Dr Syntax



Man’s laughter or male diction?

Hyphenation of compound nouns and adjectives [see below] was only part of the dashed problem facing subs and proofreaders: the other concern was, and is, the use of a hyphen to split a word in a line-break.

(Question: do proofreaders still exist or is it all nowadays left to the spell-check? If so, it’s a very serious situation, indeed.)

Everybody was aware of the danger of including the word therapist in copy, in case it was broken at the end of a line into the-rapist.

There are others. Being accused of mans-laughter would be no joke. But when you are checking copy and you already know what it’s about, it is one that could be easily overlooked.

Some newspapers have already written line-break dictionaries into their in-house spell-check systems but the problem is that the technology does not always understand the words, and never the context; thus they can produce phraseology that boggles the mind.

Consider the exceptionally tall and leggy fashion model who was described by one newspaper as actually being half a foot shorter than her leg-end.

Or the incident that occurred over a wee-knight.

Be aware that there are people out there who collect such errors. (If any of them is reading this, we’d like to hear more.)

Newspapers used to have old (they were always old, or appeared to be old, even in my day) subs who could spot that a page had a mistake in it, just by looking at the proof, from a distance. Sure enough, they would focus in, like a microscope, until they identified the cock-up. They always did; they went straight to it.

It doesn’t seem to happen like that now. Readers used to tell us that the newspapers were ‘full of mis-prints’, but it was always a safe bet to accept the challenge and offer half a crown for every typo they found, against ten bob if they found none. (This was never a bet to make with a Guardian reader, but a good deal with a buyer of any other newspaper on The Street.)

Bad splits that have come to light, and beaten both computer and sub (as well as any proofreaders who might still be plying that noble craft) include the wonderfully descriptive expression bed-raggled.

Clearly, there is a lot to be learnt in this mess-age, and not only by the yell-ow press.

For such spellings are not set in pronoun-cement. So we just surge-on, over the cart-ridge as far as the off-end, ignoring words that might have been picked up on the ram-page or even on the stop-page, possibly being preserved by a brains-canner, and producing copy that could never be described as prose-cute.

What’s needed, here, is a reed-it, or at least a red-raft.

Then there’s the age thing. Ad-age (we all know that it’s come to that), front-age, pass-age, and plum-age – not to mention dot-age, which is when we are all overcome by the dot-com mentality and become totally dotty.

Research suggests that broken down by age and sex, as most subs are, men are more liable to commit these errors than are sub-editrices. It’s all about male-diction.

It’s enough to make men-swear.




Sorry, I must dash

The hyphen, according to the latest edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, is becoming extinct, a victim of the text message and the email.

The sixth edition of the dictionary has knocked the hyphens out of 16,000 words, many of them two-word compound nouns.

Fig-leaf is now fig leaf, pot-belly is now pot belly, pigeon-hole has finally achieved one-word status and leap-frog is now leapfrog.

The reason, says Angus Stevenson, editor of the dictionary, is that we no longer have time to reach over to the hyphen key. – Daily Telegraph

The barbarians are at the gate and the Shorter Oxford, of all people, is unlocking it to let them in.

One really has to sympathise with all those short-armed (not to be confused with short, armed) emailers whose time is so precious they can’t ‘reach over’ – all that way across those vast keyboards – to get to the hyphen key.

They can find time to search for the apostrophe key, and invariably punctuate words in the wrong place; they are never in too much of a hurry to find and insert smiling (and sometimes frowning) faces, and even to compose their own with easily found punctuation marks like 🙂 – which interestingly requires being able to ‘reach over’ to the hyphen key but, wow, reach for it to put one in a compound noun or adjective? Life’s just too short for that. Apparently.

The hyphen is an excellent, and often an important, tool in the language, helping to make meanings absolutely clear when used adjectively.

We might assume that a politician described as long-winded is not necessarily tall or out of breath, and not suspect that he has been breathless for a long time, but a hyphen in long-winded removes any element of doubt. 

Compare three-wheeled vehicles with three-wheeled vehicles, or Fowler’s superfluous-hair remover and superfluous hair-remover or superfluous hair remover.

And what about the phrase that confounds all broadcasters, who appear to think that people comb their teeth (presumably as an alternative to brushing them) and have no conception of the fine-tooth comb?

Hyphens have, fairly reasonably, been deemed unnecessary by the authors of most style and grammar books following words ending in –ly.

But to remove them on the grounds of providing greater typing speed for illiterates is the worst of all possible attempted justifications.

If we give in so readily to emailers and text-message senders, it’ll be capital letters next, I kid u not.




Flagging enthusiasm

There’s a small (?) band of readers, listeners and viewers obviously less concerned with what’s going on than in finding fault with the way in which information is presented to them.

Split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition and the mailbags will drop bursting into the mailroom.

But nothing is better guaranteed to get them going than any passing reference to ‘the Union Jack’.

So when, after a little local difficulty in a far-off country of which we know little, we learnt that ‘The Union Jack was once again flying (or even fluttering) above the British Embassy’, Disgusted of Chelmsford and all his relations were straight to the keyboard.

‘Reuters was wrong to report’… ‘You should have known better’… and even ‘I wish you had not reported that’…

Because, you see, ‘The British national flag is never referred to as the Union Jack except when being  flown at sea.’

Everybody knows that, apparently. Well, everybody except the reporter who wrote the copy, the sub (if any) who checked it – and, quite possibly, the government servant who raised the flag in the first place.

And everybody, as usual, is wrong.

A hundred years ago (are we going to nit-pick, here? It was 1908) Parliament decreed that ‘the Union Jack should be regarded as the national flag.’

