Saturday, April 30, 2011

You didn't ask, so don't enquire


Let's start with a quote:
"The State Bank of India says an enquiry into the latest incident has been held."
Does this sentence from the ever-deteriorating BBC news website look odd to you? It should do if you're English; more so if you're American.

Here's the thing. The verb "to enquire" has two variants, "enquire" and "inquire", as do the associated nouns "enquiry" and "inquiry". Americans tend to use "inquire" exclusively, but the British have found a useful distinction between the two.

Put simply, you hold an "inquiry" but you make an "enquiry". So an inquiry is an investigation, whereas an enquiry is just a request for information, hence Directory Enquiries but the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. It might not be a big distinction, but it's these little variations that make English so expressive. Similarly, "individual" and "indivisible" are effectively the same word, but we've managed to wring two distinct and useful meanings out of them.

Cruise lacks control
OK, I don't keep up with celebrity news and I'm not even sure how I came across this mangled metaphor, even belatedly. It seems that Tom Cruise planned to miss the Oscars because he and his wife Katie Holmes were upset by their pal Anne Hathaway impersonating Holmes on Saturday Night Live back in November. According to the website, they were "still reeling" in January. How can you spend six weeks reeling? I'd see a doctor if I were them. It's not as if Cruise suffers from vertigo.

As we've said before, if your words evoke an image, make sure it's the right one.

Pique district
Back at The Guardian, one of the infinite number of monkeys with the infinite number of typewriters has got a promotion to Media Monkey. Recently, he hammered out the following:
Mail Online's fiendishly addictive formula for soaraway success is such that even many right-on Guardianistas cannot resist a regular peak.
Few of us can resist a regular peak. That's what girlfriends, boyfriends or, if you're married, the internet are for. However, admitting in print that you use the internet is a little indiscreet. Admitting that you get your peaks from Mail Online is downright disturbing, especially if you work at The Guardian. A peek, on the other hand, is perfectly acceptable.

Moral: if it looks like the right word and sounds like the right word, it still might not be the right word

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Don't seal it unless you want it waterproof


I've grumbled before about the decline of the BBC's news website over the past few months. It used to be one of the best news sites around, but they seem to have given up. Perhaps it's understandable: broadcasting is supposed to be the Beeb's core competence (if you'll forgive the biz-speak), so printed words aren't so important. With so many demands on the budget, online news looks like becoming a backwater.

But even a backwater can have its own backwater, and for BBC journalists that backwater is teletext. This is the journalistic equivalent of being on the subs' bench for Stoke City's reserve team, but it's good training because the character-count is so strict, both in headlines and the story.

My digital TV service doesn't support teletext, which is a shame because it's so much quicker than the red button if you want a quick update on news or sport during a break in programmes. Even so, it's no surprise to learn that the service will be discontinued in 2012 after 38 years of service.

Get to the point
I visited my father at the weekend and he does use teletext, which is how I came across a Ceefax headline proclaiming "Nadal seals crown" (I don't have the full headline to hand, but that's the key phrase).

What's wrong with that, you ask? Well, it's all to do with abstract nouns. In sport, "title" and "championship" are fine concepts and they don't refer to anything physical. However, using "crown" as a metaphor for the same thing does not rob the word of its literal meaning, so the phrase will conjure up a picture in many readers' minds, if only subliminally. If that picture doesn't match the activity you're describing, then you've made a mistake.

"Nadal seals championship" conjures up no image at all, so it's safe to use as long as you have the space. "Title" is pretty safe too: I could just about summon up a picture, but it isn't easy. With "Nadal seals crown", however, my image is of a tennis player applying sealant to an ornate piece of headgear, or possibly dressing a wound on the top of his head. 

Moral: don't paint a picture you don't want your readers to see

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Shut the gate

I think of subs as frustrated writers who live in a state of permanent near-apoplexy at the ineptitude of "real" writers but who are forced to eat the occasional bit of humble pie when they fall off their high horse by making a mistake themselves. That stereotype occasionally gets knocked off its feet when something graceless and awful appears and you just know it's the sub who put it there.

Take this monstrosity from The Guardian's home page today (27 April – I'll put the link in although it will probably be gone by the time anyone clicks it): "Prime Minister sparks fury after shouting Michael Winner advertising slogan to Shadow Chief Secretary Angela Eagle in scandal already being dubbed 'Winnergate'."

The phrase "a scandal already being dubbed Somethinggate" is a euphemism for "a storm in a teacup that I have just decided to call Somethinggate because I'm so utterly shit at my job that this is genuinely the best I can come up with". I'm presuming this was written by the sub, since the word doesn't appear in the article itself, although possibly there's a sub at Guardian Towers glowering at his section editor and thinking, "Thanks for insisting on Winnergate. Now everyone's going to think I'm so utterly shit at my job that this is genuinely the best I can come up with."

This supposition is supported by the fact that, when The Guardian published its piece, only it and Twitter had used the term "Winnergate". The New Statesman chipped in a couple of hours later, describing the term as "near-universal". If your universe consists of The Guardian and Twitter, then I recommend you do some wider reading.

