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Time-travelling bongs

16 Oct

Ah, the perils of writing ahead:

Picture 188

It’s 18.38 on Thursday 4 October, and PA has just published a short news story about Big Ben. Silenced since the start of the year, the great bell is to be test-sounded by a jury-rigged hammer system, set up so that it may later ring out for Remembrance Day and the new year.

When will this happen? “On Thursday”. What time? “Between 8 and 10pm”. Anything else? Yes, there’s a quote from an MP, “who was in parliament to hear the rare chimes”.

What, at 18.38? What did they do, reverberate back though time?

For some time, when specifying the time element for web news, it has become customary not to say “today”, “yesterday”, “tomorrow” or “last night”, but instead to simply state the day of the week on which an event took place. So an online news story, accessible around the world as it is, will simply say “Thursday” even when it means “today”.*

However, when writing for print, it frequently happens that significant events are due to occur between the copy deadline the previous evening and the appearance of the newspaper the following day. In such cases, what one is supposed to do is write in a cascade of conditionals and future perfects: “It is expected that the vote will have taken place by the early hours of this morning, by which point some senators are likely to have been detained in the capitol for more than 24 hours.” However, it has sometimes been the case that – how to put this? – certain events get anticipated, and written about as though they have already happened, hours ahead of schedule.

At its least harmful, this practice comes in the form of the spurious “last night”; “The Conservative party was in turmoil last night” leading a story filed at five to five in the afternoon. But this example is worse: here, an event that is likely but not certain is written about as though it had definitively occurred some hours before, a throwback to the worst practices of print – made even more conspicuous by the jarring change of tense from the start of the story, which is written, web-style, in anticipation of the moment.

This is the kind of thing sub-editors can head off firmly when they see it; but in this case the whole thing went up live on the Daily Mail’s apparently unedited wire feed, where it can’t have inspired much confidence in journalism among those who read it closely.

 

*This is still slightly confusing for middle-aged journalists: when this same PA copy came through to be used as a brief for print, members of Tribune staff stared at it blankly for almost a minute before realising it would need to be rewritten in the past tense for Friday’s paper

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Netflix elliptical

12 Jun

A few words. A glimpse into the heart of conflict. But there’s no space here for specifics.

And that’s the trouble when you’re browsing through Netflix. The way the screen is laid out, there’s only the briefest space to grab your attention when you happen across an interesting film/TV series/documentary. In about 20 words, it’s got to try to engage you, so the summaries are strong on emotion: anger, vengeance, honour, fear, justice, family, love. But they do tend to be a bit vague.

You notice this particularly if you read them shorn of their accompanying title and image. Take this one, for example

It’s so non-specific as to be almost featureless. Could it be The Tempest? Yes. The Count of Monte Cristo? Easily. (In fact, it’s Deadpool.) Similarly, this description of tough action thriller Close Range

could serve quite well as a plot summary for The Code of the Woosters.

If you’re a journalist who has to get your headline through an audience team before it can go up on the web, you see immediately what’s missing here: keywords. What the homepage links need is some SEO. And that’s what they get, eventually, on the more detailed summary page you get if you follow the link. So, none the wiser as to what Close Range might be about, but eager to find out, you click to discover a second sentence, only slightly longer, containing everything to put you in the picture:

Ex-soldier/kidnapped niece/crooked sheriff/drug cartel. Got it. And that’s only 24 words (admittedly with two compounds) compared to the first summary’s 19.

Similarly, this

becomes a lot clearer when some detail is added,

not least the key information that it’s a kidnapping/imprisonment drama set in Thailand.

The more you look, the more you start to think that journalism skills are slightly more transferable to other spheres than is often  believed. It wouldn’t be difficult, for a sub trained to spot a news angle and move it to the top of the article, to fix these. I wonder if Netflix would ever employ any editors? Facebook does, sort of, although not for this.

A man with a remote. The glimmer of an idea. This time, anything could happen.

The 18th type of headline

29 May

One edition of the New York Post, two page leads that give pause for thought for anyone who, a week earlier, might have ambitiously been attempting to compile a taxonomy of headlines:

The back-page headline is of a recognisable type: the question is, which type? The Post is understandably jubilant about the Mets’ series triumph over the Arizona Diamondbacks, but that doesn’t fully explain what it means by SWEEP SNAKES. As the team that lost all three games on their visit to New York, it wasn’t the Snakes that were doing the sweeping, as the headline implies: the Snakes were the ones being swept.

So this could be one of two things. It could just be another unparseable tabloid pun (headline type 12): aspects of the story jammed together to create a homophonous phrase without too much attention paid to syntax. But the presence of a verb and an object along with the obvious absence of the subject, especially in an American publication, also entices one to think that it might be a flying verb (headline type 14): that the intended sentence is in fact METS SWEEP SNAKES.

