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The Big Zayn Story Is Right Next To The Leaked Brexit Documents On The Homepage And Everybody’s Just Like Whatevs

6 Feb

BuzzFeed got the big story of last week, and we’re all talking about it!

Wait, not that one. This one:

Sorry about that, but it’s an easy mistake to make, because one of the things about this era of digitally mediated news is that the very serious and the very frivolous now exist side by side, and nowhere more so than on BuzzFeed:

And the really interesting thing is that, on BuzzFeed and elsewhere, there’s often not the least embarrassment about it. We saw last month that an abashed New York Times recently apologised for citing Twitter user Jillian C York by her temporary Halloween username Chillian J Yikes!. But jokey handles are a part of many online forums, from Tumblr to the Tribune’s comments section, and any sense of loss of dignity or gravitas arising from that informality is quickly evaporating – especially as social media becomes the source, and not merely the conduit, for many news stories.

The Macquarie Dictionary, probably the most authoritative source of Australian English, declared its 2017 word of the year to be “Milkshake Duck”* – a phrase coined by the Twitter humourist known only to the world (and, one suspects, to Macquarie as well) as @pixelatedboat. The Daily Mail ran a story about historical sexual harassment allegations sourced from a series of tweets by Canadian user @JodiesJumpsuit without ever identifying her by name. And a few years ago, the Tribune’s economics editor was doing a reader Q&A online and had a very sensible conversation about policy with a reader identified only as “underwearstain”.

This isn’t the same phenomenon as the collective irreverence that leads to important research vessels being named (or nearly named) Boaty McBoatface. In cases like that, creating discomfiture in high places is all part of the fun. What’s significant about this, again, is that there is no discomfiture: the profound and the silly are becoming comfortably assimilated in our new global forums. For a Gen-X broadsheet journalist like me, BuzzFeed’s blend of listicles, OMGs and heavyweight Westminster scoops is disorientating in the extreme. But perhaps it’s just at the forefront of a phenomenon that we are rapidly becoming accustomed to elsewhere.


* Basically, “the type of instant celebrity on social media who becomes discredited within days of rising to fame”. Pixelated Boat’s original tweet, in 2016, read: “The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the duck is racist.”


No logos

12 Dec

Go on then, pronounce this: forward slash; lower case regular “s”; lowercase regular “h”; lowercase italic “r”; lowercase italic “b”.

It appears that you say “shrub”; the company has named itself after the product it manufactures – a sweetened, flavoured vinegar syrup used as a base for non-alcoholic drinks during Prohibition. Neither the italics or the punctuation seem to make any difference to the sound of the word. But they would make a big difference to readability if you reproduced them in the middle of a printed sentence – and because the Tribune is the kind of paper that follows companies’ own preferences for nomenclature, in theory we’d have to.

But, as the late editor and author Bill Walsh once said, “punctuation is not decoration”. And /shrb may be the kind of extreme corporate branding – of the type he foresaw more than 10 years ago – that might require a firmer line from style guides in future.

Writing in his book The Elephants of Style, in 2004, he said:

This is a multifaceted issue, and although I remain a purist, I will admit that it presents some difficult decisions on where we, as editors, should  draw the line … To me, the asterisk in the name of the company that wants to be called E*TRADE is a stylised hyphen, the same as the funky old seal  in the [masthead] of the Arkansas Democrat-hyphen-Gazette.  So when I write about the internet brokerage, it’s E-Trade. I maintain that the asterisk is being used as decoration, not punctuation, and should be left out in the same way publications leave out … the Democrat-Gazette seal and other symbols that cannot be reproduced. But the asterisk is right there on the keyboard. Some would argue that that is where the line should be drawn, and I can’t say that’s a wholly unreasonable position.

It does present difficult decisions, and in fact even the Tribune allows itself a little leeway. Our style guide says:

Company names A difficult area, as so many companies have adopted unconventional typography and other devices that, in some cases, turn their names into logos. In general, we use the names that companies use themselves: c2c, Capgemini, easyJet, eBay, ebookers, iSoft Group, etc. Some of these look odd, particularly when used as the first word in a headline, although some are becoming more familiar with time.

Exceptions include Adidas (not adidas), ABN Amro (not ABN AMRO), BAE Systems (not BAE SYSTEMS), Toys R Us (do not attempt to turn the R backwards), Yahoo (no exclamation mark).

As Bill Walsh concludes, “you have to draw the line somewhere”. The truth is, we already do. And I think /shrb gives us a couple of  pointers as to where more clear lines could be drawn.

