Tag Archives: Columnists

Vague impression

1 Oct

I’m four years late to this, it’s none of my business and I couldn’t possibly prove it, but I bet this originally said “vagueries”. Or at least, I bet that either:

(i) the writer wanted to say “vagueries”, was unsure how to spell it, assumed the word he wanted was “vagaries” and spelt it thus; or

(ii) the writer spelt it “vagueries” and an editor assumed he meant “vagaries” and changed it.

“Vagaries”, of course, can be easily looked up. “Vagueries” – well, the establishment dictionaries are silent, and only Wiktionary and its like are prepared to essay a definition: “a vagueness, a thing which is vague, an example of vagueness”, per yourdictionary.com.

“Vague” and “vagary” are closely related – the authorities suggest that both probably derive from the Latin verb vagus, “to wander”. But in their journey through middle French and into English they have come to acquire two distinct meanings: “imprecise” and “aberrant”. And, given that Stereogum’s critic is objecting to Coldplay’s    “vague platitudes about walking through fires or turning your magic on”, it is clearly the former that he means.

You might think the “correct” English word in this instance would be “vaguenesses”, but the authorities seem reluctant to countenance that either, at least in the plural. And in any event “vague”, a word that arrived from French, instinctively sounds as though it ought to become a noun in a more French way, by analogy with the same process that has given English “drolleries” and “fripperies”.

If it were the case that the writer wrote “vagueries” and the editor changed it, that would be a shame. Rock critics are traditionally granted a lot of licence in terms of tone, register, syntax, hyperbole, and even decorum, in their reviews, as part of the wide range of voices contained every day in a newspaper. A quick bit of neologising is hardly out of the way in the music pages.

If, however, the writer put “vagaries”, then we face a very advanced editing conundrum indeed: whether an editor should replace a word that is in the dictionary but doesn’t make sense with one that isn’t, but does. That’s quite a big call, but I think the answer is clear. “Vagaries” is just wrong. Make it “generalities” or “platitudes” again if you’re worried about over-reaching your authority, but I think it’s clear from the sound of the word what the writer was trying to do. It might be wise to consult first, but I’d be lobbying to go for it.


(And with that, Ten Minutes Past Deadline is off, kicking through the leaves, for its traditional autumn break. See you at the end of the month, the collapse of the west permitting.)

Invisible mending

8 Nov

“Most writers I know have tales to tell of being mangled by editors,” writes the esteemed academic John Gross,*

“… and naturally it is the flagrant instances they choose to single out – absurdities, outright distortions of meaning, glaring errors. But most of the damage done is a good deal less spectacular. It consists of small changes (usually too boring to describe to anyone else) that flatten a writer’s style, slow down his argument, neutralise his irony; that ruin the rhythm of a sentence or the balance of paragraph; that deaden the tone that makes the music.”

Here at the Tribune, we are a “writer’s paper”: that is to say, we allow our senior writers – and especially our columnists – not just their own opinions, but their own style as well.  Of course, in theory we edit everything perfectly – we intervene whenever it is required, and keep clear whenever it is not – but to the extent there is an institutional bias, it is to be hands-off: not to flatten a style or ruin an argument for the sake of enforcing “good English”. So we are, one would hope, less likely than some of Gross’s targets to “pounce mercilessly on split infinitives … and all the other supposed offenses that are often no offense at all”.

But hands-off editing comes with its own set of hazards. Specifically, it can create a culture of under-intervention: we do basic editing, correcting spellings and checking dates, but perhaps decline to step in when a columnist has mixed a metaphor, or written a sentence so long that it provokes amusement on Twitter. In the worst cases, faced with something notably angry, funny, colloquial or emotional, we can become paralysed: confronted by a confessional tour de force or celebrity stream of consciousness, we freeze, run a spellcheck and send it through without doing the whole job.

So, bearing the countervailing risks in mind, where you would you step in, and where you would you step back, here?

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This is Laura Craik’s “Upfront” column in the Evening Standard’s ES magazine. She is a fashion and trends commentator who writes in a  chatty, informal style typical of that genre: even if you don’t know her, that much becomes immediately apparent when you read the copy. The tone and register are easy to grasp, and so are the editing parameters: you instinctively allow “mahoosive”, “yada yada”, the sentence fragments, or “Soz” in a way that you wouldn’t if they cropped up in a Telegraph editorial.

But I’m not so sure about “pontificating”. Given the context (“I say ‘rushed’, but really I’d been pontificating since May”),  I strongly suspect what’s meant is “prevaricating”. Even if the intended sense is something closer to “I’d been talking about it to everyone for months”, “pontificating” still isn’t quite right: it carries the sense of speaking (like a pontiff) from a sense of real or imagined authority, and the whole point of the piece is that the author didn’t know what to do. In a piece where nearly everything should be allowed to stand, this is something that needs to be changed: the one reason in 600 words not to step back and wave the copy through.

Intentional malapropisms are funny. Unintentional ones on the way to making a different kind of joke are just distracting. That’s where the kind of invisible mending that broadsheet subs do comes in. Tone is exclusively the province of the writer – there is a lot of truth in the columnist’s weary complaint that “it’s my column, not yours” – but sense and cogency are the business of the newspaper as a whole, and particularly the copydesk. Making a change like that doesn’t “flatten the writer’s style” but enhances it, by removing a distraction over which a literate reader might trip. Editors shouldn’t do too much, but we usually have to do something.


* Editing and Its Discontents“, in The State of the Language, edited by Christopher Ricks and Leonard Michaels (University of California Press, 1990)