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,, 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.

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