Archive | Rhetoric RSS feed for this section

Open quotes

7 Jun

Thanks to all who took part in last month’s quotes quiz. If you did, you may remember it was observed then that the use of some quotations in British headlines remains impossible to categorise. The examples in the questions were chosen because they were clearly more one “type” than any other, but there are many cases where several rationales for the use of quotes blur into each other, and although it seems clear a phrase ought to have them, it is hard to single out why.

Take, for example, a phrase from Britain’s recent political past: “national living wage”:

At the time it emerged, the Tribune had been publicising the work of the Living Wage Foundation, which calculates a voluntary “real-world” minimum wage, higher than the UK statutory rate, which employers can sign up to pay. Then in the 2015 budget, the chancellor, George Osborne, announced a significant increase in the statutory minimum wage, alongside a rebranding of that rate as the “national living wage”.

However, then as now, the increase in the minimum wage fell some way short of the Living Wage as set and publicised for some time under that name by the foundation. (Currently, the campaign estimates it to be £800 a year lower.) The phrase “national living wage” was, as the Tribune has noted tersely, “simply the name given to the statutory national minimum wage rate for over 25s”, and it has been placed within inverted commas ever since.

So what do they signify? Are they neologism quotes? Yes, certainly at the time. Are they scare quotes? Also yes, and predominantly so these days: the phrase may not always appear surrounded by negative rhetoric, but you are still supposed to detect the Tribune’s dissatisfaction with what it regards as political sleight of hand.

The same thing was also true of “levelling up” – the current administration’s professed desire to address regional inequalities. That was placed in quotation marks when it was first mooted, partly because of its unfamiliarity, and partly out of the need – essential for any media organisation – to avoid uncritically parroting the names of government initiatives when they are rhetorically loaded. (As we noted last time, scare quotes are not always a dishonest tactic, and can offer a legitimate distancing from questionable claims or nomenclature.)

Also, there are subtleties even in the apparently straightforward world of direct quotations, as this recent exchange between a Conservative MP and a Channel 4 newscaster demonstrates:

This is a classic debate about whether agreeing to a summation of your position by an interviewer counts as saying what your interlocutor said yourself. You may feel that Newman is right to defend the sentence in its original form, or you may (as I do) agree more with this tweet in the replies:

(Is there something slightly odd about the word “certainly”, which Clarke-Smith did actually say, appearing in a sentence that was otherwise uttered by Newman and assented to by him?) But either way, there are two striking features about Clarke-Smith’s objection: (1) it’s impressive that even he knows the first thing you do is blame a sub-editor; and (2) it’s not the substance of the allegation he is complaining about, but the presence of the quotation marks. It’s not entirely clear why. He is arguably entitled to demand their removal, but if you ran the original sentence exactly as it stands without them, it would be beyond reproach and scarcely less damaging to the moral authority of a legislator.

Is it possible that Clarke-Smith’s objection is based on an understood Fleet Street convention that inverted commas plus attribution in a headline mean that a quotation is genuinely verbatim? At any event, his sensitivity to their presence, and the long debate that goes on in the replies under Newman’s tweet, at least show how highly attuned the British news-consuming public is to the use of quotation marks, in all their complex forms, in headlines.


The Great Quotes Quiz

10 May

Hello and welcome! Can you tell an actual quotation from a paraphrased summary of a third party’s position – just by looking? Can you tell the difference between a newspaper trying to teach you a new word and a newspaper trying to make you fear one? The you’re an ideal contestant for The Great Quotes Quiz, where contestants pit their wits against the subtlest form of headline rhetoric on Fleet Street.

In today’s quiz, you will asked to detect which of the following four journalistic devices are being deployed in a series of headlines:

Actual quotes Quotations taken verbatim from the mouth of a person in the news.

Scare quotes (or sneer quotes) Quote marks placed around a word or phrase to single it out for the reader’s fear or contempt.

Neologism quotes Quote marks placed around an unfamiliar word to signal that although it is new to the reader, it is important and will be explained in due course.

Claim quotes Not actual quotations at all, but quote marks placed around the summary of an assertion made by a third party, about which the newspaper is reserving judgment.

This is not always easy – sometimes it’s impossible to distinguish what kind of headline you are looking at without reading the article. (For example, scare quotes can sometimes perform a secondary function as neologism quotes, inviting the audience to dislike a new word.) But as you work your way through the questions, keep in mind some identification tips from the headline-spotter’s field guide:

Actual quotes

• Significantly more likely to be attributed than unattributed: if quote marks and an attribution are both present in the headline, the likelihood of it being a real quote is high.

