The day today

Both Mail Online and its print equivalent love a sprawling, unwieldy headline (and if it includes brackets, so much the better!) so let’s leave that alone. As it’s Christmas we’ll skim over the rather shonky standfirst as well. Take a look instead at the opening line of this story from this afternoon which I came across this afternoon.

Did you also spot the dangling modifier in the second paragraph? If you did, fifteen points to the Hogwarts house of your choice! (No Hufflepuffs.)

Oslo turns twenty-four, and other stories

For anybody with high blood pressure and an interest in grammar, venturing onto Wikipedia can be a dangerous thing. I avoid it where I can, not least because my dreams are already haunted by Jimmy Wales’ crinkly little beetle eyes. Also the content is poorly edited. Behold:

Oslo City FC is a sports club in Oslo, which was founded in 1987.

Pretty sure Oslo is older than that you guys! Okay, so it’s a little mean to pick on that instance – it’s a tiny article, and probably one written by someone whose first language is not English – but it made me giggle and I wanted to talk about dangling modifiers.

A dangling modifier is a bit of a sentence which is intended to refer to another bit but, because of lousy writing, doesn’t. In the Oslo City article, the dangling modifier is the “which was founded in 1987” bit. It’s supposed to refer to the sports club, but it reads like it refers to the city. Here’s another dangling modifier; it’s from The Little Red Writing Book (the poor sentence structure is deliberate, used to illustrate a point about bad writing):

I saw an Eastern quoll last night, looking out my kitchen window.

It was of course the author, not the quoll, who stood at the window. Anyway, you see this sort of thing all the time in journalism and it is always avoidable. I can’t think how to close this one out, so I’ll leave it to Groucho Marx:

One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas I’ll never know.

Just lose it

From the BBC website:

Until you read the standfirst it is impossible to know what this headline means. “Death family officer” is a ridiculous noun phrase but the word just is the real problem; it could mean all sorts of things. Is it telling us that the officer was recently sacked? Perhaps he was only sacked, as opposed to some more severe punishment (thumbscrews?).

I don’t believe that this headline would ever appear in any newspaper. If digital content really is going to make the print industry obsolete,  then it has a lot of catching up to do in the realms of presentation and page furniture.

Diacritical hit

One of the more ill-governed areas of newspaper style is the use of diacritics (you know, the áccents on foreigñ wørds). To me, leaving an accent out of somebody’s name is the same as misspelling it. That is just my opinion, and if a newspaper chooses to leave them out altogether then that’s fair enough, but what continues to strike me is the lack of consistency. Take a look at this from the Guardian (the bold type is my own):

Fiorentina themselves had endured a deeply mediocre start to the season, winning only three of their first 12 games, yet this one was in the bag as early as the 17th minute. That was as long as it took for Juan to receive Roma’s first red card, bundling Stevan Jovetic over inside the area before the Montenegrin himself slotted home the penalty. With Roma’s other top two centre-backs, Nicolás Burdisso and Simon Kjaer, already out through injury, securing a result already looked a tall order.

Yet the great curiosity with Roma’s performance from there was that despite being a man down (and later more than one), they continued to both dominate possession and dictate the areas of the pitch in which the game would be played. Fernando Gago was subsequently shown a second yellow card with a quarter of an hour to play, before Krkic was sent off for handling on the line in the 85th minute, yet still Roma finished with 57% of possession, and with the ball having spent considerably more time in Fiorentina’s half than their own.

What we need here, as anyone of a certain familiarity with Montenegrin, Danish or Serbian will tell you, is Jovetić and Kjær in the first paragraph and Krkić in the second. You may think I’m just being picky (if so: why are you here?) but the Guardian‘s convention for foreign names is enshrined in their own stylebook.

Use accents on French, German, Portuguese, Spanish and Irish Gaelic words – and, if at all possible, on people’s names in any language, eg Sven-Göran Eriksson (Swedish), Béla Bartók (Hungarian).

Even if it were the paper’s house style to leave out diacritics then what– and you may have spotted this already, in which case ten points to Gryffindor –  has Nicolás Burdisso done to earn an accent on his forename?

It could be that the reason Burdisso gets a diacritic while Jovetić, Kjær and Krkić do not is that a vowel with an acute accent is extremely easy to produce on a Windows PC (Alt Gr + desired vowel) whereas the same accent on a consonant takes a little more effort, as does the Nordic ligature æ.

But it would take an extremely cynical person to suppose that a journalist might knowingly flaunt his* style guide for the sake of a little less work. And who ever heard of a cynical subeditor?

*Sorry, but the absence of a gender-neutral singular pronoun is one of the English language’s more annoying shortcomings. And the journalist in this case was a “he”, anyway.

Style guide: meteoric

From a Guardian profile of Rebekah Brooks:

A search for “meteoric rise” turns up a cool (and faintly sinister) 666 results. The same search on gets 563; that almost half of them are in the sport section says something about the formulaic way in which many sporting narratives are reported. An hour spent on any newspaper website will reveal so many meteoric rises that it’s a wonder we’re not constantly funding rescue missions to retrieve politicians and athletes from the earth’s orbit.

Here is a thing about meteors: they fall. In fact I would go so far as to say that, from an earthbound point of view, that is the most important thing about meteors. Yet for some reason meteoric is only ever used to describe an ascent. Even without the inaccuracy the term is lazy and overused.

We have already seen the castration of once-potent words like iconic and legendary. So unless you’re actually writing about shooting stars, please help give this hackneyed expression the soaring decline it deserves.


Said a spokesman:

The Mail on Sunday utterly refutes Hugh Grant’s claim that they got any story as a result of phone hacking.

Leaving aside the paper’s evident confusion over whether it is a singular or plural entity, let’s look at its use of refute.  Bill Bryson, perhaps my favourite globetrotting subeditor, is emphatic on the subject:

Refute means to show conclusively that an allegation is wrong. It does not mean simply to dispute or deny a contention.

The Mail on Sunday denied Hugh Grant’s allegation but it certainly didn’t disprove it, conclusively or otherwise.

But then I consulted the Shorter OED, which lists the following among its four definitions of refute:

Deny, repudiate. Frequently considered erroneous.

That the OED accepts it (albeit with a sizeable caveat) tells us that this definition of refute has some weight of idiom behind it. Once a definition gains a certain momentum in popular use, to try to preserve its original meaning is to fight for a cause that, however noble, has already been lost. Sometimes this is no bad thing: the words who and whom are often confused but the distinction makes little difference in practice. Indeed, using whom can sound pompous and unwieldy even where it is technically correct.

But I would submit that the original definition of refute is worth fighting for. It’s pretty clear in the example above that the Mail on Sunday is denying rather than disproving the allegation, but that won’t always be immediately obvious. For instance, what if a different newspaper reported the story as follows:

The Mail on Sunday refuted Mr Grant’s claim.

There would be no way of knowing whether the claim had been disproved or simply rebutted.

Meanings are always changing and sometimes for good reasons, but if refute becomes synonymous with deny as well as disprove then we would be sacrificing clarity without gaining anything in brevity or elegance; a net loss for English and for journalism.