsewhere, in an extensive article on Slate, Amanda Hess describes numerous cases in which the courts have attempted to decode non-verbal messaging, including one in which “an anonymous comment posted to an online message board that appeared to accuse a city worker of corruption was negated by the inclusion of a tongue-out emoji”.

The confusion that even well-known emojis have caused in these cases is perhaps warning enough never to try to use them in headlines (not that there’s much call for that on a broadsheet). And that’s before you get to the confusing ones: the emoji of a person blowing hard through their nose – 😤 – is widely interpreted in the west as signifying anger, whereas in many parts of Asia it is seen as expressing pride or dominance: a bull-snort of power, drawing from manga iconography. Its official name is “Face with Look of Triumph“. Emojis are far more compact than words, but – probably for that reason – far more ambiguous.

And another lesson for editors is, once again, how grindingly literal a court can be about anything – anything – you might publish. We have previously discussed instances in which a judge released a criminal 10 years early because of a typo in a document – in the full knowledge that it was a typo – and where a biker was given only a year in jail for GBH because mistakes in the drafting of the law made it impossible to pass any other sentence. The judicial system can be agonisingly prescriptivist and unimaginative: lawyers are trained to pursue meaning narrowly through thickets of poor drafting and make a limited determination of meaning based on what was actually said, even contrary to evidence of intent. Ambiguity is cute in linguistics, but not in court, and it’s wise to edit with that in mind.

The wonder of Woolsworths

10 Nov

It turned out not to be true: Woolworths was not reopening in Britain. It was a hoax, announced from a stunted-up Twitter account and unwisely seized upon by numerous British media outlets. And how did people begin to realise it was a fake? Because of the typos.

As the BBC reports, the Twitter feed (now suspended) referred to the brand as “Woolsworths” more than once – deliberately, its teenage creator says – and although some of the media may have been fooled, several people on social media weren’t:

As we have recently discussed, social media is a forum that is highly sensitised to orthography and register. Formality is not the norm between private users, but when it comes to online political messaging or corporate communications, its absence is suspicious. Posts that purport to be from an official body written in casual – specifically, unedited – English seem as jarringly inauthentic as jokey Halloween Twitter handles do in serious news reports.

It is one of this blog’s hobby-horses that formality has its uses: however absurd “proper English” seems to linguists, it is the language authority speaks, and to which it most readily responds. In anyone’s mouth, it has the power to command. And it also serves another purpose, even today: as an implicit guarantor of authenticity. This is why consumer rights groups still advise customers to be alert to language errors on suspicious websites. As Which? puts it: “Watch out for poor English, such as spelling and grammar mistakes, or phrases that don’t sound quite right.”

Scammers and pranksters could solve many of their authenticity problems by hiring editors, of course. But, perhaps fortunately, they seem to have as little respect for the craft of editing as many news organisations.

Death of a Dictionary

4 Aug

Wikipedia; © Merriam-Webster

Manhattan, 1961. He was a charismatic gumshoe with a ready wit, the leg-man for a sedentary detective genius. She was a woman with money and trouble, big brown eyes and a “mouth that would have been all right with the corners turned up instead of down”. In the study of a New York brownstone, fear and murder are about to meet their match. Except there has been an outbreak of descriptivism, so the detective genius is indisposed:

“I’d better explain,” I told her … “There’s a fireplace in the front room, but it’s never lit because he hates open fires. He says they stultify mental processes. But it’s lit now because he’s using it. He’s seated in front of it, on a chair too small for him, tearing sheets out of a book and burning them. The book is the new edition, the third edition, of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged, published by the G. & C. Merriam Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. He considers it subversive because it threatens the integrity of the English language. In the past week he has given me a thousand examples of its crimes. He says it is a deliberate attempt to murder the — I beg your pardon …”

She was staring up at me. “He’s burning up a dictionary?”

He rarely stands when a caller enters, and of course he didn’t then, with the dictionary, the two-thirds of it that was left, on his lap. He dropped sheets on the fire, turned to look at her, and inquired, “Do you use ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ interchangeably, Miss Blount?”

She did fine. She said simply, “No.”

“This book says that you may. Pfui.”