In the UK, the Sun also comes up with headlines very like this – ones that make more grammatical sense if you assume the subject is implied – but there’s no tradition of flying-verb constructions in Britain and the assumption in those cases has to be just that sense has been sacrificed in the pursuit of the joke.

That would certainly seem to be the case on the Post’s front page headline too, at least for the part in big type: there is not much actual grammatical sense to be found in the phrase WEED MY LIPS. But the preamble above, “De Blasio to NYPD”, recalls a famous American headline from days gone by, still regularly reproduced today, that is harder to categorise:

The original appeared in New York in 1975, when President Ford made a speech declining to approve federal assistance to the near-bankrupt city authorities, to the fury of the Daily News. As the New York Times remembers, FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD was originally notorious for its perceived lack of fairness – was it really accurate to summarise the president’s words in such a belligerent way? Ford himself blamed it for his losing New York, and by extension the presidency, to Jimmy Carter in the following year’s election, even though by that stage he had relented and loaned the city money. But as a form, its rhetorical efficiency is so obvious that it has outlived its controversial origins and become a reliable construction in its own right.

It’s not quite a voice-of-the-author (headline type 5) because it attempts to speak in the voice of the protagonist, rather than the writer. And it’s not quite an annotated quote (headline type 4) because the intent is clearly to editorialise the message rather than simply reproduce it. It therefore qualifies, I think, as an 18th type of headline, and the list will be updated accordingly. (A scant two weeks after being published. Still, I did say it was hubristic).

The 17* types of headline (*actually 18)

29 May

A bit hubristic to think this is all of them (and there are some hybrid forms), but here goes with a first attempt at a taxonomy:*

UPDATE, 29 MAY 2018: An 18th category of headline has been added: The voice of the protagonist (editorialised).

 

1) The simple declarative sentence

The first option to consider for straight news stories. Works at its best when the story is so good as to not require embellishment: NIXON QUITS, MEN WALK ON MOON, WHALE SWIMS PAST COMMONS. Can be used quite effectively to express opinion as well as facts (eg for leading articles). Doesn’t work for features, where it is important to signal the elevated quality of the writing in the headline, or interviews, where it’s much more interesting to hear the interviewee’s words verbatim. Exists in reversed form at the New York Times, with the prepositional phrase positioned at the start (“In Lower Saxony, An Artisan In Cheese Evokes Fond Memories”).

 

2) The existential emotion

Actually also a declarative sentence, but one that omits an understood existential clause (“There is”, “There are”, “There will be”) at the beginning in order to start with the exciting bit: anger, shock, horror, etc. Distinctively British.

 

3) The killer quote

Just the quote on its own, with no attribution or explanation. Effective when an opportunity to use it presents itself, which it rarely does, because without any annotation the quote will have to be both eye-catching and completely self-explanatory (at least for the web), which few ever are. (Even this one, from the BBC, inserts the word ‘also’).

 

4) The annotated killer quote

Ideal for interviews, vox pops and eyewitness stories: just find the most pithy phrase the subject says, and fill in the background afterwards. However, like the popular shopping-list and zingy-kicker headlines (see below), it usually requires a colon, which can mean the paper filling up quickly with kicker-style heds.

 

5) The voice of the author

A less demanding, paraphrased form of the killer quote, where the headline is written in the interviewee’s (or sometimes columnist’s) voice without actually being verbatim. Frequently begins with “My …”.

 

6) The then-and-now

The best way to approach large measures: however big your headline box is, this technique will fill it. Also works well for standfirsts. All the material you need is there in the body text, which is hundreds of words long: all you have to do is insert as much of the backstory as you need to take up the space, then follow it up with the news item in the first paragraph of the copy. Not useful for one-column NIB headlines.

 

7) The brusque rebuttal (aka the ‘No, the Earth isn’t flat’)

By far the most effective rebuttal headline, and the exception that proves the rule, observed in some newsrooms, that headlines should never begin with the words “No” or “Don’t”. Works because it begins with the denial, whereas any other contentious form has to begin with the subject of the dispute (“The Numbers On Toaster Dials Don’t … “) or a more abstract construction “(Why It Is Not True That ….”), which dissipates the impact. A relatively new form: perhaps that’s because it’s particularly effective when rebroadcast on Twitter, where directness is the standard mode of address.

 

8) The head-scratching question

A world full of questions also tends to generate journalism full of questions. Not exactly a recommended style, but often the only kind of headline you can write on pieces that fail to come to any solid conclusion. Usage per edition should be carefully rationed.

