Archive for the 'Lingustics' Category

This leaking story: perspective

Anybody else ever get a bit irked over the incessant use of hyperbolic language in public life? Like the arrest of Damien Green being described as Stalinist by assorted politicians? If this was genuinely Stalinist, he’d have probably been sent to Siberia, or shot. And then airbrushed out of history. By this time next week, we’d have all been positively encouraged to have forgotten he ever existed.

One day we’ll probably have to invent a set of completely new hyperbole to replace the ones that have been killed off by repeated clubbing with mixed metaphors.

It’s not like there aren’t other perfectly decent synonyms out there… .

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Are headlines asking ‘is [x] dead’ in fact dead?

Is blogging dead? Is photojournalism dead? Is journalism dead? Is this brand of cameraphone dead? Are these type of headlines or questions in articles dead?

Only the last question can be answered with: “Not yet, but I bloody well hope so soon, although I don’t see it happening.” And all but the last question are headlines and opening paragraphs I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, both in blogs and in print. And they all depress me.

A wiser man than me [1] once commented that if a tabloid newspaper poses a question in the headline, it can usually be answered with a simple “No”. The same’s generally true for any headline or article that starts asking if [x] is dead.

If you’re asking the question, chances are you’re not quite sure about the demise, in which case the answer is no. Unless you can well and truly prove beyond doubt that we’re dealing with a corpse here and not just a sick industry or product.

If the topic of discussion is actually dead, chances are you’ll be writing an obituary or a fond (or not so fond) look back over the life and times.

Asking “is x dead” is just plain lazy (or just done to get a reaction, which in my mind makes it a slightly more sophisticated form of trolling) and a shorthand way of confirming the writer’s prejudices in one quick line. Do I need to read on? No.

There’s more creative and accurate ways to ask if an industry or product is dying. Asking us something we already know the answer to isn’t one of them [2].

[1] For which, read as “I can’t remember who”.

[2] Although when this discussion was posted on Twitter, Jim Anthony had to be a pain and ask if VHS was dead (a recent Guardian blog). Gary 0 Jimbo 1. He’s always been rather good at disproving my theories.

It’s only words, and words are all I have…

As somebody who’s contributed to and co-authored assorted style guides [1] over the years, Rod Liddle’s little diatribe against the list of banned words in the Guardian and David Marsh’s response on Cif has been rather entertaining.

They both have respective points that are, for want of a better turn of phrase, correct (and I may be one of the few people who finds Rod Liddle quite amusing), but Liddle’s case isn’t served by a few little misreadings of the Guardian’s style guide and, in his apoplexy, misses a few points on good writing.

Back in my training days, one of the best tutors I had drummed into us the importance of saving as much space as possible by eliminating meaningless phrases, hence my dislike of the word prestigious.

Keeping things, pithy, punchy, simple and exciting is the mark of a good piece of reporting [2]. As my old tutor used to say, if you’re needing to use extra adjectives then chances are you’re not confident in the story itself. And these unnecessary words can be deleted to save space for words that will help to tell said story.

Harold Evans also has a nice little example in his book Essential English For Journalists, that of the fishmonger who puts the sign FRESH FISH SOLD HERE outside his shop. A friend points out to the fishmonger that the words SOLD HERE are unnecessary, so the fishmonger rubs the words out. The friend then points out the word FRESH is also unnecessary as customers wouldn’t expect the fish not to be fresh, so that too goes. Finally, the friend notes that the word FISH is also unnecessary as you’d expect it to be sold in a fishmongers.

So, from fish to “active homosexual”, which is one of the phrase that has aroused Rod’s ire: a point that fits neatly into this. The trick is, when adding a qualifying adjective like ‘active’, is to ask yourself “as opposed to what?” In this case, an inactive homosexual, and how many of these do we read about? Does it also suggest that our active homosexual stops being gay when not active?

“Illegal asylum seeker” is another phrase, so beloved of tabloids, that’s aroused Rod’s ire. But, technically, there’s no such thing. If they’re here illegally, they’re an illegal immigrant. If their application for asylum is accepted they become a refugee. And before this, they’re simply an asylum seeker. Some may be bogus, some may be illegal, but until ruled either way there’s no way of knowing. Illegal asylum seekers don’t exist; illegal immigrants do.

