Tag Archives: style

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

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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.

The size and the horror

2 Aug

We held out for a long time, but it looks like even our resolve is weakening. Witness this exchange on the subs’ email list last week:

From the reader’s editor:

Hi
Can someone please tweak this: [appends link to article]
Style guide:
enormity
It might sound a bit like “enormous”, but enormity refers to something monstrous or wicked, such as a massacre, and is not just another word for “big”
 From a sub-editor:
I’ll have a look at this
From another sub-editor:

this is an odd one as our default dictionary Collins actually says it can be used informally to mean “vastness of size or extent

And then, from the website production editor, this:
I think it’s one of those words whose changed meaning is now used widely enough to possibly warrant a style guide tweak.
Have copied in the house style team for their view.
Best
OK, so we haven’t changed anything yet. OK, so we’re just taking views at the moment. But still, compare this willingness to be descriptivist with what we were saying about enormity two years ago, when an article was summarily corrected to remove any suggestion of bias during the Scottish independence campaign:
A front-page analysis of the Scottish independence referendum said: “With only 10 days to go, the rest of Britain finally awoke yesterday to the enormity of what is happening in Scotland.” The style guide states that enormity “refers to something monstrous or wicked, not big”. The writer was, in fact, referring to the scale and importance of the vote (“Nothing else now matters in British politics”, 8 September, page 1).

I thought then, and I think now, that the word is currently best avoided in either sense. It can’t be relied upon to deliver its old meaning, but nor, as witnessed above, have the prejudicial implications of that meaning been completely extinguished. It is well and truly “skunked“, as Bryan Garner would say.

But nonetheless, the direction of travel is obvious: the “immensity” meaning is starting to appear in major dictionaries, and, in the case of Merriam-Webster, as a formal definition of equal status with the others. More than one senior and discriminating Tribune writer is using the word in relation to size without batting an eye, despite what the style guide may say. And although it is unwise to try to prove anything that relies on context with a Google Ngram, compare the usage graph for “enormity of the crime” (i.e. repugnance) with the one for “enormity of the task” (i.e. immensity):

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Language changes so slowly that we perceive it to be static; we discover with bemusement that “awful” once meant “awe-inspiring” or that “egregious” once meant “eminent”, but we don’t perceive the same shifts to be happening today. Yet they are, and this is a clear example of a word conclusively changing its meaning in front of our eyes. It may still be too early to safely describe a band (as we already have) as “uptempo pop rockers destined for enormity”. But the day is getting closer.

Registered™

19 Jul

My iPhone is biometrically coded, offers encryption that baffles the FBI, and can connect me to global news and networks that defy the reach of political censorship. But it does want me to capitalise ‘Polaroid’:

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Digital freedom means many things, but apparently not the right to appropriate trademarks.

The extent to which registered trademarks enter common language, or “genericisation”, is one of the hard knot of editing issues, along with libel and legal reporting, where editors can really earn their money – high-stakes prescriptivism, so to speak. Lawyers representing dominant companies live in fear of their trademarks becoming nouns or verbs that define an entire market, not just  their clients’ products (see, for example, “googling”, “photoshopping”, “thermos”, “sellotape”, and once, long ago, “aspirin”). Once a word has “entered the language”, the courts are inclined to take that as a fait accompli and deny any further copyright infringement cases; so the lawyers have to act fast and early to prevent genericisation ever happening. They email, write, phone, demand corrections, suggest alternatives (Velcro likes you to say “hook and loop fasteners”). They are language change’s sharpest and best-resourced opponents.

And that’s why the Tribune’s style guide on the issue says the following:

trademarks (TM)
Take care: use a generic alternative unless there is a very good reason not to, eg ballpoint pen, not biro (unless it really is a Biro, in which case it takes a cap B); say photocopy rather than Xerox, etc; you will save our lawyers, and those of Portakabin and various other companies, a lot of time and trouble

The editor’s natural interest in enforcing distinctions chimes well with the lawyers’ determination to have them enforced, even if the legal vigilance gets a little grating at times. Portakabin, notably, used to send round a letter a week before the summer music festival season – long before any transgression had actually taken place – to “remind” editors that their clients did not provide the toilet facilities for Glastonbury, so on no account were festivalgoers to be described as using “Portaloos”. This would reliably cause the kind of grumbling, even among hard-nosed copydesk veterans, that one might almost have described as descriptivist. However, one can see the point: in court cases, one of the determining factors of a word being deemed to have entered the public domain is to what extent it appears in a general sense in media reports.

That said, it’s still not entirely clear what Apple is hoping to achieve with its suggestions on QuickType (as the predictive typing aid in iOS9 is called). As an experiment, I tried out Facebook Messenger with single-word nouns given as trademarks in the Tribune’s style guide.

Whenever it recognised the word (it didn’t in all cases), QuickType invariably suggested an initial cap, with the sole (and slightly baffling) exception of Jacuzzi (trademark of the company founded in 1915 by Giocondo Jacuzzi in Berkeley, California.)

But is that enough? As the style guide suggests, the best practice when trademarked words come up is to change them to a generic alternative – at least, better practice than scattering the copy with ™s and ®s. Is a capital letter, without more, enough to escape accusations of aiding genericisation? Is the fact that your operating system is suggesting a semi-proper noun less likely to annoy the lawyers, or more?

It might be argued that proposing some acknowledgment of copyright is enough to absolve you of blame; certainly better than offering a lowercased suggestion. But the best practice recommended to lawyers is to use the trademark as an adjective not a noun (“Xerox brand copiers”), and QuickType seems happy to suggest nouns. It may be that QuickType is following the dictionary practice of capitalising trademarked nouns when defining them; but dictionaries always quickly make clear that such words are trademarks, and QuickType does not.

In the end, the genericised fate of escalator, kerosene, laundromat and trampoline suggests that the battle – like nearly all battles against language change – may be futile. Certainly, Xerox have fought doughtily against “xeroxing” as a verb and kept their trademark protected: but there are many fewer photocopiers in today’s broadband-connected offices than there used to be, and it may be that the word will die out with the practice. But in the meantime, the letters will keep on arriving. And the lawyers aren’t the amateur grammar grumblers of the letters page: these people peeve for a living.

 

Crud distinctions

7 Jun

So this is what you don’t do. In the light of last time’s discussion about when you might, in the most uncomfortable of circumstances, be tempted to clean up a quote, here’s a clear example of the vast majority of cases when you wouldn’t and shouldn’t.

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I could listen to showrunners talk all day, and this splendid roundtable with five of television’s most in-demand producers is a good example of the flair with which the LA Times covers its hometown industry – even in the face of competition from Variety, the film mags and any number of specialist websites. But in the transcription of the interviews beneath the video, that most genteel of vulgar terms, “crud”, has appeared next to the name of Fargo creator Noah Hawley.

Did he really say “crud”? Does anyone ever say that? Well, because we have the video at the top of the page, we can check. And, as you might have suspected, Hawley doesn’t say “crud” (at about the 31.45 mark on the tape); of course, he says “crap”. The word has been censored in print. It’s a classic example, presumably, of the misplaced sense of editorial propriety that Bill Walsh describes in Lapsing Into A Comma:

It’s pretty likely that somewhere someone is watching on CNN as somebody says, “I ain’t saying nothing to you [bleep]er [bleep]ers,” while reading a printed account of the same statement that says, “I respectfully decline to comment, my good man.”

The rest of the roundtable is transcribed punctiliously. And I don’t have a problem with occasional square-bracketed clarifications when they’re inserted into long-form quotes in which interviewees can clearly be heard speaking in their own voice. But it does seem odd, when happily publishing a video of someone saying “crap” on your own website, that you would bother to expurgate the word in the text beneath.

Not that swearing doesn’t present a tricky problem for editors; it does, especially in quotes. The rule here at the Tribune is that obscenities should be printed in full and uncensored within direct quotes, but may not appear anywhere else in the paper. The Associated Press disagrees, and recommends to “replace letters of an offensive word with a hyphen” when there is no compelling need to reproduce the term in full. But it too advises against censorship:

In reporting profanity that normally would use the words “damn” or “god”, lowercase “god” and use the following forms: damn, damn it, goddamn it. Do not, however, change the offending words to euphemisms. Do not, for example, change “damn it” to “darn it”.

All of which doesn’t help much in dealing with the knotty problem that started this whole discussion off a fortnight ago: outfielder Carlos Gomez’s anger at the all-too-accurate transcription of his words as they appeared in the Houston Chronicle.

When a player gives you this as a quote:

For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.

What’s the correct way to proceed?

  1. Run the quote verbatim, as the Chronicle did? That’s the impeccable journalistic thing to do – except that the player might feel slighted about his halting English, as Gomez now does, other non-native anglophones may detect a whiff of native-speaker condescension, and a difficult debate about social disadvantage could develop over what was meant to be a simple baseball story.
  2. “Clean up” the quote? Definitely not: the amount of work needed to turn it into standard English goes far beyond what even the most lax judge would consider acceptable. Huge amounts of it would have to be changed: “Last year and this year, I haven’t really done much for this team. The fans are angry. They are disappointed”.
  3. Take some the words out of direct speech? You could do – except, again, because every single phrase is in non-standard English, you would have to report the whole thing indirectly, leading to the peculiar situation of a player “speaking to the fans” without giving a single actual quote.
  4. Just not run the story at all? That wouldn’t satisfy anyone – not the reporter who brought the story in, the readers who like to hear from their beloved Astros, or the player who wanted to get a message through to the bleachers. (And how would you explain it to Gomez? “Sorry, Carlos, but we really can’t run this until your English improves”?)

After two weeks of thinking about it, I’m still not sure what I would do.

 

Ya gotta be championship

24 May

You never alter a direct quote: that’s the strict editing rule. Reported speech can be tweaked, but if it’s inside quotation marks, you don’t touch it. Except that one newspaper followed that rule to the letter – and got into trouble for it from the interviewee himself.

In marked contrast to the usual accusations made by athletes against journalists, Carlos Gomez of the Houston Astros has complained to the Houston Chronicle, not that he was misquoted, but that he was quoted too accurately. JA Adande of sports website The Undefeated takes up the story:

If you think quoting people accurately can’t be controversial then you haven’t read about Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle relaying the English words of Dominican-born Houston Astros outfielder Carlos Gomez verbatim:

Gomez: “For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.”

Critics, including Gomez himself, accused Smith of ridiculing Gomez by highlighting the native Spanish speaker’s grammatical inaccuracies. The editor of the Chronicle apologized.

Since when should journalists apologize for being accurate?

You can understand Adande’s surprise. But in fact, the answer to his last question is actually contained in his previous paragraph: “Critics, including Gomez himself, accused Smith of ridicule”. This isn’t just officious peevers intervening over the head of the player being quoted: this is the player himself, feeling exposed in a foreign country over his inability to speak a foreign language. That’s when it’s at least worth thinking about what consequences “accuracy” has for the people we write about.

Adande is firmly of the opinion that forcing quotes into standard English is never the answer. He writes:

The Smith-Gomez flap brought up a debate about the old journalistic tradition of “cleaning up” quotes — that is, making slight fixes to align grammar and pronunciation with standard English.

This is a tradition that needs to go.

For one, it’s patronizing, with the implication that anything that deviates from the norm is inherently inferior and must be corrected. Black English, for example, isn’t a referendum on intelligence — it’s a reflection of centuries of segregation, just as American English is a linguistic representation of our country’s split from Britain. Passing judgment based on speech can often say more about the listener than the speaker.

He also cites the example of the Brazilian basketball player Leandro Barbosa of last year’s title-winning Golden State Warriors. At the end of an on-court interview after a win, Barbosa exclaimed, by way of conclusion, “We gonna be championship!”. The phrase, broken English or not, immediately took off on social media, became a rallying cry for the fans and the team, and is now firmly associated with the Warriors’ run to victory.

Adande’s interesting piece provoked another one, this time by Sports Illustrated columnist Richard Deitsch. Taking Adande’s bold thesis (“Do we consider Yoda any less wise because of his mixed-up syntax?”), he asked several fellow sports reporters how they dealt with the issues of culture, language and dialect when handling interviews.

Several of them share Adande’s uncompromising standpoint on accuracy: Yahoo’s Greg Wyshynski, who writes about ice hockey, says of the NHL’s many Russian stars:

They said what they said in the manner in which they said it, and that was their intention. Just like I wouldn’t want someone changing some Jersey-fied malapropism in my quotes because it’s not correct, I wouldn’t want to do the same to Evgeni Malkin.

However, several others disagree and feel an obligation to protect their interviewees. Speaking of some of the Hispanic baseball players he covers, Frank Isola of the New York Daily News says:

“They might say ‘that team have two good player.’ Isn’t it only right to make it plural?”

And Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, while conceding that some colourful or expressive quotes are better left untouched, makes this distinction:

“It’s different with a person who struggles to explain himself or herself, or for whom English is a second language.”

And that, I think, is a key point. Professional sportspeople, these days, are not simply allowed to perform on the field: they are expected to perform off the field as well by giving interviews to the media. In professional leagues, such public appearances are usually mandatory, at the expense of a fine for non-compliance. This means that everyone – confident anglophone and withdrawn Russian-speaker alike – has to try to answer questions whether they are articulate in English or not.

That’s why it’s hard to agree in every case with Wyshynski’s position that players “said what they said in the manner in which they said it, and that was their intention”. Sometimes an interviewee may have made a conscious choice about using non-standard English; sometimes they may be talking in their natural voice. But, in many cases, they may not speak the language well enough to distinguish one register of English from another, and what they end up saying may be far from what they intended to convey.

Isola’s example, “player”/”players”, is also well-chosen. Many Spanish speakers of English have a tendency to devoice the final consonants of words, so rigidly transcribing what sounds like a singular in the name of “accuracy” can actually come across as an uncomfortable attempt to imitate someone’s accent.

So what to do? Well, one key distinction a reporter can make is to distinguish between those people who are speaking non-standard English deliberately and those who are speaking non-standard English by accident. Of course it would be crass, and sometimes racist, to completely rewrite a dialect-speaker’s quote into standard form. But you need to be able to distinguish between an extrovert centre-forward from Newcastle holding forth in his native Geordie, and a shy Montenegrin goalkeeper stumbling through a compulsory interview in a language he would rather not be speaking at all.

Adande is also bullish about the way non-standard quotes are being received in a world where “reasonable people can make allowances for those who use English as a second language”. But it’s not entirely clear that the picture is as rosy as that. Adande’s position is that Barbosa’s quote became a rallying cry despite not being in standard English: proof of how all English speakers can make themselves understood without the need for Strunk & White. But there’s also an uncomfortable sense that Barbosa’s quote became famous because he was not speaking in standard English: because native anglophones thought it was cute – ESL speakers say the funniest things! – and passed it around for the enjoyment of others more fluent in the language.

It can, admittedly, be difficult to tell which side of the line a case falls. Here’s a Vine of Barbosa’s famous quote: you can hear that he’s far from a defensive interviewee,* and is certainly confident enough with the media to offer an epigram at the end of a question. But equally, it’s not clear that he intended to cause the delighted amusement he apparently provokes.

It must be hard for players to know how to respond when something like this happens. Imagine you were a goalkeeper in the Bundesliga and mangled what you hoped would be an inspirational quote in your faltering German. Then imagine that this quote inspired such joy among the fans that it got painted on banners all over the stadium and chanted whenever you made a save. Would you feel proud that something you said, by accident, had caught on? Or would you feel embarrassed at how poor your language skills were? Certainly Barbosa has made the former choice: he embraced his quote and is now promising “We Gonna Be Championship Part II” for 2016 on Twitter. Gomez – who was hoping for some protection from the writer or copydesk and didn’t get it – not so much.

The risk of being seen to patronise interviewees by cleaning up their quotes is at least partly balanced by the risk of being seen to have ridiculed them by leaving them untouched. Barbosa’s quote went out live on TV and became a phenomenon straightaway, but print journalists have time to think before they make a player a star because of a picturesque malapropism.

So you have to make a judgment about the speaker’s intent. Are you riding roughshod over an athlete’s right to choose his register, or are you taking advantage of a man who is only speaking English because the league ordered him to? If a running back delivers a confident tirade in African-American English about race relations in the NFL, then of course you shouldn’t change a word of it. Run it verbatim. But if the kicker’s just forgotten the word for “stadium” in his third language, you might want to give him a break.

(hat-tip to @TheSlot for posting the links to both articles)

* You can see the full interview here.

 

 

‘Used’ misused

27 Apr

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Hmm, not quite. There seems to have been a lot of this coming across the desk recently: politicians “using” speeches to say things. It used to be that speeches were only ever “made”; now, more and more of them are apparently serendipitous opportunities to be taken advantage of, as though every speaking engagement offered an open platform and a plastic audience, waiting for a politician to set the debate.

It’s a minor point, but the two aren’t quite co-terminous. It’s correct to say “use” for some occasions – for example, major set-piece speeches that exist on the calendar as regular events. When President Kennedy exhorted Americans to “ask what you can do for your country”, he was speaking at his inaugural address: something that all new presidents can be expected to make, but whose content depends entirely on the speaker. That, had anyone been using the phrase at the time, would have been a good example of “using a speech” to rally the country. And on a slightly less elevated note, when George Osborne announced the re-privatisation of Britain’s nationalised banks, he did so at the 2013 Mansion House speech – again, an annual diary event at which the chancellor is expected to appear and say something, but whose agenda is left entirely open.

However, if there’s no such diary event in prospect – if the opportunity to speak has to be created out of nothing – the term isn’t nearly so accurate. If Jeremy Corbyn is standing in front of a backcloth saying LABOUR IN FOR BRITAIN while making a speech about staying in the EU, or Michael Gove is urging Brexit in front of a huge banner saying VOTE LEAVE TAKE CONTROL, that’s not using a speech; that’s making a speech. Those addresses aren’t open-mic nights in neutral venues, they’re campaign stops: media opportunities where the event has been created for the message, not the message for the event.

There’s a difference. Or there is at the moment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if usage makes it blur.