Thursday, July 23, 2015

Articles: "the", "a" or neither?

Articles are funny things. They're hugely important in languages where they are used, yet other languages get by quite happily without them. Unfortunately, anyone writing for an international audience will usually have to learn English, and that means using articles. For Indians, Japanese and many others, it's a hard skill to master.

Articles determine the role of a noun in a sentence, giving it history and context. There are two kinds: the definite ("the") and the indefinite ("a" – or "an" if the noun starts with a vowel sound*). 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The pay gap that might not be there

Need to prove an argument? Chuck in some statistics. Any old ones will do.

Sometimes it's hard to tell if a journalist is ignorant of statistics or is being deliberately misleading. Like most of us, they seldom question statistics that seem to prove what they already think they know. 

The Guardian is no better or worse than most, and it's been doing a lot of it lately. Some of its statistics are misleading, but mostly they simply don't say what they seem to say. Whether the writer knows this and is trying to pull a fast one or just doesn't understand what the numbers mean is hard to say. 

Take this example, in a recent article about how the press should report suicide in the wake of Robin Williams' death:

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Say it clearly or not at all

Most writers, and nearly all editors, secretly know that they care too much. Once upon a time, poor language was restricted to personal correspondence, because nobody got published unless they had a good grasp of English already, and even the worst of them (F Scott Fitzgerald springs to mind) usually had good editors who would make sure their writing was in decent shape before any reader saw it.

That all changed with the internet. Suddenly we are overwhelmed by the thoughts of the illiterati as they spew across the web like stinking turds from a broken sewer, through blogs, Facebook, Twitter and the comment sections of news websites. No sooner has an idea dawned with feeble glow of a five-Watt bulb than it's there on the internet for the world to see, forever. Speak You're Branes: there's no one to stop you.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Why you shouldn't put numbers in text

Read any piece of business writing, and you're bound to encounter this sort of gibberish:
In the total throughput table, XYZ is ranked at the market leader, with a throughput of 66.3 million units, up from 60.9 million units in 2006, and a global share of 13.3%. ABC is in second position, with 60.3 million units (12.1%) followed by PQR with 54.7 million units (11%), DEF with 43 million units (8.7%) and JKL, which moved 27.3 million units and has a market share of 5.5%.
Business reports typically have dozens of tables. That’s where the numbers should go. We can’t completely avoid putting numbers in the text, but it should be avoided wherever possible. 

Here’s why.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Farage and the Hitler Youth

My only picture of Farage from school
It has been reported recently that Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, sang "Hitler Youth songs" while in the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) at his school, Dulwich College, in 1981.

I know Farage didn't sing any Hitler Youth songs because we didn't know any. I say "we", because I was there; Channel 4 News wasn't and nor, for that matter, was Chloe Deakin (the teacher whose letter about Farage was the basis of the stories).

The letter itself was kept by Bob Jope, a teacher I knew well and admired very much, and who was the epitome of what right-wing commentators would describe as a "trendy leftie". His motives in keeping and later publicising the letter will be obvious, but he didn't hear the cadets singing in Sussex because he wouldn't have been seen dead in the CCF. He was still a good teacher though, and one who inspired creative thinking - a much-needed counter-balance to the school's more usual obsessions with Latin and rugby.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A tour of the Black Museum

Editors of business reports are constantly turning pretentious wankery into something approaching English, in the vain hope that the readers will understand what the writer was trying to say. Sometimes, the process of disentangling a sentence reveals that the writer himself didn't know what he was trying to say.

This blog began life two years ago as an extension of my Twitter feed, which only existed so I could curate the nonsense I sometimes encounter and hopefully share it with anyone who'd appreciate it.

But Twitter doesn't keep tweets forever, so I've collected some of them here for my own enjoyment. You're welcome to enjoy them too. Sometimes I wonder at the thought process that turns what must have been a simple idea into something verbose and vague. If you have any insight into what makes intelligent, articulate people turn their ideas into verbal molasses, do let me know. Sadly, all these are genuine.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Shock news: your toilet is too clean

Another week, another story telling us all the things that are dirtier than a toilet seat. I can't even be bothered to link to it, but don't worry, there'll be another one along in a couple of days. The narrative is always the same: something in your house has more bacteria than your toilet seat. From what I've seen of the research - because, like almost no journalist nowadays, I looked beyond the press release and read the actual research - this is the story that should have run: