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Monday, March 21, 2005
OK, here we go. Last week we promised you E-EDITOR’s poetic riposte to that stylishly slanderous piece of doggerel “You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God, the British journalist...”

The verse was written in 1930 for Punch, the satirical magazine that was part of the backbone of British culture and traditionally littered the waiting rooms of the nation’s dentists.

Punch attracted many of the best writers and cartoonists in Britain throughout its extraordinarily long life, from 1841 to 2002.

But Humbert Wolfe, poet, civil servant and author of this one memorable anti-journo squib, was by no means the greatest of them. Though he published 40 books of prose and verse and was once the bookies’ favourite to become Poet Laureate, history has not been kind to the man his biographer called “Harlequin in Whitehall”.

In practice, these four lines constitute his entire claim to immortality.

You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
Thank God, the British journalist.
But seeing what the man will do unbribed
There’s no occasion to.

To which E-EDITOR indignantly, and not a moment too soon, responds:

A greater calumny, I think
Words never yet expressed in ink.
And when I find the bum who wrote ’em,
I’ll have them tattooed on his scrotum.
Saturday, March 12, 2005
There's nothing more depressing than happening upon a neglected blog, the online equivalent of the Marie Celeste. Drifting abandoned and unloved, crew's breakfast on the table, no-one on deck and no obvious explanation... You know the scenario.

But even a break in transmission of nearly two months doesn't mean we've gone off the air for good.

Despite the distractions of running a new series of training sessions on writing for the Web and taking on some major new commitments that cannot yet be discussed in public, we are still determined to keep E-EDITOR alive and pernicketing.

Curiously enough, this period of quiescence has seen a sudden surge in the number of hits on both the main Web site and the weblog. We've had a flurry of interest from English and Welsh universities, an unexplained barrage of hits from readers in Italy and a large number of visits to the blog via a glowing recommendation in Amy Gahran's excellent Contentious blog for North American writers and editors.

We've also been invited to contribute to The Editorial Eye, a respected US newsletter that has been around for nearly 20 years.

All of which makes it rather frustrating that we have not been able to devote the necessary time to keeping the blog itself moving along.

However — and we admit you might think you had heard such promises before — we are now really back on track.

We have guaranteed postings lined up for the next few weeks, starting later this week with E-EDITOR's trenchant poetic riposte to the old Humbert Wolfe slander that begins "You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God, the British journalist..."

This little snatch of elegant doggerel has been the bane of the journalising classes since 1930 and has annoyed us for many years, so we've finally come up with what we feel is a suitably robust reply. Bet you can't wait. 
Monday, January 17, 2005
One major aspect of the e-editor's work that is never written about or discussed in polite society is the way lists are handled.

Yet how an e-editor chooses to present listed material can make a huge difference to the impact and clarity of the final communication.

There are potent cultural assumptions embedded in the reader's response to any list.

For example, unless there is an extremely strong and unusual reason for it to be otherwise, the reader will always assume that a list is presented in order of relevance or importance.

If a writer is talking about EU markets for business or consumer products — whether they are servers, shoes or mobile phones — the reader will expect to see lists that begin with Germany, the UK, France and Italy, as they have far bigger populations and economies than the other countries.

A list that starts off "Austria, Belgium, Denmark..." needs to have a very good excuse for mentioning these tiny markets (each with five to ten million inhabitants) ahead of the big countries.

Germany has 82 million people, the UK 60 million, France 59 million and Italy 58 million. In almost any context or product category, these huge economies are just more important than the tiddlers.

Listing the EU states alphabetically is fair enough in the rarefied milieu of Brussels and Strasbourg protocols and diplomacy. In anything remotely resembling the real world, it's just nonsense.

There is a good reason for feeling uncomfortable and short-changed when faced with a list that defaults to dumb alphabeticism.

Properly ordered lists convey implicit information. The EU list that begins "Germany, the UK, France, Italy..." actually tells readers, tactfully, that France has more people than Italy, which is not a matter of universal knowledge.

The big world list that begins "China, India, US, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia..." is even more significant. Not one person in 50 could tell you that Brazil has now overtaken Russia, which is losing population year by year, to become the fifth most populous country.

So the mere shape of a list can politely educate and inform the reader. Since the alphabetical running order is always the same, the chance to convey this extra information is completely lost, and an element of understanding is immediately forfeited.