 

9) The insinuating question

Is this the most insidious headline form in Britain? As unscrupulous back benches know, a question headline means rarely having to say you’re sorry in the libel courts. Entirely different from the head-scratching question, because it knows precisely what it wants you to think. Ethically dubious.

 

10) The question-and-answer

The most respectable form of question headline, it at least has the courage to come a conclusion on its own. Good for comment and analysis pieces, as it gives the impression of a position being taken only after due consideration of the issues. Too indecisive-sounding for editorials, where the tone of certainty must be absolute.

 

11) The single-word shocker

GOTCHA! HORROR! WINNERS! OUTRAGE! Usually only for special occasions, or occasions you wish to imply are special.

 

12) The unparseable pun

An exclusively tabloid creation, often comprised of a well-known phrase, apposite to the story, with one word changed to reflect another aspect of the story. You can see the relevance of the first part; you can see the joke in the second part. But you can’t actually extract any sense out of the resulting sentence when you put the two together. A separate category from the standard tabloid pun headline, which is often a readily comprehensible sentence with homophone substitutions.

 

13) The zingy kicker

A joke, sometimes even an unparseable pun, but with an explanation afterwards to help you understand it. Another tempting headline form that requires a colon.

 

14) The flying verb

Omits the subject of the sentence (creating an “implied subject”) and starts with a verb. Almost exclusively American. Often baffling. Now very rare.

 

15) The columnist’s imperative

Voice of cold command, using the imperative mood, from the most authoritative figures in the land, viz one’s own opinion writers. Achieves its apotheosis in the form of the “open letter” (“DEAR PRINCE HARRY, don’t assume …”).

 

16) The how/why

Seductive and explanatory (and perilously easy to overuse). Gives the impression of an organisation with a high level of expertise and a mission to enlighten. Often a marker of the more highbrow publication. (The tabloid headline: I SLEPT WITH 1,000 WOMEN. The broadsheet headline: WHY I SLEPT WITH 1,000 WOMEN.)

 

17) The shopping list

Useful for nervous sub-editors confronted by legally complex stories with many moving parts. Also good if neither you or (you fear) the reporter fully understands the relationships between all the players in the drama, because it entirely dispenses with verbs; as we have previously discussed, verbs can get you sued.

 

18) The voice of the protagonist (editorialised)

28veto_lg (1)

Compact and effective quote-style headline in which the subject of the story’s words are pithily summarised, sometimes to his or her disadvantage. Far more editorialised than other quotation heds. Have caused controversy.

 

*I’ve attempted to classify headlines by rhetorical form rather than tone: most of these headline types can equally be funny or serious, punning or straight, while retaining the same essential structure

Happy anniversary

3 Apr

Ten Minutes Past Deadline is five! I’d like to say “five today”, but in fact it was five last Friday: the first post on this site went up on 30 March 2013.

Although many subjects have attracted its attention, including baseball, cartoons and the rise of IMDb’s formidable robot copydesk, this blog has all too frequently returned to the subject that first inspired it: prescriptivism and formal English. The first post that ever appeared here arose from years of reading two inspiring blogs – You Don’t Say and HeadsUp – and, through them, becoming increasingly engaged with editing’s big issues: ethics, grammar, ambiguity, statistics, and, above all, language change.

Written in response to a debate on how forward-thinking one should be when editing someone else’s writing, that post was motivated by a slightly defensive sense that although formal English was indefensible, it was somehow important too: and that, even though the case against prescriptivist crotchets was unanswerable, deadline was not the right moment to get into an argument with a writer over notional agreement.

Five years later, that debate is as hard to resolve as ever, but the advice, tips and ideas readers have offered over that time have helped move the blog forward immeasurably. Thank you to everyone who’s read, commented, shared, liked, quoted, linked to, disagreed with and retweeted it over the past half-decade. And, by way of celebration, here is a distillation of what Ten Minutes Past Deadline now thinks it thinks (at least currently) about formal English:

 

Formal English is absurd, but unmistakable

There is no academic justification for the ban on split infinitives, or the stricture that forbids qualifying a sentence with “hopefully”, or the objection to ending a sentence with a preposition, or for many of the other rules taught or followed as being “good English”. And yet, taken together, those rules have come to create a recognisable register: a tone, a rhetoric, a voice. However baseless its antecedents, when formal English is spoken, everyone recognises it for what it is: the language in which power speaks and expects to be addressed.