Watergate was 40 years ago and the "-gate" suffix lost all credibility with the coining of "Billygate" for a long-forgotten infraction by President Carter's brother in around 1978. If you're still using it, you're probably the kind of journalist who thinks it's original to describe a children's Easter egg hunt as "egg-citing".

Moral: attaching the suffix "-gate" to any minor controversy is a sign that the writer has admitted defeat

Friday, April 15, 2011

How many girls?

ASE has time to look at the national papers this week, not because he has nothing to do (far from it) but because his current project involves deciphering a lot of trade statistics. (When I become an angry Retired sub-editor, I'll have much more time and a far more appropriate abbreviation.)

After a couple of hours tracing Russia's major trading partners for sawn lumber and drawing the relevant graph, having done Canada this morning and Germany over lunch, even a trans-gendered woman moaning in The Guardian about being excluded from a wiccan fertility ceremony seems interesting. It does smack of an almost obsessive need to marginalise oneself, although one reader's comment summed it up nicely: "Having a silly hobby does not make you a minority."

But I'm not here to have a go at The Guardian (or at Ls, Gs, Bs or Ts), except to warn it about linking to pages that contain headline news. We'll never know exactly why Roz Kaveney linked to All Headline News to make a point about murdered minorities, because by the time I clicked on the link all the stories had changed. But one story caught my eye: Girl's Clothing Recalled by My Michelle Due to Risk of Lead Exposure | AHN. Poor girl, I thought. On reading the story, it turns out more than one girl was involved. Many people would have guessed that straight away, but on first read a sub-editor tends to understand what is actually written, rather than what would have been written if the writer had thought about what he was writing. Since the whole story was an unashamedly unedited press release, I immediately wrote off AHN as a cheap, low-grade news aggregator. It doesn't even have an 'About Us' page, so I had to use that source of last resort, Wikipedia, to find out about it. Apparently AHN is "a major worldwide online news wire service, providing news and other content, to websites, digital signage, and other publishers who pay a fee for the service."

More briefly, I expect a degree of ignorance from the Daily Mail, but it should know the difference between "sunk" and "sank". . I can't wait for its next polemic about falling literacy standards.

I know I said I wasn't going to have a go at the The Grauniad, but that was paragraphs ago. It was once a temple to typographical errors (hence the nickname), but now inconsistency of style seems to have become a style point in itself. Still, you've got to sympathise with the subs in Thursday's story on electoral reform (Alternative Vote, http://gu.com/p/2zejx/tw), where the inconsistency comes in the form of quotations. They have admirably stuck to the "companies are singular and impersonal" rule through some difficult paragraphs about the Electoral Reform Society and ERS Ltd:
The no campaign says the ERS has given £1.1m to the pro-AV campaign and claimed that the society and its subsidiaries had received more than £15m in contracts from the public purse over the past three years. The no campaign also charges that the ERSL would provide new telling machines for processing AV ballots if there is a switch to the new system.
You could almost love them for this. They even know the difference between 'last' and 'past'. If only they knew their subjunctive from their indicative ("if there were a switch) and could stick to the same tense throughout the sentence ("The no campaign says … and claimed…"), I might even offer a patronising 'well done'.

However, the subs' good work is undone by something beyond their control: a quotation from a written, leaked source:
ERSL fear that negative publicity might affect union clients
…followed by ERSL's grammatically mangled comment about that leak:
ERSL is an independent company and have made perfectly clear they won't make a penny…
With spoken quotes, especially in one-on-one interviews, you can tidy things up a bit. Hardly anyone speaks in perfect sentences and quoting someone absolutely verbatim usually makes them look like an inarticulate fool, even if what they said was perfectly understandable at the time. But with written statements, you're stuck. 

At this point I imagine the subs gave up – time is very limited on a daily paper with a prominent website – or why else would they leave the awkward phrase "The lawyers Lewis Silkin"? Of course, Lewis Silkin is a law firm and should be singular, so why not just call it that: a law firm? Problem solved.

None of this mud-slinging persuades me to vote either way on AV, but the fact that ERSL can't write a complete sentence without losing track of whether it itself is singular or plural entity suggests that it shouldn't be trusted with a voting system that requires voters to count higher than one.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The worst writer on Fleet Street

My job includes dealing with 80,000-word screeds by experts who know everything about their business but next to nothing about communicating in English. I edit their work, I suggest ways to improve it and I warn the ambitious ones against trying to produce great literature, but I don't expect much. However, I do expect much from professional writers, which brings me to Kevin McCarra of The Guardian.

In a world where talented journalists can't find work, it irks me that one of the best newspapers in the land employs, on staff, a chief sports writer who cannot write.

