Catalonia vs Wallonia

6 Mar

Ah, the lure of low attachment:

No doubt the Leave voters of Britain can empathise with Catalonia wanting to be free from Brussels’s yoke. But one suspects perhaps that “from Belgium” is meant to attach to something slightly higher up in the sentence here, such as “continue”.

Low attachment” is the tendency to read a phrase as modifying the thing closest to it, in preference to anything mentioned earlier (or “higher up”) in the sentence. As the linguist Arnold Zwicky says, “low attachment is the default, but other factors favor high attachment in certain contexts” – one very important context being “real-world plausibility”.

Even then, it’s tempting to track back only to the first word that allows the phrase to make grammatical sense, however absurd, as in the case in one of Zwicky’s most impressive examples: “a resident reported a large animal in a tree with tall and pointed ears”. Here, although the ears don’t quite attach as high up as the resident, they certainly become disconcertingly separated from “a large animal” by “a tree”.

And it frequently makes life more interesting. Low attachment can operate in a sentence as short as a headline, as Twitter user @knapjack discovered earlier this month:

And in one of Language Log’s regular features, “Linguistics in the Comics”, a schoolboy in the Frazz comic strip is doing a presentation for careers week to his teacher.

“I want to be the guitarist for Iggy and the Stooges like my dad,” he says.

“Your dad is Iggy Pop’s guitarist?”

“No, he wants to be.”

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More anon

20 Feb

This blog has always had an eye for an odd correction, and this one certainly seems a bit odd:

As we were discussing last time, social media, and the anonymity it affords, is starting to have a noticeable influence on the tone of traditional journalism. One aspect of this is that news is starting to sound slightly less serious, as substantial stories are sourced from revelations published by Twitter users with silly names. But in another respect, the prevalence of pseudonyms on web platforms – including, in most cases, news organisations’ own sites – means that news is also becoming more profoundly anonymous.

Of course, this is hardly a new concept for journalism: some of the biggest stories ever broken have relied on unidentified informants, from Deep Throat to the person who sold MPs’ expenses data to the Telegraph. But in cases like those, although the reader did not know who the source was, the reporter did: and the organisation always had some opportunity to weigh up its informant’s bona fides. In the old days, anonymous sourcing worked because of an implicit assurance offered by the newspaper: we cannot name this person, but you can trust them because we trust them.

The crucial difference between then and now is that, in the case of an online commenter or social media user, it is not always possible to offer that assurance. Indeed, it is likely in many cases that nobody in the news organisation – not the journalists, and probably not even the website administrator – really knows who they’re dealing with. Typically, to log in to a newspaper website and make a comment, you need only give a name (not necessarily your own), an email address (not necessarily one that identifies you), and a date of birth, which hardly narrows things down. Everything you need to join the debate can be arranged from scratch in five minutes without ever making a personal revelation. This is no vox pop conducted on the street, when a reporter stops you and asks you how to spell your name. In this new, deeper anonymity, whether below the line or on social media, your identity is well protected even from the journalist who is quoting you.

Of course, this article was only the Guardian’s “Comments of the Day” roundup, not a major investigation. And of course, many arguments have been advanced about the benefits of anonymity in online forums – the speech tends to be freer and the focus stays for longer on the ideas, rather than the people propounding them. And of course, it’s not factually correct to say LearningIsLife said something when he or she didn’t. But still, the sense of strangeness doesn’t entirely dissipate.

Sometimes, assigning the wrong quotation to the wrong person does make a big difference to understanding, as in this example:

But the correction of attribution between upwthitimustput and LearningIsLife is something that could only really matter to the contributors, not the readers. The audience can hardly be any the wiser as to the authority of the comment, or more informed about its antecedents, if both the contributors concerned are anonymous. And it’s even slightly difficult to understand what’s in it for the commenters themselves: if you’ve opted for anonymity, what does it matter if someone gets your alias wrong?

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.”

The Second Sub-editor Ever To Be Portrayed On Film

23 Jan

Image: 20th Century Fox

The copy chief hands him the file with the typed copy in it, and the man sitting at the desk takes out his pen. The newsroom is dark, the clock is ticking, and the most important and sensitive story he will ever edit has arrived – like all important and sensitive stories – right on deadline. He looks up at his manager, the two men alone in the office at an epochal moment for journalism and America. “You’ve got half an hour,” says his manager gruffly.

For years, only one copy editor had ever appeared as a character in a feature film: Lou the front-page sub in Ron Howard’s 1994 comedy The Paper.* But now there are two, because in Steven Spielberg’s latest film, The Post, the focus is almost as much on newspaper production as it is on newspaper editing and reporting.

The story of the Washington Post and the Pentagon Papers – the leaked documents that destroyed the credibility of the war in Vietnam – is a subject worthy of what my boss at the Tribune refers to as “late-period Spielberg”: those recent films of his that tell huge American stories magisterially, at a medium pace and with limpid period detail. The ethical struggle between the first amendment and the security state is an eternal theme, taken up in several movies. But for someone like me who started their career in the Quark XPress era, it’s the recreation of a 1970s newsroom that’s really mesmerising.

There are enormous ties, and early colour TVs, and people in the background flicking through galleys with a familiar look of rising concern on their faces (is there a page missing here, or is this actually what was filed?). There are linotype machines filmed in fascinating close-up, real slugs coming out and being loaded into formes, famous headlines shown reversed in metal. There is also – and this is the thing I most regret never having seen – a pneumatic-tube messenger system for sending copy to the composing room in metal cylinders.