Failing to stack items in order of significance is simply unnatural. Randomised and alphabetical lists tend to look stupid. Manchester United is not the 13th most important club in the Premiership. No-one sends out party invitations to their "cousins, nephews, parents, neighbours, brothers and sisters, aunts and children". Survival in the desert requires "water, shelter, food and anti-glare sunglasses", not "anti-glare sunglasses, food, shelter and water". Any deviation from the natural or expected order of a list draws attention to itself and distracts the reader — the cardinal sin in the e-editor's world.

Most people have now cottoned on to the idea of using bullet point lists — especially on Web pages — to improve readability, avoid repetition and help them manage dense material. The shape on the page is right. Now we need a lot more thought about how the information is ordered within those lists.
Monday, December 27, 2004
An e-mail from an E-EDITOR enthusiast in Brisbane alerts us to bad news for fans of Bullfighter — the unique bullshit-hunting, jargon-shaming software distributed free of charge by Deloitte Consulting.

Just 18 months after Bullfighter came along to save the world from a million lousy, pompous, overblown travesties of the art of business communication, Deloitte has withdrawn support for this excellent initiative.

There's no explanation on the firm's Web site, merely a statement that the software is no longer available or being distributed. There is no indication that it has been withdrawn for updating or revision, so we can only fear the worst.

Needless to say, E-EDITOR has already been in touch with Deloitte, enquiring about Bullfighter's future and offering to host the download service on a non-profit basis. So far, there has been no acknowledgement or response.

This is all a great shame. Bullfighter has been genuinely useful in helping e-editors throughout the English-speaking world stand up to the daily barrage of illiterate, self-serving, obscurantist nonsense that emanates from management and government.

It could easily have been marketed as a fully commercial product, but it seemed doubly creditable that Deloitte had made it available to all as a free download.

We recognised the marketing and branding benefits Deloitte derived from Bullfighter. But we felt they were entirely deserved, a well-earned payoff for taking a stand in a matter of some importance.

Now, though, the whole exercise is beginning to look less altruistic.

Deloitte has reaped a vast amount of positive PR, but the firm's relationship with its jargon-sniffing creation was always likely to become problematical. Perhaps Bullfighter has been gored because it was too near the knuckle.

Perhaps Bullfighter set standards its progenitors could not live up to.

Perhaps it was simply too uncomfortable for Deloitte's consultants to go about their daily business without deploying the usual range of faddish buzzwords, mangled metaphors and half-understood jargon that passes for management discourse.

We hope not. These people had the guts to back the idea of Bullfighter in the first instance, in the full knowledge that it would inevitably be let loose on their own output.

They knew what they were doing. And they must have calculated that Deloitte could cope with a bit of teasing, in exchange for a significant boost to its credibility and reputation for straight talking.

If the consultants want to back off now, they should seriously consider handing Bullfighter over to E-EDITOR, the Plain English Campaign or some other trusted body that could continue to make it available to the world.

Better still, they should relaunch an improved version, Bullfighter 2, and carry on the good work themselves.

Having created a clear opportunity to differentiate Deloitte Consulting from its competitors in a unique and sustainable way, they should exploit it to the full. There's enough mileage left in the Bullfighter concept to keep it going strong for many years to come.
Saturday, December 11, 2004
Just time today for a quick gloat about the consequences of our recent troublemaking at the British Library (see posting of 1 October).

While the custodians of the national culture were clearly less than delighted when the E-EDITOR style police pointed out the glaring mistake on their display panel promoting the current Graham Greene exhibition, they did mutter that they would correct it and get the 9-foot panel remade.

A return visit this week proved that they have been as good as their word. Where the blurb for the Greene exhibition once talked about world-weary "ex-patriots", it now refers to equally world-weary "expatriates".

And, as if liberated by a new certainty and sense of purpose, the authorities have gone mad and erected two of these panels, where there was originally just the one.

If that means just a few more visitors are lured inside to learn more about Graham Greene and his writings, we'll feel our crabbing, pernickety intervention was more than justified.

After all, Greene has long been up there in the E-EDITOR pantheon (see the FAQ section of the main www.e-editor.co.uk site), alongside other literary heroes and influences ranging from Wodehouse, Stoppard and Douglas Adams to Michael Bywater, Smokey Robinson, Winston Churchill and Elvis Costello.
Thursday, December 09, 2004
There was one particular point we forgot to mention in our last 800-word tirade about the importance of getting your communication right for your reader.

While we were emphasising the need to write for the reader, we didn't say anything about the other side of the coin — the need to edit for both the reader and the writer.

Those of us who do both, editing and writing, know who has the harder task.

The writer writes, with no ultimate responsibility to anything but the content and anyone but the reader.

The editor shares both these responsibilities, but also assumes the added burden of keeping faith with the style or persona of the writer.

