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Imperial cruiser

21 Aug

Meanwhile, in the export department at General Motors:

‘Jeez, how many litres are there in a gallon? It’s like a different language!’

‘Wait, I know what to do.’

If you’ve grown up in Britain, it’s easy to sympathise. This is a country where orange juice is sold by the litre, but speed limits are enforced in miles per hour, and where designers lay out pages in points and picas, then print them out on A3 paper. Metrication got so far but no further in the UK: although the younger generation can conceptualise a hectare slightly better than their parents, imperial measurements (especially in road and traffic law) are still institutionally embedded in British life. Measurement systems may not quite be languages, as the owner’s manual for my rented Camaro seemed to suggest, but they’re certainly a state of mind.

The Tribune’ style guide demands we change feet into metres, but not miles into kilometres: the metre and the yard are deemed to be close enough not to require conversion. We use litres, but obviously not for pints of beer; we use tonnes rather than tons, but obviously not when the sense is metaphorical (and not in relation to shipping).

If only doing conversions was as easy as playing around with the switchable speedometer on the Camaro made it look.


Future descriptive

7 Aug


To: All editorial staff

From the production editor


Dear all

Several of you have been asking for a definitive style ruling in recent weeks about the now-perennial “cannot be underestimated/cannot be overestimated” debate. I know feelings have run high on the issue, and until now we have tried to preserve the traditional distinction in meaning in our pages, even though the interchangeability between the two phrases in spoken English is now almost total.

Historically, it is true that – as recently as the early 21st century – the correct use of the phrases was highly dependent on context, and to say then that the prime minister’s intellectual capacity “cannot be underestimated”, when the opposite was meant, would have been to cause considerable offence. But the error has now become such a common one that it is time to seriously address the question of whether it is an error at all.

Of course I am aware, as some of you have kindly pointed out, that under and over “mean completely opposite things” and that the distinction is “perfectly obvious to those who are prepared to think about it”. Of course it is, but the everyday rough-and-tumble of language has a way of wearing fine distinctions – even useful ones like these – smooth. Look, for example, at how the similar (and now vanishing) terms “biennial” and “biannual” became so confused in the 1900s that the following definition once appeared in Chambers’s 20th Century Dictionary:

biannual (bi-an’-ū-əl) adj. two-yearly: also half-yearly.

And consider “head over heels” – a phrase universally understood in its metaphorical sense, but which, parsed logically, says the exact opposite of what it means.

I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that “cannot be over/underestimated” have, through widespread usage, fallen into the same category of phrase as “head over heels”: those that can only be understood in the round, and not by parsing very word individually.

I am aware this decision will disappoint many of you, especially those of you who have pointed me to a significant strand of linguistics scholarship that disagrees with me. Writing in the early 2000s, eminent figures on the influential website Language Log contended against the acceptability of what was then called “misnegation”. Comparing “cannot be underestimated” in relation to the (now-uncontroversial) phrase “could care less”, Professor Mark Liberman wrote:

I’ve argued that “could care less”, where modality and scalar predication seem similarly to point in the wrong direction, has simply become an idiom. Shouldn’t the same be said for “cannot underestimate the importance”?

I don’t think so. As I’ve argued before, there’s a crucial difference.

Whatever is happening with “cannot underestimate” applies equally to “cannot understate”, “impossible to underestimate/understate”, “hard to underestimate/understate”, “difficult to underestimate/understate”, “cannot be underestimated/understated”, “hard to underrate”, “cannot be undervalued”, and many other common ways to re-express the same idea.

In contrast, alternative formulations of “could care less” are rare, and can only be understood as bad jokes, to the extent that they’re not simply puzzling.  Thus one semantic equivalent to “could not care less” might be “could not possibly have less concern” — and we find this in a published translation of Montaigne…

“However, if my descendants have other tastes, I shall have ample means for revenge: for they could not possibly have less concern about me than I shall have about them by that time.”

