Rantings of a sub-editor

January 20, 2011

The Great Style Debate

Filed under: David Marsh,Simon Heffer — substuff @ 4:41 pm
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Simon Heffer, the associate editor at The Telegraph: “We’re singing from the same hymn sheet.”
David Marsh, the style guide editor at the Guardian: “Well, we wouldn’t use a cliché like that, but yes.”

That pretty much sums up the tone of The Great Style Debate last night. Those in the audience hoping for a punch-up will have been sadly disappointed; it was a most civilised affair. Mr Heffer and Mr Marsh certainly have their differences, but they have much more in common – namely a love of language and an affinity with their readers.

What’s the point?

Those of us who work with style guides every day hear a lot of negativity about house style, which is often branded restrictive, pointless and annoying. So it was nothing short of uplifting to see the enthusiasm and sense of purpose with which the two men approach their respective house styles.

Both emphasise that their style guides are not designed to limit creativity, but to reflect the values of their readers. Thus The Telegraph’s style guide (allegedly) contains no fewer than four entries on how to refer to the Queen. It also specifies that the place we all go to should be called the lavatory, and never the toilet (“toilet: use only to describe the personal cleansing regime”).

Mr Marsh gives the example of schizophrenic. “In the past it was used to describe someone who couldn’t make their mind up. Considering our readership, you can imagine that they’re going to find that quite offensive.”

The Guardian style guide now reads: “schizophrenic, schizophrenia: use only in a medical context, never to mean ‘in two minds’, contradictory, or erratic, which is wrong, as well as offensive to people diagnosed with this illness; schizophrenic should never be used as a noun.”

Forbidden words

Both men stressed that their style guides, unlike those of “The Financial Times and a paper in the region of Wapping” (ooh, bitchy), weren’t designed to “make every writer sound the same”. However, that doesn’t mean any word goes – especially at The Telegraph.

Four of Mr Heffer’s pet hates:

autopsy “American for postmortem.”

bubbly “A preposterous adjective, so frequently used to describe some unfortunate blonde killed in a car crash. And if she’s from an ethnic minority, it’s ‘vibrant’.”

extraordinary “If it was ordinary, it wouldn’t be in the paper.”

adjectives “I don’t like adjectives. It took me a long time to realise that instead of describing George Osborne as an ‘idiotic chancellor’, I could simply use a noun: ‘dolt’.”

Mr Marsh is more reluctant to ban words, though he strongly discourages the use of some.

“Reporters tend to use ‘controversial’ when they disapprove of something, which is fine in a column, but not in news,” he says. “And anyway, we wouldn’t write about it if it wasn’t controversial. However, we don’t ban the word, we just say think carefully about how you use it.”

Accordingly, the style guide reads: “[controversial] can normally be safely removed from copy to allow readers to make up their own minds.”

Swear words

If it’s banned words you’re after, head to The Telegraph’s entry on swearing – sorry, obscenity.

obscenity: always seek guidance in reporting foul language. It may be necessary to use dashes (not asterisks) to indicate the deletion of obscenity from direct quotes. Gratuitous use of obscenities is forbidden. The presumption must always be that profanities are forbidden.

“Our readers just don’t like it,” says Mr Heffer. And he’s probably right.

Hmm, so what does that say about Guardian readers? There were 700 fucks in the Guardian last year, and a further 300 in the Observer, according to Mr Marsh.

“It seems rather strange, in this day and age, to insert dashes or asterisks,” he says. “You say it’s to protect the children, but it’s just a challenge for them. They sit there and try to work it out like a crossword.”

In the style guide, the editor’s guidelines read as follows:

First, remember the reader, and respect demands that we should not casually use words that are likely to offend.

Second, use such words only when absolutely necessary to the facts of a piece, or to portray a character in an article; there is almost never a case in which we need to use a swearword outside direct quotes.

Third, the stronger the swearword, the harder we ought to think about using it.

Finally, never use asterisks, which are just a cop-out.

And a little ego

You have to have a bit of ego. Of course you do. Damn, I have ego when it comes to these things, and I’m just a bog-standard sub. If I had compiled a style guide for a major newspaper, I’m sure I’d be unbearable. So perhaps we ought to let them bask in the glory of a room full of admiring subs.

According to Mr Marsh, there is no such thing as plagiarism when it comes to style guides. “We’re always pleased if people decide to adopt our style,” he says, and boasts that his explanation of that and which is now used around the world.

