Tag Archives: style

The limits of SEO

20 Jul

Do you remember Mohammed Emwazi? Maybe it doesn’t ring a bell. Do you remember “Jihadi John”, though? Emwazi, it seems, was much better known by his Isis sobriquet than his real name: a basic analysis on Google reveals 103,000 hits for the latter versus 403,000 for the former.

But we didn’t call him that at the Tribune. The foreign desk asked us not to. Perhaps a mention somewhere in the copy to clarify that Emwazi was indeed known by that nickname, but never in the headline or at the top of the story. The desk didn’t want to “trivialise a serious situation”, or add tabloid pizzazz to the torture and beheading of hostages. So we didn’t. We’d have got more clicks if we had, but we stopped.

The same applies to the “QAnon Shaman”, the “Yorkshire Ripper” and several others. “It means we sometimes take a hit on search,” the web production editor writes, “but we do it so as not to make light of the individuals and their motives/actions”.

A few weeks ago on Horny Handed Subs of Toil, a member revealed that his publication asks subs to allow “mens”, no apostrophe, in certain circumstances for search engine optimisation, because Google fails to return as many results if you type it correctly as “men’s”. There was consternation, as you might expect, and some doubt as to whether it was in fact necessary, but it illustrated the kind of discussion that we normally have about SEO. Who’s top of the search results? How can we get more traffic? Are we doing the right thing? It’s much rarer, but perhaps more revealing about your organisation, to consider the things you won’t say even when Google wants you to.

With us, the reasons vary. Our coverage of the subpostmasters and subpostmistresses scandal is probably being hampered by our disinclination to say “subpostmasters” or “subpostmistresses”; we won’t use one without the other for reasons of inclusivity, but using both makes headlines unfeasibly long. We are going with “post office operators”, which is probably not what people are typing into their search engines. We insist on “register office” – the correct term – not “registry office”, even though Google Ngrams suggests that the latter has almost always been more popular than the former (and produces significantly more hits in search). And we say Brexiter, not Brexiteer – despite a two-to-one swing against it on Google – simply out of a determination, as strong today as ever, “not to make them sound like jolly pirates”.

Northern Star

8 Jun

Stopwatches at the ready: how long does it take you to “get” this Daily Star front page?

British readers will be at a considerable advantage here. But I’m British and write headlines for a living, and I had to stare at it for almost a minute in Sainsbury’s before I worked it out.

This is the Star, of course – the national newspaper that puts stories about escaped hamsters on its front page – but it’s not a joke or “silly” article. It’s a perfectly legitimate piece of media news, albeit one that could sit comfortably on an inside page.

If you still need pointers: it’s a story about a decision to give British regional accents more prominence on the BBC, and the headline is written in Yorkshire dialect as a form of illustration. This much you might gather from the pun on “happen” (or ‘appen) in the strapline. In Yorkshire, “happen” can be used as a sentence adverb that functions in the same way as “perhaps” or “maybe”, and means essentially the same thing (so the sense is “perhaps it will happen”).

It’s a classic Yorkshire-ism that would set most British readers on the right path, but what comes after in the main head is still a challenge. What they’re trying for, you eventually realise, is a rhyming pun on “News at 10” using the Yorkshire phrase ’Ow do?, meaning “how [do you] do?”. I think what makes it particularly difficult is that, having started marking the dropped h’s with apostrophes in the strap, they then abruptly stop, so I was stuck on “OW” (cry of pain) and “DOS” (Microsoft operating system) for about 45 seconds before the light dawned. ’OW DO’S might need a lot of punctuation for a five-letter phrase, but it would have been clearer.

I mean, I say it’s difficult, but that may only be an indication of how painfully southern I am (born in London, raised in Sussex). Perhaps a lot of people got it straightaway. Still, given that the story is about unseen continuity announcers rather than well-known frontline newsreaders, it’s not 100% clear what Sophie Raworth (Surrey-born, crisp RP) is doing on the front page, or why she has acquired a northern accent and flat cap. News anchors being required to fake a dialect? I may be behind the curve slightly on this, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what it says in the text.

O Capt, my Capt

16 Feb

Captain Sir Tom Moore? Sir Captain Tom Moore? Not everybody got it the right way round when the Burma veteran and beloved fundraising champion died earlier this month, but on our subs’ desk we were wrestling with a different question. Should we be abbreviating his rank?

The style guide editor emails:

There’s been a divide on this in terms of whether to abbreviate the Captain to Capt, as per the military ranks section of the style guide. That section refers to how to describe serving officers, but in Moore’s case he was retired, and had actually been promoted to honorary colonel last year. Captain Tom was the nickname by which he was known so shortening to Capt Tom seems a bit jarring. 

I understand shortening to Capt might be useful for tight furniture, but doesn’t seem necessary generally. The case seems similar to other examples where a rank has become part of a nickname or refers to a fictional character – we wouldn’t write Capt Beefheart, Col Tom Parker or ground control to Maj Tom.

Accordingly, the style guide now reads:

That seems fairly comprehensive: I don’t think even the Telegraph’s style guide addresses that last issue.

But the good thing about working at a broadsheet is that you never have to stop making distinctions. The deputy production editor replies:

In fact, he had no right to be called Capt Moore [the abbreviated form] anyway. You have to be a Major or above to retain your title in retirement (in the army; a naval captain is a higher rank, so can be retained). https://www.debretts.com/expertise/forms-of-address/professions/the-armed-forces/

Even at a left-leaning, republican-curious publication such as the Tribune, an appeal to Debrett’s like this glows with prestige. (And it can also help with some of those baffling ranks. L/CoH? No, me neither, but it’s “Lance-Corporal of the Horse”, in the Household Division.) Now the only question is: what to do about Adm Ackbar?