Most of what can be found is style guides is not designed to provoke or promote certain values, but simply to ensure accuracy in copy, and to eliminate ambiguity. I’d argue that if, as a reporter, somebody has to read your copy more than once to understand it, it’s probably lacking in clarity. This is where the style guides come in, God bless them.

The ‘sensitivity’ areas – language around race, gender, sexuality, swearing, etc – is one of the hardest areas to get right. I spent hours arguing back and forth and changing, and rechanging, aspects around this on the most recent style guide I worked on.

It’s largely about finding a balance and recognising your audience. For example: swearing. Neither my co-author nor I have a problem with swearing. Frankly, there’s nothing like a well-placed fuck to enliven proceedings [3]. But we recognised that our audience probably would, hence the decision to add f***ing asteriks.

Regardless on my own views on the use of certain phrases – some of which I wouldn’t use, and some of which I don’t see a problem with – style guides aren’t written for the person, they’re written for the readers of the publication as much as anything else. It’s a balance to be struck, and I don’t envy the person who has similar conversations while authoring style guides.

Somewhere, somebody – be it those decrying the non-existent PC brigade, or supposed members of such a brigade itself (whose memberships overlap more than you’d think) – will find something to disagree with in it.

But, at the end of the day, I’ve never claimed any style guide I’ve worked on is infallible, and nor should it be the be all and end all – more a guide to coherency and fluency across whatever you’re working on rather than a list of shoulds and shouldn’ts. The English Language is far too wonderful and flexible a beast to be caged.

[1] Yes, unbelievable so, given all the errors that probably pop up on here. It’s because I normally post and go and don’t always have time (on this blog) to go back piece by piece, although I try to if I have time. It just shows the value of sub-editors 🙂

[2] Not necessarily the same as good writing. I’m a big fan of both Stephen Fry and Will Self, both excessively verbose.

[3] Although, as Michael Bywater once said, swearing should be measured out like an expert chef measures out salt.

Pet hates: Prestigious

Every editor, sub-editor and writer has a list of words they detest seeing in copy. Words that range from meaning nothing to desperate padding by the author, or just a plain misunderstanding of the context. Words that will induce apoplexy if repeated too far.

My second least favourite word is prestigious.

I was trained in the school of journalism that encourages the striking out of unnecessary words, usually adjectives. Not all adjectives, as you’d end up with a few peculiar sentences, but long words that add nothing to the copy. Unless you’re a very good colour or feature writer, or possibly Russell Brand. I’ll let you off then.

In newspapers, the fewer unnecessary words in your copy, the more space you have to tell the reader what happened, while staying within the word limit. Or having a sub remove bits of your copy because you’ve tried to recreate War and Peace in a report on a council meeting over car parking spaces.

Note: you may also want to be careful of adding the word ‘a’ before the word ‘nosh’.

In radio, tight writing is at a premium, especially if you’re working in commercial news. You have 15, 20 seconds at most to tell the story. Anything that doesn’t inform the listener should be, and often is, struck out.

If you’re writing a press release and the word prestigious appears, then you’re clearly trying too hard to convince the reader that whatever you’re writing about is genuinely honestly interesting, honest. Have faith in the writing and whatever the publicity is, it should sell itself. Ultra-prestigious events don’t need bigging up, and are probably cheapened by doing so. Think Kerry Katona presenting the Nobel Prize here.

Prestigious tells the reader or listener absolutely sod all and should largely be throttled to death with its own superflousness, revived only in times of absolute need.

Any time I see the word prestigious in copy, my heart immediately sinks. Most of the nouns subjected to prestigiousness already locally have have prestige conferred upon them.

The most common is the prestigious award. Awards, by their very nature, confer prestige upon the nominee. Nobody needs to be told that an Oscar is prestigious, and neither should they need to be told this about any other award, just as you wouldn’t need an adjective to describe those who collect the wooden spoon.

Neither should we need to be told how prestigious an event is. Chances are the reader can work this out for themselves with the rest of the copy. It also implies the writer is deciding whether or not the event is prestigious and, by default, deciding other events are less worthy.

This can be applied to anything remotely prestigious. You’re nominated for a prestigious award? What’s the unprestigious alternative? You’re conferring prestige upon this person or event – do we really need to know this? Does the reader or listener really need to know if this is prestigious? Do they care about the prestige, or finding out more about the award or the person nominated?

Yet prestigious still crops up with alarming regularity in places that have enough prestige in their writing to know better; almost as if the writer feels that an award or even is naked without prestige. They can live without it, largely.

If it’s really not clear if something is prestigious then by all means use it. But if you’re debating whether something has prestige, then chances are it doesn’t. Err on the safe side an leave it out. It’ll make me happier.

So, they’ll be nothing prestigious on my watch, thank you very much. Any intros with a whiff of prestigious awards will be subjected to red pen, and if I’ve not printed it out, I’ll email back the word document with red highlights. And don’t even think of trying to sneak it in on the fourth paragraph down. I’m wise to your games. I’m not trying to start class warfare here, just making your copy a better place.

The language of terror

Moving off social media briefly (although I’ll be back onto the topic in the next few posts), yesterday’s ‘bombing’ [1] got me wondering how I would have covered the event if I’d still been in Exeter, specifically in regard to the word “terror”.

I’ve written before how unimpressed I am when the T-word is thrown around, and while there’s more justification for using it in relation to yesterday’s event, there’s still some debate to be had.

Judging by a cursory glance at the newspaper front pages this morning [2] you’d have though Devon’s capital had seen event’s comparable to 7/7 as opposed to some bloke doing a bit of damage to his face [3]. Now, putting on a pedant’s hat for a minute here, a terrorist is somebody who creates terror. Judging by eyewitness accounts from the various sources I checked yesterday, Exeter may have been ill at ease but certainly by no means terrorised. Quite the opposite, in fact, when you’ve got people laughing at the attempt.

Being serious again, terrorism is notoriously difficult to pin down to an exact definition. As Primal Scream sang, “One man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist”. There are acts, generally (unfortunately) of mass murder that once they’ve occurred can be classed as terrorism. But what of a lone bomber or gunman? They create terror, are they a terrorist? And more to the point, does a man with a bomb who explodes it in his face without injuring anybody count as a terrorist if nobody is terrorised? A potential terrorist, yes, but that’s getting into an even broader category.

I’ve got an aversion to using words like terrorist and other hyperbole in relation to small-scale local incidents [4] where it’s difficult to qualify exactly what’s being dealt with in the story. These words always feel forced and even lazy.

There are better, more accurate, synonyms that could be used. In this case, bomber, or alleged bomber, fit perfectly and narrow the description down. It also avoids attaching greater kudos and importance to the actions than absolutely necessary, which already strikes a small blow at any would-be terrorist. Being a bomber is a lot less glamorous than a purveyor of terror.

[1] And much as I hate scare quotes, this is one occasion they’re done justice.

[2] Having difficulty finding links to these, especially the Sun.

[3] Ok, I know it could have been a lot more serious but the end result shows this was a woefully laughable attempt to create terror.

[4] And while it can’t have been pleasant initially for those caught up in it, it was just that: a small scale local incident, in the context of things.

The BBC does give a fuck

Lots of it, apparently.

I’m especially intrigued by the person who wrote to Ofcom that it was the most offensive programme ever broadcast by the BBC on Christmas Day. Did they keep watching just to get offended?

If they’d said it should have been taken off air on the grounds that the Catherine Tate show isn’t very funny, I’d have had a lot more time for them.

(As a side note, I actually think she’ll make a good Doctor’s assistant, and was much better than Kylie this year. I think I’m somewhat alone in that opinion.)

Literally.

John Widdop is literally right.

“I think the misuse of the word ‘literally’ has to, with no exception, be my favourite fuck-up of the English language there is at the average idiot’s disposal.  For example, the girl was barking out the rest of her evenings plans to her friend, who was stood on one of the benches trying to warm her hands on the heaters by reaching as high as she could. The following key phrase was dropped:

“I don’t know how I’m going to fit everything in over Christmas, I’ve literally got my fingers in every pie”


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Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com