So here it is, for your delectation – steady now:

“that” defines, “which” gives extra information (often in a clause enclosed by commas):

this is the house that Jack built; but this house, which John built, is falling down.

Note that the sentence remains grammatical without “that” (this is the house Jack built), but not without “which”

And in response to a question from the audience about how style is decided for new words, he was equally jubilant. “I claim to be one of the first people to write email without a hyphen. In 1999, my attitude was that no-one would be hyphenating it in a few years, or capitalising Internet or writing Web site. It’s about anticipating usage and the morphology of words.”

No such luck on thinktank, however. To date, he admits, the Guardian is the only publication to write it as one word.

Mr Heffer’s ego-massage takes a different form – perfectionism. He seems to believe that a sub (or associate editor) shouldn’t need subbing. I’m not convinced that I agree. I sub when I sub and I write when I write. I don’t hold my writing to quite the same high standards as I do my subbing, and I’ll freely admit that when it comes to my own copy, another sub will probably do a much better job of editing it than I will if I do it myself.

“I’m terrified of making a mistake in my columns,” he says. “When I’ve finished writing, I read it through and remove all the extraneous words, which is something all journalists should do. Then I go and run my head under cold water, come back and read it again. People are always looking for mistakes, so I can’t afford to make any.”

I object to this, on two counts. One, surely a sub shouldn’t inflict on others that which he or she is unwilling to undergo. If you are a changer of copy by trade, you should be willing (and trusting enough) to have your copy changed. And two, I find my writing is often improved by being subbed by another. But then I work mostly on magazines, where subbing tends to be more – shall we say – intrusive than on newspapers. (And I’m not Simon Heffer.)

“Luckily, the people who sub my columns are very good sub-editors,” he adds. (And I do wonder whether the subtitles should read: “Luckily, the people who sub my columns know not to touch my copy.”)

Other highlights

begs the question (DM: “it’s so heartwarming when it’s occasionally used correctly”)

railway stations vs train stations (DM: “no-one under 40 says the former”)

prevaricate vs procrastinate (SH: “that’s just a case of people forgetting what words mean”)

stadia (SH “I took the decision to abolish Latinate plurals such as stadia following an exchange in which I was asked what the plural of clitoris was. It’s clitorides.”)

My favourite moment, however, was when Mr Marsh, apparently quite innocently, got one over on the audience. In a find-the-errors quiz that was handed out at the start, there lurked a “just desserts”. When he pointed out that it should, in fact, be “just deserts”, there was uproar, outcry and an angry shaking of papers. “But that would say ‘deserts’,” cried a man in my row, full of righteous fury.

I looked on smugly (undeservedly, considering that it really wasn’t that long since I found out). Yes folks, it is so.  “Desert” is a noun (now obsolete) meaning “that which is deserved”. Think about it – when was the last time you were rewarded for a bad deed with a nice pudding?

Ps. How terrified am I that I’ve made some awful boob in this post? Let’s just say I’m off to the lavatory.

January 19, 2011

Extreme editing

Filed under: esteemed persons — substuff @ 2:55 pm
Tags: ,

If you take the train northwards between Elephant & Castle and London Bridge on a bright and blustery morning (looking out of the right-hand window, to be specific), you may have the good fortune to see the following graffiti. (Bright and blustery mornings are optional.)

Written in huge white letters, at least a foot high, on a brick wall:

BUDGET CUTS

But what’s that? Look closer, and you’ll see that it originally read:

BUDGET CUTS AND CORPORATE SLUTS

The last three words have been scrubbed off. Why? Well, I guess because “slut” was deemed offensive enough to need removing.

I assume the scrubbing was done either by rail company employees or the local council. What I really want to know, however, is who made the decision to remove three of the five words, rather than just the one. I like to imagine it was the person with the scrubbing brush, but it could have been someone in an office somewhere. Either way, I’d like to say to that individual: you rock!

I’m imagining their internal monologue (bucket of soapy water in hand).

“Okay, so I get rid of SLUT.” [Scrub, scrub, sweat.]

“But… that leaves BUDGET CUTS AND CORPORATE… that doesn’t make sense. There’s nothing for it, I’m going to have to take off AND CORPORATE, too. Here goes…” [Scrub, scrub, sweat, scrub, scrub.]

“Ah, that’s better. BUDGET CUTS. Yes, at least that’s tidy and not grammatically incorrect. A good morning’s work.”

It makes hitting the delete key (or even ctrl+F8, not that we use it here, grumble grumble, but I digress) seem positively lazy.

September 22, 2010

In a huff with Heffer?

