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.

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Future descriptive

7 Aug

STYLE NOTICE: 7 AUGUST 2089


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

Shock treatment

25 Jul

Well, never mind the Paris Accords – thank goodness this has been settled, years in advance. A decisive example of international cooperation. Wait, hang on, what’s this?

Ah.

We have seen so many examples of claim quotes being used where they shouldn’t be – around claims that only the reporter has made, or around naked editorialising in the display type – that it’s quite a shock to see a headline not have them when it needs them. This Guardian story is not about a fact, it’s about a claim; not about a decision but a prediction. So the headline cannot stand like this, without any attribution at all.

Yes, the source of the assertion eventually appears in the standfirst, but that’s too late: a headline containing a claim must signal the existence of that claim within itself.* This is a highly sensitised part of British newspaper culture: there is a huge difference, to UK readers, between QUEEN AND PRINCE PHILIP TO DIVORCE and QUEEN AND PRINCE PHILIP ‘TO DIVORCE’. The former is a categorical assurance, a truth on which the newspaper is staking its reputation. The latter is clearly nothing of the kind: a secondhand claim at best, and one from which the newspaper is distancing itself by punctuation.

It puts one in mind of the hoary “that’s what …” construction beloved of US beat reporters and long studied by Fred at HeadsUp, in which a striking, apparently declarative opening sentence is only fully contextualised in the succeeding paragraph.

There’s no way a man could have blown up an airliner using explosives hidden in his briefs.

That’s what defense attorney Anthony Chambers is claiming in his latest court filing involving Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian national charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner with a homemade bomb in his underwear on Dec. 25, 2009.

Or:

Monica Conyers doesn’t have a good enough reason to take back her guilty plea and her sudden claim of innocence doesn’t cut it.

That’s what the federal government argued in court documents filed Monday with the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, where Conyers is fighting to have her guilty plea withdrawn.

Which in turn raises a wider question about how long a newspaper should be allowed to keep its readers on the hook before revealing the contested or partial nature of what it’s saying. I would suggest – whether we’re talking about a headline or an opening paragraph – not very long at all.

 

*Especially because, on many news websites, it is only the headline, without the standfirst, that appears on the homepage.

Nation shall prescribe unto nation

11 Jul

‘I’d have gone for “visionnaire” myself. I’m glad we didn’t get “auralooker”:

Historian Nick Kapur’s fascinating Twitter thread about the BBC’s Advisory Committee On Spoken English and its influence on modern speech reveals just how close we came to referring to anticyclones as “halcyons”, but also offers an illuminating insight into what prescription in language really means.

Because of course, there is not one kind of linguistic prescriptivism: there are two. One opposes all language change and all neologism, and attempts to conserve current norms as an eternal standard. But the other seeks to deliberately modify language: not to reject new words, but to invent them, and to influence speech and writing to go in new directions – such as the campaigns to popularise Ms and Mx as neutral  honorifics. It is this second kind of prescriptivism, which one might call activist or progressive prescriptivism, that Kapur is tweeting about here.

The story begins, he relates, in 1926, when Lord Reith sets up a committee to help resolve one of the many problems a pioneer national broadcaster has to solve: how should you pronounce certain words on air? (This group, the Advisory Committee On Spoken English, still exists today, doing very similar work to help BBC broadcasters). Then in 1935, faced with the question of what to call users of the new media of the day – television –  a new sub-committee was set up, not just to advise on pronouncing words, but to invent some new ones. Led by the Anglo-American man of letters Logan Pearsall Smith – an eager language reformer – the Sub-Committee on Words generated the alternatives listed above to start the debate (although it eventually rejected all of them and recommended “televiewer”, subsequently shortened to “viewer”.)

After that, the sub-committee remained active, and widened its remit to mass-produce new words for broadcast far beyond the new industry’s immediate needs, eventually becoming so extravagant and implausible in its inventions that an exasperated chairman of governors closed it down in 1937. But by then it had created several terms – “roundabout” for the road junction, “serviceman” for members of all the armed forces, “art researcher/art historian” to replace the German word “kunstforscher” – that are now commonplace in modern English.

The impression descriptivist scholarship frequently gives is that language is an unknowable stew of errors, localisms, homophone confusions and misreadings, prone to unpredictable change. The emphasis, or the cultural preference, often seems to be bestowed on the unwilled variations to language, not the willed ones. But Kapur reminds us that English is also highly susceptible to the approaches of those who have a design on it, from Edwardian grammarians like Fowler to equalities campaigners to spelling reformers like McCormick at the Chicago Tribune. There are words and conventions in many registers of modern English that were created deliberately by people who wanted to see them catch on and took the opportunity to make it happen.

