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Credible edibles

23 Nov

Regular reader Steve has spotted this in Charles County, Maryland, where a potentially alarming incident involving some schoolchildren seems to have lost something in translation on the website of WTOP-FM, Washington’s top news radio station.

If you’re as hardened and streetwise as, er, a sub-editor, you may know that “edibles” in this sense is starting to mean “way of consuming marijuana orally rather than by smoking”: it refers to the modern equivalent of cannabis brownies and so on. If not, you may be more than slightly puzzled as to what all the fuss is about.

That definition hasn’t made it into Collins, the Tribune’s house dictionary, yet, but it is now on Merriam-Webster Online. Even the dictionary, however, may not be able to help us with this paragraph:

You sense the first sentence may be missing some key words before “contained”. But I’m not sure what kind of garble has taken place in the second one. It’s positively alarmist: as Steve says, does this mean inedible candy is probably safer?

Thankfully, everyone seems to be all right:

(Hang, on I thought you said earlier they’d definitely eaten some?) But if the principal’s letter to parents went out with anything like that muddle over “edible candy” in it, who knows what the queues might now be like outside the county’s sweetshops.

Workin’ for MTA

14 Sep

Somebody else seems to be as intrigued by New York subway signs as this blog is:

It does make a good poem, probably entitled “Z”:

To Jamaica Center

Weekday afternoons.

Express to Myrtle Avenue,

PM rush,

Skip-stop

***

Other times,

All stops

But for a public information notice, it is, as we have had occasion to discuss before, a bit short of words. And this time we’re dealing with the kind of comprehension-bending complexity that only the Metropolitan Transportation Authority can produce. If you find the semi-fast service to Amersham a bit confusing, get a load of this, and imagine trying to put it on a sign:


“The J operates at all times while the Z, operating internally as its rush-hour variant, runs with six trips in each peak direction on weekdays; both services run through the entirety of the BMT Archer Avenue and Jamaica lines, via the Williamsburg Bridge, and the Nassau Street Line between Jamaica Center–Parsons/Archer in Jamaica, Queens, and Broad Street in Lower Manhattan. When the Z operates, the two services form a skip-stop pair between Sutphin Boulevard–JFK and Myrtle Avenue-Broadway. In addition during rush hours and middays in the peak direction, they run express in Brooklyn between Myrtle Avenue-Broadway and Marcy Avenue, bypassing three stations. At all other times, only the J operates, serving every station on its entire route. (per Wikipedia)

So, what we have is:

• a platform from which two services run along the same line, the Z train and the J train

and

• the Z train is an express that misses out stops, and the J train is a “local” that stops at all stations. Fine.

BUT

• The Z train only runs in rush hour, on weekdays, and it only runs in the peak flow direction (ie into Manhattan in the mornings, out of Manhattan in the evenings)

AND

• When the Z train is running, it affects the J train’s schedule: the J train then misses out some (but not all) of the stations that the Z train stops at, and ceases to be a true “local”. They become a “skip-stop pair” (try saying that three times quickly).

FURTHERMORE

• There are three stations that neither the J or the Z stop at, but only during weekday rush hour, and only in the peak direction. At other times the J train will stop there.

So, to return to the sign: this is Essex Street station in lower Manhattan, and trains from this platform are heading to Jamaica Center in Queens, ie, out of Manhattan. This platform is therefore not affected by the Z train in the mornings, but is affected by it in the evenings (the “PM rush”), when the skip-stop comes into operation. Essex Street station also comes just before the three stations that get missed out altogether in rush hour, so trains from here are “express” (ie almost non-stop) as far as Myrtle Avenue station in Brooklyn on weekday afternoons (but only afternoons).

So after an hour’s research, you can start to see what they mean. I still think there’s a problem with the sign, though: for one thing, the Z bullet at the start makes you think that everything that follows applies only to the Z train. In fact, crucially, the J train becomes a skip-stop train too. But the second sentence gives the impression that you can always rely on the good old J to stop everywhere (which you can’t), or maybe that Z trains run in the peak and J trains in the off-peak (which isn’t the whole story either).

Can we do any better with the wording? Last time, we had some success in inserting a few existential clauses, but that won’t cut it this time. Get me rewrite.

Judging by the length of the longest line, I reckon you could get 125 or so characters on the sign if you fill all three decks. Maybe it could say something like this?

Z J to Jamaica Center. Both trains express to Myrtle Ave wkday afternoons and skip stops in PM rush. J all stops other times

At least I think that’s what it means. Input and commentary from people who, unlike me, know what they’re talking about would be very welcome.