That's not to say that most of the material we are paid to work on has anything resembling style, in the high-faluting literary sense.

But even after the skilled e-editor has done his or her worst, cutting and polishing like some dedicated craftsman in an Antwerp diamond house,* the shorter, clearer, stronger piece that emerges should still have something of the author in it.

Almost intuitively, the editor will work to preserve or echo the speech rhythms and syntax that appear in the draft text. Words and phrases will be chosen that sit comfortably alongside the author's own phrasing. Odd or eccentric expressions may survive into the final document, simply because they carry the stamp of an individual consciousness and something would be lost if their idiosyncrasies were ironed out.

Except in contexts where no bylines are used and house rules dictate a homogenised style, conserving these glimpses of personality and voice is important.

The sense of characters behind the words is part of what makes a publication or a Web site feel alive and vivid, though most people are completely unaware of it at any conscious level.

Experience teaches, of course, that non-professional authors almost invariably believe their style has been ruined and their meaning twisted in the subbing process, while the professionals usually appreciate what's been done for them.

The trick is to put the content and the audience first. Once you know the text is saying what it should, in a way that will be clear and accessible to your audience, you can then start worrying about the writer's voice and personality.

You may even find, on a final read-through, that you can see opportunities to restore a couple of words or phrases that are obviously dear to the author's heart, as the context is now clear enough to make them work. If so, do it. It makes good career sense to keep as many of these people on your side as possible.

* Incidentally, our research shows that about 40% of a rough diamond is lost in the cutting and polishing. We think that's an interesting figure, and one that might give a useful clue to the degree of cutting many business drafts could bear.
Monday, November 29, 2004
Any fool can learn to write for an audience. Or, at least, anybody can learn the techniques of analysing a brief or sampling the tone of past publications to make a new piece of writing match the readers' requirements.

We were once involved in creating a style guide for 40,000 BT managers, which we called Right for Your Reader.

Great title, we thought, feeling proud of having declined the obvious pun.

But, of course, once we had launched the idea of writing what was right for your reader, there didn't seem all that much more to say. The single main, transforming thought was already sitting there, right on the front cover.

And though we worked hard to pack the rest of the book with lively and interesting stuff, the main propaganda job was already done. (We did, however, nick George Bernard Shaw's little joke about spelling "fish" as "ghoti" — "gh" as in "enough", "o" as in "women", "ti" as in "nation" — and commission some superb Bill Tidy cartoons.)

We went through all the routine sections about abbreviations and greengrocers' plurals and checking your place names properly (Middlesbrough and Edinburgh, Newcastle upon Tyne but Kingston-upon-Thames, Land's End but St Helens and Earls Court — full marks and a polygraph test to all those who claim to have got all seven right without hesitation).

We also covered many of the trickier grammatical and usage issues that form the meat of today's e-editor Web site, so the book became a useful desktop aid for writers to refer back to.

But we soon realised that however lax the BT managers were in slapping their prose together, the in-house editors could usually sort it out.

The managers didn't really need to know these details — as long as they had the grace to accept that their rough-hewn work would need to be cleaned up by professionals who did know the ins and outs of good business English.

All they needed to do was look at our book, without opening it, and then go ahead and write for their readers.

Some did. Some cottoned on fast and started producing direct, unselfconscious writing that echoed the energy and enthusiasm they brought to their subjects when they stood up and talked about them.

Others didn't. They wrote us plaintive e-mails beginning "I'm afraid I have to disagree with your views on split infinitives. When I was at school, we were told..." and stuffed full of misspellings and grammatical howlers.

The members of the second group, of course, were so distracted by the half-understood minutiae of form that they completely lost sight of content.

But they made us realise that producing business text to suit a particular audience is a thoroughly misunderstood process.

Getting the content right for the reader is the responsibility of the author. And in 99 cases out of 100, that is exactly where the limits of the author's responsibility should be set.

Presenting that content to the reader in its most accessible and striking form — honouring every nuance, but striking out every windy cliché and cavalier contradiction — is the other half of the exercise.

That depends on editorial skill and judgement, and on the editor having the humility and stamina to check all those names, facts, details and dates the author couldn't be bothered to question.

But that's the only way to get things right. That's how you avoid references to China's population of 2 billion people, or mentions of the Balkans in pieces about the countries around the Baltic Sea. That's how sows' ears are turned into silk purses.

Doing this is a noble and honourable calling. After all, in most companies producing research reports, market analyses, brokers' comments or industry updates, a single top-class editor can make more difference than a whole squad of new analysts and commentators.

It's all about leverage.

