Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Between you and I, me don't know grammar

My BMW
I blame pop music, or possibly people’s vague feeling that they say ‘me’ too often when they mean ‘I’, as when my mother used to scold me for saying, “It’s me,” when I should have said, “It is I.” I still say, “It’s me,” and I drive a BMW. My mother, on the other hand, is dead, which only goes to show that I can do what I sodding well want with the language and woe betide anyone who tries to stop me.

My mother (left). Point proved, I think
But the truth is that far too many people are saying and writing ‘between you and I’ and ‘than you or I’, or similar phrases. This is not good style and nor is it poor style. It’s wrong.

Take Polly Toynbee, a contentious writer for The Guardian on social issues:
Oiks from council estates … are all being paid too much. Even more than you or I in the well-paid commentariat, for God’s sake! 
Yes, the well-enough-paid commentariat to write properly.

Or how about Jon Anderson, whose lyrics for Yes are unashamedly pretentious (“Dawn of light lying between a silence and sold sources / Cashed amid fusions of wonder, in moments hardly seen forgotten”) and therefore mark him out as someone who is very careful about language and probably a few other things as well. Yes, I know the band was trying to be a bit more down-to-earth in 1983 than in the days of Tales From Topographic Oceans, but that’s not a good enough reason to write:
One difference between you and I 
Your heart is inside your head
We might forgive songwriters: sometimes they need a rhyme, and if ‘me’ doesn’t work then ‘I’ will have to do. The rules on what can and can’t be rhymed were broken the day Lemmy, in his Hawkwind days, rhymed ‘marathon’ with ‘parallelogram’. But look at Neil Peart of Rush, an obsessively careful lyricist, making a similar mistake in a couplet that ironically gives a clue on how to get it right:
Just between us, I think it’s time for us to realize
The spaces in between leave room for you and I to grow

Peart doesn’t have the excuse of needing a rhyme. ‘Me’ would fit the metre of the song perfectly well, but he’s got it wrong and his singer Geddy Lee has now had to get it wrong on stage every night for the past 31 years. It hasn’t stopped me buying their albums, but I always skip Peart’s drum solos in protest. That, and the fact that I hate drum solos.

Many people seem to think that the rule on cases only applies when the pronoun immediately follows the preposition (or verb, or whatever), as when a highly literate friend of mine wrote an email to me saying, “Count John and I in,” and justified it by saying, “I said John and I in, not me and John.” She accepted the correction eventually. We're even still on speaking terms, although John turned out to be an ordinary bloke and not a count at all.

The preposition ‘between’ takes the accusative case (as does the conjunctive participle ‘than’), which is why Peart wrote “between us” in the preceding line, not “between we”. You wouldn’t write “between I and she” and nor would Neil Peart, who, despite being a rock star and a drummer, has been scientifically proven to be literate with an IQ in at least triple figures.

Moral: The word ‘and’ does not break the link with the preposition or verb on which a pronoun depends. It’s ‘between you and me’. Take heed from my mother and don’t get it wrong again.

Stumbling into incoherence

Few sentences by professional writers can match this one from today’s Guardian by Mike Selvey, discussing a cricket innings by Jonathan Trott, for hapless incoherence:
His career is turning out some remarkable figures, however, for 19 Test matches, after which statistics are starting to gain some meaning, have brought him an average that is approaching 70, which, the records will show, is, for those with at least 20 innings, second only to Donald Bradman.
Don’t let this happen to your writing
Guardian Online, 29 May 2011
One thing you can be sure of: neither the writer nor the sub read that paragraph out loud before pressing ‘save’, and it’s worth investigating how someone who makes a living from writing managed to get himself into such a mess.

Firstly and most obviously, the sentence comes in at 49 words. I won’t set up Microsoft as the highest authority on grammar and style, but our friends from Seattle sensibly suggest that a sentence becomes difficult to read if it goes on beyond 45 words, and it’s hard to argue with that. It doesn't help that the previous sentence is 60 words and is almost as convoluted. So I can't really explain what the word “however” means in the paragraph above because I’m not sure what point is being qualified.

