More clichéd than previously thought

July 24, 2013

A lesser known cliché in journalism, especially science reporting, is the construction than previously thought. It doesn’t always take that precise form – sometimes it’s than originally thought, or than previously believed, or than scientists/anyone previously thought, or just than thought – but that’s the general structure, and it. is. ubiquitous.

Search for “previously thought” on Google, or try other news websites in the site: slot, and you’ll see what a journalistic crutch it is. I remember grumbling about it on Twitter once and then seeing it in the next two articles I read.

I’ve also mentioned it on this blog, in a comment a few years ago, where I described it as a meaningless and hackneyed device that may be meant to add novelty and excitement to a story, but doesn’t; instead, it implies that no scientist has any imagination whatsoever.

The number of times I’ve read than previously thought and thought, Actually, that’s not a surprise at all, or No, I’ve had that very thought before – well, it’s probably even more than previously thought.

But there is an upside. In its most elliptical form, than thought, it can generate amusing semantic ambiguities, as in this recent example from Discovery News (via @brandalisms): “Death Happens More Slowly Than Thought”, to which one might reasonably reply: It depends on the thought. (Cf. “Human genome far more active than thought”.)

Discovery crash blossom headline - death happens more slowly than thought

Yes, it’s a crash blossom (i.e., a headline with garden-path ambiguity), a mild one, but the first I’ve written about in a while. I guess the lesson is: When life hands you clichés, make crash blossoms (or other linguistic fun). Not always possible, of course, but maybe more often than prev—

Book review: Sick English, by Janet Byron Anderson

April 18, 2013

Specialist language sometimes spreads beyond its initial domain and becomes part of common currency. From baseball we get home run; from jousting, full tilt. And from medical science we get syndrome, viral, clinical, [X] on steroids, and others – not exactly an epidemic (that’s another one), but a significant set all the same.

For example: a detective novel I read lately (Angels Flight by Michael Connelly) contained the phrase: “the senseless and often random violence that was the city’s cancer”. Intuitively we understand the cancer metaphor, but we might never have thought about it analytically. You’ll be glad to know that someone has.

Janet Byron Anderson, a linguist and medical editor, has written a book about these words. Sick English: Medicalization in the English Language looks at how medical terminology has “migrated from hospital floors and doctors’ offices and taken up dual citizenship on the pages of newspapers, in news reports and quoted speech”.

Read the rest of this entry »

Bang, pling, boing, shriek, gasper, screamer, Christer! And other exclamation mark aliases

March 28, 2013

Henry Hitchings’s terrific book The Language Wars has a brief note on old names for exclamation marks (aka exclamation points):

Exclamation and question marks were not much used until the seventeenth century. Ben Johnson referred to the former as admiration marks, and they were casually known by the names shriekmark and screamer before exclamation mark became standard . . .

Admiration mark? Exclamation mark in Times New Roman Shriekmark? Screamer? Amused, I went looking for more and found that exclamation marks also went (and maybe still go) by the names shriek and Christer. The resulting tweet prompted a flurry of responses, so I want to extend the discussion here, where there’s more space.

Read the rest of this entry »

Book review: The Old Editor Says, by John McIntyre

March 26, 2013

Many of you know John E. McIntyre, night editor at the Baltimore Sun and purveyor of consistently good sense on language and editing – evident on his blog You Don’t Say, which I read daily and often link to. Good news: McIntyre has written a book, titled The Old Editor Says: Maxims for Writing and Editing, and it is excellent.

John E. McInytre - The Old Editor Says - Maxims for Writing and Editing - book coverAt 70-odd pages, The Old Editor Says is short enough to breeze through in an hour or less, depending on how long you pause for thought, laughter, and quoting to neighbours. Then you’ll want to read it again.

McIntyre is a sharp and entertaining writer, traits honed by his newsroom experience. Take this line: “The next time you use ‘to die for’ in copy, we can make that happen.” (His point: beware exaggeration and journalistic tics and clichés.)

