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Capital territory

12 Nov

In the world of globalised anglophone news, stories intended for one market can be hard enough to parse in other markets as it is. When a quirk of the style guide get in the way, it can make things even more difficult:

The headline, written by Guardian Australia for Australians but, as usual, globally available on the website, creates a familiarly steep learning curve for those unfamiliar with politics in Canberra. Ken Wyatt is the minister for Indigenous affairs and the IPA (Institute for Public Affairs) is a conservative thinktank; that much quickly becomes clear. But what are overseas readers to make of the phrase “… engaging in bigotry in voice to parliament video”?

As the always-alert Memphis bureau, which spotted this story, writes

I found  the whole “voice to parliament” phrase very hard to understand at first – especially as it’s not clear that it’s a compound noun referring  to some sort of proposed consultative body. Initial caps on the words or hyphens or quotes or something would have made it clearer that “parliament” and “voice” go together to describe one thing. And I wouldn’t have been wondering what bigotry-in-voice is (talking in a demeaning way?), or which parliament video they were doing this to. But it’s not just the headline, the whole article reads oddly until you work out that the ‘voice to parliament’ is a (semi-)defined thing.

“Voice to Parliament” is indeed a thing: it is a proposal for greater Indigenous influence in Australian affairs and comes from the “Statement of the Heart”, the communique from the landmark Uluru Meeting in 2017 in which 250 Indigenous leaders met representatives of federal government to discuss constitutional reform. The statement proposed change based on three key concepts: Voice, Truth, and Makarrata (meaning “treaty” or “coming together”). The Voice to Parliament is an as-yet-unformed representative body based on the first of these that will communicate on behalf of the first nations to the government.

And it would be much clearer in the context of a sentence if the phrase were rendered in initial caps. Unfortunately, however, the Guardian is determinedly lowercase in these matters. As its style guide says:

Times have changed since the days of medieval manuscripts with elaborate hand-illuminated capital letters, or Victorian documents in which not just proper names, but virtually all nouns, were given initial caps (a Tradition valiantly maintained to this day by Estate Agents).

A look through newspaper archives would show greater use of capitals the further back you went. The tendency towards lowercase, which in part reflects a less formal, less deferential society, has been accelerated by the explosion of the internet: some web companies, and many email users, have dispensed with capitals altogether.

Our style reflects these developments. We aim for coherence and consistency, but not at the expense of clarity. As with any aspect of style, it is impossible to be wholly consistent – there are almost always exceptions, so if you are unsure check for an individual entry in this guide.

You feel that this is a case where consistency could have been sacrificed for clarity. Or at least, that’s how it seems from here in the opposite hemisphere. But perhaps the phrase is much better recognised in its own country, and easily spotted in the middle of a headline? In the world of globalised anglophone news, unintentionally baffling two-thirds of your audience is just something you have to live with. This is a piece written in Australia for Australians: it’s what sounds right to them that matters.

POIGNANT!

30 Apr

Did you see that? It was really POIGNANT! A quiet moment of NUANCE! It’s not all SHOUTING!

As a broadsheet sub-editor, I sometimes yearn to capitalise a word, tabloid style (ideally in red letters, underlined, and set slightly at an angle to the rest of the headline). It’s the most compact way, for example, of indicating an admission has been made after previous denials during a scandal (Disgraced cabinet minister DID make 3am phone call). But in the sober world of the quality press, we can’t: we have to tail off at the end and mumble something like “despite previous claims to contrary”.

If I had capitalisation privileges, though, I’d be more sparing with them than they seem to be at the Express:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is quite a lot of shouting, about almost everything: so much so that it interrupts the rhythm of the sentences and starts producing unexpected effects. It’s hard, for example, to read “we HAD one already” in anything other than a New York accent, and ‘NO’ SIX TIMES had Knock Three Times (On the Ceiling if You Want Me) stuck in my head for hours.

By contrast, the Daily Mail can demonstrate a fine ear for when to add emphasis, and an awareness of stressed and unstressed syllables that might satisfy even Giles Coren.

Even at the Mail, though, standards are slipping. In the headline below, although  “LET” is the word that’s most newsworthy, it’s not where the emphasis falls in the phrase. For musicality, it should really be “… let rivals Aston Villa SCORE”.

