Don’t flout this distinction – flaunt it

February 3, 2017

English, in its superabundance, has many multiples of words and phrases that overlap contentiously in meaning. These confusables are the bread and butter of usage manuals: imply and infer, disinterested and uninterested, careen and career, defuse and diffuse, convince and persuade, militate and mitigate, refute and reject, and flaunt and flout.

Some of these pairs are worth distinguishing; others are not. Part of editing well – and writing well – is knowing which distinctions to preserve and which to disregard. Examining over versus more than, John E. McIntyre refers to dog-whistle editing: ‘the observance of nuances that only copy editors can hear, and thus a waste of time’.

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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.


The writer automaton by Pierre Jaquet-Droz

September 29, 2013

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BBC four - mechanical marvels - clockwork dreams - the writer automaton by Pierre Jaquet-Droz

The short clip below is from the BBC Four documentary Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams on the history of automata, narrated by Prof. Simon Schaffer. It shows a mechanical boy known as the writer, the brainchild of Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721–90), a Swiss watchmaker who became renowned for this and similar works.

The writer comprises about 6000 parts and contains 40 replaceable interior cams that allow it to write – using a goose-feather quill – any text of up to 40 characters. In other words, it’s programmable. The machine has an uncanny quality charged by the movement of its eyes as they follow the composition of letters and the refilling of the quill with fresh ink (which it briefly shakes, to prevent blotting).*

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Anti-anti-Americanismism

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 »


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”.


‘Smuggle plot tomatoes’ and other distant compounds

June 27, 2012

I’ve written before about noun pileups, where nouns pile up to form strange or baffling strings, typically in headlines, such as “Slough sausage choke baby death woman jailed”. Some, like “Ben Douglas Bafta race row hairdresser James Brown ‘sorry’”, are almost parse-proof.

There are also noun compounds that don’t grow to great length, but still manage to be obscure unless you’re already following the story they relate to. Today’s BBC News website contains the following headline:

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‘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.

 

Previously in novel punctuation: apostrophantoms.