• More likely to contain a colourful or controversial turn of phrase, in which case the choice of words may well be the story. Claim quotes, by contrast, are usually written in workaday journalese.

Scare quotes

• Nearly always identifiable from the negative rhetorical loading of other words in the headline: for example, the word in quotes may be described as “bizarre”, “disturbing”, “baffling” and so on.

Neologism quotes

• The word in quotes is either recently coined or completely unfamiliar, but presented neutrally, without the negative rhetoric of the scare quote.

Claim quotes

• Significantly more likely to be unattributed than attributed: in British headline culture, the quotes are shorthand for an attribution.

• More likely to use standard headline language than be unusual or colourful.

So, if everyone’s ready, let’s begin!


A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote


A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote


A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote


A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote


A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote


A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote


A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote


A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote


A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote

Q10 – for double points

First quote
A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote

Second quote
A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote

How did you do? Scroll further down for the answers:

















Q1: A. Actual quote: (NB the online headline has now changed and quote has been demoted to the standfirst.) Note the vividness of the language and the presence of attribution in the headline.

Q2: D. Claim quote: This is a slight hybrid: someone quoted in the piece does actually say the word. But the absence of attribution in the hed, and the bald quotation of the single word, means the primary function of the quote marks is to signal journalistic impartiality about the claim being made.

Q3: D. Claim quote: (Headline shown was for print: link is to the online version.) A classic claim quote that reproduces the first paragraph of the story with the quote marks standing in for the attribution.

Q4: C. Neologism quote: Perhaps familiar enough not to need quotes any more, but in any event the phrase is on its own in the homepage headline’s kicker, without any prejudicial rhetoric to colour your view of it.

Q5: B. Scare quote: Note the fear-inducing tenor of the whole headline, especially the “so-called” preceding the quote.

Q6: A. Actual quote: Slightly trickier, as the attribution in the headline is a little ambiguous, but it is present, and the words quoted are vivid.

Q7: C. Neologism quote: This is, possibly, a borderline scare quote – breadcrumbing is after all described as a “mistake” – but it is more obviously a neologism quote of an unfamiliar term. Note too that the overall tone of the headline is instructional rather than angry.

Q8: B. Scare quote: “Self-styled”. Scare quotes are not always unfair: they can serve the useful purpose of signalling widely held doubts about unlikely claims.

Q9: A. Actual quote: Not just one attribution but two – one of them is almost bound to have said it! This is a classic interview-format headline – name-colon-quote, or quote-colon-name – which are always direct quotes, or should be.

Q10: A. Actual quote and B. Scare quote: The link from the first quote to its attribution is very direct, which gives you confidence that the dietitian did use those exact words; “so-called” is a classic scare-quote tactic.

Joining us in the studio …

15 Feb

It’s strange when the BBC does it, and now that ITV seems to be doing it too, it’s equally strange:

Like the BBC’s, the articles on the ITV News website are unbylined, and, like the BBC’s, ITV’s correspondents are sometimes quoted in them almost as though they were a source – an outside expert whose views have been sought – rather than a colleague of the person writing the article.

The rhetorical effect of this can be peculiar and, when it first came to the blog’s notice six years ago, it was hard to work out why it was happening. Such is the BBC’s mania for impartiality, the quoting of its own employees in the third person made it seem as though it wanted to be distanced from them, as it might from a contentious politician. A disclaimer like the one that accompanies links to Twitter – “the BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites” – seemed to hover over the quoted correspondents too.

For instance, in 2015, the anonymous author of a BBC article about a lawsuit by Rihanna wrote:

“The BBC’s legal correspondent Clive Coleman said this was the first reported English case of a celebrity claimant successfully relying on passing off to claim compensation for the unauthorised use of their personal image.”

Right: but was it or wasn’t it the first? Is there some doubt about this assertion? If one’s own legal correspondent says so, shouldn’t that be enough to report it ex cathedra? Passages like these have the effect of turning the spotlight away from the brand-name reporter and on to the mysterious online author. If Coleman is not entirely to be trusted, as this distancing suggests, who is actually speaking for the BBC? Is it the person writing the article?

However, in the ITV piece, the effect is slightly different. When this author says:

“Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana, who has spoken to sources in Whitehall, has the following explanation of what is happening with Ms Gray’s report”

the tone is not cautionary or distancing, but something rather more familiar: it’s introductory, the sound of one person handing over to another. In other words, it’s the sound of TV news.