Filed under: Simon Heffer — substuff @ 8:52 pm
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I’ve just read a damning post on Simon Heffer and his (my?) ilk on the badlinguistics blog. Heffer visits a school of disappointingly well-spoken youngsters, but sticks to his point (that they don’t really know how to speak English) anyway. You can listen to him in action on the BBC website.

I am a disloyal and treacherous reader, it seems. Much though I enjoy Simon Heffer’s columns, I nodded like a madman all the way through this, pausing only to burst out in laughter. I then spent a while Googling linguistics courses.

August 5, 2010

Simon Heffer’s email to Telegraph subs

Filed under: esteemed persons,Simon Heffer — substuff @ 11:48 am
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Paul Waugh at the Evening Standard has got his mitts on an email sent by Simon Heffer to his Telegraph colleagues.

Not much of it should be news for any established sub-editor (or picky writer of any kind), but if you’re training or looking to move into subbing, it’s well worth a look. Or just if you want to cheer him on. Rah, rah!

March 2, 2010

Who gets it: the poet or the prophet?

Filed under: new words,Richard Dixon,vaticide — substuff @ 11:04 am
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Ah, much happiness in my subby little world. Dim sum with Mr Dixon in the sunshine yesterday and the opportunity to practise attempting to convey an impression of great intelligence while simultaneously using chopsticks. A trip to The Times, tidbits overheard in lifts, a handshake with Simon Pearson and the possibility of shifts.

More joy: a beautiful two-volume New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has fallen into my clutches. I have been getting by at home with an Encarta dictionary (complete with pictures and American spellings) for the past decade, always meaning to make the move to Oxford and always finding something less dictionary-like to spend my pennies on. These babies have thumbnails. And gold lettering. And little blue speckles on the sides. So beautiful.

And in further book-bliss news, I have been lent Dr Johnson’s Dictionary of Entertaining and Historically Stimulating Words (if I may abbreviate its title so abruptly). I haven’t yet had the opportunity to properly investigate the delights within. But here’s a question.
On the back, it says:

Va’ticide n.s. [vates and caedo, Latin.] A murderer of poets

Fantastic! I gave it a quick Google to see if I could find an instance of it actually being used. Had there ever been a rampage by a vaticidal maniac? Was vaticide more of a problem in some parts of the world than others? Sadly – happily, in fact, for the poets among us – there were no examples to be found. (Although it does appear to be the name of an Australian heavy metal band – disturbing image alert.) But to my surprise, the word was translated overwhelmingly as “the murder of a prophet”. Murder, not murderer. Prophet, not poet.

To the shiny OED I went (although ‘went’ is probably the wrong word, considering that I have had it clutched lovingly to my bosom for the past two hours). It translates vates as a poet, especially one divinely inspired; a prophet-poet. So a bit of both, then.

But to me, the murder of a prophet and a murderer of poets are two quite different things. And if I am going to use such a fantastic word, I want to know what it means! Any offers?

February 22, 2010

Who’s been writing what?

Filed under: David Marsh,esteemed persons,Sally Baker — substuff @ 4:03 pm
Tags: ,

When I arrived at work today, someone (identity as yet unknown) had kindly left David Marsh’s Mind your language column on my desk. His topic this week is the upset caused by the Guardian’s policy of using the word ‘actor’ to describe both actors and actresses – or male and female actors, as the case may be.

Personally, I find the decision to modernise language in such a way that it conveys less information than its previous version odd. ‘Actress’ tells me in one word what ‘female actor’ tells me in two.

Marsh’s argument is that in most cases the sex of the subject is irrelevant.

“There is normally no need to differentiate between the sexes – and if there is, the words male and female are perfectly adequate: Lady Gaga won a Brit for best international female artist, not artiste, chanteuse or songstress.”

The subject certainly seems to arouse passions. When I mentioned it earlier, it even awoke the wrath of the art desk – usually immune to all discussions of house style. Their verdict: the abolition of ‘actress’ is “ridiculous”. This sub-editress/sub-editrix is inclined to agree.

No such fripperies for Sally Baker, who in her Feedback column on Saturday tackled the tricky subject of reporting suicide. When does information become too much information, or, worse, an instruction manual? And when is it acceptable to print a picture of a public suicide? It’s not something I have ever had to confront, here in the world of trade magazines. But an interesting – and important – read.

February 17, 2010

A heavy haspiration

Filed under: a/an,esteemed persons,Richard Dixon,word choice — substuff @ 10:37 am
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The first work email I get this morning is from the Chief. It is short and to the point:

“a: it’s a hotel, a historic, not an hotel, an historic.”

