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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.

 

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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:

 

Are you ready for some soccer?

17 Apr

Spotted on the Daily Mail, both on the UK homepage:

Blackburn Rovers’ Bradley Dack and his reality-star ex-girlfriend are bread and butter for the Mail’s British site, and you might argue that the son of Lance Armstrong is too: but for sure neither Bradley nor (one suspects) anyone else in League One has ever been a “preferred walk-on”*. Of course, that’s because the two men operate in entirely different sports: but last week Mail UK had them both playing “football”.

This blog is generally sanguine about the accidental merging of news agendas as media organisations spread out across the anglosphere. A story’s a story, even if confusions occasionally arise over different dress sizes or the fact that more than one country calls its currency the “dollar”. If articles leak across the content management system into other jurisdictions, as one has here, there’s often no harm: British readers are happy to critique an NBA player’s scatter cushions or admire a Jersey Shore star’s $5,000 dress.

But this word, you suspect, is going to be a sticking point. In the US, American football is just “football” and football is “soccer”. In Britain, “football” is the game sanctioned by the FA, and all other games with the same name are qualified geographically: American football, Australian rules football, even Rugby football. American readers might be disappointed to discover that a story about a troubled “football player” doesn’t involve the NFL, and in Britain there would be open revolt if UK news organisations routinely referred to the national game as “soccer”, even though the term is British in origin.

Imposing one style across all jurisdictions is out of the question here. So what to do? This appears to be another case where the sometimes unsatisfactory approach adopted by the Guardian on its transatlantic ventures – that of “honouring the author’s voice” – is the only one that’s going to work. As its former production editor in the US, Maraithe Thomas, explains:

We might be born of a British news organisation but we were here to report on the US and to carve out our own space as a fully American news outlet. But then were we going to change the English of veteran British journalists, who were reporting over here, into American English? That didn’t feel right. …

What we decided to do, as I did my best to explain to the Atlantic, was to honor the individual reporter’s voice. British English would of course be maintained throughout the Guardian newspaper, but online we would follow the reporter’s lead.

This approach does, of course, create many problems of its own, not least the one of leaving readers to work out which “football” a news organisation is talking about in any individual story. But not every Americanism or Britishism travels smoothly across the Atlantic: sometimes there’s serious cultural resistance. And when there is, whichever sport you’re talking about, it’s unwise to pick sides.

 

*That is, a college player not good enough to be granted a sports scholarship, but nonetheless likely to see playing time (as opposed to normal non-scholarship players, who frequently must hang on tooth and nail just to stay in the squad).

 

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.”