But in this case, Montaigne means to imply that his concern-meter will be pegged at zero, not at its maximum value. And more generally, we don’t see things like “I could possibly have less concern” used with the meaning idiomatically assigned to “I could care less”. This is the behavior that we expect from an idiom; and the different behavior of “cannot underestimate/understate/
underrate/undervalue” is what we expect from a psychologically probable error.

Other scholars at the time contended that “cannot be under/overestimated” was indeed an idiom; but even if they and I are wrong and it is a mistake, it seems to be a mistake that English-speakers are never going to stop making. And, as we all know to our frustration, appeals to reason over usage rarely succeed in these matters because language doesn’t listen to reason.

Therefore, henceforward,  “should not be underestimated” and “should not be overestimated” shall in all cases be deemed to be equally correct ways of saying the same thing, which is something to the effect of “should not be evaluated incorrectly”. The style guide will be updated accordingly.

Believe me, it gives me no pleasure to come to this conclusion. But our language has changed around us: and with the 22nd century just over a decade away, we have better and more significant things to do with our editorial resources than enforcing a distinction that, to our readers, is increasingly becoming inaudible.

Yours as ever



Production editor, the Tribune

Highland flying

27 Jun

Saw woman kiss love rival, thrown out of party, stole lighter fluid from a fire eater, set fire to home* – and then became subject of actual, genuine flying-verb headline! Because, we discover, it was a “north-east man”, not mentioned in the display type, who committed all these acts, but who has been omitted from the headline to leave the verb exposed as though the Aberdeen Press & Journal were a 1958 edition of the New York Daily News.

This is a first as far as Ten Minutes Past Deadline is concerned: I’ve never seen a real flying-verb headline in a British publication before. (I don’t really count those punchy three-word standfirsts on the Daily Mail website, which have already had the subject introduced in the main hed, or the Sun’s hard-to-parse front-page puns.) Inspection of the Press & Journal homepage suggests it’s a one-off even there: its broad mix of coverage, from Trump analysis pieces to local tuba competitions, seems otherwise headlined in conventional declarative terms.

Admittedly this isn’t the baffling present-tense flying verb beloved of the Daily News, which always reads like a command; here the past tense encourages you to infer some kind of actor as the subject, even if you don’t know exactly who. (Although shouldn’t it really be “got thrown out of party”?) Nonetheless, it’s a fine and unambiguous example of the type from a highly respectable source: even if it was blown across the Atlantic by accident, it looks like the flying verb has landed.


*Actually, “set fire to windowsill” might be more accurate

Semi articulated

30 May

Kurt Vonnegut rejected them; the Tribune’s sports section used to ban them; George Orwell thought they were unnecessary. But the New York Times likes semicolons so much that it even uses them in headlines.

Or at least it does when it is making one of its distinctive attempts to write three or four headlines above the same story, like this:

This style only ever appears on the biggest stories, where almost every paragraph of the text is worth a headline, but it’s still an impressively literate thing to see in 60-point capitals when there is so much antipathy towards semicolons in some quarters. Vonnegut famously called them “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing”; Orwell thought they were “an unnecessary stop” and wrote a novel without them to prove it; the Tribune’s esteemed former sports editor, The Gaffer, insisted that they could all be replaced with full stops or commas, according to context.

And that is true, to a certain extent: if you adopt the “safety rule” with semicolons, which is to ensure that both the clauses on either side of it are independent – as a rule of thumb, that both are complete sentences in their own right* – then they can be replaced by a period in all cases. Except that then you lose the nuance that the New York Times headlines exemplify so well: the signal the semicolon sends that a second thought connected to the first one is about to follow. If you had four sentences ending in full stops, any one of them might mark the end of the discussion; the semicolon indicates that the subject remains open. It creates an expectation of more, in a similar way as the colon, in Fowler’s words, “delivers the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words”.

By way of total contrast, here is one of the New York Times’s other ambitious headline innovations: the split-splash front page.