Assuming your authors or analysts aren't chained to their keyboards seven hours a day, you'll usually find that one talented e-editor can handle the output of six to ten writers.

That means a whole heap of better material hitting the Web site or appearing in print for the cost of just one extra name on the payroll. Recruiting one more hotshot analyst is not going to do that for you.

It's true that many of your readers won't consciously notice an improvement in editorial quality.

But try it the other way round. Ask them if they've noticed the "deliberate mistakes" in your documents and you'll almost always find they've picked up errors that have slipped through your net.

That's not good for your reputation and authority. And if your air of unimpeachable authority starts to slip, that's a decline that can be hard to reverse.

Wherever credibility counts with customers, accuracy and clarity mean money in the bank.

Because getting it right for your reader isn't just a style issue. It's also very good for business.

Sunday, November 07, 2004
We keep being asked by well-wishers exactly who this blog is for. In fact, though, it seems to be a characteristic of the way it works that everyone who reads it feels like an eavesdropper.

In a sense, it's for no-one — yet.

It's like overhearing provocative fragments of conversation on a train, when you haven't the gall to peer round the corner and see who the participants are.

In any sort of business context, of course, that would be a disaster. We need to know who we're targeting, don't we? We all want a brief that spells out who we're writing for, ideally with a bit of background on demographics and lifestyles as well.

But here it doesn't matter. No-one's selling anybody anything. And that makes a difference.

We don't need to gently flatter and coax an audience. We don't have to mind our Ps and Qs, except in the interests of sustaining our reputation for wit and literacy and fending off the attentions of our fellow-pedants. (Yes, "to gently flatter" was a split infinitive. And it was a good decision to split it, too. Do you really think "gently to flatter" or "to flatter gently" would have worked better in context? Get out of here.)

Because nobody's bothered to pay much attention before to the people we call e-editors.

No-one seems to have recognised that there's a large — if fragmented — community of wordworkers of one sort or another that's ill served by the artificial demarcation lines between marketing, PR, internal comms, copywriting, Web content production, technical authoring and journalism.

Yet it doesn't take more than a few sums on the back of an envelope to work out that there are thousands of these jobs that depend, at least in part, on applying traditionally journalistic skills, techniques and disciplines to the production of printed or online material.

The IPR (Institute of Public Relations), the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising), the CiB (British Association of Communicators in Business), the CIM (Chartered Institute of Marketing) and the dear old NUJ all cater for some of these areas. But many of us could quite easily slot into three or four of these worthy bodies — and probably, in practice, have contact with none of them.

Despite the mythology of Fleet Street, people who work with words can be an unclubbable lot, and we're not expecting to be running e-editor eisteddfods (or eisteddfodau, for the purists) any time soon. But there must be some merit in bringing together these separated tribes of wordsmiths and building a forum for their different views and perspectives.

We do know we've got readers out there in the construction industry, in a couple of national charities, in software companies, mail-order catalogue houses and a few legal firms. But the direct feedback that comes in to us is so sparse that we can hardly begin to put a coherent picture together.

We certainly don't know enough about our UK readers to start pandering to their prejudices, or indeed focusing on their particular interests. And we can guess even less about the overseas half of our audience, which seems, according to our traffic logs, to be an unexpected mixture of Americans and Eastern Europeans.

So if you feel inclined to drop us a line at any time, with comments, criticisms or suggestions, don't hold back. After the jolting disruptions that have slowed our posting rate to a crawl over the last couple of months, we're back on track now and expecting to publish at least once every week or two. It would be good to know our droppings were not falling on deaf eaves.
Sunday, October 17, 2004
Let's talk turkey. We're here for the money. So is everyone else we work with, from the boardroom to the basement.

The only way e-editors and writers can justify their pay packets is by adding real value to the material they handle.

So there is no more important issue in the e-editor's world than the struggle to demonstrate and quantify the business value of getting the words right.

Metrics-mad managers want to bring it all down to tidy numbers, so that they can report 7% year-on-year increases in quality alongside their 9% increases in quantity.

But we all know what happens in practice. When quality proves too slippery and revenue improvements obviously reflect a lot of other factors besides editorial excellence, the managers default to counting things — documents, pages, reports, words, characters, semi-colons or whatever.

Unfortunately, though, more isn't necessarily better. Big numbers aren't always better than small ones.

A short document that expresses everything the unedited draft expressed, but in half the length, will always have a heightened impact on the reader.

It is more likely to be read. And the mere fact that it will take half as much of the reader's time, while delivering the same amount of content, implies a degree of concentration that's important in itself.

Dilution is death, editorially speaking.