And with that bit of wish-fulfilment out of the way – no New York for me this year, what with the global emergency and all – TMPD is off for its late summer break. See you when the leaves are falling faster.

The limits of SEO

20 Jul

Do you remember Mohammed Emwazi? Maybe it doesn’t ring a bell. Do you remember “Jihadi John”, though? Emwazi, it seems, was much better known by his Isis sobriquet than his real name: a basic analysis on Google reveals 103,000 hits for the latter versus 403,000 for the former.

But we didn’t call him that at the Tribune. The foreign desk asked us not to. Perhaps a mention somewhere in the copy to clarify that Emwazi was indeed known by that nickname, but never in the headline or at the top of the story. The desk didn’t want to “trivialise a serious situation”, or add tabloid pizzazz to the torture and beheading of hostages. So we didn’t. We’d have got more clicks if we had, but we stopped.

The same applies to the “QAnon Shaman”, the “Yorkshire Ripper” and several others. “It means we sometimes take a hit on search,” the web production editor writes, “but we do it so as not to make light of the individuals and their motives/actions”.

A few weeks ago on Horny Handed Subs of Toil, a member revealed that his publication asks subs to allow “mens”, no apostrophe, in certain circumstances for search engine optimisation, because Google fails to return as many results if you type it correctly as “men’s”. There was consternation, as you might expect, and some doubt as to whether it was in fact necessary, but it illustrated the kind of discussion that we normally have about SEO. Who’s top of the search results? How can we get more traffic? Are we doing the right thing? It’s much rarer, but perhaps more revealing about your organisation, to consider the things you won’t say even when Google wants you to.

With us, the reasons vary. Our coverage of the subpostmasters and subpostmistresses scandal is probably being hampered by our disinclination to say “subpostmasters” or “subpostmistresses”; we won’t use one without the other for reasons of inclusivity, but using both makes headlines unfeasibly long. We are going with “post office operators”, which is probably not what people are typing into their search engines. We insist on “register office” – the correct term – not “registry office”, even though Google Ngrams suggests that the latter has almost always been more popular than the former (and produces significantly more hits in search). And we say Brexiter, not Brexiteer – despite a two-to-one swing against it on Google – simply out of a determination, as strong today as ever, “not to make them sound like jolly pirates”.

Northern Star

8 Jun

Stopwatches at the ready: how long does it take you to “get” this Daily Star front page?

British readers will be at a considerable advantage here. But I’m British and write headlines for a living, and I had to stare at it for almost a minute in Sainsbury’s before I worked it out.

This is the Star, of course – the national newspaper that puts stories about escaped hamsters on its front page – but it’s not a joke or “silly” article. It’s a perfectly legitimate piece of media news, albeit one that could sit comfortably on an inside page.

If you still need pointers: it’s a story about a decision to give British regional accents more prominence on the BBC, and the headline is written in Yorkshire dialect as a form of illustration. This much you might gather from the pun on “happen” (or ‘appen) in the strapline. In Yorkshire, “happen” can be used as a sentence adverb that functions in the same way as “perhaps” or “maybe”, and means essentially the same thing (so the sense is “perhaps it will happen”).

It’s a classic Yorkshire-ism that would set most British readers on the right path, but what comes after in the main head is still a challenge. What they’re trying for, you eventually realise, is a rhyming pun on “News at 10” using the Yorkshire phrase ’Ow do?, meaning “how [do you] do?”. I think what makes it particularly difficult is that, having started marking the dropped h’s with apostrophes in the strap, they then abruptly stop, so I was stuck on “OW” (cry of pain) and “DOS” (Microsoft operating system) for about 45 seconds before the light dawned. ’OW DO’S might need a lot of punctuation for a five-letter phrase, but it would have been clearer.

I mean, I say it’s difficult, but that may only be an indication of how painfully southern I am (born in London, raised in Sussex). Perhaps a lot of people got it straightaway. Still, given that the story is about unseen continuity announcers rather than well-known frontline newsreaders, it’s not 100% clear what Sophie Raworth (Surrey-born, crisp RP) is doing on the front page, or why she has acquired a northern accent and flat cap. News anchors being required to fake a dialect? I may be behind the curve slightly on this, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what it says in the text.

Noun pile growth threat fear

11 May

The noun pile is a firmly established part of British journalistic life, but it’s fascinating to look back at the first pioneering steps in its creation (or at least as Michael Frayn imagines them in his satire The Tin Men):

If Goldwasser was remembered for nothing else, Macintosh once told Rowe, he would be remembered for his invention of UHL.

