Readers say find headline syntax weird

August 19, 2014

A news story at Reuters last week had a striking bit of syntax in its headline:

reuters headline - says expects to announce

This unorthodox grammatical construction is not unusual in headlines, but I didn’t make a note of it before. A quick search online with various headline-friendly verbs shows it to be a regular enough occurrence:

Read the rest of this entry »


BBC News style guide now globally available

July 8, 2014

I do enjoy a good style guide: browsing the alphabetical entries, reading the general advice sections, learning how organisations handle sensitive subjects, and seeing how different publishers treat the same material. What usage fiend doesn’t find this stuff fascinating?

So I was very happy to learn today that the BBC News style guide is now fully and freely available online.  It went public about a year ago but didn’t appear to be accessible outside the UK, except for a PDF which, though generally excellent, dates to March 2003.

The online BBC style guide is searchable and easy to navigate. As well as the usual A–Z it has sections on names, numbers, military, and religion. Its page on grammar, spelling and punctuation offers useful tips on capitalisation, homophones, hyphens, US/UK differences, and timeworn bugbears (“By all means, split the infinitive…”), though it also unhelpfully upholds the dubious that/which rule.

BBC News style guide

So, OK, I have a slightly complicated relationship with style guides. As an editor I greatly value how they help ensure a set of texts is styled consistently to a given standard. But the descriptivist in me recoils at how conservative, arbitrary and wrong-headed they can be. If I had the time and will, I could spend all day refuting certain style guides on Twitter. But that’s a grouch for another day. It’s browsing time.

Tip of the hat to Damien Mulley, whose tweet about the also-newly-freely-available BBC Academy of Journalism alerted me to the BBC’s style guide going public globally. It can also be downloaded as a Word document (44k words in total) at this link.


Sentence First shop – where grammar is glamorous

September 10, 2013

If you read this blog on its web page (as opposed to via email, say), you may have noticed a new image in the sidebar, and a new page, linking to the Sentence First shop. It now has a .com address only; I closed the .ie page for simplicity’s sake.

The shop has bags, T-shirts, hoodies and other clothes, badges, mugs, and more. Its general themes are wordplay, language, and bad puns. Omit needles swords, for example, is a spin on Strunk and White’s popular dictum Omit needless words. Less cryptic ones include:

Grammar is glamorous (etymologically speaking)

and

Recursive hipsters were into being into things before they were hip before it was hip

stan carey - sentence first shop - Grammar is glamorous (etymologically speaking) purple t-shirt I’ll be adding more from time to time.

If you want some item that isn’t shown, email or tweet me or leave a comment below, and I’ll see what I can do when time allows. Other feedback will be happily received; cries of “capitalist sell-out” are also permitted.

Spreadshirt, the shop’s host, has a special offer from today, Tuesday 10 September, till a week from now – free standard shipping when you buy two or more items. Just use the voucher code FALL2013.


Babel – a new language magazine

November 28, 2012

A brief post to direct your attention to Babel – The language magazine, a new popular-linguistics publication from the University of Huddersfield in the UK. There are to be four issues a year. From the introduction by editors Lesley Jeffries and Dan McIntyre:

One of the reasons that language is so fascinating is that it’s something we all share. And just as everyone uses language, so too does everyone have an opinion about it. But if we want real answers to questions about language then we need the insights of linguistics. Babel aims to provide these.

Babel promises to address “issues relating to many different human languages”, and will have regular items such as feature articles of general interest, biographies of influential thinkers, explanations of technical terms, and more.

Issue one, which is available for free download (PDF, 3.11 MB), has features on forensic speech science (a branch of forensic linguistics), the problems and possibilities of intergalactic communication, politeness practices in Chinese, and how the norms of English as a global lingua franca are changing.

There are also book reviews, games, short news items, a biography of H. Paul Grice, and a glossary of linguistics under ‘A’ (including anaphora, happily). I’ve only browsed it so far, but I’ll read it from cover to cover before the weekend.

Via David Crystal, who, in more good news, is the magazine’s linguistic consultant.


BBC crash blossom: Girl murders car?

September 6, 2012

It’s a while since Sentence first featured a crash blossom – those headlines that lead you up the garden path, semantically speaking – so here’s one from the front page of today’s BBC news website: Girl found alive in France murders car.

Revenge for ‘The Cars That Ate Paris’, perhaps?

[Full story here. It's not pleasant.]

The ambiguity hinges on the phrase murders car, which suggests a surreal and impossible crime (a girl murders a car) but really constitutes part of an unusual compound noun, France murders car: a car implicated in murders in France. In which a girl was found alive.

France murders car also qualifies as a distant compound, like blast boy, canoe wife and pumpkin bus – multiple-noun compounds intelligible only to readers familiar with the relationship between the nouns, or who can guess at the story behind them.

The BBC report itself contains another syntactic ambiguity:

The girl found away from the car – thought to be seven or eight years old – was shot three times and seriously injured, and the younger daughter – only four – hid beneath her mother and was not even found until midnight, our correspondent says.

Though it quickly becomes clear from the context that seven or eight years old refers to a girl and not the car, this could have been signalled more clearly – by inserting she is inside the first pair of dashes, for example.

Nor is this the first time a headline has conferred life on a transportation vehicle: a couple of years ago I wrote about the strange implications of “Sound Transit train hits teenage girl, survives”.

[Hat-tip to @mrdarnley.]

Update:

Fev at headsup suggests a simple change that would avoid the crash blossom: “Girl found alive in France murder car”.


‘Scary quotes’

May 9, 2012

You’ve probably heard of scare quotes, well here’s scary quotes.

This is an image from the BBC news website today. Note the scary phrases in quotation marks, aka inverted commas:

Scary quotes commonly appear in headlines and subheadings. Some indicate reported speech or text, a common function of quotation marks; others paraphrase. They are a subset of claim quotes, an unofficial journalistic term for what Martyn Cornell describes as

a shorthand way of saying “someone is making this claim and we neither give it authority nor dismiss it, we’re just reporting it”. Frequently what is inside these sorts of claim quotes is a paraphrase of what was actually said, to make it fit inside the headline space

Bombers, memory holes, vomiting and screaming: the defining feature of scary quotes is that their contents are scary. Visit BBC news any day, at any hour, and you might take fright. [Edit: On a visit an hour later, I saw 'rape', 'recession', and 'rhino gang' in scary quotes – and that's just the Rs, on the front page.]

Yes, I’m plagiarising my Twitter self again. It’s a busy week.

.

Previously in novel punctuation: apostrophantoms.

Jumbling, tumbling

December 23, 2011

Between this blog and other active online haunts, I’ve been spreading my internet self a bit thin. But I’m a glutton for punishment, so I’ve started a Tumblr blog, provisionally titled Books & bits asthore.* So far it’s an erratic series of book excerpts, poems, and images from films.

Sentence first has been nominated in Macmillan Dictionary’s inaugural Love English Awards. You can vote for it, or for another language blog, on this page until 31 January. My expectations are non-existent, but I’m honoured to be in such great company, and I found a few new websites to explore. (Disclosure: I write for Macmillan Dictionary Blog.)

It’s a mild and sunny December day in the west of Ireland — Pseudocember, I’ve been calling it — and this is likely to be my last post before 2012. Thank you for your visits, comments, and innumerable kindnesses all year, and have a happy and peaceful Christmas.

moss on a wall in county Galway this morning

* I wrote about the Irish English word asthore here.


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