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Nick Cohen
Thursday 5th August 2010
Love me. Love my sub

Reporters do not always treat subs well. On occasion, when pushed beyond endurance by the cutting of our best lines, or a puritan purge of all our gags, we tell the old joke about the plane carrying a sub and a reporter crashing in the Sahara. For three days they walk through the burning heat until finally they collapse, skin burning, throats parched, at the base of a huge sand dune. 'Let us just climb to the top of the dune,' croaks the reporter.

'I can't,' says the sub, 'let us curl up here and die'.

'No!' says the reporter, 'we must make one last effort.' And somehow they haul their dehydrated bodies, two steps forward, one step back,  to the top to see...a beautiful blue oasis on the other side.

They stumble down to the lake. It is not a mirage. The reporter plunges his cupped, blistered hands into the cool water of life. Only to see the sub unzip his trousers and piss in it.

"What the hell do you think you are doing," he bellows.

"I'm making it better," the sub replies.

Then we recollect ourselves and remember that we need them. Subs are furtive scurrying creatures, who hunt solecisms alone and nearly always at night. They may have no loved ones to care for them and no friends to support them, but they are OUR friends. They are our last line of defence, and our first call for help; the only barrier between us and a hostile world. Managers, such as the managers of the Telegraph, who try to save money by getting rid of them, make their newspapers look ridiculous, as Simon Heffer admits. Paul Waugh takes up the tale.

Heffer's huff at Telegraph hacks

The Daily Tel used to regularly print something called Simon Heffer's Style Notes.

Largely of interest to other hacks and sub-editors, it was a kind of Corrections and Clarifications column to show the reader that precision was taken seriously.

For some reason, the last one to appear was in September 2009. But this week (in an email sent yesterday), he's back on the case, attacking his own paper's misspellings and other blunders.

I've been passed an email he has sent to all Telegraph colleagues. Just as Giles Coren's infamous email deserved wider circulation, I think this does too.

Forgive the length, but he does make quite a few points...

Dear Colleagues

We must make sure we stick to the rules on how to describe people, because to stray from consistency causes confusion. The suspect in the Wikileaks case is an American soldier called Private Brad Manning. He is also known as Specialist Brad Manning. We should stick to the familiar, and refer to him at all times (until he is convicted of anything) as Pte Manning. We have started to call him Mr Manning; which, as he is not a civilian, is just plain wrong. The only exception is with officers (usually of the rank of Lt-General or above) who have also been knighted; in which case they should be called (for example) General Sir David Richards at first mention, and then may be either Gen Richards or Sir David. Many of our readers are or have been in the services and have great attention to detail on matters of rank. Since they know at once when we get it wrong, we need to have that attention to detail too.

If you find yourself using a word of whose meaning you are unsure, do look it up in the dictionary. When we get a word wrong it is embarrassing. It demeans us as professional writers and shakes our readers’ confidence in us. In recent weeks we have confused endocrinology – the study of the body’s endocrine system – with dendrochronology, which is the study of dating trees. More embarrassing still, we accused the eminent broadcaster Sir David Attenborough of being a naturist – someone who chooses not to wear clothes – when in fact he is a naturalist; and during a story about a coach crash in Paris the nationality of the driver changed from Austrian to Australian. Homogenous and homogeneous are not interchangeable and their respective meanings should be studied in the dictionary. Like embodied and embedded, which we also confused, effecting and affecting and eligibility and legibility, these pairs of words almost come under the heading of homophones, as do prostate and prostrate.  We must take more care and ensure we are using the right word.

Homophones remain abundant and show up the writer and the newspaper or website. We are quality media, and quality media do not make mistakes such as these: “the luck of the drawer”, “through the kitchen sink”, “through up” “dragging their heals” and “slammed on the breaks”, all of which are clichés that might not be worthy of a piece of elegant writing even if spelt correctly. We have also confused Briton and Britain, hanger and hangar, hordes and hoards, peeled and pealed, lightening and lightning, stationery and stationary, principal and principle, peninsula and peninsular, licence and license and, in something of a pile-up, born, borne and bourn. If you are unsure of the meanings of any of these words, look them up before proceeding further.

Many of these mistakes are caused by carelessness and not properly reading back what one has written. We have had an increasing number of literals in recent weeks, both online and in the paper, which suggests the problem is getting worse rather than better. Heads of department have a particular responsibility to ensure that their staff perform to the best professional standards in this respect. We managed to perpetrate one of the worst literals of all recently – pubic for public- which may seem a laughing matter, but is not.

Some Americanisms keep slipping in, usually when we are given agency copy to re-write and do an inadequate job on it. There is no such verb as “impacted”, and other American-style usages of nouns as verbs should be avoided (authored, gifted etc). Maneuver is not spelt that way in Britain. We do not have lawmakers: we might just about have legislators, but better still we have parliament. People do not live in their hometown; they live in their home town, or even better the place where they were born.

Sometimes we do not properly think of the sense of what we are writing. There is a marked difference between the meanings of convince and persuade that is not recognised by some of you. If you are unsure of the distinction, look the words up. We wrote that “too many bomb disposal experts” had died in Afghanistan, which prompted an angry reader to ask what an acceptable number of dead experts would have been. We wrote of “an extraordinary killing spree” and were asked, in similar fashion, what would have constituted an ordinary one. We wrote about someone’s youngest child being her first, which was obviously not the case. Be careful too of the distinction between renting a property and letting it. And readers also asked us how there could, as we reported, be an 18-month long investigation into a crime that was committed only 14 months ago. We need to ensure that our facts, like our arithmetic, add up.

There have also been some grammatical difficulties. The style book (which, in case you have lost your copy, is also online) specifies the distinction between “compared with” and “compared to”, and it may be worth examining. One of our writers began a sentence with the phrase “us single ladies” which suggests we need to brush up on our pronouns. We should always write one in four is, not one in four are, since one is inevitably singular. Bacteria is plural. Put adverbs in a sentence where they make the most logical sense, if you have to use them at all. This will never be by splitting the infinitive, but to write “to go speedily to town” will always be preferable to “to go to town speedily”, or any other such variant. It is different from, not different to. Under age, like under way, should be written as two words.
 

Finally, may I mention some factual matters? Ottawa is the capital of Canada. Air Chief Marshal is spelt thus; and Mark Antony thus.

With best wishes

Simon Heffer
Associate Editor

The Daily Telegraph


HAT-TIP: The FT's Jim Pickard (The pink 'un is not really allowed to indulge in such trivia, so it ended up here. Nothing is too trival for this blog)
 
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Patrick K. Lackey
August 14th, 2010
8:08 PM
Decades ago I wrote a poem about a hard-drinking copy editor who saved my ass. Here's the part I remember (and I probably remember it wrong): His stubby pencil is the lone lance protecting legions of readers from a phalanx of reporters' errors. But he is no hero. Inside his hard heart is a cold spot.

Anonymous
August 9th, 2010
11:08 AM
(Chuckle) Nice one, Tim.

Anonymous
August 7th, 2010
12:08 PM
I'll tell Paul Waugh why Simon Heffer is back on the case, next month he has a book coming out; and guess what the subject is. Using language properly. It's the correct time to focus on incorrectly used language!

Tim Worstall
August 7th, 2010
10:08 AM
I think my favourite of all was from a few years back. Annunziata Rees Mogg (when she was one of the leader writers) did a column all about drinking and diseases of the liver and how we really ought to get a grip. She kept talking about sclerosis of the liver....

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About Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom (Fourth Estate) and What's Left? How The Left Lost Its Way (Harper Perennial). Living With Lies, a collection of his writing for Standpoint, is available as an ebook. 

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