I don't want to be an internet troll here. I'm sure McCarra is a nice guy who knows his subject and I don't want to upset him beyond saying he should go on a writing course (and I can't be the first person to have suggested this). Look at the opening paragraph of his report on Birmingham City's victory over Arsenal in the Carling Cup final on Sunday:
If Birmingham City held one advantage over Arsenal it lay in the art of endurance. A side striving not to fall out of the Premier League reached a peak in their history by defeating opponents who took far too long to discover impetus in this Carling Cup final. After 89 minutes, the substitute Obafemi Martins thrived on hapless defending to notch the winner. Alex McLeish's side had brought the club their first trophy since taking this prize in 1963.
This is not a paragraph. It's a vaguely related set of sentences that bear little or no relation to each other. It could almost be written as bullet points, the flow is so lacking, and yet it's the first paragraph of the paper's main report. It might be forgiveable if McCarra had been attempting a stylistic opening (albeit a botched one), but all his writing is like this.

Not having a thread is bad enough, but losing it half-way through a sentence is simply incompetent. Let's see how McCarra handles the winning goal in a major cup competition:
Koscielny moved as if to kick a long ball from Foster and distracted his goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. He then let possession spill to the Nigerian Martins, who…

Well, we're getting really excited here, since this is a rare description of a goal (Robin Van Persie scored a terrific equaliser for Arsenal, but his name is not even mentioned in McCarra's report). We're so excited, we can almost ignore the missing comma or the fact that we don't know whether "he" refers to Koscielny or Szczesny (readers will assume it's the defender, but anyone who saw the match knows he must be talking about the goalkeeper). We just want to know what Martins did. Did he…
pounce on the loose ball and stroke it into an empty net
react fastest with a striker's instinct to follow up and score
charge into the penalty area to punish the mistake, tearing the Gunners' dreams to tatters and sending the Birmingham fans into raptures
Any of those standard football-reporter clich├ęs would do, but no, this is McCarra's effort:
He then let possession spill to the Nigerian Martins, who came to Birmingham last month on loan from the Russian club Rubin Kazan.
And that's the complete description. There really is no excuse for this. It's not a case of bad sub-editing. Heaven knows, I've been a sub-editor and I've fouled up enough good pieces with inept subbing, and bad subbing doesn't look like that, unless The Guardian employs a sub whose only task is to squeeze the rhythm and logic out of all McCarra's work. 

This rant isn't part of a personal grudge. Do you think I do unpaid, fantasy subbing on every article I read? That's what Wikipedia is for. McCarra only caught my attention because Guardian sports reports became so difficult to read that I felt compelled to ask, "Who wrote this?" And the same name kept cropping up. Look for yourself.

I stopped reading the BBC's website at the end of last year when its standards began plummeting. I read The Guardian because I like quality and I care about football. I can find (and sometimes supply) amateurish, opinionated drivel for free online. That's what the internet is for. A national newspaper should do better.

For want of an "a" the sentence was lost

I wonder sometimes how people manage without articles. I'm guessing that my Indian author here isn't used to them, but that doesn't excuse the casualness that makes his comment so hard to understand. By stuffing the comment with comfortable but meaningless words that readers expect to find in such a report, he has lost track of what he really wanted to say:

The newbuilding [i.e.shipbuilding] market became better this week with few activities reported in the tanker sector. Korean yards have quite dominant and acquiring high volume tonnage.
I shouldn't worry about the articles, since this bullet-point report is destined to be translated into Japanese, which is a language uncluttered by such irrelevances as articles, plurals, genders or even a future tense. But if I'm going to make the meaning clear for the lads in Tokyo, then I've first got to understand it myself.

Firstly, what does he mean by "became better"? Obviously the word is "improved", but that doesn't solve the problem. Better for whom? Buyers or sellers? We're only five words in and already we have a puzzle that needs to be solved.

Then we get "few activities", and here the writer has fluffed a chance to clear up the mystery. Business writers love the word "activity" because it denotes some sort of businessy goings-on without the writer having to state what they are. Because I know the nature of this report, I'm pretty sure he means "orders", but that's not enough. There is a subtle difference between "few" and "a few". Compare:

The writer made a few mistakes
The writer made few mistakes
Even though "few" always means "a small number", to the native English speaker "a few mistakes" is negative while "few mistakes" is positive.

Once all the odd phrasing is removed, the sentence can be rewritten as:
The shipbuilding market benefited from the small number of orders placed. 
However, the next sentence says something different: "Korean yards have quite dominant and acquiring high volume tonnage." The obvious errors in the verbs (one missing and one in the wrong form) are easily spotted and the sentence deciphered, but now it completely contradicts the first sentence. For all its ugliness and mistakes, this paragraph would have made sense if the writer had written "a few" instead of "few" in the first sentence.

So, after far more work than should have been necessary, the Angry Sub-Editor is a little bit more angry, partly because his final edit now reads like this:
The newbuilding market improved this week with a number of orders reported in the tanker sector. Korean yards dominated, acquiring a high volume of tonnage.
I don't like like saying "a high volume of tonnage", but with no idea what the numbers are, there's not much more I can do. The Indian office is closed and the report has to be in Tokyo by first thing tomorrow (about midnight tonight my time). I could go through the 15 spreadsheets attached to the report, but even sub-editors have to sleep. Sometimes, you just have to let it go.