The whole format of television current affairs is predicated on journalists asking other journalists what’s going on. “Alex is one of the few reporters still in Kandahar, and she joins us on on the line now. Alex, what can you tell us?” This, perhaps, is why this phenomenon is common on broadcasters’ news sites, but never seen elsewhere.

Newspaper hacks have their byline at the top of their work, but TV news correspondents have always needed someone else to introduce them. So the voice of the unbylined author that can seem so baffling to newspaper readers may not be the incorporeal conscience of the BBC: perhaps it’s just the voice of a facilitator in the middle, or a ringmaster introducing the acts. Perhaps It’s really the voice of a newsreader, but translated from the studio to the page?

In this remarkable dispatch

4 Jan

May I present: the Ten Minutes Past Deadline Self-Promotion Phrase Generator.

luminoustour d’horizon
fiercely intelligent

It was while we were discussing the headline “Celeste Barber mocks backflipping athlete in hilarious new post” a few weeks ago, apropos of another matter, that Picky, that acute observer of the editorial scene, asked: “How hilarious is it?”

That is a good question. The assertion of salience, or quality, is one of the most uncomfortable techniques of newspaper rhetoric that a sub-editor has to negotiate. When you claim it in relation to the work of a third party, as in that case, you come close to confronting the often circular process of news editing (Why are we running this? Because it’s hilarious! Who thinks it’s hilarious? Er, we do!). But the discomfort is at its most acute, or I find it so, when you have to puff up your organisation’s own work.

The code-phrase at the Tribune is “remarkable dispatch”. When the editor wants attention drawn to the quality of one of the offerings, he makes an expansive gesture and says: “And the standfirst needs to be, you know, ‘in this remarkable dispatch, our foreign affairs editor’, etcetera.” We don’t have to use those exact words, but we are on notice that self-promotion will be required.

So we do it, but in an embarrassed, broadsheet way. Redtops, by contrast, although not ones to hide their lights under a bushel, do surprisingly little puffing-up of individual articles, beyond a terse “SUNSPORT EXCLUSIVE” above the byline. The real home of self-certified brilliance is the mid-market tabloid, by which of course I mean (mainly) the Mail. So for those like me who find their innate self-doubt gets in the way when having to write this sort of thing, Derry Street offers a masterclass.

For a start, very few things at the Mail are described as “coruscating”, which will come as a relief to style guide editors everywhere.* (In fact, the phrase “coruscating dispatch” seems to be a googlewhack – that is to say, a search for it on Google only returns one result anywhere on the internet.) Some things are “excoriating” and others “searing”, but fewer than you might expect. There is a scattering of “devastating critiques“, but what there is a lot of – an awful lot of – on Mail Online is “gripping dispatches“:

Perhaps that’s the way to do it: pick a phrase that works and stick with it. But which phrase? Well, why not try the all-in-one, mix-and-match Self-Promotion Phrase Generator, specially tailored for broadsheets? Pair any two and see how you get on, or keep it bookmarked for those occasions when what you’re editing isn’t really a “dispatch” (or – whisper it – all that remarkable).

*The Tribune’s style guide says the following: “Coruscating means sparkling, or emitting flashes of light; people seem to think, wrongly, that it means the same as excoriating, censuring severely, eg ‘a coruscating attack on Clegg’s advisers’.”

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”.

‘I’ve got a great idea …’

6 Jul

…let’s do a mock-up of Harry Kane as Michael Caine for the front page! The Euro 2020 quarter-final’s in Rome, so it’s “The Italian Job”, get it? (OK, so The Italian Job was set in Turin, but close enough.)

However, there are deep undercurrents of British popular culture swirling here. Ostensibly, the visual references are indeed to the evergreen heist film – there are the England flags, the patriotic Minis and so on. But the “Harry” of Kane’s name, as well as his lugubrious expression and black-framed glasses, point to a character in a different film altogether – the laconic spy Harry Palmer in one of Caine’s early breakthroughs, The Ipcress File. Charlie Croker, the cheery criminal he plays in The Italian Job, hardly wears glasses at all. And the instantly familiar phrase on which the headline is based – “My name … is Michael Caine” – doesn’t come from a film at all, but from a song. It was a hit for Madness in 1984, with a voiceover by the great man himself, and a video that, again, draws on an Ipcress-ish aesthetic.