Secondly, Selvey gives us two words with alternative meanings: “however” and “for”; and puts them in contexts that seem designed to confuse. “However” is best used, if at all, at the start of the sentence. It isn’t used wrongly here, even in the unusual situation of following a comma, but it is an early sign of a writer losing control of a sentence. He immediately follows it with “for” in its less common sense of “because” and then sticks in one of many conditional clauses, separating “for” from the part of the clause that might have shown the reader which meaning of the word was intended.

Thereafter, the conditional clauses pile up on top of each other like inattentive drivers losing their sense of direction on a fog-bound motorway. Again, the police show up in numbers in the form of commas, but we already know that the effort of clearing up the mess is going to be beyond them. Nine commas are deployed in a vain attempt to restore order, but the result is still verbal gridlock.

I defy anyone to understand this sentence on first reading.

So, what is Selvey actually trying to say? At its simplest, the sentence says that Trott’s batting average is impressive, being second only to the legendary Donald Bradman (who averaged 99.94 in his test career). That seems simple enough, but Selvey needs to get a few qualifiers in:
  1. This paragraph is in contrast to the criticisms made in the preceding paragraph
  2. Other players have better test averages, but only over a small number of innings
  3. For his average to be significant, a player needs to have played at least 20 innings at test-match level
  4. Trott’s average is nearly 70
  5. He has played 19 test matches. (The fact that he has played 31 test innings would have been a more relevant statistic. Still, if a professional writer can’t even get words to make sense then it’s absurdly optimistic to expect him to handle numbers.)
So, how should he have gone about it? My suggestion, using as much of Selvey’s original paragraph as possible, is as follows:
Even so, Trott is turning out some remarkable test figures. He has played 31 innings at an average of 66.77, which puts him second only to Donald Bradman among players with at least 20 innings (which is when statistics start to gain some meaning).
That only saves five words, but cutting this lunking imbecile of a sentence into three creates clarity where none existed before. Tellingly, the nine commas of the original have been reduced to two, with a pair of full stops and a pair of brackets shouldering the burden.

The end of the football season means that we are to be spared Kevin McCarra’s wretched prose in The Guardian, at least until August. But if this article is anything to go by, it seems that the paper has someone to keep its readers baffled and confused – and this sub-editor gleefully angry – throughout the cricket season.

If I want to be mean, I should also compare this statement from elsewhere in the article:
It will take something quite extraordinary to see anything but a draw from the first Test … We have a dead duck here, it appears
…with this headline from today’s paper:
England seal dramatic final day win

Moral: a sentence is a graceful creature. Load too much onto its shoulders and you might break its back.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

And I quote…

I’m British, but I don’t often criticise American usage. Sometimes we’re right, sometimes they’re right and sometimes it’s just a matter of preference or habit.

The rule on where to put punctuation in quotations is often cited as “British outside, American in”, but it’s not as simple as that. In British usage, the comma goes inside or out depending on the context. That might seem confusing, but it’s actually very logical.

If you’re quoting a full sentence, the punctuation should go inside the quote marks. If you’re quoting just a phrase, the punctuation goes outside. In other words, if the quoted phrase needs punctuating, then punctuate it. So, British usage is as follows:
John said, “Grammar snobs are idiots.” (inside)
John described grammar snobs as “idiots”. (outside)
John described as “idiots” people who are snobbish about grammar. (none)
Why the difference? In the first example, the quote is a complete sentence. That’s why it starts with a capital letter. Logic would dictate that there should be punctuation inside and outside - since there are two sentences here - but that would be abhorrent. In the second and third example, the word “idiots” is just a word and needs no punctuation. That becomes most obvious in the third example, where a comma (inside or out) would disrupt the flow of the sentence and serve no grammatical purpose except to show that the writer blindly follows certain rules without thinking about how those rules affect the writing.

The value of this approach becomes even clearer when the quoted sentence is a question:
John asked, “Are grammar snobs idiots?”
The quoted part is a question, so needs a question mark. However, the full sentence is not a question; it’s a statement. We are not asking whether John asked a question; we are stating it as fact. Putting the question mark outside the quotation marks would be nonsense.