And that capitalised “NOT” in the second part of the hed is neither stressed nor necessary. I’d have gone for no emphasis, a dash after “injured” and changed “but” to “and”.

However, as I say, working in what Kelvin Mackenzie calls the “unpopular press”, I never get the chance to make these decisions. The only time anything like this has ever arisen at the Tribune was when our former news editor, who is mixed-race, wrote a piece in the week Obama was first elected with the headline “Now I can be proud of what I really am: black AND white”.

After a discussion, we went with italics rather than capitals. It felt more broadsheet.

Noun pile etiquette question

5 Feb

The noun piles have been out in force in the BBC’s top 10 news lists recently:

They’re more common (and more readily understood) in Britain than the US, and possibly more common on the BBC news site* than anywhere else – all of these were found on one January evening. They’re a bit of an eyeful, but what they lack in clarity they make up for in brevity.

Not all of them are hard to understand. “New York parking spot row” is fine, even if you’re unfamiliar with the story. Others contain a small amount of ambiguity: “footballer plane search” could be a search for a footballer by plane, or (as was sadly the case) a search for him and his plane. Others will only be intelligible to those already au fait with the news: “browser warning U-turn” refers to the Daily Mail’s unhappiness with the fact that one Microsoft Edge plugin marks its site as fake news. “Care home patient pregnancy” refers to a scandal over a vulnerable woman in an institution who has given birth to a child possibly fathered by one of the staff.

As a construction, they look like a gleeful free-for-all, but there are some things that don’t quite work even in noun piles. Recently, HeadsUp, a leading authority on the subject, unearthed these two:

The first one – “duke crash A-road” – is fine. The second one, though, is a bit odd. No matter how ambitious noun piles are, they all tend to follow one basic rule: that every noun added to the pile further narrows and defines the thing being talked about. So: “the speed limit”. Which speed limit? The “road speed limit”. Which road? “The crash road”. Which crash road? “The Prince Philip crash road”. Ah, that one.

But “A149” doesn’t fit into that sequence because it doesn’t contribute to the narrowing-down process. It’s not a defining feature of the “Prince Philip crash road”; it is the Prince Philip crash road. It’s a (much shorter) synonym for the noun pile as a whole. Read in the way one conventionally parses noun piles, it suggests that there might be two A149s, a Prince Philip one and a non-Prince Philip one, and of course there’s only one.

It looks less like a noun pile and more like a URL slug or painstaking SEO headline with all possible search terms included. Which helps with understanding, of course: but if you’re tight for space, you might not want to be describing the same thing twice.

 

*Possibly, one suspects, because the headline counts are so tight on the Most Read lists.

 

Prescribed listening

11 Dec

I’ve always basically agreed with this position, but I’ve never heard it expressed so starkly as the BBC does here:

Years ago, the inaugural post on this blog was about precisely this problem: should you follow common prescriptivist norms when editing, for a quiet life and to save your writers from the peevers? Or should you assist in the debunking of language myths by allowing new or common usages into print?

I thought the decision was an uncomfortable one then and still do. But there’s no agonising about it here. Although there’s a certain amount of rhetorical loading – by “good English”, the writer means “formal English”, and “bad” means “informal” – this doesn’t seem to be an argument based on conservatism. Rather, it’s the raw pragmatism that’s so arresting. The argument is simple: “Some listeners are pedants. Some are not. Only pedants complain. So write for the pedants.” It even uses the word “appease”.

And if that were not clear enough on its own, the entry in the accompanying style guide for “enormity” removes all doubt:

It should be said that this is from a guide to writing radio news that dates back to 2002. It’s still on the BBC website, but it’s not clear that it’s still the current advice. The BBC Academy, where many resources for the corporation’s journalists are now held, appears to have no equivalent passage on tone, and the latest style guide, although still prohibiting “enormity” meaning “size”, contains no observations about pedantry.

But it wouldn’t surprise me if the BBC’s underlying approach to language was still just as cautious. For an organisation that gets trapped in the middle of every political and cultural row in Britain, it probably doesn’t take long to decide that there’s no point getting shouted at over “decimate” as well.

Hands across the water

30 Oct

No matter how far a British warship sails, she’s always under the watchful eye of the Daily Mail. More so than ever these days, now that the Mail has fully functioning newsrooms on three continents, all operating  entirely transparently to its global readership. Well, almost.