Webster’s Third, as it is known, caused such a stir when it was published in September 1961 that it was condemned in the comment pages of the New York Times, described as a “political pamphlet” by the historian Jacques Barzun and ceremonially destroyed, as we see, by Nero Wolfe in Rex Stout’s thriller Gambit. For lexicographers, It was a landmark in the journey from prescriptivism to descriptivism that had begun in the 1910s; for the first time, a major US dictionary had been explicitly based on observation of words in everyday usage, rather than authoritative declarations of meaning.

As Wikipedia notes, it eliminated the labels “colloquial”, “correct”, “incorrect”, “proper”, “improper”, “erroneous”, “humorous”, “jocular”, “poetic”, and “contemptuous”, among others, leading to charges that it had abandoned the idea of “proper English”. Looking back in a 2012 article in Publishers Weekly, David Skinner wrote: “Pronunciations came to include a dizzying number of variations, all apparently equal in merit. Most controversial of all was [the editor’s] policy on disputed usages: Webster’s Third adopted a position of scholarly neutrality on words more conservative dictionaries rushed to label colloquial or slang or vulgar. It was a pure dictionary, all about the words, but utterly agnostic on many tricky issues dictionary users cared deeply about.”

It was, then, a classically descriptivist book: admirably humble and egalitarian in its intent, but maddeningly silent on the socially enforced niceties of discourse that readers nonetheless had to navigate. Like much descriptivist literature, it resembles an etiquette book that lectures you on the tyranny of dress codes when all you want to know is how to knot a tie. And although it is widely hailed for its great scholarship, its symbolic role in the culture wars makes it hard for some people to acknowledge even to this day.

In the historic gay rights case Bostock v Clayton County, decided in June, the US Supreme Court ruled that the employment protections of the Civil Rights Act did indeed extend to those unfairly treated as a result of their sexuality. The lead opinion was written by the Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch – a judge on the right of the court. But although he may have surprised liberals by finding in favour of Bostock, he was apparently still too much of a conservative to rely on Webster’s Third in doing so. As the lawyer and linguist Stephen Mouritsen points out on Twitter, Gorsuch used Webster’s Second (1954) to find a definition of “discrimination” as it was understood at the time the Civil Rights Act was passed, even though Webster’s Third was seven years closer in time to the passing of the Act in 1964.

A major consolidation of US civil rights for a minority suffering injustice? By all means. But not with the assistance of That Book.

It’s possible that this view of Webster’s Third has hardened over 60 years, but I’m not sure. One gets the impression that attitudes may have been entrenched right from the moment it was published:

There wasn’t much of the dictionary left, and, while I counted, five-hundreds and then C’s, he tore and dropped. I counted it twice to make sure, and when I finished there was no more dictionary except the binding.

“Twenty-two grand,” I said.

“Will this burn?” he asked.

“Sure; it’s buckram. It may smell a little. You knew you were going to burn it when you bought it. Otherwise you would have ordered leather.”

‘Either is acceptable’

3 Mar

The style guide used to say this about “all right”:

Now it says this:

The Who, noted. Kingley Amis, noted. There are many voices. But what’s the style now? Is it all right? Is it alright? Is it both? (Also, doesn’t the difference between “she got the answers all right” and “she got the answers, alright!” depend on the presence of the comma, not the style of the word?)

Elsewhere in the guide, the entry for “swath” says:

Well, yes, they’re acceptable. They’re just variant spellings – they’re all acceptable. But that’s not the point.

Sometimes, a style choice signifies a particular way of thinking about a topic, a considered taking of sides on an important issue. But even when it’s just choosing between two versions of words that mean the same thing, the choice is still important. Successfully adhering to one style adds to the subliminal impression of an organisation as competent, alert and professional. The Guardian’s catastrophic history with misprints haunts it, in its nickname, to this day, even though there was nothing substantively inaccurate about the stories it published in those typo-strewn days. The accusation was an easy one to make – that imprecise spellers are also imprecise thinkers – and the mud stuck.

The most distinctive style choices can even act as canaries in the verbal coalmine: if the New Yorker ever starts getting inconsistent about the use of the diaeresis in “coöperate”, we will know something’s seriously wrong. Failing to specify a style in such instances may not change the meaning of a sentence, but it might start to change the way that your staff thinks about its job. “Either” should never be acceptable.