Things get a bit more complicated when incomplete sentences are quoted. A simple rule is to treat the quote as a sentence if the active verb is quoted, as in:
John told me he “went to the pub to discuss dangling participles.”
Clearly John’s actual words were, “I went to the pub to discuss dangling participles,” but that wouldn’t fit the sentence. If you find this awkward, it might be better to complete the quotation by adding words (which must be put in square brackets). Of course, you then have to be careful not to alter the meaning of the quotation. Perhaps that’s why I prefer either to quote a full sentence or reduce the quotation to brief phrases, as in
John told me he went to the pub “to discuss dangling participles”.
If this all seems too neat, then consider the following:
John told me he “went to the pub” to discuss dangling participles.
Using the logic I have just set out, there should be a comma after “pub”. The problem is, I just can’t bring myself to put one in. I know it shouldn’t be there and I can’t properly explain why. This is going to bother me all weekend (and, with Monday being a holiday in the UK, it’s going to be a long weekend).

This is all your fault. 

Moral: Think, but not too hard.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

When to use gender pronouns


I’ve been called out by Cathy Relf for using sexist language on this blog:
Sorry, I gotta call you out on your irritating androcentrism in sentences such as this: “The writer wants to make sure he has covered all his bases before he takes the terrifying step of actually making his point.”
Sexism in language is a huge subject and there’s no way I can cover the whole topic here, but I’m happy to hold my hands up on this one, while offering some mitigation. Believe it or not, I did think about which pronoun to use while I was writing that post and I deliberately chose ‘he’.
English law has a neat if not entirely satisfactory way of getting around the fact that the language has no third-person singular pronoun that is gender-neutral. In law, the rule is: “He includes she”.
Diversion 1: That quotation should be written as “‘He’ includes ‘she’”. However, the collision of quotation marks and inverted commas looks awful, so George Orwell’s rule ‘break any rule rather than write anything barbarous’ takes precedence.
Diversion 2: Language purists might point out that ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are not the same thing and that using ‘gender’ to describe anything other than words is a mistake. Put simply, the word ‘she’ is female gender whereas a woman is of the female sex, just as ‘table’ in French is feminine but not female. However, I think the purists lost that battle forty years ago.
Diversion 3: I know I shouldn’t use capitals after a colon, but I find it looks better in lists even when there is only one item in the list, as in the morals I put at the bottom of these posts. I’ve probably been inconsistent there too: when I agonise over whether to break a rule, I won’t come up with the same answer every time. Sorry.
I’m actually quite happy to use ‘she’ when the writer’s gender is unspecified; in fact I’m reading a book about writing where the unspecified writer is always referred to as ‘she’, which in that context seems entirely reasonable. I don’t actually know that a majority of aspiring novelists are women, but I have heard it stated and it seems quite plausible.
One’s choice of gender pronoun should be determined by which is more likely, as in the hypothetical, “If a footballer tries to gag the press, he deserves what he gets.” Since we’re not supposed to know anything about the player who had the affair with Imogen Thomas, it’s just possible that it was a member of the England women’s football team (which has, let’s face it, been rather more successful than the men’s recently). I don’t think I’m making too many presumptions about what makes a tabloid journalist slaver, but I suspect that most of them would find that story a lot more interesting. Nonetheless, I’ve balanced the probabilities and I’m sticking with ‘he’. 
Similarly, I would probably use ‘she’ when writing about single parents, even though I’m a single parent myself.
So, why did I use ‘he’ in the example spotted by Ms Relf?
Firstly, I had only used one example in that post, and I only had to check inside my dressing gown to ascertain that the miscreant writer was male. However, I was writing about writers in general, so I need a better reason than that.
In past centuries, almost anyone who did anything in public life was male. As a result, writers have tended to say ‘he’ when writing about unspecified persons. Equality still has a long way to go and, while people are no longer surprised to see women working as doctors, judges or company directors, language hasn’t quite caught up. 
Measuring equality: the relative incidence in literature of "Mr Justice", "Madam Justice" and the more correct "Mrs Justice". It hardly looks like a triumph for equality
Some feminists argue that writers should force the issue by using ‘she’ wherever possible. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle, but a scrupulous writer must always remember why and for whom she is writing. Because ‘he’ is still more common (rightly or wrongly), there is the danger that the reader will be distracted from the real point of the piece if ‘she’ is used. Sometimes, however, the use of the female pronoun in a piece about (say) a traditionally all-male profession will serve as a welcome jolt to the reader, reminding him that the world is changing.

I was happy to write, “A scrupulous writer must always remember why and for whom she is writing,” but there is a risk that someone will ask, “Why do women writers need to ‘remember for whom they are writing’ but not men?” I think it’s a small risk so I’m happy to ignore it. Your political principles will often govern what you write and how you write about it, but they should never obstruct your main objective, which is to communicate.
There is one other reason why I used ‘he’ in the previous post. By its very nature, this blog tends to be critical of writers. To use ‘she’ when it was just as reasonable to use ‘he’ might have looked like a sly dig at female writers, subliminally implying that women are more prone to such errors than men are. As it happens, I have found that this kind of over-formality is more common among male writers.
Moral: Your writing should reflect the world around you, and the world isn’t all-male. However, don’t make gender obtrusive unless it’s central to the point you’re making.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The riot police of punctuation

If I’m working at normal pace, i.e. not in a hurry but still keeping an eye on the deadline, I will usually lose 10-15% of the words in any piece I edit. If I have the time, and if I seriously care that the product should be the very best it can be, then I can cut it by 30% or more without losing any of the content.

In the phrase “I have cut your article by 30%”, the word “cut” can usually be replaced by the word “improved”. It means the same thing.

Sometimes, however, there is a better measure of improvement. Count the commas. Reduce the commas and you improve the piece.
Get back in line or we send in the hyphens

Commas are the policemen of written language. In an ideal world, a small number of Dixons of Dock Green gently keep order, their presence barely noticed amidst the throng of words cheerfully going about their business. When words start misbehaving, order breaks down and the comma riot-police go in. A form of order is restored, but words and phrases are left bruised and dazed, often limping in the wrong direction while others shuffle along in passive resentment or grudging co-operation.

Here’s a simple example:
Halapic didn’t even acknowledge its source, although since the headlines and sub-heads are the same as The Guardian’s, we can be pretty sure where the copy came from.
(This example actually comes from a draft of an earlier post on this blog. We are all guilty. Some pedants will point out that there should have been another comma after ‘although’)
This sort of idiocy is hard-wired to us in school, when we absorb the idea that written English should be formal and that putting phrases in an unnatural order somehow provides that gravitas. The above sentence is a lot clearer if written thus:
Halapic didn't even acknowledge its source, although we can be pretty sure where the copy came from since the headlines and sub-heads are the same as The Guardian’s.
How many words have we saved? Not one. All we have cut is a single comma, and yet the sentence is so much easier to read as a result.

This sort of unnatural construction has its roots in a lack of confidence. The writer wants to make sure he has covered all his bases before he takes the terrifying step of actually making his point. The only justification for it is when the final clause – or even the final word – is a sort of punchline, as in Douglas Adams’ “they hung in the air in much the same way that bricks don’t”. Stick to the natural order unless you have a very good reason not to.

Moral: Put your phrases back in the right order and you’ll find yourself with a troop of redundant commas that can be redeployed to fight real grammar crime elsewhere