First: partial italicisation within a proper noun is almost certainly meaningless, and can be ignored. Variations of weight or face, although they can be reproduced on every setting system, are probably going to be baffling to the reader, if they notice them at all, and clearly fall into the category of design rather than syntax.

Second: names that begin with punctuation marks will have to be modified for publication. Perhaps we have become used to the sight of Yahoo!’s exclamation point in the middle of a sentence, but it does follow a well-known exclamatory word, and it does come at the end of the word, not the beginning. Having a punctuation mark at the start – especially a slash – is hugely distracting after a word space: there is no natural language I can think of in which a stroke would be expected in that position.  At the end of a sentence, it looks like an uncompiled HTML tag: /shrb. The slash can be reproduced using a standard keyboard, but it shouldn’t be.

Having said that, I’m still not sure what style we would ever end up adopting: Shrub? Shrb? shrb? Thank goodness we haven’t had to write about them yet.

British subjects

31 Oct

Hot on the heels of HeadsUp’s discovery of a 1940s style guide covering flying verbs, which advises against their  use “if the verb might be understood to be in the imperative mode”, here’s a good example of an imperative and a flying verb side by side:

Seeing them in close proximity, you realise how easy it is to distinguish one form from the other when that golden rule is followed: “Hid” (clearly implied subject: third person, unknown) against “Go” (clearly implied subject: you). There is none of the confusion caused when, for example, POLICE ARREST DANGER MAN becomes ARREST DANGER MAN.

Nonetheless, it’s still quite ambitious: I’ve never before seen a flying verb headline introduce a second, explicit, subject (“we”) before clarifying who the implied one is (“him”). And the most striking thing of all is that this appeared on the BBC news website: only the second flying verb I have ever encountered in a British-English publication. The article headline itself contains an explicit subject, so the distinctively transatlantic omission on the homepage is presumably only for space reasons. But still, if the classic British existential headline* is now starting to appear in the US, as HeadsUp has observed, perhaps a full-scale cultural exchange is under way?


*Those starting FURY AS… , OUTRAGE AS… , JOY AS… , etc

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. 

The France connection

3 Oct

Why is it the “Vietnam war” and the “Iraq war”, but not the “Korea war”? We always say “Korean” – the adjective, not the noun. The spoons we use in the kitchen are plastic (noun), metal (noun) or wooden (adjective). And we jokingly refer to “man flu” and “girl talk”, but, for some reason, “woman’s work”.

The use of nouns instead of adjectives – what are called “attributive nouns” – is such a common and convenient part of the language that we hardly realise we’re doing it.  Sometimes it happens because there is no suitable adjective to use: but often we do it even when there is, as Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl, explains:

Not all nouns have related adjectives. “Cotton” and “fleece,” for example, are your only choices for describing a cotton shirt and fleece jacket. But when there is a related adjective you get to choose. For example, since “wool,” and “silk” have the adjective forms “woolen” and “silken,” you get to choose between the attributive noun and adjective. You can wear a silken scarf with your woolen sweater, or you can wear a silk scarf with your wool sweater. Both ways of saying it are correct.

There is no particular rhyme or reason to this: as Fogarty says, “it’s more about what sounds right to you than any logical choice”. Because English can tolerate nouns as adjectives, it appears that one phrase simply becomes preferred over another and hardens into idiom. It’s not grammatically incorrect to call it the “Iraqi war”: we just don’t. Attributive nouns are not chosen by rule, but by ear: that makes it hard to set out guidelines for their use, but also easy to hear when something’s wrong.

As it does in this paragraph, spotted by regular reader Jeff:

The “France president”?

Most reporters and editors are relaxed about nouns as adjectives, but there is one part of a newspaper where they have special significance: the sport section. In international football, for example, a careful distinction is always made between (say) a “French striker” and ” a “France striker”. The former is a forward of undetermined gifts who happens to be French; the latter is a forward who is not only French, but has been picked for the national team and played for France. The choice of the noun rather than the adjective is deliberate: it is a shorthand way of signalling the level of a player’s talent.

Although this article about the Rugby World Cup is largely a politics story, it’s written by the sports desk. And so, I suspect, the sports desk has thought: Macron’s not just a president who happens to be French; he’s the president of his country, a full international. But of course there are no club-level presidents in politics, and no presidents (pace the birthers) whose nationality differs from their country of office; so there is no distinction to be made here by way of an attributive noun. In politics, rather than in sport, they just sound wrong.

And with that, thanks to the beneficence of the Tribune’s management and the negotiating power of its highly unionised workforce, Ten Minutes Past Deadline is off for a brief sabbatical! Normal blogging service will resume at the end of the month, on what no doubt will be a wintry autumn day. (See: you can even use adjectives and attributive nouns together.)

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