Here again there is more than one headline at the top of the page, but this time there’s no relation between them at all: they are about two completely different stories that the paper is giving joint top billing. In the unusual visual grammar of NYT layout, the lead story usually runs in the sixth column**: so the top headline, ranged left, relates to the story on the right of the page, and the bottom headline, ranged right, relates to the five columns to the left. Both the headlines are set in the same type at the same size, so it will take a lot more than mere punctuation to separate them; you might argue that even the long horizontal rule between the headlines is barely doing enough. At any event, it’s hardly the place for a semicolon.


*At first sight, this would appear not to be the case in two of the pictured examples, “Flies 1,000 miles…” and “Collect rocks…”, which appear to be awkward dependent clauses without subjects. But I suspect – given their vintage and the fact that they follow a subject introduced in the first headline – that they are both examples of the glorious flying verb.

** Confirmed, if confirmation were needed, by this behind-the-scenes piece about a hasty front-page redesign.

That’s so next year

4 Apr

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The sun is out and blossom is falling: here, spring has just begun. But on Planet Fashion, 2017 is already over; 2019 will begin in 2018, autumn and winter will happen in March, and spring and summer will start in October. Unless you’re male, of course, in which case different dates apply.

The reason I know this is that, at the Tribune, art, fashion and music reviews are mixed in with the news run as a matter of policy, so it frequently falls to we horny-handed front-section types to put down 300-word wire stories about rail strikes and address ourselves to subbing style copy.

This isn’t to everyone taste on the desk, but I quite like it. Although you might not expect it from watching Zoolander, my experience of fashion writers is that their news copy is generally clear, funny, accurate and on time, and that by and large they make a better job of explaining profit-and-loss and boardroom machinations than the City desk would of describing necklines. But when it comes to fashion weeks – the time at which catwalk reviews and commentary are most likely to appear in the news pages – the dates and seasons can become a little confusing.

The four “fashion capitals” of the western world – New York, London, Milan and Paris – hold two women’s fashion weeks each per year, one in spring (around February) and one in autumn (around September). But the clothes on the catwalk at those shows generally do not become available for several months, because of the traditionally long lead time required to get the retail and marketing operation geared up for sales. So the clothes that appear in the spring shows are in fact winter clothes for later that year, and the ones that appear in autumn are summer clothes for the following year.

The  confusion arises over how those shows are described: instead of being referred to by the time at which they are taking place, they are referred to by the season for which the clothes are intended. So the shows that took place this past February, in spring 2017, were the autumn/winter 2017 collections (AW17). The fashion weeks that will be held in September and October, in autumn 2017, will be the spring/summer 2018 collections (SS18). Next spring’s collections will be designs for the winter of 2018, and next year’s autumn collections will be for the spring of 2019. And so on.

The basic rule of thumb is, take the season you’re in now, move two seasons further on and add 1 to the year if you go past Christmas. This time-shifted mentality is second nature for fashion hacks, of course, but a bit of a challenge for news subs whose temporal horizon rarely extends beyond remembering to change “this week” to “last week” in copy destined for the Sunday edition.

The situation is slightly further complicated in the case of men’s fashion weeks, because they tend to take place in the depths of winter (January) or the height of summer (July) while still addressing the same season as the women’s shows. So the London male catwalk shows a the start of this year were also, like the female shows, for autumn/winter 2017 – a three-season “jump”.

Things have moved on, of course, since the haute-couture calendar was first set in the early 20th century. For one thing, fashion weeks are proliferating around the globe. Also, there are now “in-season” collections, in which clothes currently available in shops are shown on the catwalk, and even “see it, buy it” shows where the pieces on display can be bought at the event. But these are still new enough that you can rely on the fashion writers to explain how they work in the story.

You can rely on them for quite a lot, in fact. Although I’m still not sure about the elbow-length oven mittens.

The cook, the thief, his wife and her headline

21 Mar


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:


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.