First-paragraph blues

7 Jul

The column opens with a quotation:

Actually, some Googling reveals that the quote (from John Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy) is actually a question and answer – two people speaking, not one – so there should be a closing quotation mark after “Keynesian”.

Actually, hang on. The whole thing is a quotation with dialogue inside it, so there ought to be a closing quotation mark at the end:

And of course an opening quotation mark at the start. The style at the Tribune is for quotation marks that form part of a drop-capital paragraph to be single when they open, and double when they close, in the body text. Thus:

But now that just looks like an opening double quote. Will readers understand that they are in fact two opening single quotes in a row? What if we go double-single?

Yikes. Three giant orange quotation marks. And look what happens to the line breaks.

It looks increasingly – and I hate contemplating this – that I’m going to have to compromise. In extreme circumstances like these, it is sometimes suggested that the opening paragraph can be rewritten. I always refuse to do it: the formatting should serve the writing, not the other way round. And in this case, I’m hardly about to start rewriting Le Carré’s bestselling dialogue to fit the column width.

So it turns out that if you quietly dispense with one of the opening quotes and tighten the gap between the two dropped characters, the paragraph suddenly fits neatly on six lines:

That looks nice. It’s wrong, but it looks nice. It’s good to have something to sweeten the pill of expediency. And it lets the reader get smoothly into the flow of the column without tripping over a picket of inverted commas. Or that’s what I’m telling myself.

One ‘k’ in TikToker

17 Mar

More confirmation that that small cloud of dust on the horizon is actually the BuzzFeed style guide, racing away from the rest of us towards previously uncharted parts of the language. Some other style guides have a Twitter account, but not a Twitter account like this:

In case you, like me, are wondering what at least half of this means, let’s take it item by item. (I’ve looked things up in Urban Dictionary so that you don’t have to.)

 

Social video app originating in China in which (young) people lip-sync to short bursts of music or perform in other ways and share the results. Hugely popular; worries parents

The number of times you and a correspondent on the video-messaging app Snapchat have exchanged messages in quick succession (yes, they count such things)

Needs no explanation for Gen X-ers raised on The Dukes of Hazzard. Not quite sure why this is new – perhaps just to indicate that it’s closed up, not hyphenated

No, I had no idea either, but it’s short for Fake Instagram (account); a pseudonymous Instagram account that runs in parallel with one’s real Instagram (rinsta) but is made visible only to select friends (and not, one takes it, parents). Used to document unsayable thoughts, disastrous selfies and other unpolished content

Form of pop music sung in Cantonese and strongly associated with Hong Kong; also popular in many other parts of south-east Asia

We don’t have an entry for this in the Tribune style guide, which goes straight from “straitened circumstances” to “Strategic Rail Authority”

Quite surprised this was new for 2019 as well, as even we older types know what it means. To accidentally call somebody by sitting on your mobile phone and activating the screen (or in the old days, by pressing down on the keys)

Becoming widely embraced by baby boomers themselves, a phrase indicating weariness on a young person’s part with constant self-righteous nagging from their elders

An image, phrase, or piece of content likely or suitable to become an internet meme (the frog emoji, I am assuming, refers to the Pepe the Frog meme, in which a non-political cartoon character from an online comic was co-opted by white nationalists on social media and became a coded symbol indicating far-right sympathies)

A character in the latest Star Wars spinoff series The Mandalorian. Although of the same species as Yoda, the wise green sage from the original Star Wars films, it should be noted that the baby creature is not actually Yoda himself, and that the character’s official name is simply The Child

The people for whom this style guide will make the most sense. (To this day, I’m still unclear precisely what the sunglasses emoji is intended to signify)

‘Either is acceptable’

3 Mar

The style guide used to say this about “all right”:

Now it says this:

The Who, noted. Kingley Amis, noted. There are many voices. But what’s the style now? Is it all right? Is it alright? Is it both? (Also, doesn’t the difference between “she got the answers all right” and “she got the answers, alright!” depend on the presence of the comma, not the style of the word?)

Elsewhere in the guide, the entry for “swath” says:

Well, yes, they’re acceptable. They’re just variant spellings – they’re all acceptable. But that’s not the point.

Sometimes, a style choice signifies a particular way of thinking about a topic, a considered taking of sides on an important issue. But even when it’s just choosing between two versions of words that mean the same thing, the choice is still important. Successfully adhering to one style adds to the subliminal impression of an organisation as competent, alert and professional. The Guardian’s catastrophic history with misprints haunts it, in its nickname, to this day, even though there was nothing substantively inaccurate about the stories it published in those typo-strewn days. The accusation was an easy one to make – that imprecise spellers are also imprecise thinkers – and the mud stuck.

The most distinctive style choices can even act as canaries in the verbal coalmine: if the New Yorker ever starts getting inconsistent about the use of the diaeresis in “coöperate”, we will know something’s seriously wrong. Failing to specify a style in such instances may not change the meaning of a sentence, but it might start to change the way that your staff thinks about its job. “Either” should never be acceptable.

Fortunately, however, the style guide remains resonant and clear on the things that really matter:

 

 

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:

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