Rantings of a sub-editor

December 9, 2010

Hacks hit by plea to say it like it is

Filed under: hit by,word choice — substuff @ 4:57 pm
Tags: ,

pylon hit by car

Any sub-editor worth their salt will have had this rant at some point, so I doubt I will pick up any points for originality here. But I’m going to rant anyway (well heck, it’s the name of the blog, after all).

Say what you mean. That’s it. Not much of a rant, I admit (it’s coming, it’s coming). There is great value in saying exactly what you mean. (In life, too, she muses.) That means not fancying it up with convoluted metaphors in the hope that you’ll sound more intelligent, not lazily lobbing in any old verb, and never repeating something that you yourself don’t understand. Teachers of journalism often tell you to speak as if you’re telling a friend at the pub. It’s good advice. But do it as if you’re on your first pint of the evening, not your last.

Here’s one that’s been upsetting me: “hit by”. One day last week, at a horrible pre-dawn hour, I picked up a copy of the Metro. “Hit by” was in the headline on the front cover, then the headline, standfirst and copy on page three. But what does it actually mean? Well… pretty much anything negative: “affected by”, “delayed by”, “crashed into by (ew)”, “damaged by”, etc. I’m being a little hypocritical here, as I’m sure I’ve used it myself in many a headline – after all, it’s so pleasingly short and easy to fit in. But I shouldn’t, if I can possibly avoid it, and neither should you. And while it may occasionally be excusable in headlines, there’s rarely a good reason for using it in copy.

Here’s a quick look at today’s hit-by headlines:

Financial Times: HMV hit by sharp decline in sales What does the “hit by” add here that couldn’t be communicated with “HMV sales decline sharply”? (Or, personal favourite, “plummet”.)

Sky News: Petrol bomber hit by own firebomb YES! This is the right way to use it! (The expression, not the firebomb.)

Heatworld: Coronation Street Live hit by terrorist fears Not really… they’ve just hired some extra security.

Marie Claire: Christina Aguilera hit by nude photo scandal (Hmm, I wonder which of these links you’ll all be clicking on.)

Belfast Telegraph: SMEs hit hardest by drop in exports What does this even mean? Ah, never mind – as a reader, I’ve already turned the page.

None of these, however, match up to the daftness of this standfirst in the Metro last week. “More than half of all rail operators will be hit by engineering work over the festive period.” But they won’t, will they? It was the rail operators, after all, that arranged the engineering work. If anyone will be “hit by” anything, it’ll be the commuters (in the ballroom with the resulting delays).

I have three main complaints about “hit by”:

  1. It’s lazy. Think of a word that actually means something, and use that instead.
  2. It’s passive, which makes for dull copy. Go active! “Engineering works will cause xxx xxx xxx over the festive period” [xxxs indicates where the news (yes, news!) should go, not kisses].
  3. It has a plausible literal meaning. Your reader sees the words “rail”, “hit”, and “by” and expects to read about a train crash. Don’t mess with their minds.

In other please-write-what-you-mean news, here’s an example from a car review that I edited yesterday: “The car is fairly pedestrian-friendly as there aren’t any hard surfaces directly beneath the bonnet.”

Personally, I’m not a big fan of the -friendly construction at the best of times. If it’s user-friendly, is it going to hug me? Friendliness should be reserved for sentient beings, in my humble opinion. But it’s hard to escape on a consumer magazine, and I don’t usually make a fuss. But “pedestrian-friendly”? You must be kidding! Crashing into pedestrians is not a friendly thing to do, however few hard surfaces you have under your bonnet.

I said as much on Twitter, and received the following reply from @AndrewNoakes “Know what you mean, but how else do you say it in a few words? ‘Less pedestrian unfriendly’ is more accurate, but clumsy.”

Well, how about: “There are no hard surfaces directly below the bonnet, minimising danger to pedestrians in the event of a crash.” It ain’t beautiful, but it does say what it means. If anyone can sum it up with both beauty and sense (possibly in haiku format, for extra kudos), I’d be interested to hear it.

Incidentally, considering my comment on sentience (although, strictly speaking, I suppose having skin does not necessarily imply it – discuss), the same report also contained the sentence: “It has an interior that can be a little daunting to get used to, such is the number of gadgets the car has under its skin.” Yeuch.

Finally, and as if to prove my point about this rant being far from original, the Guardian’s excellent Mind Your Language blog today featured a post on early style manuals, specifically A Plea for the Queen’s English, written by Henry Alford, dean of Canterbury, in 1863. It includes the following sage advice:

Call a spade a spade, not a well-known oblong instrument of manual industry; let a home be a home, not a residence … The only way to shine, even in this false world, is to be modest and unassuming. Elegance of language may not be in the power of all of us; but simplicity and straightforwardness are.

Damn straight.

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12 Comments »

  1. Scared pedestrian
    My car’s soft underbelly
    Will not hurt you. much

    Comment by Freelance Unbound — December 9, 2010 @ 5:18 pm | Reply

  2. Likewise “the flat benefits from two bedrooms”. Does it?!

    Comment by substuff — December 9, 2010 @ 8:49 pm | Reply

  3. On opening the Metro today I was hit by saw the following:

    X-rated Xtina hit by hackers

    I’m off to protest outside the Metro on your behalf!

    Comment by Andy — December 10, 2010 @ 8:50 am | Reply

    • I really wish it was her who had sung “Hit me baby one more time” – I nearly had a really witty remark to make then!

      Comment by substuff — December 11, 2010 @ 1:38 pm | Reply

  4. […] Relf’s excellent Rantings of a sub-editor blog offers a tough challenge to journalists and sub-editors – to turn a piece of drivelling nonsense submitted by a car reviewer into elegant and accurate […]

    Pingback by Freelance Unbound» Blog Archive » Friday haiku challenge — December 10, 2010 @ 9:05 am | Reply

    • Who said anything about drivelling nonsense? Not I… I am full of respect for the copy that keeps me off the streets. 🙂

      Comment by substuff — December 11, 2010 @ 1:40 pm | Reply

  5. Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style. Matthew Arnold, 1898

    Comment by Around My Kitchen Table — December 10, 2010 @ 10:36 am | Reply

  6. They didn’t mean friendly, they meant less dangerous…!

    Here’s my take:

    If you hit someone
    With this car you’ll damage it
    More than you do them.

    Or, to elaborate:

    The car’s design minimises injuries to pedestrians in the event of a crash. There are no hard surfaces under the bonnet.

    Job done.

    Comment by Anne — December 10, 2010 @ 9:28 pm | Reply

    • Hmm… I wonder if we’d first have to carry out crash tests on pedestrians and compare their injuries with damage to the cars…

      Comment by substuff — December 11, 2010 @ 1:46 pm | Reply

  7. Decline sharply? Isn’t that self-contradictory? I thought decline referred to a gradual or slow process as in decline of the Roman empire; to slope downwards, deteriorate gradually, diminish slowly. PW

    Comment by Patrick Weech — December 17, 2010 @ 10:15 am | Reply


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