UHL was Unit Headline Language, and it consisted of a comprehensive lexicon of all the multi-purpose monosyllables used by headline-writers. Goldwasser’s insight had been to see that if the grammar of “ban”, “dash”, “fear”, and the rest was ambiguous, they could be used in almost any order to make a sentence, and if they could be used in almost any order to make a sentence they could be easily randomised …

UHL, Goldwasser quickly realised, was an ideal answer to the problem of making a story run from day to day in an automated paper. Say, for example, that the randomiser turned up

STRIKE THREAT

By adding one unit at random to the formula each day the story could go:

STRIKE THREAT BID

STRIKE THREAT PROBE

STRIKE THREAT PLEA

and so on. Or the units could be added cumulatively:

STRIKE THREAT PLEA

STRIKE THREAT PLEA PROBE

STRIKE THREAT PLEA PROBE MOVE

STRIKE THREAT PLEA PROBE MOVE SHOCK

STRIKE THREAT PLEA PROBE MOVE SHOCK HOPE

Of course modern sub-editors no longer have to restrict themselves to monosyllables, or even common multi-purpose words: great news for those working to tight headline counts, such as those on the BBC website. Nowadays we can effortlessly produce noun piles like this:

So, to parse it from back to front, as one should: a teacher has been banned. Which teacher? The strip club teacher. Which strip club teacher? The Longridge Towers school strip club teacher. Which Longridge Towers school? The one in Northumberland.

Actually, that last bit seems odd. As far as Google can ascertain, there seems to be only one Longridge Towers school in Britain. “Northumberland”, then, isn’t serving to narrow down a series of options, as it would in a classic noun pile. As we have previously discussed, in the internet age, the syntax of Unit Headline Language has at times been adulterated by the addition of good SEO words, presumably on the basis that there are so many nouns in the phrase already, who’s going to object to another one? But it does disrupt the progression of specificity that is the hallmark of the classical form.

Even given that problem, the noun pile headline remains invaluable, particularly for those legally tricky stories where using a verb might get you sued. And it sounds like that aspect of the technology was perfect right from the start:

Goldwasser had had a survey conducted, in fact, in which 457 people were shown the headlines

ROW HOPE MOVE FLOP

LEAK DASH SHOCK

HATE BAN BID PROBE

Asked if they thought they understood the headlines, 86.4 per cent said yes, but of those 97.3 per cent were unable to offer any explanation of what it was they had understood.

We’re scarcely able to improve on those numbers today.

Old-school wrap

27 Apr

There’s nothing this blog likes more, as a rule, than a vintage front page layout. But perhaps not this one:

There are 19 headlines on the page and they are all the same size, set in sans caps ranged left, centre and right, with the result that (i) huge amounts of unintended white space are created, and (ii) almost every kind of word has to be omitted to make them fit. Not just nouns, although there is a flying verb in there – WILL SING MESSIAH – but verbs (REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION AT CLEVELAND) and prepositions (BROTHER DYING CONDITION) too.

The page is presented, more in sorrow than in anger, by Radder and Stempel in the second edition of their book Newspaper Editing, Make-up and Headlines, the 1940s treasure trove of old-school techniques first brought to our attention by HeadsUp for its clear chapter-and-verse about using flying verbs (or as it likes to call them, “implied subjects”). It also contains this spectacular example of overdisplay, or “circus make-up”, from the Denver Post:

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a headline above a masthead before, and in practically the same size type as well.

But what’s most interesting about the many front pages in the chapter is not the layouts, good though most of them are, but something else: the number of semicolon headlines they have. I had previously assumed that these were almost unique to the New York Times, and only then brought out for special occasions, but here – in papers large and small, on busy news days and quiet ones – they seem to be quite a regular thing after all.

This edition of the book was published in 1942, and most of the contemporaneous front pages are war-related. So what these headlines all seem to encapsulate is what we at the Tribune would call a “wrap”: a roundup of the day’s events on a number of fronts without a particularly strong lead item. This is something else the semicolon head is suited for: not just huge stories where every paragraph might deserve its own headline, but long-running stories that require a wider perspective to grasp them fully. Give or take a major breakthrough, it seemed newspapers understood even at the time that the war was so all-encompassing as to only be properly understood in the round.