 

Formal English is not imposed from above

The English language has no central authority, not even an ineffectual one like the Academie Française. Everyone who has tried to suggest usage changes, or best practice, or new words, has had to do so from a position as a private citizen – or, at best, as part of a self-appointed body. None of them have had the power to compel correct usage. The mechanism by which, say, a language commentator’s suggestion becomes a teaching point in primary-school English, which is then carried forward into the solicitors’ letters and leading articles of a generation of adults, is an achievement of influence, not enforcement. Prescriptivism in English has to win hearts and minds; there is no state imprimatur to reinforce the message. Which leads us to a surprising conclusion:

 

Formal English is a descriptivist phenomenon

In Modern English Usage, Fowler suggested dozens of improvements to written English, some of which caught on: some, but not all. In the 1930s, a BBC committee invented dozens of words to describe new phenomena in modern life, some of which caught on: some, but not all. Proposing, it appears, is not enough: every piece of language change, from the accidental to the intentional, has to pass the test of usage.

Some of Fowler’s ideas were terrible, but some – such as his forgotten proposals for punctuating parentheses – were just as useful as his “which/that” distinction, which has become a staple of legal English. Similarly, the BBC committee failed in its primary task of inventing a new word for one who watches television (the corporation rejected  “auralooker” and went for “viewer”), but it did successfully popularise the term “roundabout” for the road junction. The unpredictability of these successes and failures suggests that prescription, just like natural language change, is subject to the mysterious processes of acceptance by which English is ultimately formed. That means many prescriptivist initiatives are doomed to failure: but it does suggest that the ones that have survived to create what we now call “formal English” have passed the stern test of public approval.

Flying on holiday

9 Oct

While Ten Minutes Past Deadline is on its short break, your attention is drawn to this fantastic discovery from Fred at HeadsUp – a US newspaper manual from the 1940s that lays down chapter and verse on the use of the flying verb (sorry, “implied subject”), including warning about the risks of their being misread as imperatives, and even has advice to offer about claim quotes. Says well worth a close read. 

you.are.here

5 Sep

Well, it says This Blessed Plot, but it doesn’t look like England to me:

But that’s because this isn’t so much This Blessed Plot as this.blessed.plot – an address (or, really, grid reference) on a new map created by a tech startup and identified not by using numbers, but by using words. In fact, the programmers have divided up the entire world into 57 trillion three-metre squares, and been able to address every one individually with just three words separated with dots (in this case, this.blessed.plot, which, to Shakespeare’s undoubted surprise, is north of Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories).

The system, known as What3Words, is a sort of ultra-precise postcode map, but with much more user-friendly coordinates, and covering areas of the planet where the only other method of geolocation would be latitude and longitude. Its founder, former musician Chris Sheldrick, told the BBC: “Every day we would go somewhere new and people always got lost. I tried getting my band to use GPS co-ordinates but they were resistant or typed the co-ordinates wrong. I started chatting with a friend who was a mathematician about how we could come up with something that was simple.”

The BBC reports that they came up with a mathematical formula and a list of, remarkably, just 40,000 words to address all the squares. Now, in the manner of aspiring tech companies everywhere, they are appearing at TED, recruiting corporate clients, starting to get some media coverage, and hoping that the whole system takes off.

As an idea, it raises all sorts of fascinating points for debate, such as the use of vocabulary as numbers, and the opportunities for improving global development. But of course the immediate question that comes to mind is: where are the coolest addresses?

Not since the advent of the telegraphic address has there been a chance to have such an easily memorised location: not a zip code or a street name, but a short phrase that gets visitors right to your door while saying something apposite about you. Unlike telegraphic addresses, of course, the labels for the squares are fixed: it would be a question of you moving to the desired location, rather than choosing a code for where you are. Also, it would appear that while the system contains nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, it omits many proper nouns, prepositions, pronouns and articles (so you can’t have a.new.hope or return.of.jedi, but you could have empire.strikes.back).

Nonetheless, if this system catches on, there will be all sorts of opportunities for alert entrepreneurs. move.move.move, near Morristown, NJ, is ideal for a removals service (or a personal trainer), and handy for your wealthy Manhattan clientele. lemon.drizzle.cake would be a sure thing for a cafe, if one were confident that one’s cappuccinos wouldn’t go flat in a rugged Venezuelan national park. Wedding planners could head for lawful.wedded.husband or truly.madly.deeply. Bee Gees fans could set up a mailing address, at least, at spirits.having.flown (Bahia state, Brazil), and one can only imagine the architecture that might be designed at form.follows.function (or perhaps not, seeing as that square is in the middle of the Indian Ocean).

Politically, however, the picture is a little more unhelpful. strong.stable.leader is in Edinburgh rather than London, and education.education.education is nowhere near Islington (it’s on the Bay of Bengal). And what about the biggest and best address of all? Well, star.spangled.banners is actually south of the border in Mexico, and star.spangled.banner is – disconcertingly – in Russia.