Each page opens with similarly aphoristic advice (occasionally inherited from other editors), followed by a brief discussion. The prose is clear, concise, measured, and filled with sound guidance. Here are some conclusions from one such piece of advice:

First, from your editor, as from your butler, there are no secrets. If you have allowed yourself to be lazy, careless, turgid, or sloppy, there is no concealing it.

Second, everyone – everyone – is capable of shoddy work, especially in the first draft. That is why writers need editing, not just self-editing, but editing from an independent set of eyes.

Third, humility should be the outcome. The writer should understand the human propensity toward error, and the editor should not assume some snooty sense of superiority for having ferreted out errors, because the editor is equally prone to them.*

The book does not deal much with specific issues of grammar; instead it devotes space to pointing out how errors and deficiencies commonly arise and suggesting how to prevent or mitigate them. It explains what’s necessary to keep readers reading and not frustrate them through carelessness and complacency. And it has fun doing so.

The Old Editor Says offers wise counsel on proofreading, word choice, office politics, ethics, stylebook use, job satisfaction, and more. Its main province is the newspaper trade, but its distilled insights are generally applicable to wordsmiths in other fields, as seen in this passage on rules and responsibility:

Those “rules” from whatever stylebook you use aren’t statutory; they’re guidelines. One-sentence exhortations, the ones in this little book included, are not adequate for the complexity of experience.

What you need is judgment.

Mr McIntyre has written a useful and original book that’s also a pleasure to read. If you’re in the business of writing or editing, The Old Editor Says will satisfy, gratify, and edify. You can get it through Amazon and elsewhere in paper and electronic formats; I ordered my copy from the Book Depository (UK).


* Anyone who doubts the fallibility of editors should see these confessions at the Subversive Copy Editor Blog.

Howling ambiguities

November 25, 2012

As a lazy Sunday offering, a selection of entries from Denys Parsons’ entertaining book It Must Be True: Classic Newspaper Howlers, Bloomers, and Misprints.

They’re not referenced in detail, unfortunately, but I’m willing to believe they’re all genuine instances of accidental ambiguity. Some can be found elsewhere online.

  1. After using your ointment my face started to clear up at once, and after using two jars it was gone altogether. (Ad in Bristol paper)
  2. Dyke stated in his complaint that the defendant owned a large dog that walked the floor most of the night, held noisy midnight parties, and played the radio so that sleep was impossible. (Australian paper)
  3. Wrap poison bottles in sandpaper and fasten with scotch tape or a rubber band. If there are children in the house, lock them in a small metal box. (Philadelphia Record)
  4. Its lone peal summons the faithful to worship while the others are dismantled and repaired. (Bucks Advertiser)
  5. Mrs. Oscar Maddox is able to be up after being confined to bed for several weeks with malaria fever, to the delight of her friends. (Thomasville (Georgia) Times-Enterprise)
  6. The Nilotic race is remarkable for the disproportionately long legs of its men and women. They extend on the eastern side of the Nile right down into the Ugandan Protectorate. (From a book by Sir Harry H. Johnston)
  7. …and a few moments after the Countess had broken the traditional bottle of champagne on the bows of the noble ship, she slid slowly and gracefully down the slipway, entering the water with scarcely a splash. (Essex paper)
  8. LOST Antique cameo ring, depicting Adam and Eve in Market Square Saturday night. (Ad in Essex paper)
  9. The thing that first caught my eye was a large silver cup that Charles had won for skating on the mantelpiece. (short story)
  10. The native inhabitants produce all manner of curios, the great majority of which appear to command a ready sale among the visitors, crude and commonplace as they frequently are. (Bulawayo Chronicle)
  11. When the baby is done drinking it must be unscrewed and laid in a cool place under a tap. If the baby does not thrive on fresh milk it should be boiled. (Women’s magazine)
  12. Discovered at 5.06 a.m. the flames starting on the third floor of the Midwest Salvage Co., spread so rapidly that the first firemen on the scene were driven back to safety and leaped across three streets to ignite other buildings. (Cincinnati Times Star)
  13. Princess B__ wore a white and gold lace gown which she’d saved for the occasion. To give you an idea how elaborate it was, the centre-piece was a mirror 13½ feet long with elaborate matching candelabra of fruit-baskets. (Los Angeles Mirror)
  14. From Llandrindod you proceed along the lovely valley of the Ithon, growing more beautiful as you proceed. (Motor Cycle)