Sometimes, of course, prescriptivism is institutional, and benefits from that privilege. It might be justifiably argued that the BBC’s committee, as a quasi-official body proposing usage for the nation’s only broadcaster, was in a very strong position to succeed, particularly as it was inventing terms for then-unnamed phenomena. But the Academie Française, which is attempting to do for French today almost exactly what the BBC committee did for English in the 1930s – and from a similarly state-sanctioned position – is greeted with widespread indifference and derision for its efforts.

And in any case, innovative prescription does not need an official platform to succeed. This blog has discussed at length the extent to which Fowler’s suggestions have influenced modern formal and legal English, but Fowler himself was no state official, nor did his books bear any government imprimatur (although Churchill is said to have recommended Modern English Usage to his staff after it came out). His books were a success because, then as now, there is a sustained public appetite for advice on how to engage with formal English. (Indeed, given the existence of a generation of professional linguists who consider it their role to observe rather than advise, the field for such material is possibly clearer today than it was then.)

This is not to say the process is easy: frequently, big innovations just don’t catch on.  There is no doubt that some of the committee’s ideas, like some of Fowler’s, are much worse than others: for example, one member apparently felt it desirable to create a shorter term for “inferiority complex” (“inflex”), and another proposed “yulery” as a collective term for Christmas festivities. The point is not that Fowler or the committee were always “right” about what they proposed; the point is – at least sometimes – that they were successful.

Usage remains the timeless, and the only, judge of current English. But usage does not simply adjudicate on terms that have risen up unbidden from the demos; it also sits in judgment on peri-statal prescriptions and private linguistic entrepreneurialism. Due process is afforded to all new words, whether they are accidents or designs. Linguists say that language is a democracy, and it is: a democracy in which, among other things, anyone is free to prescribe and see what happens.

Highland flying

27 Jun

Saw woman kiss love rival, thrown out of party, stole lighter fluid from a fire eater, set fire to home* – and then became subject of actual, genuine flying-verb headline! Because, we discover, it was a “north-east man”, not mentioned in the display type, who committed all these acts, but who has been omitted from the headline to leave the verb exposed as though the Aberdeen Press & Journal were a 1958 edition of the New York Daily News.

This is a first as far as Ten Minutes Past Deadline is concerned: I’ve never seen a real flying-verb headline in a British publication before. (I don’t really count those punchy three-word standfirsts on the Daily Mail website, which have already had the subject introduced in the main hed, or the Sun’s hard-to-parse front-page puns.) Inspection of the Press & Journal homepage suggests it’s a one-off even there: its broad mix of coverage, from Trump analysis pieces to local tuba competitions, seems otherwise headlined in conventional declarative terms.

Admittedly this isn’t the baffling present-tense flying verb beloved of the Daily News, which always reads like a command; here the past tense encourages you to infer some kind of actor as the subject, even if you don’t know exactly who. (Although shouldn’t it really be “got thrown out of party”?) Nonetheless, it’s a fine and unambiguous example of the type from a highly respectable source: even if it was blown across the Atlantic by accident, it looks like the flying verb has landed.

 

*Actually, “set fire to windowsill” might be more accurate

Behold the front page

13 Jun

Andrew Marr and guests wrestle with the Sundays. Photograph: BBC

Print sales are falling, digital audiences are booming and social media appears to be deciding the outcome of world events by algorithm, but every Sunday Andrew Marr, Sophy Ridge et al still spend 15 minutes shuffling double-page spreads and holding up torn sheets of newsprint to the camera.

The TV press review, even today, remains a staple of broadcast news, and not just on Sundays. Every evening and again every morning, on at least two television channels (not to mention radio), every newspaper is pored over and filleted by a panel of guests. As news websites have grown in influence, you now sometimes see a digital journalist invited to join in, and an occasional iPad lying among the broadsheets: but not all the time, and never at the expense of any of the print front pages.

Why is that? Is it because legacy media organisations look to other legacy media organisations, and are slow to recognise new trends? Perhaps: that’s certainly what Jim Waterson, BuzzFeed UK’s political editor, believes. Is it because newspapers, untrammelled by the fairness and balance rules that Ofcom enforce on British broadcasters, can say the things, or launch the campaigns, that Sky and the BBC cannot? Yes, partly: but digital news sites are as free to be partisan as Fleet Street. The biggest reason, I think,  for the continued pre-eminence of newspapers in public life is because print front pages have an advantage no other form of media has: rhetoric.

When you are writing headlines for the internet, you have to consider how your article will be disseminated. Newspapers are found in newsagents; to a large extent, digital news stories are found on Google. Only about 30% of readers of web news come through a new organisation’s homepage: all the rest come from search engines or social-media referral. This means that digital news has to show up well on Google, which in turn means that digital news headlines must undergo what’s called “search-engine optimisation” (SEO).

What does that mean? It means that the headline must be written bearing in mind the likely terms a reader might type into Google to find it. Most online readers are not looking on your homepage for the stories they want: they are searching blind, using obvious terms, in a competitive field of news sites who all want their clicks. So, if you have an interview with Barack Obama then somewhere, somehow, the headline has to say BARACK OBAMA. If you’re covering the north London derby, somewhere the headline has to say ARSENAL V TOTTENHAM. If you don’t do that, your piece will come far down on the list of results on Google, and Googlers are not noted for their habit of carefully reading pages of results before clicking.

The disadvantage of this, of course, is that it cramps your headline-writing style. Consider the current upheavals in Westminster. It is still possible to write SEO headlines in the distinctive voice of your organisation:  “I’m sick of the Left claiming that Jeremy Corbyn won the election” (Telegraph); “Queen’s speech is DELAYED as May tears up her manifesto to strike a deal with Ian Paisley’s DUP that will ditch new grammar schools and cuts for pensioners but KEEP the target to cut immigration” (Daily Mail); “It Looks Like No One Has Won The UK General Election. WTF Happens Now?” (BuzzFeed). But compare those digital headlines with what’s been appearing on the front pages in the past few days:

These are the kind of phrases – the kind of rhetoric – that cut through. Some of them are old jokes; some of them are new ones; some of them are idioms that may come to encapsulate the crisis (just as the Telegraph’s headline, “In office, but not in power”, resurrects the most memorable of the many assaults made on John Major by his own colleagues in the 1990s). All of them communicate with brief and shattering frankness. And all of them would be SEO disasters: none of those phrases would lead you to a list of search results about the election, and, conversely, nobody typing in “Theresa May hung parliament” or similar into Google would ever find them. Nonetheless, on display at the supermarket, or on the TV, they deliver an instant punch that a five-deck web headline can’t match.

But of course news websites have front pages – or homepages – too. Not all your readers go there, but the ones that do don’t need help from Google to find you. And because you’re free from SEO constraints, there’s more scope for rhetoric: you could almost treat them as though they were newsprint.

Which is exactly, it seems, what BuzzFeed has started doing:

These headlines are short, zingy, SEO-free and – unlike a search on a blank Google homepage – surrounded by photos and furniture that reinforce their message. Although digital, they’re an example of the old journalism, rather than the new. And they’re just the kind of thing that would look good on an iPad at the paper review.

Semi articulated

30 May

Kurt Vonnegut rejected them; the Tribune’s sports section used to ban them; George Orwell thought they were unnecessary. But the New York Times likes semicolons so much that it even uses them in headlines.

Or at least it does when it is making one of its distinctive attempts to write three or four headlines above the same story, like this:

This style only ever appears on the biggest stories, where almost every paragraph of the text is worth a headline, but it’s still an impressively literate thing to see in 60-point capitals when there is so much antipathy towards semicolons in some quarters. Vonnegut famously called them “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing”; Orwell thought they were “an unnecessary stop” and wrote a novel without them to prove it; the Tribune’s esteemed former sports editor, The Gaffer, insisted that they could all be replaced with full stops or commas, according to context.

And that is true, to a certain extent: if you adopt the “safety rule” with semicolons, which is to ensure that both the clauses on either side of it are independent – as a rule of thumb, that both are complete sentences in their own right* – then they can be replaced by a period in all cases. Except that then you lose the nuance that the New York Times headlines exemplify so well: the signal the semicolon sends that a second thought connected to the first one is about to follow. If you had four sentences ending in full stops, any one of them might mark the end of the discussion; the semicolon indicates that the subject remains open. It creates an expectation of more, in a similar way as the colon, in Fowler’s words, “delivers the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words”.

By way of total contrast, here is one of the New York Times’s other ambitious headline innovations: the split-splash front page.

Here again there is more than one headline at the top of the page, but this time there’s no relation between them at all: they are about two completely different stories that the paper is giving joint top billing. In the unusual visual grammar of NYT layout, the lead story usually runs in the sixth column**: so the top headline, ranged left, relates to the story on the right of the page, and the bottom headline, ranged right, relates to the five columns to the left. Both the headlines are set in the same type at the same size, so it will take a lot more than mere punctuation to separate them; you might argue that even the long horizontal rule between the headlines is barely doing enough. At any event, it’s hardly the place for a semicolon.

 

*At first sight, this would appear not to be the case in two of the pictured examples, “Flies 1,000 miles…” and “Collect rocks…”, which appear to be awkward dependent clauses without subjects. But I suspect – given their vintage and the fact that they follow a subject introduced in the first headline – that they are both examples of the glorious flying verb.

** Confirmed, if confirmation were needed, by this behind-the-scenes piece about a hasty front-page redesign.