Before that date, it was frequently described as both Union Jack and Union Flag, and neither was wrong nor is either of them wrong today. The Merchant Shipping Act refers to ‘the Union flag (commonly known as the Union Jack)’.

A jack is usually a small flag (on a jackstaff) at the bow of a ship and there are times when the Union Jack is flown as a jack.

One school of thought is that the name has nothing whatsoever to do with jacks or jack staffs, but relates to King James (Jacobus/Jacobean), who is generally credited with uniting his kingdom and caused the flag to be designed.

The BBC tends to favour the term Union Flag – but for no other reason than to stop people writing in to tell them they’ve got something else wrong.

Flag or jack, it makes no difference.




Ms appropriation

While the pops reckon that their readers will readily understand who is being written about by simply referring to ‘Kate’, the heavies insist on describing Kate Middleton, Prince William’s beleaguered on/off girlfriend, as Ms Middleton.

Is that because she has expressed a preference? Is she, perchance, an active feminist? Or is it because we are unsure about her marital status? I suspect the answer to all those questions is No. So what’s wrong with that good, plain English, word Miss?

I asked Sally Baker (Mrs.), who is the prodnose on The Times and writes its weekly Feedback column. She said she suspects that what I suspect is correct; what’s more likely, she says, is that Ms has ‘undergone some linguistic mission creep’:

‘When it arrived on these shores, Ms was treated as an awkward Americanism and was cautiously reserved for women of unknown marital status. Now, however, we Brits have overcome our initial distaste for it and clasped it to our bosom, to the extent that it is fast becoming the appellation of the first choice for all women. A pity.’

I have always tried to avoid arguing with subs but I find it hard to believe that the Brits have clasped Ms to their bosom, or that ‘all women’ are fast switching to its use.

You rarely hear the word used in conversation, by speakers of either sex, other than with an implied sneer (Muz Germaine Greer).

I further suspect that it is rather the ‘appellation of first choice’ for idle reporters who forgot to ask, or don’t know how to find out. Some newspapers now refer, on the second reference, to all females, from teenage girls to grannies, as Ms. If I were a granny, I’d sue.

However, an old friend and QC (a lady of a leftish leaning) were in the Old Bailey fairly recently when the judge interrupted the prosecution and said he found it irritating to hear him constantly referring to the opposition as Ms. He suggested that defence counsel might be so kind as to enlighten the court as to her actual marital status.

She replied: ‘Widow, m’lud.’

The judge said: ‘Then please forgive my impertinence in enquiring, Ms.’




Changes – but are they for the better?

Americanisms – don’tcha hate them? Maybe. But consider three that are ‘undermining’ our language at the moment (writes Michael Watts).

They are not bizarre. They are so banal, so run-of-the-mill, that they will be going unnoticed by most folk. But they are mighty profound – because, like it or not, this particular transatlantic trio is in fact affecting the way we write every day.

Once, for example, we all wrote about bureaucrats requiring forms to be filled in. Now, more often than not (though not in every newspaper or mag, yet) those forms are filled out.

What is the point of this change? There isn’t one. Whichever style you favour, it seems to me there’s a precisely equal case for either term. (There is a ‘neutral’ option, incidentally: filling forms up.)

That specific change, you may argue, is not perhaps a peculiarly American usage. But its influences come strongly from Over There. And it is pointless.

The same goes for another Americanism – concerning the street where you live.

You used to live in So-and-so Road – still do, probably. Soon, however, you will live on that road. I first noticed it way back, being applied to hotels (eg ‘The Savoy on the Strand’). Looked very odd – but lately, it’s been spreading like wildfire. Not only are hotels, restaurants, shops and offices etc on the this-that-or-the-other street, but so are people’s homes.

Which brings us back to ‘the street where you live’ – because you’ll recall that, in the song, this is indeed an American street, lived ‘on’ (ditto Nightmare On Elm Street and Slaughter On Tenth Avenue, as opposed to our British Spring in Park Lane).

Previously, far as I can think, the only British homes that might have been found ‘on’ a thoroughfare, would have been on a hill (naturally) or ‘on the main road’ – ie when it wasn’t named – or out at some indeterminate spot on a lengthy route: ‘somewhere on the Great North Road’. Now ‘on’ is spreading rapidly. It’s far from universal yet – especially with living on a street – but it will be.

The third change – again, unobtrusive but fundamental – started much more recently. And it is now roaring through the media like wildfire – particularly (though not exclusively) in reporting financial matters.

‘Company figures show…’, ‘He quoted the figure’, ‘High street figures slump’ – that’s what we would all have said, and written, until lately. We might even have used a transatlantic term and said, ‘Can you give a ballpark figure?’ But now that word figure is being replaced by number – ‘What are the annual report numbers?’ ,’Today’s stock market numbers’, ‘Are you able to give a round number?’ etc.

Pointless again, as with the other changes.

Should one rage and shout about sloppy Americanisms defiling our beautiful language? Should one write complaining letters to the Daily Telegraph? Not if one also happens to be employed by the Telegraph, perhaps.

But is there anything in these particular changes – however worthless they may be – to get steamed up about? Some may passionately disagree, but I think not.

Indeed, the switch from in to on a street brings with it an advantage – especially for those who make their living in The Street – because it allows us to make a distinction which couldn’t be made before.

When we used to say we werein Fleet Street, this was most unsatisfactory. While it could have meant that our office was in the street itself, it could – just as easily – have been that while we worked in the industry, the actual building was elsewhere. And not always in the immediate vicinity, either – possibly much, much further afield in, say, Manchester or Glasgow. Utterly ambiguous.

Now we can distinguish. We may have worked in Fleet Street – but not necessarily on it.


Back to the top button


Recent Rantings

Recent Comparisons

Recent Reviews