I beg to differ, Brighton Argus style guide (now online)

Aside from the worries I have about the mental health of a man who spends his spare time reading style guides for local newspapers of cities he doesn’t live in (and he’s not even a sub!), I thought this was an interesting gripe.

Before I continue, let’s just point out that aspiration (a kind of short pant!) is important in this debate. To aspirate, says the OED, is to produce a sound with an exhalation of breath. So, if we’re talking h-wise, hotel, happy and Hove are aspirated, but heir and honour are not. Hot!

Fowler’s says, rather charmingly:

Opinion is divided over the form to use before h-words in which the first syllable is unstressed: the thoroughly modern thing to do is to use a (never an) together with an aspirated h (a habitual, a heroic, a historical, a Homeric, a hypothesis), but not to demur if others use an with minimal or nil aspiration given to the following h (an historic, an horrific, etc).

No demurring, you old-fashioned types!

The Times Style Guide, however, supports the Chief.

use an before unaspirated han heir, an honest woman, an honour; also, prefer an hotel to a hotel, an historic to a historic, an heroic rather than a heroic

Kit and I err on the side of the modern on this one. We are sticking to a historical event, a habitual tic, etc. But I’ll admit to the occasional wistful sigh.

A little trivia on the subject, courtesy of Fowler’s:

Three special cases:
an hotel (with no aspiration on the second word) is now old-fashioned, but by no means extinct.

In humble, the h was originally mute and the pronunciation prevailed until the 19c, but is now obsolete: it should therefore be preceded by a, not an.

In American English, herb, being pronounced with silent h, is always preceded by an, but the same word in British English, being pronounced with an aspirated h, by a.

Bet this post has got y’all aspirating heavily

February 16, 2010

Headlines make headlines

Filed under: David Marsh,esteemed persons,Sally Baker — substuff @ 11:38 am
Tags: , ,

Everyone is talking about headlines, it seems.

David Marsh, The Guardian’s style guide editor, took on clichés today, in his Mind your language column, while yesterday Sally Baker, feedback editor at The Times, discussed the tricksiness of summing up a story accurately in a headline, in her Feedback column.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we are still reeling from the stray “bogging” that made it into the blogging feature in this week’s issue. Eek.

February 8, 2010

Hordes of discreet sub-editors…

Filed under: David Marsh,discreet/discrete,horde/hoard — substuff @ 9:30 am
Tags: ,

David Marsh, editor of the Guardian’s style guide, has written a column in praise of subs today. Quite right too! However, I am not entirely sure I could live up to the following claim. I’m all for subs, but can’t help but think there must be more useful people to be marooned with. Bear Grylls. Sean Bean (just me?) And who wants their cry of “I have less and less reasons to live” to be met with “Do you mean ‘less reason’, or ‘fewer reasons’?”

If you are ever shipwrecked with a journalist, God help you, Charlie Brooker might be funnier and Polly Toynbee better at explaining the advantages of the alternative vote system, but trust me: you will be much better off with a sub if you need an all-round journalist to write, edit and produce the desert island newspaper and website.

In the feedback section, I noticed, someone had a pop at the Guardian over hoard and horde. And I had a sudden panic that I didn’t know the difference. I then realised I did know the difference. And I then realised that even though I knew the difference, it’s a mistake I too would likely have overlooked (I let through “water metre” last week, luckily picked up by Kit in time). But no longer! So thank you to Leopold1904 and his/her scathing observations.

Here, for the unenlightened, that you may be enlightened.

hoard:
a stock or store of money or valued objects, typically one that is secret or guarded

horde:
a large group of people
an army or tribe of nomadic warriors
a loosely knit small social group

And while I’m at it, let’s do discreet and discrete, too. I’ve been meaning to for a while.

discreet:
careful and circumspect in one’s speech and actions, especially in order to avoid causing offence or to gain an advantage

discrete:
individually separate and distinct

Ahhh, that’s better. Nothing like a bit of OED to start a week. Now musing on whether I should make myself a little style guide for my blog. A style guide all of my own… ooohhhh…

February 5, 2010

A plug for James

Filed under: esteemed persons,James Ball — substuff @ 4:40 pm
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Very impressed with James’ London Weekly activity (and feeling rather bad at poking fun at him for his inventive spellings of Invincible).

So here, Mr Ball, I plug you to ALL SEVEN of my readers.

Kind readers, I give you Mr Ball and the Case of the Mysterious London Weekly.

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