All of this probably got processed completely subconsciously by readers: you have to stop yourself to notice that you’re looking at a portmanteau joke comprising two cinematic genres and a pop lyric. And it also happens too quickly for you to remember that The Italian Job ends with the plucky Brits teetering on the brink of disaster and the prize slipping out of their reach. It’s a good thing that didn’t happen on Saturday.

Ever the optimist

30 Mar

It could have been worse. Your giant container ship may have got humiliatingly jammed across the Suez canal, displaying your company name in huge letters to the world as it wrecks global trade, but at least it’s got a nice name. Ever Given. Whoever it was at Evergreen Marine Corp who decided on that poetic prefix – many of the company’s ships are called the Ever Something – may have done their employer a bit of a favour.

Ever given, never withheld. It’s enigmatic enough to work as the name of a deserted starship in an epic videogame; its hint at romantic surrender also makes it a possibility for Mills & Boon. It has the same non-specific but appealing aesthetic as the title of the film The Beat That My Heart Skipped. That bears almost no literal relevance to the thriller it belongs to, but it works superbly nonetheless – as it would for almost anything, from a romantic comedy to a baffling 90s arthouse pic in which nothing happens.

Evergreen’s naming policy has produced other winners too. Ever Lambent is a phrase Keats might have written. The Ever Gentle sounds immediately disarming. The resonance of “always” or “forever” is vague, but intriguing. Many people are predisposed to like the sea anyway; just as Nato reporting names add excitement to a military aviation story, you do wonder if a good ship name helps, just a little, to take the edge off negative coverage when something goes wrong.

Is that fanciful? Well, consider what might have happened if Prince Jefri of Brunei had got into difficulties in his custom-built superyacht, the Tits, or how Gary Hart’s presidential ambitions foundered after a dalliance with a woman on the good ship Monkey Business. And perhaps Evergreen itself has also dodged a bullet: it’s easy to imagine the po-faced excoriations of multilateralism that would have ensued if this had happened to the Ever Liberal. And think how unbearable Twitter might have been if the vessel that had got wedged in the entrance to a narrow passage had been the Ever Uranus.

Photograph: kees torn via Wikipedia

East-west relations

16 Mar

On the Tube a few months ago, I saw this:

I was familiar with the poem, an ecological updating of Brecht’s Alles Wandelt Sich, but I had only ever seen it printed in book format, with one verse below the other. When you read it like that, understanding comes slowly: you only grasp the parallelism of the construction bit by bit as you progress down the page. But here, your eye is tracking from left to right naturally: as it overruns slightly at the end of the line, it can’t help but glimpse what is to come. As you see in your peripheral vision the same words as you’ve just read, you start to understand what’s going to happen before it happens, and the genius of Brecht’s original conception becomes clear sooner: all the same phrases, but arranged in two different orders to create two contrasting emotions.

And that same design strategy – of using the eye’s movement from east to west as well as from north to south – is one of the few remaining areas where print holds an advantage over digital. The problem with web news articles, as my boss the production editor is fond of saying, is that once you’ve clicked through to them from the homepage, they all look the same: the most explosive splash and the most routine weather story are identically formatted, with the same size of headline, same size of standfirst, same shape of picture at the top and same livery colours (unless you’re really pushing the boat out for a campaign, in which case the last of these might change).

More importantly, the experience of reading them is an isolated and purely vertical one – once you have left the homepage, you are simply scrolling down through a column of text, with nothing to catch the eye on either side: no larger headline to the left, no smaller text box to the right to draw you across or place what you’re reading in the context of other developments.

And even the homepage itself – cluttered as it is with dozens of unrelated stories – can’t hope to achieve the same depth of visual rhetoric as a good double-page spread can. Take this example from the New York Times’s travel section:

The front page hints at what is to come, by starting two separate stories in adjacent columns and turning them both to the spread, but it is the side-by-side display of the spread itself, as with Herbert’s poem, that really tells the story. The photos may vary but the layouts are, essentially, identical: same size main picture, identically formatted smaller picture grouping, headlines that mirror each other. As you look from left to right, the message seems clear before you’ve read a word of the text – that Vegas on $1,000 a day and Vegas on $250 a day are different, but also essentially the same.

