Tag Archives: rhetoric

The cook, the thief, his wife and her headline

21 Mar

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So the allegation is that City regulators waved through an allegedly illicit payment for a supposedly profitable oilfield to a man who had been convicted of a money-laundering offence over an unrelated matter. Two huge oil companies allegedly completed the transaction with this man via the offices of a national government. Former MI6 officers are claimed to have been at the heart of the deal and some of the money in question was also used to purchase armoured cars, it is alleged.

Picking the right verb for the headline at times like this is tricky – or at least, finding space for the kind of caution that the Tribune’s lawyer will be happy with. “Accused of”, “said to have”, “reported to be” – they make the story safer in the courts, but dilute its impact on the page. As previously discussed, you could always replace the verb with “in”, for that useful combination of vagueness and implication. Or you could use “amid” for those collections of circumstances whose precise relationship to each other is hard to elucidate.*

But if the verbs are hard, the nouns are easy in stories like this: they jump out. Oil, disgrace, MI6, armour, $800m: there’s too many to choose from. With ingredients this good, you don’t actually need to write a sentence: you can just write a shopping list.

And they’re easy to assemble. Start with one or two of the most colourful bits of the story. Put the core of the news last. If you like, add an EMPHATIC Daily Mail intensifier in uppercase as garnish … and you’ve got yourself a list headline.

Like this:

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This is, of course, the General Petraeus love-affair scandal that shook the US in 2012. By this stage of the investigation, the whole story had become quite complicated, with a second woman and another leading general drawn in to the narrative. This Mail article actually reveals there were two sets of emails, sent independently between more than one pair of protagonists; the second was only discovered by chance after an unrelated police inquiry. That’s a lot to try to explain even in headlines as long as the Daily Mail’s. So the obvious thing to do is to abandon the verbs and go with the nouns.

What’s even more impressive is the second part of that headline: an adverbial clause followed by an object noun phrase, separated by a comma and nothing else. That’s advanced verb-avoidance indeed.

Admittedly, in this case, it’s hard to read any but the most benign missing words into the gap:

As a SECOND general is dragged in, [read] the story of the sex scandal gripping America

As a SECOND general is dragged in, [this is] the story of the sex scandal gripping America

But it goes to show how well you can attract readers’ attention without ever telling them what’s going on.

*Or, indeed, is non-existent.

Neutral News at Ten

24 Jan

Now this – this – is a news organisation that’s committed to impartiality:

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On Fleet Street, where the culture wars rage, no one is surprised that newspapers take sides in their use of language just as they do on their leader pages. But imagine the pressure to stay out of trouble if you’re writing the BBC’s style guide – the benchmark for judicious, non-partisan, inclusive journalism, paid for by all and bound by conscience to reflect all views.

How does it do? By and large, very well. In all areas where it can stay aloof, it does. It frequently links to the painstakingly fair current affairs briefings on the BBC’s Academy website, and it demonstrates a capacity to make distinctions and see both sides that is almost jurisprudential. Whether distinguishing a population from the militants that claim to represent them, or identifying both winners and losers when interest rates rise, it’s hard not to like a style guide that reminds you “not all Tamils are Tigers”, or that “good news” is “not to be used as a blanket term”. For example:

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But the problem for all style guides is that there are areas of political language where it is impossible to stay aloof, because the only terms in common use have become polarised. The BBC guide is more silent than it should be on some of these: there is no help for its journalists on the choice between “bedroom tax” and “spare room subsidy”, for instance, or whether it is fair to call George Osborne’s higher national wage a “living wage”, as he did. But there is at least one controversial area where it does offer guidance, to say this:

Abortion

Avoid pro-abortion, and use pro-choice instead. Campaigners favour a woman’s right to choose, rather than abortion itself. And use anti-abortion rather than pro-life, except where it is part of the title of a group’s name. 

At the left-leaning Tribune, this is not a difficult conclusion to reach. We readily dismiss the term “pro-life”: as the duty editor sometimes observes, “everyone’s pro-life”. Over at Fox News and the Daily Mail, the opposite view is taken and the phrase is in widespread use. So the decision for a BBC style guide editors must have been very sensitive. Indeed, forced to make the best of the bitter rhetoric that surrounds an angry issue, they might have opened themselves to an accusation of  bias. But what would be the alternative? Only to adopt the other side’s terms and opt for framing the debate as “pro-abortion” versus “pro-life”, alienating a different group of licence-fee payers just as much.

Judicious evenhandedness is an admirable approach to journalism, but the straight and narrow way has an awkward habit of narrowing to a point in the trickiest areas. Reading the style guide, it is impossible to doubt the BBC’s essential fairness and good conscience. But when there’s no middle ground, everyone’s forced to pick a side.

Secrets of style

16 Feb

You should always put right a factual error, of course. But would you really issue a correction in the paper for not having followed your own house style?

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This correction, in the Guardian earlier this month, is purely a matter of preference, not error. Style guides sometimes deal with issues of fact – warnings about, say common geographical mistakes – but this isn’t one of those times. This is just an absence of quote marks that doesn’t seem to affect the sense of the sentence; something that only someone who had read the style guide would even know was wrong.

Admittedly, the Guardian’s guide is publicly available online for those who take an interest, but it’s not as though the reader’s editor feels compelled to apologise for every lapse in consistency. For example, Guardian style calls for “focused” with one “s”; it sometimes appears with two, but there’s never been a correction about it.

But the rest of the column makes it clear why these quotes matter. The Guardian has been a supporter of the Living Wage campaign, which urges employers to offer an hourly pay figure somewhat higher the statutory minimum wage. In the 2015 budget, George Osborne introduced what he called a “national living wage”, borrowing the campaign’s phrase but not fully winning its approval: his proposal does not include a higher rate for London, is not set according to a cost-of-living index, and came alongside a series of benefit adjustments for the lower-paid that were nowhere contemplated in the campaign’s calculations.

It is therefore the campaign’s, and the Guardian’s, position that the “national living wage” is not actually a living wage, but a rebranding and increasing of the minimum wage. So the style guide uses quotes to indicate that the phrase is not the paper’s but the government’s: it acknowledges the official title while maintaining its distance from it.

That means the correction is acknowledging not just a failure in neatness or consistency, but something bigger: a lack of critical thinking, a lapse in the acuity one would expect from the paper in its political reporting. A piece of parliamentary rhetoric has found its way into the paper unchallenged. It’s an apology, in effect, for seeming to be credulous.

Of course the British media’s openly displayed party preferences play a large part in the setting of style like this: the Telegraph, at the other end of the political spectrum from the Guardian, sees no reason to use quotes around the term in news coverage. It’s hardly unusual to see Fleet Street pick a fight over a phrase.

But it does show what consistent style can achieve, in addition to keeping a lid on misspellings. Style guides don’t just contain rules, they contain thinking: tiny position papers that encapsulate the reason for a choice on a sensitive issue, whether it’s between undocumented or illegal, Derry or Londonderry, Burma or Myanmar, refugee or migrant. The issues are unpacked once, considered, then formulated into a rule rather than opened up for debate every time. So then, when you follow the style guide, the paper’s worldview comes with it: the mosaic of rulings not only keeps the writing tidy, but infuses the text with the spirit of the paper. With a good style guide, you don’t need to read the leader page to know roughly where a newspaper stands: its choice of words on any page will tell you.

Tense situation

24 Nov

Uh-oh. This correspondent will today choose to write his article in the future tense:*

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No, wait, the present (“describes”):

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No, wait, the past (“came”):

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No, wait, the future (“will try”):

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No, wait, the pres … ah. Now the reason for the strange mix of tenses is becoming apparent: this appears to be a news story (or “write-off”) based on a column by the shadow chancellor elsewhere in the same paper:

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And the full complexity of the situation becomes clear in the next paragraph. This isn’t just an article about a contemporaneous article, but also about a relevant speech due to be given later in the week …

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… which comes (will come?) after the most significant event of the party’s year – the general election defeat in April:

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So there are three distinct events – six months ago, today, this coming Friday – but, whichever way you slice it, the timeline is blurred: the tenses have bled into each other and the reader is not being accurately located in the sequence of events. Intervention is required.

It had previously been this blog’s position that there is never any need to write a print news story in the simple present tense. If you assume that the point in time from which a newspaper is written is early in the morning of the date on the masthead, then the future tense will do for any events happening later that day (which is to say, almost all of them). Anything that started the previous night should be written about in the past tense, or the present continuous if it is still going on.

But that overlooks the special case of a newsworthy statement being made by a public figure elsewhere in the same issue of that day’s paper. In this case, the news event is exactly contemporaneous with the publication of the paper – indeed, it is the publication of the paper.  That means that, for all its slightly self-conscious, declamatory tone, the simple present tense is the only one that really fits the situation.

And if you allow yourself to use it, the past-present-future of the story becomes easier to separate. Matters relating to McDonnell’s column: present tense throughout (“John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, today promises…”). Matters relating to his speech on Friday: future tense throughout (“the McDonnell speech will come as …”). Matters relating to the general election, of course, remain in the past tense; the imperfect “his promise came” in the third par, because it relates to the column, moves to the present.

News reports about your own newspaper’s content are curious items. They’re hardly unknown on the front page – if, say, you’ve got a political heavyweight declaring his defection to another party in print – but the less significant ones further back in the run are sometimes only a few pages away from the comment section in which their source material appears. But if you’re going to run them, they need to be in a present-tense time bubble of their own: so today Ten Minutes Past Deadline decides that it is changing its mind.

 

*Further discussions on whether “future tense” is even a meaningful term in English are welcome, although this blog remains of the opinion that “will” offers more than mere modality, and marks a kind of non-continuous, non-habitual future state that approximates very closely to a separate tense.

Style is substance

27 Sep

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And they say style doesn’t matter:

The Guardian has been until now one of a dwindling number of newspapers and broadcasters using the term Burma rather than Myanmar, the regime’s official name for the country. What has divided the media on this issue is that the name Burma is associated with the democratic movement there, while the name Myanmar is associated with the army-dominated government which decreed its use in 1989, a year after troops had shot down thousands of demonstrators.

The choice of name was thus a way of indicating, or at least of hinting at, approval or disapproval.

Style can help with a lot of things. It can give a sense of authority and competence to prose by providing consistency and tidiness. With new or foreign names or places, it can rule out the genuine confusion that variant spellings and transliterations can cause. But, as the Guardian suggests, it can do much more than that: style can encourage you to think in a completely different way.

We will from today be using the name Myanmar, partly because it has become almost universal and partly because colonial names should be part of the past, along with the empires that gave rise to them.

This is a complex decision: one in which a leftwing paper’s nervousness over the legacy of colonialism is matched with an equal concern over modern-day totalitarianism – and the conclusion, in effect, becomes an entire editorial about a change to the house style guide. For sure, some style decisions are simple coin-tosses over which spelling to stick to for consistency; but not this one.

And three days earlier, with the Syrian crisis reaching its peak and fear of “migrants” growing, the Guardian’s production editor, David Marsh, was making an even bolder decision about style.

“The language we hear in what passes for a national conversation on migration has become as debased as most of the arguments, until the very word ‘migrants’ is toxic,” he writes. “Journalists, like politicians, prefer to keep a story simple, assuming readers and voters have a short attention span. Labels such as ‘migrants’, however, deny people their humanity, and somewhere in this sorry saga we are losing sight of the fact they are people.”  Therefore:

You will still see the word “migrants” or “migration” in the Guardian as a general expression to cover people who for whatever reason have moved, or are moving, from the country of which they are nationals to another. But “refugees”, “displaced people” and “asylum seekers”, all of which have clear definitions, are more useful and accurate terms than a catch-all label like “migrants”, and we should use them wherever possible.

This is not a right/wrong decision about a word being used incorrectly: as he says, the strict definition of a migrant covers everyone from the persecuted to the ambitious. This change is essentially a tone and judgment decision, a rhetorical decision – and therefore, in fact, a style decision.

You may agree or disagree with it as a choice, but it’s hard to disagree with the principle on which it was made. Words can quickly develop colours, meanings and overtones that outstrip the lexicographer’s ability to chronicle them. Nuances can change in between editions of Collins or Webster. Editors have to be alert to the changes as they happen. And that’s where style comes in: style guides begin where the dictionary ends.

And that’s why style is important. If a newspaper without sub-editors is not too bothered about how many ‘s’s there are in “focused”, then maybe it’s also not sufficiently curious about whether Yorgas Houliarakis and Giorgos Chouliarakis are the same person. And, if so, then maybe it finds itself incapable of keeping abreast of the debate when a national political controversy builds up over whether a migrant is actually a refugee. Style may start with the small stuff, but it doesn’t stay there.