None the less, it’s interesting to see wrap stories running as front-page leads. At the Tribune, they are very much second-order items, destined for an inside spread; you know when you pick up “polswrap23” from the queue that it can be cut without too much anguish from management.* In 1940s America, it was clearly different: perhaps because the war was always the biggest story in town, like the pandemic is today. Even so, though, modern Fleet Street papers would never settle for a roundup as the splash; in their ferociously competitive market, they would usually try to lead with a single-aspect scoop on Covid, however manufactured it might be, and save the wrap for page seven.

Wherever they end up, though, you’ve still got to write furniture for them, which is another reason to mourn the unpopularity of the semicolon hed. The reductive temptation is simply to write a simple headline based only on the first item in the article. If you try to capture the portfolio nature of the piece, modern practice would be to use conjunctions – “as” or “while”. But these hint at a causative, or at least thematic, relationship between the clauses, when what you really want to do is write multiple, unconnected headlines. Semicolons are perfect for that; if only journalism wasn’t so afraid of them.

*In this respect, wrap stories differ significantly from the blow-by-blow, long-form features that back up major front-page investigations. At the Tribune these are, rather unexpectedly, known as “guts”, meaning that otherwise cardigan-wearing desk editors start sounding like Vince Lombardi when they’re late: “Where’s the gut? Have we got the gut?”

Dis-cursive

2 Mar

This hasn’t come into focus at the Tribune yet, and perhaps it never will, but it will need thinking about if it does. What happens if a writer objects to the italicisation of words in one of their native languages during the publication process?

Levels of italicisation vary between style guides – some do it for films and book titles, some not, for example – but the Tribune’s style guide is brief and to the point about other languages: “Use italics for foreign words and phrases (with roman translation in brackets)”. There is some look-and-feel guidance about words that have become totally familiar in English, such as cafe, which should not be italicised and do not take diacriticals (as a former edition of the style guide used to say, “that would be a debacle”). But unfamiliar words take italics in our publications. Which then raises the question: unfamiliar to whom?

Although it is written by an editor for editors, this blog has always had at least a scrap of sympathy for writers who are unhappy about changes made to articles after they’ve written them. If you unsplit an infinitive in the cause of readability under someone else’s byline, the sticklers’ complaints will go to the writer, not to you, and you may be faced not only with the ire of peevish readers, but the ire of the reporter as well, who is inclined to agree with them. In such cases, an editor can end up isolated in opposition to both the author and the audience.

A disagreement over italics would probably be different, and might essentially become a debate with the author over who the presumed audience actually is. The person who wrote the tweet is a Korean American children’s author whose books are about young people of a similar background exploring their heritage. It is therefore probably essential for her that Korean words are not “othered” by being italicised to draw attention to their presumed unfamiliarity. (In fact, it would appear from the context of her thread that she has control of the process and has made that ruling for herself.)

This debate borders on the related issue, discussed many times in this blog, of news organisations allowing different dialects of English in the different countries in which they operate. The newsrooms set up by British news organisations elsewhere in the anglosphere are intended to speak to a domestic audience, not simply to report back to London. That’s why you sometimes end up reading articles about a “tradie” (a uniquely Australian term for tradesperson) startling a gigantic “huntsman” (a species of spider unknown in Britain) on the Daily Mail’s UK homepage.

The unspoken assumption is that Australian readers are the significant audience; if non-Australian readers see it, they will be able to figure it out. (As one of the supportive responders to the original tweet says, “if I see a word, I don’t understand, I’ll look it up.”)

On the other hand, it’s worth restating the traditional general defence of italicisation – that too great a presumption of understanding can alienate and discourage a potential audience who are unfamiliar with the subject. Italics, quotes and signposts to the reader such as “so-called” can all encourage them to navigate new intellectual or cultural territory, whatever it may be, and educate themselves. Another responder to the tweet, suggesting an exception for neologisms, writes that they could accept italicisation for a completely made-up word: “italic would let me know its ok to not understand it because its not a real word.” But doesn’t that principle – “it’s ok not to understand it” – apply to anything that might confuse the intended reader?

None of which helps solve the fundamental question in this debate, which is: who is the intended reader? Do you agree with the author about that? And if you don’t agree, which one of you decides?

O Capt, my Capt

16 Feb

Captain Sir Tom Moore? Sir Captain Tom Moore? Not everybody got it the right way round when the Burma veteran and beloved fundraising champion died earlier this month, but on our subs’ desk we were wrestling with a different question. Should we be abbreviating his rank?