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Don’t be oblique

Brooker: patron saint of bile
Charlie Brooker is a kind of modern-day saint. I bought his book The Hell Of It All at last year’s Edinburgh festival (I didn't have to go to Scotland to buy it. I just happened to be there). Anyway, I embarrassed myself on the train home (for the umpteenth time that week) by laughing like a banker receiving his bonus at the sentence, “The camera doesn’t capture the next bit, where he runs behind a bush and virtually blasts his own pelvis through his arse during a spectacular anal evacuation.” It was when my nose came out in sympathy that I lost the last shred of dignity remaining from that never-to-be-forgotten week.
Yet Brooker irritated me with the following construction:
"Too lacking in imagination and/or basic human empathy to comprehend the instinctive primal reaction spiders provoke in genuine sufferers, they blather idiotic platitudes like ‘It’s more scared of you’…"
Now, you might not see a lot wrong with that, but he has made an error that is so prevalent that it is even heard in spoken English: “and-stroke-or”. It came up again twice today, firstly in a piece I was editing:
"Freight rates remained weak/flat in West of Suez markets."
…and then in an otherwise admirable piece in The Guardian by Amanda Marcotte:
"There’s a tipping point where preening displays of masculinity get so overt and stereotypical that they stop being intimidating and/or boorish and move into the territory of erotically charged camp."
Now, pay attention. I’m only going to say this five or six times. An oblique sign is not punctuation. 
No it isn’t.
It’s not.
Shut up. You’re wrong. It really isn’t. Switch off the music and concentrate. An oblique sign is not punctuation.
Torres: five goals short of a semi-colon
Commas are punctuation. Full stops (periods if you’re American) are punctuation. Semi-colons? You betcha. You’re even allowed en-dashes (or em-dashes if you’re American). Obliques, on the other hand, are like Fernando Torres in a Chelsea shirt: they can huff and puff all they like but they can’t do the job because they’re not the real thing. (Sorry, no American analogy is available this time. If you can think of one, please feel free to email me on whogivesatoss@buggeroff.co.uk).
Saveloy: effective in a 4-4-2 behind Drogba
Stop and think (not “stop or think”). You’re either offering two things together or you’re offering an option. Decide which it is and then choose “and” or “or” as appropriate. Even if the option is “this, that or both”, your readers will usually know which you mean. For example, there’s a shop near where I live offering “Fish & Chips” (fries if you’re American), and I can pretty much guarantee that no-one goes into the shop thinking that they’re compelled to have chips if they order fish. They know they can have either, or both, or a saveloy.
So, Brooker, you can take your oblique and stick up your colon, obliquely if you prefer. I’m surprised your sub-editor didn’t do it for you. You could have said, “too lacking in imagination or basic human empathy”. Would that have hurt?
So, un-named tanker correspondent, were rates weak or flat? There, I’ve given you the answer already. Some were weak and some were flat.
It does depend on the context, but if you’re really not sure which to use, try using “or” and adding the word “either” and see if it works. You can take it out again afterwards. We often do. 
So, does “either lacking in imagination or basic human empathy” work? Of course it does. “Or” can be exclusive but it doesn’t have to be. Some lack imagination, some lack empathy and some lack both.

“Rates were weak or flat.”Here it is clearly exclusive. Some were weak and some were flat. 

“Preening displays of masculinity… stop being intimidating or boorish.” Some were intimidating and others were boorish, but some could have been both.
However, when I say “and or or”, that is exclusive. It's one or the other. No exceptions. The fun-loving “or” is flexible and broad-minded enough to carry most alternatives without being shackled to the more strait-laced “and”. A forward slash is a sign that the writer hasn't properly worked out what he wants to say.

Moral: “And” or “Or”? Stop, take a deep breath and decide which one you mean. Then use it.
Tip: If you can’t make up your mind, you probably mean “or”.
PS: “Today” refers to Thursday, which is when this would have been posted if Google hadn't fouled up Blogger so totally that it took them more than a day to fix it. So much for the Cloud.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Down to the wire


John Terry: I stole the pic, obviously
In the headlong rush to provide content, it's not surprising that cash-strapped media companies paste wire copy straight into the paper or website. Given the constraints on time and money, it's difficult to be too harsh on staff who have to get the news into the public domain as fast as possible. That said, I've got more respect for orgainisations that are honest about what's going on.

Compare these two sentences from today's websites:
"The defeat by United was painful in more ways than one for Terry, who will be hoping to shake off a knock in time for Sunday's final home game of the season against Newcastle."

"The defeat by United was painful in more way than one for Terry, who will be hoping to shake off a knock in time for Sunday's final home game of the season against Newcastle."
The first is from The Guardian while the second is from The Daily Mail, and they show the different priorities of two of the UK's most successful national newspaper websites. They also show the ugly little world of "churnalism", where the same old copy is regurgitated without anything new or original being added.