Fortunately, however, the style guide remains resonant and clear on the things that really matter:

 

 

Let it be

7 Jan

© Jane Draycott, 2016

There are times when one longs not to be an editor – such as, for example, when reading this poem in Jane Draycott’s wonderful recent collection The Occupant. “It Won’t Be Long” is a mesmerising meditation on the fact (of which I was unaware) that With The Beatles, the Beatles’ second album, came out on the same day that John F Kennedy was assassinated: 22 November 1963.

Named after the first song on the album, the poem is set in Draycott’s childhood home on the day in question, where father is struggling to make dinner for the family because mother is ill, and rapidly the political, cultural and domestic all get swirled together. The title of the poem simultaneously refers to the record, the progress in the kitchen and the events soon to occur in Dallas, six hours behind. Mention of the Vesta instant curry brings to mind Vesta, Roman goddess of hearth and home, who then seems to appear, flickeringly, in the outfit Jacqueline Kennedy wore that day (“navy trim and matching pillbox hat“). And because it’s 1963, no one (in the Beatles, presumably) has “even thought of going to India” – at least, not yet.

© EMI Records

But if it is 1963, that brings me to the thing I trip over in the first line, that brings the editor in me to alert and stops me being captivated straightaway (although I end up being captivated in the end). If you are an editor or a Beatles fan, you probably noticed it too. “Here Comes The Sun” isn’t on With The Beatles. It’s on Abbey Road. On 22 November 1963, it was still five years away from being written.

It’s a wonderful first line. And of course the purpose of the sun in the poem is not just to be a Beatles reference but to provide the light source that creates the shadow over America’s future, the globe in black and white, and perhaps even the half-moon faces of the Fab Four on the album’s famous cover. The poem would go dark without it.

Maybe if it wasn’t in italics, I wouldn’t trip over it so hard. Certainly elsewhere in the poem there are anachronistic echoes of lyrics from Come Together and I Am The Walrus (“come together now”, “we are all together”) that intrude less. But the fact that “Here comes the sun” is emphasised, and the fact that it comes directly after the citation “With The Beatles (Parlophone)”, makes it impossible for my literalistic, fact-checking soul to overlook. A lifetime on the desk leaves you mentally Googling everything. There are times when one longs not to be an editor.

Vague impression

1 Oct

I’m four years late to this, it’s none of my business and I couldn’t possibly prove it, but I bet this originally said “vagueries”. Or at least, I bet that either:

(i) the writer wanted to say “vagueries”, was unsure how to spell it, assumed the word he wanted was “vagaries” and spelt it thus; or

(ii) the writer spelt it “vagueries” and an editor assumed he meant “vagaries” and changed it.

“Vagaries”, of course, can be easily looked up. “Vagueries” – well, the establishment dictionaries are silent, and only Wiktionary and its like are prepared to essay a definition: “a vagueness, a thing which is vague, an example of vagueness”, per yourdictionary.com.

“Vague” and “vagary” are closely related – the authorities suggest that both probably derive from the Latin verb vagus, “to wander”. But in their journey through middle French and into English they have come to acquire two distinct meanings: “imprecise” and “aberrant”. And, given that Stereogum’s critic is objecting to Coldplay’s    “vague platitudes about walking through fires or turning your magic on”, it is clearly the former that he means.

You might think the “correct” English word in this instance would be “vaguenesses”, but the authorities seem reluctant to countenance that either, at least in the plural. And in any event “vague”, a word that arrived from French, instinctively sounds as though it ought to become a noun in a more French way, by analogy with the same process that has given English “drolleries” and “fripperies”.

If it were the case that the writer wrote “vagueries” and the editor changed it, that would be a shame. Rock critics are traditionally granted a lot of licence in terms of tone, register, syntax, hyperbole, and even decorum, in their reviews, as part of the wide range of voices contained every day in a newspaper. A quick bit of neologising is hardly out of the way in the music pages.

If, however, the writer put “vagaries”, then we face a very advanced editing conundrum indeed: whether an editor should replace a word that is in the dictionary but doesn’t make sense with one that isn’t, but does. That’s quite a big call, but I think the answer is clear. “Vagaries” is just wrong. Make it “generalities” or “platitudes” again if you’re worried about over-reaching your authority, but I think it’s clear from the sound of the word what the writer was trying to do. It might be wise to consult first, but I’d be lobbying to go for it.