Many of these ambiguities are anaphoric. Anaphora is something everyone’s familiar with, though they mightn’t know the term. It’s the use of a word or phrase to substitute for an earlier element – the antecedent.

So in #1′s it was gone altogether, it is an anaphor referring back to an unidentified blemish, but technically it could also refer to my face, hence the ambiguity. Here, the absurdist interpretation comes more naturally.

In A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, David Crystal says anaphoric reference is a way of “marking the identity between what is being expressed and what has already been expressed”. See the lyrics of Christine Collins’s ‘Linguistics Love Song‘ for a play on it. Cataphora is similar but involves forward reference, e.g., Consider the following.

Grammatical jargon aside, which is your favourite ambiguity here, or do you remember other examples?

A comma, which muddles meaning

November 19, 2012

From a Guardian editorial of 14 November:

There is another lesson to the Petraeus affair. The former general fashioned for himself a role, which is much more significant than top generals have during wars. [screengrab]

Readers may briefly infer that what is “much more significant” is not a role but Petraeus’s fashioning a role for himself, or they may infer that top generals don’t normally have a role during wars. And then they’ll realise they’ve miscued because of a rogue comma.

The article should read “a role which [or that] is much more significant”. The clause led by which is restrictive, so there should be no comma before it.* Adding one makes the clause non-restrictive and obscures the antecedent – what the relative pronoun which refers to.

The ambiguity is quickly resolved, but it ought never to have arisen. Readers are being made to work unnecessarily for a straightforward point. Whether the comma came from the writer or from a sub-editor trained in the totally fake that/which rule, the sentence is unwittingly spoiled. Punctuation, instead of lending structure, has warped it.

The that/which rule is more typical of US style; elsewhere there is usually no problem with restrictive which. But the Guardian style guide includes the distinction, seemingly in the name of clarity and elegance. So the quotation above, though not a dire failing, is telling: it shows how communication is undermined through misguided deference to a bogus rule.

We can be grateful for the many other instances of restrictive which in the Guardian that have not suffered an intrusive comma. From today’s edition:

we don’t know what position we are going to have in a Europe which is much more tightly integrated as a result of the eurozone crisis.

Ostrovskaya was earlier cited as a critic of my book The Whisperers in the “controversy” which Ascherson mentions.

a picture published by the Sunday Sport which her lawyers described as a “fake up the skirt photo”.

All these phrases are fully grammatical and intelligible. They don’t need commas before which, nor do they need which changed to that.

If writers and editors are led to believe that a comma must precede relative pronoun which as a matter of correctness, some will adopt this erroneous edict and apply it incorrectly – a misstep apparent in the example up top, and in this Language Log post where Geoffrey Pullum calls the rule “a complete disaster”.

The that/which rule is a spurious invention that goes against the standard usage of centuries of good writing. It replaces judgement and grammatical awareness with uncertainty, anxiety, and mechanical behaviour. And the muddle is passed on to readers.


After a prompt on Twitter by @BoswellAffleck, the @guardianstyle account graciously conceded that I “may well be right”:


* My earlier post on the that/which rule explains the terminology and offers analysis, history, and commentary from usage authorities.


September 27, 2012

A recent article on the BBC America website features “10 Things Americans Say… and What They Really Mean”. It begins with an unpromising generalisation and a gratuitous sideswipe:

When it comes to the spoken word, Americans are a truly baffling bunch. So we’ve decoded their most irritating idioms.

Here’s an example of said “decoding” which, though it may have been intended as humour, seems to me sour and condescending:

Read the rest of this entry »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,756 other followers