The original copy comes from the Press Association, and both articles are pretty much identical except for the fact that the Grauniad has corrected the error "way" for "ways". Before I get accused of indulging the popular sport of Mail-bashing, I should point out that 72 news organisations posted exactly the same story, straight from the wire or by copying each other, and only six of them corrected the mistake. 

Actually, the numbers aren't as good as that. I have no idea who is behind uefachampionsleaguesoccerblog.com, but it doesn't deserve much credit because it simply copied The Guardian's piece. On the plus side, it had the honesty to admit it, although it then had the cheek to add "Copyright © 2011 Uefachampionsleaguesoccerblog.com" at the bottom. The same goes for xoolon.com, soccermillionaires, foofoot.net and halapic.com. Halapic didn't even acknowledge its source, although we can be pretty sure where the copy came from since the headlines and sub-heads are the same as The Guardian's. In other words, the only organisation that even bothered to read what it was publishing was The Guardian. Kudos to them (even though there is evidence that the piece was on line for five minutes before the error was spotted). 

The other things in The Guardian's favour are that it provided its own headline, correctly used square brackets in a quote and credited the story to the Press Association. In other words, a sub-editor did some work to make it fit for publishing. The MailOnline's byline says "Sportsmail Reporter", while its headline is identical to the Daily Mirror's (byline: MirrorFootball). That's a bit odd, because ESPN, The Sporting LifeFox Sports and most others went with another headline, "Terry turns focus to next year", presumably from the PA original. Have the Mail and Mirror been copying each other?

In the Mail's favour, it provided three photos in keeping with its image-rich approach, while The Guardian added value by hyperlinking the text. 
 
In neither paper's favour (or anyone else's), they published what was little more than the transcript of an interview on Chelsea TV.

Moral: Journalism is hard. Churnalism is easy, so long as your readers don't mind eating other people's vomit


Friday, May 6, 2011

Getting its right



At the Daily Mail, apostrophes are causing the sort of problems that shouldn't afflict any newspaper, let alone nationals:
"Twitter is the social network phenomenon known for it's brevity, forcing users to compress their thoughts into just 140 characters."
Nice to see that the Mule is so hip to the modern world that it's already heard of Twitter and managed to say so with ten characters to spare. Finger on the pulse there. It should have had eleven characters to spare, because last week's article made the basic error of assuming that "its" as a possessive needs an apostrophe.

Most people know this, but many aren't sure exactly what the rule is.

Briefly, it's because pronouns take cases (like Latin and German nouns), whereas ordinary English nouns don't. So, the word "dog" doesn't change its form, regardless of what job it does in a sentence: it's the same whether it's "man bites dog" or "dog bites man". One only gets the sense of it from the word order. A noun adds an "s" for plurals and "apostrophe s" if it's a possessive, but that's it.

However, pronouns (I, thou, he, she, it) change in all sorts of ways: compare "I bit her" with "she bit me". If you were to write it as "me bit she", it would look very odd because word order is so important in English, but most of us would still work out who is doing the biting.

"Its" (belonging to or of "it") doesn't take an apostrophe because possessive pronouns don't take apostrophes. You wouldn't use an apostrophe in "his", "hers", "ours" or "theirs", which is why you don't use one with "its".

"It's" (with apostrophe), is an elision, short for "it is" or occasionally "it has" (as in "it's been raining").

Back to the sex
"Gotta tweet this"

That's enough of the grammar fetish. There's one more thing about this feeble little article, and probably something for the editor rather than the sub. It claims that the average relationship of Twitter users is two months shorter than those of non-Twitter users, implying that Twitter is bad for your relationships.

This falls into the category of studies that seem to show something but probably don't, using a 'post hoc, propter hoc' argument (i.e. assuming that if B follows A, A must have caused B). It could be true, of course, but an equally likely explanation is that people in relationships have less time for Twitter, or even that two groups of people chosen using random criteria will display different characteristics.You might select 100 people with blond(e) hair and 100 with dark hair, and find that one group watches more soap operas while the other group drinks more wine. Nothing links them, but a decent tabloid journalist could still knock up a story good enough for page 8.

