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

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