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.

February 22, 2010

Who’s been writing what?

Filed under: David Marsh,esteemed persons,Sally Baker — substuff @ 4:03 pm
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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 16, 2010

Headlines make headlines

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

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