Observe as 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth sets off for the US on Saturday, a £3bn aircraft carrier on her maiden voyage, picking up two “US F-35B” fighters on the way. Weeks later, she “sails into the blue skies of New York City Friday” (the skies?): safely arrived, but now a “70,000 ton” ship costing “$4bn”, “multimillion-dollar” fighters embarked and accompanied by a quote from the “UK defence secretary”.

As we have discussed before, it’s not the big things that confound the emerging anglophone news agenda: everyone’s interested in Trump, Instagram models, celebrity affairs and viral video, no matter where they originate in the world. It’s the small things, the detail points that betray who you really think you’re writing for: the weights and measures, the indications (or not) of nationality, the brief explanations of localisms considered necessary or unnecessary. It may be a British-built ship flying American-made fighters, but all the available dialects for this story are local: there is no global English for the global newsrooms to speak.

Do readers notice? They don’t seem to complain. Well, not often.

And it’s just as well: it would be very hard to eliminate parochialisms at the micro level like this. Thank goodness that football pitches in Britain and America are both approximately the same size:

Like Donkey Kong

18 Sep

I left the word “on” in the copy when I sent it through, honest.

Our film reviewer was impressed when he saw a preview of The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’s scabrous and inventive reimagining of life in the court of Queen Anne. When the two rivals for the queen’s affections, Abigail and Lady Sarah, first clash, he wrote, the contest is “on like the 18th-century equivalent of Donkey Kong”. An odd expression for a broadsheet cinema critic to use, you might well think, but I’d heard it before.

It seems the revise desk hadn’t, though. “It’s on like Donkey Kong” means something like “you’re on”, “the game’s afoot”, “your challenge is accepted”. The simile is euphonious but nonsensical, referring as it does to the eponymous gorilla villain in an old Nintendo video game. Wired and the Urban Dictionary date the phrase back to Ice Cube’s song “Now I Gotta Wet’cha” (1992), although the Denver alt-weekly Westword claims that it was invented by San Francisco video arcade owner Robert Mori in the 1980s, as one of a number of game-related near-rhymes (eg “turnin’ up the stereo like Mario”) that otherwise didn’t catch on.

Since then it has been printed in USA Today, uttered in films and reality shows, and sung in country songs, according to Peter Hartlaub’s detailed history of the phrase in the San Francisco Chronicle, and Nintendo itself launched an attempt to trademark it in 2010.

Saying that the court intrigue is “like Donkey Kong”, however, means that it resembles trying to climb a series of rickety ladders for love and advancement while an irascible figure above you strews obstacles in your path. Nothing like the last days of the House of Stuart at all.

Actually, come to think of it …

 

(Parish notice: Ten Minutes Past Deadline will be off on its annual short break soon, returning in October when the leaves are falling in earnest.)

Bard choices

1 May

Style guide quiz! Does this entry mean

(i) The correct style to use in all situations is “Stratford-on-Avon”, given that the usual approach in the Tribune’s style guide is to give the correct style in the bold heading of the entry?

(ii) This is the correct style to use for the district council and parliamentary seat only, and that another, unspecified, style is correct for other usages? (This is the only entry in the guide that covers the issue, however.)

(iii) If the answer to (i) is no and the answer to (ii) is yes, do you take the second part of the style note to mean

(a) That the use of “upon” by most other local organisations is a guide to what our style should be; or

(b) Only that the sub-editor should be aware of this common variant when giving the names of the organisations in question?

(iv) If the answer to (iii)(a) is no and the answer to (iii)(b) is yes … does anyone know what our style for the town is?

To find a style guide entry with too much explanation and too little instruction is a rare thing: usually, it’s the other way around. For example, AP lists several commonplace and rarely misspelled words, such as “countryside” and “sandwich”, in its guide with no indication as to the reason for their presence. Similarly, the Telegraph’s banned word list contains, without a word of explanation, “huge” and “toilet”. But perhaps the best place for fascinating but under-glossed entries these days is BuzzFeed, which I’m sure is an oversight on its part and nothing to do with the fact that fortysomething broadsheet sub-editors are now being comprehensively left behind by the pace of events: