Tag Archives: style

Hands across the water

30 Oct

No matter how far a British warship sails, she’s always under the watchful eye of the Daily Mail. More so than ever these days, now that the Mail has fully functioning newsrooms on three continents, all operating  entirely transparently to its global readership. Well, almost.

Observe as 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth sets off for the US on Saturday, a £3bn aircraft carrier on her maiden voyage, picking up two “US F-35B” fighters on the way. Weeks later, she “sails into the blue skies of New York City Friday” (the skies?): safely arrived, but now a “70,000 ton” ship costing “$4bn”, “multimillion-dollar” fighters embarked and accompanied by a quote from the “UK defence secretary”.

As we have discussed before, it’s not the big things that confound the emerging anglophone news agenda: everyone’s interested in Trump, Instagram models, celebrity affairs and viral video, no matter where they originate in the world. It’s the small things, the detail points that betray who you really think you’re writing for: the weights and measures, the indications (or not) of nationality, the brief explanations of localisms considered necessary or unnecessary. It may be a British-built ship flying American-made fighters, but all the available dialects for this story are local: there is no global English for the global newsrooms to speak.

Do readers notice? They don’t seem to complain. Well, not often.

And it’s just as well: it would be very hard to eliminate parochialisms at the micro level like this. Thank goodness that football pitches in Britain and America are both approximately the same size:

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Bard choices

1 May

Style guide quiz! Does this entry mean

(i) The correct style to use in all situations is “Stratford-on-Avon”, given that the usual approach in the Tribune’s style guide is to give the correct style in the bold heading of the entry?

(ii) This is the correct style to use for the district council and parliamentary seat only, and that another, unspecified, style is correct for other usages? (This is the only entry in the guide that covers the issue, however.)

(iii) If the answer to (i) is no and the answer to (ii) is yes, do you take the second part of the style note to mean

(a) That the use of “upon” by most other local organisations is a guide to what our style should be; or

(b) Only that the sub-editor should be aware of this common variant when giving the names of the organisations in question?

(iv) If the answer to (iii)(a) is no and the answer to (iii)(b) is yes … does anyone know what our style for the town is?

To find a style guide entry with too much explanation and too little instruction is a rare thing: usually, it’s the other way around. For example, AP lists several commonplace and rarely misspelled words, such as “countryside” and “sandwich”, in its guide with no indication as to the reason for their presence. Similarly, the Telegraph’s banned word list contains, without a word of explanation, “huge” and “toilet”. But perhaps the best place for fascinating but under-glossed entries these days is BuzzFeed, which I’m sure is an oversight on its part and nothing to do with the fact that fortysomething broadsheet sub-editors are now being comprehensively left behind by the pace of events:

 

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.”

British subjects

31 Oct

Hot on the heels of HeadsUp’s discovery of a 1940s style guide covering flying verbs, which advises against their  use “if the verb might be understood to be in the imperative mode”, here’s a good example of an imperative and a flying verb side by side:

Seeing them in close proximity, you realise how easy it is to distinguish one form from the other when that golden rule is followed: “Hid” (clearly implied subject: third person, unknown) against “Go” (clearly implied subject: you). There is none of the confusion caused when, for example, POLICE ARREST DANGER MAN becomes ARREST DANGER MAN.

Nonetheless, it’s still quite ambitious: I’ve never before seen a flying verb headline introduce a second, explicit, subject (“we”) before clarifying who the implied one is (“him”). And the most striking thing of all is that this appeared on the BBC news website: only the second flying verb I have ever encountered in a British-English publication. The article headline itself contains an explicit subject, so the distinctively transatlantic omission on the homepage is presumably only for space reasons. But still, if the classic British existential headline* is now starting to appear in the US, as HeadsUp has observed, perhaps a full-scale cultural exchange is under way?

 

*Those starting FURY AS… , OUTRAGE AS… , JOY AS… , etc

The France connection

3 Oct

Why is it the “Vietnam war” and the “Iraq war”, but not the “Korea war”? We always say “Korean” – the adjective, not the noun. The spoons we use in the kitchen are plastic (noun), metal (noun) or wooden (adjective). And we jokingly refer to “man flu” and “girl talk”, but, for some reason, “woman’s work”.

The use of nouns instead of adjectives – what are called “attributive nouns” – is such a common and convenient part of the language that we hardly realise we’re doing it.  Sometimes it happens because there is no suitable adjective to use: but often we do it even when there is, as Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl, explains:

Not all nouns have related adjectives. “Cotton” and “fleece,” for example, are your only choices for describing a cotton shirt and fleece jacket. But when there is a related adjective you get to choose. For example, since “wool,” and “silk” have the adjective forms “woolen” and “silken,” you get to choose between the attributive noun and adjective. You can wear a silken scarf with your woolen sweater, or you can wear a silk scarf with your wool sweater. Both ways of saying it are correct.

There is no particular rhyme or reason to this: as Fogarty says, “it’s more about what sounds right to you than any logical choice”. Because English can tolerate nouns as adjectives, it appears that one phrase simply becomes preferred over another and hardens into idiom. It’s not grammatically incorrect to call it the “Iraqi war”: we just don’t. Attributive nouns are not chosen by rule, but by ear: that makes it hard to set out guidelines for their use, but also easy to hear when something’s wrong.

As it does in this paragraph, spotted by regular reader Jeff:

The “France president”?

Most reporters and editors are relaxed about nouns as adjectives, but there is one part of a newspaper where they have special significance: the sport section. In international football, for example, a careful distinction is always made between (say) a “French striker” and ” a “France striker”. The former is a forward of undetermined gifts who happens to be French; the latter is a forward who is not only French, but has been picked for the national team and played for France. The choice of the noun rather than the adjective is deliberate: it is a shorthand way of signalling the level of a player’s talent.

Although this article about the Rugby World Cup is largely a politics story, it’s written by the sports desk. And so, I suspect, the sports desk has thought: Macron’s not just a president who happens to be French; he’s the president of his country, a full international. But of course there are no club-level presidents in politics, and no presidents (pace the birthers) whose nationality differs from their country of office; so there is no distinction to be made here by way of an attributive noun. In politics, rather than in sport, they just sound wrong.

And with that, thanks to the beneficence of the Tribune’s management and the negotiating power of its highly unionised workforce, Ten Minutes Past Deadline is off for a brief sabbatical! Normal blogging service will resume at the end of the month, on what no doubt will be a wintry autumn day. (See: you can even use adjectives and attributive nouns together.)

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

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.