And there is also a copy editor. Only one, again, as in The Paper (although, to be fair, he and the copy chief had probably stayed behind specially). And he barely speaks, except to ask for a messenger tube. But you can tell he’s a copy editor, because the first thing he does, with the presses trembling, his proprietor under pressure and the reputations of four presidents hanging in the balance, is calmly cross out the first sentence of the story.

Then as now, sometimes the most important cut is the one you make in the first paragraph.  I like to think it said something like “Bombings and deception and McNamara, oh my!”. But it was probably something more like: “It’s official …”.

 

* To be absolutely accurate, as readers have pointed out previously, Drew Barrymore’s character in Never Been Kissed is also, notionally, a copy editor: but as she (a) appears to have an office to herself and (b) gets sent out on a whim to off-diary feature assignments, you would be forgiven for mistaking her for a columnist.

The one thing you notice

9 Jan

This armchair-continuity-expert thing is getting addictive. Moving on from The Crown to Netflix’s excellent Manhunt:Unabomber – the birth of forensic linguistics in eight parts, featuring Paul Bettany in a beard, Sam Worthington in a suit and Chris Noth in giant ’90s spectacles – the following subtitle screen appears:

Like the costumes and the hairstyles, it all seems redolently in-period. That’s the old San Francisco airport control tower, not the new one that was opened in 2016. The 747 on the right looks convincingly retro in Air China’s old-fashioned livery.  But what about that plane on the left?

The lettering says “United”, but the logo on the tail, an outline globe over a blue background, is the mark of Continental Airlines – or it was, until United and Continental merged and decided, unusually, to adopt United’s name but use Continental’s livery on all its planes from then on. That merger took place in 2010: which means that this pleasingly period-looking footage cannot be more than eight years old.

How did I notice that? Just by chance. As a frequent flyer to the US, I eagerly hoard my airmiles. The obvious way to do that is by always flying with the same airline: that way, the free flights and upgrades come quicker than they would if you were slowly accumulating credit with multiple carriers. The airline I flew with repeatedly over the years was Continental: so I heard about the merger in customer emails, saw the name change on the website, nervously logged on to United’s loyalty programme to check that my airmiles had been transferred.

I had no idea that San Francisco had built a new control tower: I haven’t been there for years. I didn’t know that Air China was painting its planes to look like that well into the 2010s: I discovered those facts on Google. Now that I look into it, I’m not sure that the flowery logo on the 747’s tail is correct for the period either, or that that model of United Airbus was even around in ’95. But all this would have been a closed book to me before. I’m not an expert on civil aviation: the logo on the tailplane was the one thing I noticed.

And editing can be alarmingly like this as well. Internal inconsistencies in copy – variant spellings, bad maths, impossible chronologies – are obvious from the text. Names, dates and places can all easily be checked with other sources. But even with the highest levels of professionalism and diligence, some errors will only be spotted because you happens to know something.

Sometimes, it would need a baby-boomer editor to tell the difference between Bob Dylan and a Bob Dylan impersonator before broadcasting footage of the latter on the BBC. Sometimes, it would need a Gen-Xer to know where Luke Skywalker and Obi-wan Kenobi first met (hint: not in the cantina). These are the kind of facts that have to be known, rather than checked: there is scarcely time in a daily news routine to compare photographs of musical pioneers or rewatch Star Wars, just in case.

And sometimes, you might need a youngster – someone who understands that users change their names on Twitter for all sorts of reasons – in order not to trip over something like this:

Cut! Print!

24 Dec

The scene: Windsor Castle in the early 1960s, in the grip of a dramatised royal dispute about whether or not Prince Charles should go to chilly, remote Gordonstoun to toughen him up after primary school. At the height of the debate, the Duke of Edinburgh arrives at the castle in his elegant, powerful Lagonda (this isn’t just The Crown glamourising things for its Netflix audience: he really did have one).

Cut to: the aerodrome, where the Duke is going to use his own plane to fly Charles to Scotland (spoiler alert) for his first day at school. Father and son arrive to a media circus on the tarmac, flashbulbs popping, in the elegant, powerful Lagonda:

And then cut to: Gordonstoun, where the gates are swung open to welcome the Duke and Charles as they arrive in … er …  the elegant, powerful Lagonda, which would appear to have been either taken apart into very small pieces and loaded into the back of the plane, or have made the 550-mile journey from London to Scotland faster than the Duke of Edinburgh can fly. Never mind Santa’s sleigh: whichever royal aide caned it up the M1 at that speed needs to be given a job delivering presents.

I’ve always secretly fancied that, as a sub, I might be quite good at film continuity: keeping track of a timeline, checking for inconsistencies, remembering context, organising information: isn’t that what a copy desk does for a living? But in fact, I suspect, a continuity editor’s job is like editing an article by starting in the middle and being forced to read both forwards and backwards, only ever seeing one paragraph at a time, and relying only on your notes to remember which sentence comes after which. Makes deleting “’tis the season” and cutting down the Christmas gift guide to fit on half a page seem very easy by comparison.

So to editors of all types – from those rushing on set to remove a moustache from the male lead’s face to those with an excited political editor talking in one ear and an excited pre-press supervisor in the other – it’s time to say: happy Christmas, everyone. Here’s to another year of checking up on things.

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.