This headline on the front page of today’s Guardian caught my eye for reasons both ecological and syntactic. See what you make of it before reading on:
*[click to enlarge]
It took me a moment to figure out this headline in today’s Irish Times. I wondered if it might be a novel or obscure sense of depart in sports journalism that had escaped my notice to date, before realising it was probably supposed to be impart. The article supports this analysis.
To impart is to pass on or transmit, to communicate or disclose, to bestow. One often imparts wisdom. To depart is to leave: a train departs a station. Depart from can mean deviate from (a normal or recommended course of action): the headline departs from intelligibility.
John McIntyre, in The Old Editor Says, warns that errors lurk in the big type and imparts the following wisdom: “Always give the big type a second or third look before publication.” Be on guard, too, for departing wisdom when parting wisdom is meant.
Google returns a few examples of “departs wisdom”, each seemingly intended to mean imparts wisdom, but none so prominent as this. I expect it will crop up again sooner or later.
[Hat-tip to Ultan Cronin for the link. For more like this, see my archive of posts about headlines.]
Jessica Mitford, in The American Way of Death,* quotes a text that uses compliment when complement was intended, and adds [sic] to indicate this. What’s of interest here is the footnote she then appends:
I do not like the repeated use of sic. It seems to impart a pedantic, censorious quality to the writing. I have throughout made every effort to quote the funeral trade publications accurately; the reader who is fastidious about usage will hereafter have to supply his own sics.
This “pedantic, censorious quality” is sometimes insinuated and sometimes unmistakeable. Sic – not an abbreviation but a Latin word meaning thus or so – can usefully clarify that a speaker said or wrote just as they are quoted to have done. But it can also serve as a sneer, an unseemly tool to mock a trivial error or an utterance of questionable pedigree.
For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man’s Quest for Grammatical Perfection is a new book by David Marsh, production editor of the Guardian and editor of its style guide and language blog. The ironic title and tension with the subtitle will give you an indication of the contents and tone: serious yet light-hearted, personal but universal (sort of). It makes for an interesting balancing act, and to Marsh’s credit he pulls it off.
Structurally the book is a mixum-gatherum of analysis and advice covering grammar and language usage, both general and in the particular domains of journalism and the internet. Over 280-odd pages it covers a lot of ground, owing to Marsh’s plain, direct style and talent for concision. There is also pleasure in its easy humour: this is a funnier book than is usual for the field.
Alice Taylor’s Quench the Lamp is a warm and funny memoir of her childhood in rural Cork in the 1940s, full of anecdotes and observations on farm activities, family dramas, eccentric neighbours, and Irish life before and after electrification.
A chapter on thrift and the “art of making do” shows how objects’ versatility was engineered and enhanced. Pot lids warmed beds, goose wings dusted cobwebs, turf dust was deployed when the cat did “what he must where he shouldn’t”. Bags and boxes were strategically repurposed once emptied of their original cargo.
Newspaper served a multitude of roles, some of them still current even in urban lifestyles:
Our newspaper, the Cork Examiner, was a multi-purpose item. It cleaned and polished windows and it covered bare timber floors before the first lino or tarpaulin went down, thus providing underlay and insulation. Placed in layers on top of wire bed-springs, it eased the wear on the horsehair mattress; cut into the right shape, it became insoles in heavy leather boots and shoes and, later, in wellingtons when they became part of our lives. Even though it could never be described as baby soft, it was the forerunner of the multi-million-pound industry that subsequently provided soft solutions in the toilet-paper business. Rolled into balls it was a firelight, its effectiveness improved by a sprinkling of paraffin oil. Ned [a local shop owner] shaped it into funnels and filled it with sweets to make a tóimhsín, as he called it. At home it lined drawers and was considered mothproof and, when nothing else was available, it was used as a dustpan. One of our more industrious neighbours regularly covered her potato stalks with newspaper at night and this protected them from frost.
Taylor says those who excelled in the frugal art ran the risk of being considered thrifty to a fault – it would be said of them that they “could live under a hen”. Or you might say someone “could live in your ear and rent out the other one without you knowing it”.
A tóimhsín or tomhaisín /’t̪oːʃiːn/, by the way, is Irish for a small measure or amount, or in this case a cone-shaped paper bag or poke, often used for holding sweets. It comes from tomhais “measure, weigh”, and is sometimes anglicised as tosheen, to-sheen, or toisheen.
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.
At 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.
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.
[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.]
Fev at headsup suggests a simple change that would avoid the crash blossom: “Girl found alive in France murder car”.