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The cook, the thief, his wife and her headline

21 Mar

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So the allegation is that City regulators waved through an allegedly illicit payment for a supposedly profitable oilfield to a man who had been convicted of a money-laundering offence over an unrelated matter. Two huge oil companies allegedly completed the transaction with this man via the offices of a national government. Former MI6 officers are claimed to have been at the heart of the deal and some of the money in question was also used to purchase armoured cars, it is alleged.

Picking the right verb for the headline at times like this is tricky – or at least, finding space for the kind of caution that the Tribune’s lawyer will be happy with. “Accused of”, “said to have”, “reported to be” – they make the story safer in the courts, but dilute its impact on the page. As previously discussed, you could always replace the verb with “in”, for that useful combination of vagueness and implication. Or you could use “amid” for those collections of circumstances whose precise relationship to each other is hard to elucidate.*

But if the verbs are hard, the nouns are easy in stories like this: they jump out. Oil, disgrace, MI6, armour, $800m: there’s too many to choose from. With ingredients this good, you don’t actually need to write a sentence: you can just write a shopping list.

And they’re easy to assemble. Start with one or two of the most colourful bits of the story. Put the core of the news last. If you like, add an EMPHATIC Daily Mail intensifier in uppercase as garnish … and you’ve got yourself a list headline.

Like this:

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This is, of course, the General Petraeus love-affair scandal that shook the US in 2012. By this stage of the investigation, the whole story had become quite complicated, with a second woman and another leading general drawn in to the narrative. This Mail article actually reveals there were two sets of emails, sent independently between more than one pair of protagonists; the second was only discovered by chance after an unrelated police inquiry. That’s a lot to try to explain even in headlines as long as the Daily Mail’s. So the obvious thing to do is to abandon the verbs and go with the nouns.

What’s even more impressive is the second part of that headline: an adverbial clause followed by an object noun phrase, separated by a comma and nothing else. That’s advanced verb-avoidance indeed.

Admittedly, in this case, it’s hard to read any but the most benign missing words into the gap:

As a SECOND general is dragged in, [read] the story of the sex scandal gripping America

As a SECOND general is dragged in, [this is] the story of the sex scandal gripping America

But it goes to show how well you can attract readers’ attention without ever telling them what’s going on.

*Or, indeed, is non-existent.

Fly me to the Sun

9 Mar

BONUS UPDATE: It’s the day after Budget Day, and what the heck does this mean?

The nation may be abuzz with debate about whether the chancellor’s change to National Insurance for the self-employed is retribution against the wealthy and their artificial “service companies” used to avoid tax, or an attack on the working-class independent contractor – the Sun’s beloved “White Van Man” – at a time of economic upheaval. But never mind that. By far the most pressing question of the day is: is this a flying verb?

Scarcely two days after this blog made the confident assertion that flying-verb headlines would never be seen in Britain as they used to be, decades ago, in American tabloids, up pops the Sun with something that looks an awful lot like… well, what is it?

It’s not an adjective: “spite van man” might be an acceptable pun to refer to a van-driver who has done something unpleasant or vicious, but that’s not the story here. It’s not, similarly, an imperative: the article isn’t calling for retribution, simply analysing the news.

Is the chancellor himself, in the picture, being described as the “spite van man”, perhaps? Hard to see how: he doesn’t have a van, nor is he spiting the vehicles themselves. And look at the first standfirst: “Hammond £240 raid on self-employed”. Doesn’t that tempt you to believe that the sense is “Tories spite van man” – that the subject of the sentence has been deleted, leaving the verb to fly?

Perhaps not, in fact. The likeliest explanation is that it’s a simple rhyming pun that ultimately fails to mean anything: a bit like the baffling (and much-criticised) “NOD IN MY NAME” front page the Sun ran about Jeremy Corbyn supposedly not bowing sufficiently at the Cenotaph. That was a familiar pacifist phrase with one word altered to fit the news, but not something you could actually parse for sense.

But on a day when even the Daily Star (“ROB THE BUILDER!“) is running strange, agentless Budget headlines on page 1, you’re entitled to wonder if an old headline form is lumbering improbably back to life. Who exactly is doing the robbing?

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Day 2, and I think this idea is approaching the end of its development curve.

Still, at least it’s clear that this one’s an imperative.

 

If I had a hammer

21 Feb

Looks like the Bambino really put the good wood on this one:

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At least, I assume that’s what the headline means here. “Carpenters”?

This blog has enthused before about the (now vanished) propensity for American journalism to mass-produce new synonyms. So this – the most famous achievement (home run record) by the most famous player (Babe Ruth) on baseball’s most famous team (1927 Yankees) – might be expected to inspire the New York Daily News to great heights.