The style guide editor emails:

There’s been a divide on this in terms of whether to abbreviate the Captain to Capt, as per the military ranks section of the style guide. That section refers to how to describe serving officers, but in Moore’s case he was retired, and had actually been promoted to honorary colonel last year. Captain Tom was the nickname by which he was known so shortening to Capt Tom seems a bit jarring. 

I understand shortening to Capt might be useful for tight furniture, but doesn’t seem necessary generally. The case seems similar to other examples where a rank has become part of a nickname or refers to a fictional character – we wouldn’t write Capt Beefheart, Col Tom Parker or ground control to Maj Tom.

Accordingly, the style guide now reads:

That seems fairly comprehensive: I don’t think even the Telegraph’s style guide addresses that last issue.

But the good thing about working at a broadsheet is that you never have to stop making distinctions. The deputy production editor replies:

In fact, he had no right to be called Capt Moore [the abbreviated form] anyway. You have to be a Major or above to retain your title in retirement (in the army; a naval captain is a higher rank, so can be retained). https://www.debretts.com/expertise/forms-of-address/professions/the-armed-forces/

Even at a left-leaning, republican-curious publication such as the Tribune, an appeal to Debrett’s like this glows with prestige. (And it can also help with some of those baffling ranks. L/CoH? No, me neither, but it’s “Lance-Corporal of the Horse”, in the Household Division.) Now the only question is: what to do about Adm Ackbar?

The Rebel effect

13 Oct

If you were, say, an ambitious anglophone news operation with sites in the UK, the US and Australia, and you wanted to test how well those operations were gelling, here’s one subject you could start with: Rebel Wilson.

Australian, US-domiciled, tabloid-friendly and popular everywhere, she regularly seems to present a test to the three-newsroom model. We have already seen the Mail and the Guardian stumble over the subject of her $4.5m libel win three years ago (Australian dollars? US dollars? Not sure!). Now she’s dieting furiously on Instagram, and inadvertently creating another weights and measures problem.

She announced* last week that she was only three kilos away from her goal, kilos being the measure that Australians commonly use for body weight.

In the article, even though it was produced by Daily Mail Australia, this is translated in the opening paragraph to 6.5 pounds, presumably with a northern-hemisphere audience in mind. On the UK homepage, the stories briefly appeared next to each other on Tuesday: one in the celebrity highlights box, the other in the Sidebar of Shame, one with the kilos measurement, one with the pounds.

At the end of the first paragraph of text, a British-friendly conversion into stones and pounds is added in brackets, for the full suite of anglosphere measures,

but further down, in a picture caption, a (presumably Australian?) sub-editor has fallen back into the system they know best (with the conversions given slightly different priorities).

Does it matter? These are just details: as we have discussed before, it doesn’t stop you understanding the heart of the story. Rebel’s diet is going well; Kylie is being generous; Big Lizzie has arrived in New York. But weights and measures are always redolently local and surprisingly resistant to change. And while small things like this remain so difficult to marshal for an international audience, readers are still being left with the subconscious impression that they’re reading a story meant for somebody else.

*Or, in Mail-speak, “flaunted”

First-paragraph blues

7 Jul

The column opens with a quotation:

Actually, some Googling reveals that the quote (from John Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy) is actually a question and answer – two people speaking, not one – so there should be a closing quotation mark after “Keynesian”.

Actually, hang on. The whole thing is a quotation with dialogue inside it, so there ought to be a closing quotation mark at the end:

And of course an opening quotation mark at the start. The style at the Tribune is for quotation marks that form part of a drop-capital paragraph to be single when they open, and double when they close, in the body text. Thus:

But now that just looks like an opening double quote. Will readers understand that they are in fact two opening single quotes in a row? What if we go double-single?

Yikes. Three giant orange quotation marks. And look what happens to the line breaks.

It looks increasingly – and I hate contemplating this – that I’m going to have to compromise. In extreme circumstances like these, it is sometimes suggested that the opening paragraph can be rewritten. I always refuse to do it: the formatting should serve the writing, not the other way round. And in this case, I’m hardly about to start rewriting Le Carré’s bestselling dialogue to fit the column width.

So it turns out that if you quietly dispense with one of the opening quotes and tighten the gap between the two dropped characters, the paragraph suddenly fits neatly on six lines:

That looks nice. It’s wrong, but it looks nice. It’s good to have something to sweeten the pill of expediency. And it lets the reader get smoothly into the flow of the column without tripping over a picket of inverted commas. Or that’s what I’m telling myself.