At the Tribune, where the sub-editor formats articles for web as well as print, I would have no idea how to reproduce that effect for the online reader – they would either have to be two individual stories, separate from each other as web articles always are, or attached to each other in a fundamentally vertical way, with the second story following the first. It would take a special web design project to get them to sit side by side like this, and even an interactive presentation of some kind would still encounter the problem that faces all online publishing: that the space north to south is infinite, but the space east to west is severely constrained by the size of the reader’s screen.

The east-west effect is so powerful, in fact, that it can operate even when the designer doesn’t want it to, and lead to unintended consequences, like this:

As @jcodfishpie, who tweeted the clipping out almost 10 years ago, observes, Brighton’s top gay should be ashamed of himself.

That hint of print

24 Nov

“Sometimes,” says Andrew Marr, halfway through the Sunday paper review, “the best front pages are the ones online.” And he turns to an image of the tabloid Independent.

But of course, as we have previously discussed, the modern Independent front page is a curious thing. It is online, in the sense that it only exists virtually: the paper stopped printing in 2016. But in appearance, concept and execution, it relies on the language of print. It exists almost exclusively to be included in “what the papers say” roundups, where the visual rhetoric of the front page still has greater impact than a web article called up on an iPad. It is not a native digital format: the Independent’s true front page these days is its homepage, which looks very similar to other digital news fronts, and suffers from the same problem of being updated too often and too quickly to ever serve as a snapshot of a calendar day.

Another curious thing about it is that it still looks the same as it did when the paper stopped printing in 2016 – still with a visually dramatic single story next to the distinctive vertical masthead. In fact, that look dates all the way back to 2013; since that time, for instance, the Financial Times, Telegraph and Guardian have all been redesigned. Will the Independent’s digital front page ever be redesigned as well? Or will it have to stay as it is, fossilised by the necessity of reminding viewers of the time when it was a newspaper too?

Don’t touch that tweet

27 Oct

Can you name the president who transmitted this communique (lightly edited for tone and redundancy)?

Never threaten the United States again, or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few have suffered. We are no longer a country that will stand for your demented words of violence and death. Be cautious.

That’s right, of course: it was President Trump. Only he didn’t write it like that. He wrote it like this, on Twitter:

And the fact that he wrote it like that – shouting, emphatic, out of control – is as significant as the words themselves. If you were to intervene as above, by taking it out of caps (and tidying up the pleonasm), you would be editing back in a presidential register that the president either fails to understand or has chosen to abandon.

On social media, and on Twitter particularly, orthography tells a story and contains a subtext. It’s not just an anarchy in which the rules of formal English have lapsed: it’s that a different set of rules has partly supplanted them. That’s why – tempting though it is for older editors – you should never edit tweets.

Even we veterans can spot uppercase as signalling a register of speech: as Wired magazine says in an article about Trump’s tweet, it pre-dates the internet, and was one of the few typographical tools at hand in the earliest online chatgroups:

Philip Seargeant, a senior lecturer in applied linguistics at the Open University, says that the shouty all-caps convention really came into its own around the 80s and 90s, on early internet forums such as Usenet groups and bulletin boards. “The different ways of emphasising things were limited,” he explains. “Nowadays, we’ve got bold, italics, emoji, all sorts of things – in those days you had no opportunity for that.” You could put things in asterisks, space letters out to show you were being very deliberate in your speech, or use all-caps.

But what about its orthographical opposite – a tweet entirely in lowercase? In fact, that too carries a clear signal for the online-literate. On Twitter a couple of months ago, the videogames journalist Lucy O’Brien asked:

And the answers poured in, including this one from the Audible executive Maz Hamilton (citing mIRC, another internet chat system from the old days):

So the tone that’s being struck in all-lowercase is casual, often droll – the small voice at the back of the room – and not at all serious.

The millennial writer and humorist Joel Golby almost never uses capitals on Twitter, because almost all his tweets are ironic. For example, the absence of orthographical formality and the run-on sentence in this tweet

leads you to conclude – correctly – that he isn’t actually angry or ranting over the phone to the commissioning desk. But if you edit it into formal English, suddenly all the irony evaporates:

I went to the pub and it actually shut at 10pm. Column coming tomorrow: this is absolutely unacceptable.

Now it’s a notice of intent from a clarion of liberty at the Express.

Tweets look glaringly informal and unedited in formal, edited news writing. But that informality is often deliberate and coded, and created for a world in which formality is the exception, not the rule. (In fact, formality on social media can be so rare as to seem pointed: this is at the core of the neverending to-do about young people being offended by full stops). It may look awful (and that’s before we even consider the typos), but it was probably meant that way. Don’t edit it.