And so it proves: the home run record is the “circuit mark”, the record-breaking hit is the “bam”; on the breathless front page (“O, Babe!”), Ruth is “the great G Herman” and the home run a “stupendous swat”, cheered to the echo by “shouting customers” at Yankee Stadium. Inside, a young Paul Gallico, who would later go on to write The Poseidon Adventure, is in awe: “When Ruth conks one it stays conked. Of all the home runs I have seen him hit, only one could be called a high fly, and then it was so doggone high that no outfielder in the world could have snagged it. It went so blinkin’ high that it looked like of those things they drop off the Flatiron building for a publicity stunt.”

The enthusiasm for variation even extends to the main illustration on page 28: seven different portraits of Ruth with different captions, variously describing him as “George Herman Ruth”, “G.H. Ruth”, “George H. Ruth”, “Babe Ruth”, the “Colossus of Clout” and the “Sultan of Swat”.

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But still: “carpentered”? Although I’ve never heard it used as a verb, most dictionaries list it as one. Merriam-Webster’s entry is typical:

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But those definitions, and certainly number (2), suggest a kind of mundane repetition, or weary prefabrication, that hardly fits the hyperbolic tone of a newspaper “tickled silly” by all the excitement. So what’s the sense? Is it a failed neologism, perhaps meaning something like “to strike great blows with a hammer” or “to drive in the final nail”? Is it a piece of lost 1920s slang that readers would have understood?

Or is it just a slightly ironic way of saying in the headline, “look, he’s done it again“? Perhaps: Marshall Hunt’s match report, on the same page, at one point reads: “The coronation exercises took place tumultuously yesterday afternoon when that most famous of the famous, George Herman Ruth, patterned his 60th home run of the current season in the eighth inning and thereby established another world’s record.”

If so, though, it’s a slightly underwhelming verb to choose for a block caps main headline on a historic day, even if it does help fill out the measure. On balance, I think I prefer “Socko!”

Neutral News at Ten

24 Jan

Now this – this – is a news organisation that’s committed to impartiality:

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On Fleet Street, where the culture wars rage, no one is surprised that newspapers take sides in their use of language just as they do on their leader pages. But imagine the pressure to stay out of trouble if you’re writing the BBC’s style guide – the benchmark for judicious, non-partisan, inclusive journalism, paid for by all and bound by conscience to reflect all views.

How does it do? By and large, very well. In all areas where it can stay aloof, it does. It frequently links to the painstakingly fair current affairs briefings on the BBC’s Academy website, and it demonstrates a capacity to make distinctions and see both sides that is almost jurisprudential. Whether distinguishing a population from the militants that claim to represent them, or identifying both winners and losers when interest rates rise, it’s hard not to like a style guide that reminds you “not all Tamils are Tigers”, or that “good news” is “not to be used as a blanket term”. For example:

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But the problem for all style guides is that there are areas of political language where it is impossible to stay aloof, because the only terms in common use have become polarised. The BBC guide is more silent than it should be on some of these: there is no help for its journalists on the choice between “bedroom tax” and “spare room subsidy”, for instance, or whether it is fair to call George Osborne’s higher national wage a “living wage”, as he did. But there is at least one controversial area where it does offer guidance, to say this:

Abortion

Avoid pro-abortion, and use pro-choice instead. Campaigners favour a woman’s right to choose, rather than abortion itself. And use anti-abortion rather than pro-life, except where it is part of the title of a group’s name. 

At the left-leaning Tribune, this is not a difficult conclusion to reach. We readily dismiss the term “pro-life”: as the duty editor sometimes observes, “everyone’s pro-life”. Over at Fox News and the Daily Mail, the opposite view is taken and the phrase is in widespread use. So the decision for a BBC style guide editors must have been very sensitive. Indeed, forced to make the best of the bitter rhetoric that surrounds an angry issue, they might have opened themselves to an accusation of  bias. But what would be the alternative? Only to adopt the other side’s terms and opt for framing the debate as “pro-abortion” versus “pro-life”, alienating a different group of licence-fee payers just as much.

Judicious evenhandedness is an admirable approach to journalism, but the straight and narrow way has an awkward habit of narrowing to a point in the trickiest areas. Reading the style guide, it is impossible to doubt the BBC’s essential fairness and good conscience. But when there’s no middle ground, everyone’s forced to pick a side.

The innocent meteor

22 Nov
Support eventually cratered. Source: thegreenhead.com

Support eventually cratered. Source: thegreenhead.com

 

Back before the world ended, I came across this story in the subs’ queue:

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That doesn’t sound good: “nearly one in four” of young people voting for an “imaginary alternative candidate”? But then you read on, and – most unusually for journalism – you find that there are even bigger numbers in the third paragraph than there are in the first.