 

(And with that, Ten Minutes Past Deadline is off, kicking through the leaves, for its traditional autumn break. See you at the end of the month, the collapse of the west permitting.)

She covers the waterfront

17 Sep

We appear to have another case of that strange phenomenon, Ambitious Tabloid Verbing. Last time, we had “to marvel” meaning “to look marvellous” (“Elizabeth Olsen marvels in button-down maxi red dress at Comic-Con”). Now we have “to cover” meaning – apparently – “to be on the cover” (that is, of a magazine).

It’s in the Mail, of course:

This is not one of those “implied object” verbs that the Mail also loves (“Gwyneth stuns in taffeta dress” meaning “Gwyneth stuns onlookers in taffeta dress”). Nor is it an example of what are called unaccusative verbs – for example, “shimmer” – which lack an object of any kind and describe an involuntary state of the subject. (Indeed, “cover” in this new usage gives the impression of being transitive.)

In a sense, as described by Ben Zimmer in the New York Times, this is a denominal verb – that is, a noun turned into a verb. Just as, in sport, to win a medal has become “to medal” and to get on the podium has become “to podium”, here “to be on the cover” has become “to cover”. That perhaps makes it less ambitious than “marvel”, which was a verb created out of an adjective: many denominal verbs, although formally frowned upon, are easily understood.

But here “cover”, like “marvel”, does lead you astray. In both cases, a more natural sentence expressing the same thought might contain a stative verb, or verb of being: “She looks marvellous”; “she is on the cover”.  But these stative verbs have been replaced with dynamic verbs, or verbs of doing, which have the effect of spuriously increasing the sense of the subject’s agency, and send you hunting through the sentence in search of an object (or, to use a more grammatically precise term, a “patient” – that is, the thing on which the agent acts). In last time’s example, you were led to think that Olsen was “marvelling … at Comic-Con” – in other words, that the convention was the object of the intransitive verb “to marvel (at)”. In these new examples, “covers” in every case creates a slightly baffling direct object out of the magazine in question (“Zendaya covers the new issue”) in a way that makes you think the models might in some way be acting as reporters.

To be fair to the Mail, it hasn’t invented this usage. It has appeared before, largely in the fashion press, and the briefest Google search uncovers examples going back several years.

But my copy of Collins indicates that “cover”, as a verb, already has 23 meanings. I rather hope this doesn’t become the 24th. Unlike many of my fellow prescriptivist enforcers, I don’t necessarily believe that verbing weirds language. But constructions as ambitious as this certainly do.

Out and out

6 Aug

Oops, there’s a repeated word. This is why proofreading is so important, even close to deadline. Something always slips through.

Oh, wait, hang on: there’s a link.

Oh, wait, hang on: it’s a thing.

And it appears that “going out out” is only the mid-price option in a range of three:

To clarify: going out, tout court, is the simple dinner with mates: “think shiny fabric, a feather trim or, to really nod to the late 90s moment, a sequin cami and pair of wedge sandals”. Going out out “involves some preparation, an acceptance that best laid plans may go awry and a look that is both committed to the party without being too sensible” (in other words “go for something long and shimmery à la Bottega Veneta and whack a long-sleeved T-shirt underneath if you’re planning to go three parties deep”.) Going out out out – the big one is “a night out that may well turn into a lost weekend”, for which you will need “sequins, but with a polo neck underneath, sparkles, but on a low heel, hemlines below the knee and, the stealth secret weapon, sleeves”. (Not to mention, as the article wisely reminds us, a coat.)

It’s going to stay in, but I’m hyphenating it. It just looks like a mistake otherwise.

And to think I almost deleted it. I really am starting to get too old for this.

Thank you for the day is

23 Jul

Et tu, the Kinks?*

It looks like the apostrophe was faithfully reproduced in the slightly unimpressed NME review as well** but not in the sheet music (well done, the editor at Carlin Music). Is it a mistake, or a baffling artistic stroke? There are days when you can’t tell wrong from right.

Oh well. It’s still impossible not to sing along when it comes on the radio.

 

* I was state-educated, so I don’t have the Latin, but I have the nagging sense this should be “et vos”, rather than “et tu”. I’m leaving it as it is, though, in case it all gets a bit Romanes eunt domus.

** “Not one of their better efforts”? Come now! Although the reviewer redeems himself in the next paragraph by identifying Jefferson Airplane as a band to watch.