I don't tweet during sex, and I've yet to read a tweet that reads as if it was composed by someone who was hard at it. OK, in a prolonged S&M session the sub (and I don't mean sub-editor this time) might have time to whip out (so to speak) his mobile while the dom goes to do the washing up. Otherwise, I can't think of many sex acts that would allow for tweeting, even using the smartest smartphone (although Apple is probably working on it).
"3rd hour on tower of power. Mistress on phone to her mum. Looks like I'm going to miss the snooker #tweetingmidshag"
Moral: studying Latin at school is good for you. And the schools that teach Latin probably give you a taste for S&M, though they won't say so in the prospectus. Cavet parens.

(By the way, I burgled the photo of Logan McCree from the amazing Coffee, Cake and Kink, which is a filthy but wonderful cake shop recently ejected from its [no apostrophe] premises near Covent Garden but now online. I hope they open a new shop soon.)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Had they but one neck, or The Dangers of Promoting a Sub-Editor

A sub-editor in power is a dangerous thing
Angry Sub-Editor has a confession to make: he is not really a sub-editor. All that came to an end in 2003 during a magazine restructuring, when the MD said, "…so that just leaves the senior positions." I allowed a decent pause before saying, "If the editor's job's going, I'll take that." On the way out of the meeting, the Managing Editor said to me in a slightly pained voice, "I didn't know my job was up for grabs." I suggested that Managing Editor and Editor are different jobs, which he grudgingly accepted, and we got on just fine for the next five years (until I did something far more trivial for which he doesn't seem to have forgiven me).

These days I work for a different organisation under the grander title of Editorial Director, but this still means I do a lot of subbing because we don't have the staff and it isn't easy to find a sub who understands our industry or an industry expert who understands publishing.

My gay friends tell me that sexual preference is hard-wired and so corrective therapy is pointless as well as immoral. You can say the same about being a sub-editor. Once you've been a sub-editor for a while, you can never go back. The down side is that there aren't any cool bars where you can go and discuss gerunds and dangling participles, but on the plus side you can still listen to King Crimson and you don't need to have a picture of Audrey Hepburn anywhere in your house.

The down side for everyone else is that, if ever a sub-editor gets promoted to, say, Editorial Director, the organisation finds itself with a Caligula on its hands. Fortunately I don't have a sister to marry and have yet to find a suitable horse to promote, but I do sometimes find myself thinking, "Had they but one neck…"

So today I'm reading a quarterly report and noticing that the regular content (the stuff explaining the methodology and suchlike) is the same as last time. That's as it should be, but the words in front of me are the same as the unedited words I saw three months ago. The dates are in the wrong style. The bullet points have full-stops at the end of the line. There's a lot of crap that I took out because it's so bloody obvious that it's insulting to explain it to our readers. Added to that, they've forgotten to delete the phrase: "if new information comes to light in the first days of the New Year".

Sub-editors get angry about this sort of thing. Editorial Directors get angry too, but they combine the petty small-mindedness of the hardened sub with the power to inflict the sort of agony that ordinary subs only dream about (and they dream about it roughly 95% of the time, trust me).

So, I've taken the last quarter's report and pasted it on top of this quarter's report. It will then go back to the team in India, who will arrive tomorrow morning to find that none of their nicely laid-out pages fit any more, because I cut about 20% out of the previous version. They will then have to check the copy before taking it to the design team, who will then have to lay it out all over again. They will learn that it doesn't do to annoy a sub-editor, and if the design teams I've worked with are anything to go by then they'll learn that annoying designers is even worse.

It's hard on them because I know they didn't write all of it and someone further down the line is more to blame. However, I've always worked on the basis that anything that leaves my desk has my name on it and so should be as close to my standards as I can possibly make it. By the same token, everything that lands on my desk bears the name – and therefore the quality assurance – of whoever gave it to me.

My team will also know that, come 2pm their time, I'll be on the phone asking for the final version, having slept the sort of peaceful sleep that only comes from knowing that I've added a little bit to the misery of the human condition.

Moral: Sub-editors are malicious, vindictive and not to be trusted in positions of authority or in bed