Some 53% of the 1,247 people aged 18 to 35 said they would prefer to see a meteor destroy the world than have republican Trump in the Oval Office, with 34% preferring planetary annihilation to a win for the Democratic former secretary of state.

This almost never happens: the standard newspaper rule is that the largest number – in an election, a poll, a statistics release – is the news. The tendency is to calculate the worst possible case, the theoretical maximum jail term, the largest achievable bonus payout, and set your baseline at that. This is how the term “headline figure” has come to have a qualified edge to it: even in newsrooms, it means “the number that needs a bit of context” rather than “the definitive total”.

But why, then, if Reuters is writing a story about millennial disaffection, is it ignoring the biggest number – more than half of young people would rather face destruction than Donald Trump – in the survey? Why has it led with the finding that, in statistical terms, crosses the line in a distant third place?

Because, as an American mainstream media outlet, it has to. Because, in Professor Jay Rosen’s words, it needs to be “innocent”.

Rosen has written extensively about the historical requirement for American news providers to appear impartial. As he puts it:

Alongside the production of news and commentary American journalists working in mainstream newsrooms have to continuously reproduce their own innocence. By “innocence” I mean some kind of public showing that they have no politics themselves, no views of their own, no side, no stake, no ideology and therefore no one can accuse them of unfairly tilting the news this way or that.

In Britain, we have the BBC to provide balance while the different sides of Fleet Street wage war on each other’s beliefs. But in America, it’s different. Its geographical vastness helped to create media monopolies, cities in the plain with just three TV channels and a newspaper that had a whole town of Democrats and Republicans to itself. Straight-down-the-middle news, in those circumstances, was not just the fairest approach but probably the best business model too.

Since then, as cable news and social media have spread and the culture wars have intensified, there is a new pressure on the mainstream to prove its rectitude under constant accusations of bias – never more so than with political news, and of course never more so than at election time.

So, from one aspect the angle Reuters chooses in this story – “young people equally disaffected with both candidates”  – might be seen as a classic fair-dealing compromise. But it also generates some misleading implications: an impression of millennial ennui and of a demographic split down in the middle. In fact, the numbers show that many more young people fear Trump than Clinton – a 19-percentage-point difference – and that the nihilistic none-of-the-above option is the least favoured, not the most, of those three choices.

Of course, these numbers would swing strongly towards the Republican side if the poll had been conducted among border patrol officers in Arizona or autoworkers in Saginaw. But that’s the point – whichever way a demographic leans, almost none of them can offer the kind of 50/50 balance that a good-faith media organisations would feel comfortable with. Young people are strongly for Clinton; white working class voters are strongly for Trump. Whoever you to choose to focus on, innocent, even-handed conclusions are very hard to extract from this sort of sectoral polling.

Media organisations on the left and the right are accused of cherry-picking statistics for reasons of bias. The trouble is, in cases like this, impartial wire services are cherry-picking statistics too – except that instead of choosing the biggest number, they are choosing the safest one.

Not that any of it matters now, of course, and the interstellar third-party candidate never really featured in the race. But at this rate, possibly more than a quarter of young people may be scanning the Kuiper belt hopefully as we approach the midterms.

Too chill for comfort

13 Sep

If you were looking for snark, the official Twitter feed of a major American-English dictionary might not be the first place you’d look. But, oh boy.

A few days ago, Gabriel Roth of Slate unwisely allowed his inner prescriptivist out for an airing after reading the following tweet from Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

Articulating the silent twinge that many editors and writers feel at the sight of descriptivism in action, he wrote:

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And then unexpectedly this reply, from the dictionary itself, appeared:

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Ouch. Owned. Or – to use the correct spelling of the word in this context – “pwned“. As a rueful Roth wrote later, “I find myself wistfully remembering the days when tweeting at brands was a safe, innocuous pastime”. And other responses to M-W’s intervention have been broadly favourable: the tweet was rude, yes, commenters thought, but also uncompromisingly truthful about the ineluctable nature of language change.

However, scrolling down through M-W’s Twitter feed, it emerges that this is not the only time it’s taken a bold line in such matters. Five days earlier, in similarly lively terms, it made the following observation:

Well, hang on. Yes, “enormity” can indeed mean “great size”, and has done for centuries. But, no, it’s not “fine”: currently, as a word, it’s totally skunked. As we discussed last month, “enormity” is hovering uneasily on the brink of a permanent change in meaning, but is still tending to drag its other meaning of “moral horror” into simple discussions about size. It’s a very tricky word to be employing at the moment; a while ago, for example, we saw fit to remove it from a news story about the heated subject of the Scottish referendum because of its overtone of opprobrium. It’s far from clear that, in these circumstances, a major dictionary should be recommending it quite so breezily. Authorities are looked up to; these things get taken seriously.

As this blog has had occasion to remark before, people don’t require help with informal English. They speak it well. They do not seek the assistance of their editor friends when composing a tweet or posting on Instagram; but they do, sometimes, when updating their CV or writing to a solicitor. What they want is help with formal English: a register whose social significance they grasp, but one in which they perceive themselves not to be fluent.

This is when they turn to the dictionary: to be briefed on the meaning of a legal idiom, or the appropriate use of a word in their own reply: to find out, perhaps, whether “enormity” means what they think it means. But they are doing this at a time where one of the prime objectives of linguistics is the debunking of the prescriptive maxims about language that have been taught during last two centuries. An unsatisfactory dialogue has therefore developed between linguists and the public in which queries about the niceties of formal English are met only with assurances about the validity of informal English. For the last several decades, it seems, lexicographers have been talking about what’s changed in the language while their readers have been asking about what hasn’t.

The spirit behind this objective is democratic to a fault, and the efforts to expose the frailties of formal English are intellectually impeccable. But nonetheless, they are starting to amount to the total deconstruction of a dialect that many people still have no choice but to speak.

The ghosts of Fowler, Strunk and White still haunt the sphere of formal discourse. It is highly commendable that more modern authorities like Merriam-Webster should be getting involved in the conversation about usage. But burning a grumpy prescriptivist on Twitter? Waving off debate about a word in difficult transition?  That isn’t advice; it’s advocacy. Roth is right: counsel as blasé as this is just a little too chill for comfort.

Where’s the splash?

29 Mar

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Back in New York last week, just in time to see spring: sunlight illuminating wide, peaceful Broadway on the Upper West Side, blossom bobbing in the cold wind outside 72nd Street station. Like any Manhattan visitor, I did the Manhattan things one does: walking the High Line, going to a Broadway show, spending five solid minutes looking at the map trying to work out which F trains stop at Second Avenue.* And, of course, I read the New York Times.

As a broadsheet journalist, I understand the value of restraint, of course. And nuance, and the plurality of agendas that need to be reflected on a mature front page. But as I read (and, annoyingly, mislaid) an edition last week that was laid out just like the one pictured above, I still found myself wondering: which story’s the splash?

Instinctively I look first to the top left of a front page, to the first column, where there is indeed a story: the Bloomberg one. Is that the lead? The famously distinctive typography offers few clues: but the headline for the four column pic story appears to be in almost exactly the same bold italic. Over on the right, though, in column 6, the headline is in semi-bold caps. Does that outrank bold ital? There’s a subhead and a standfirst too: on sheer weight of furniture, it’s probably Saudis that’s the splash, way over on the right. But it took a while to find it.

The similarity of headline styles above the fold is one of the most striking things about the NYT to British eyes. It’s not that they’re small; it’s that they seem almost all the same size. By comparison, the template for a big double-page spread at the Tribune envisages a fully 40-point gap between the main headline on the page (66pt bold serif display) and the second and subsequent ones (26pt sans regular).

In fact, if you look at another striking Times layout, with the lead story in column 6 and the second story in column 5,

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you can see that there is a difference in size between the caps and the bold italics, but it’s hard to detect if they’re not right next to each other. (Also, below the pic, there is a regular, unemphasised upper-and-lower headline that appears to be slightly larger than the bold italic headline next to it. Does that make it more or less important?)

Just add to the confusion, here’s another layout from January with two all-caps headlines, one on the right, one under the picture.

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Again, the extra trimmings suggest the column 6 story is the splash, but it’s hardly what you’d call over-displayed. In fact, in all three examples, the paper is in effect being led by the photograph – especially the second one, which grandly takes up the first four columns on the page, displacing every headline down or to the right.

Typography in British newspapers is designed around the mystique of the splash: the one big story, with one big headline, delivered per day, with a supporting cast of other items as decoration. It makes every front page lively: everything looks good in 72-point bold. But the headline type doesn’t get smaller on a slow news day, so ordinary stories can end up getting a fanfare they can’t quite live up to. British news typography works on a relative scale: forget yesterday or the moon landings – this is what’s big today.

By contrast, the standard Times layouts functions at their best on slow news days: days where there are two lead stories, or, frankly, none. The single-column headlines over single-column stories communicate a judicious calm – a longer view – and a certain sense of honesty about the day’s events: an impression that many things are happening, and many things are news. So if you’re looking at a copy of the Times and wondering what the big story is, you can often find yourself agreeing with the paper: perhaps there isn’t one today.

 

* My provisional conclusion: they all do. In fact, I think, stopping at Second Avenue may be one of the defining characteristics of the F train, distinguishing it from the constellation of alphabetic alternatives (B, D, M etc) that share the line on their way to two different termini in Brooklyn, two in Queen’s and one in the Bronx via six different routes through Manhattan. I think.