Even the e-editor's timeless mantra — "Shorter, clearer, stronger" — incorporates an element of redundancy, as any document that is made shorter and clearer by a good edit will automatically become stronger.

The business value of this type of compression is best illustrated in the field of advertising — one of the few areas in which it is sometimes possible to ascribe the success of a business initiative to the way it is phrased.

The best advertising is often hugely concentrated. Mo Drake's three-word mid-Sixties brainwave, "Beanz meanz Heinz" was used, on and off, for three decades. "Vorsprung durch Technik" has remained a resonant and powerful slogan for Audi for many years now, even though it is almost universally misunderstood.

Each of these three-word endlines could claim to have a sustained commercial impact. They became items of intellectual property, with a value that was proved every time they were deployed.

Outside the fields of poetry ("If...", "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves...", "Let me die a young man's death...") and tabloid newspaper headlines ("Gotcha", "Freddy Starr Ate My Hamster", "War on the World"), advertising is just about the only place where such compression and verbal precision is valued.

And since few of us are ever going to make a living as poets or be given a national newspaper to play with, it's probably the ad agency copywriters who have most to teach us.

Pure aesthetics won't pay the rent. We need to add value by making the organisations we work for or the products we promote more prominent and more successful. And that means there should be an element of unabashed marketing thinking informing all the decisions we make, even down to individual word choices.

We should be learning from the advertisers how to grab our readers' attention and hold on to it, mercilessly, until we have got our messages across.

We should be looking for every opportunity to point to improvements in quality that have made a difference in the marketplace.

And we should be resisting every attempt by middle managers to use quantity as a proxy for quality.

E-editor has done a lot of work recently on developing quality assessment tools for written documents, both before and after editing. This is almost ready for publication, and we will share it with you on the main e-editor site as soon as we can.

In the meantime, just dinning the idea of "Shorter, clearer, stronger" into the heads of all those who write and edit for you will carry you a long way.

As a slogan, it may not have the punch of "Beanz meanz Heinz". But those three little words will make your readers love you, and that has to be the first step towards earning your next pay increase.
Friday, October 01, 2004
What does a senior e-editor who is suddenly without a department to run or a page to proof do next? This week, the answer proved to involve making a first visit to the new British Library — and causing unexpected havoc in the process.

The library has been open for five years or so now. But we've been working, and this was the first chance we'd had to spend some time there, explore the facilities and organise the coveted Reader's Pass.

Like all great public projects these days, the library took many years to build, cost twice what it was supposed to and sparked plenty of criticism and controversy. But we loved it. And it is an extraordinary experience.

Simply being able to stand in a room with Magna Carta, Scott's last Antarctic diary, a Gutenberg Bible, Leonardo's notebook, the Shakespeare First Folio, the Beatles' scribbled lyrics for "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and the Lindisfarne Gospels is quite something. To find that you are almost alone there, with just a dozen or so other people, and that all this is accessible free of charge, is startling.

But the incident that turned this inaugural visit into an e-editor's busman's holiday concerned a huge, blue-ish display panel outside the Graham Greene exhibition.

As two of e-editor's cast of thousands stood reading the interesting and rather well written blurb for the exhibition, we suddenly stopped in our tracks.

The write-up was describing the population of Greeneland in the usual sort of terms (failed priests, accidental heroes, unhappy lovers, disillusioned spies, pious gangsters and so on), when it suddenly made reference to world-weary "ex-patriots".

Now that could have been right. It sounded right, of course. And since almost everyone in Greene's world carries the guilt of some traumatic personal apostasy, they could have meant that all these characters had turned their backs on patriotism.

But they didn't. They meant that they were expatriates.

The British Library had got it wrong. And e-editor had spotted the mistake.

The telephone conversation with the woman in charge of the temporary exhibition was initially frosty. They probably get their share of cranks and loonies at the British Library.

Then the penny dropped. "Oh God. You're right, aren't you?" she said. "Expats. Expatriates. That's it. You can tell from the context. I wonder why no-one saw that before. Now I'll have to get on and have the whole display panel remade."

It wasn't much. As a contribution to the national culture, it was pretty minor. But this was the British Library. Foreigners go there. Native speakers of the language see it as the repository of standards and excellence. It has to be right.

What e-editor's representatives did was just what any alert professional would have done. But there can't be many people who can claim to have corrected the British Library on its English.  
Sunday, September 05, 2004
It's been a funny sort of year. Those readers who detected a note of tension and underlying menace in our last post, written over a glass of ouzo in an Internet cafe looking out on a serene and glorious beach, were actually completely wrong — as far as any of the e-editor team could possibly know at the time.

But the forces of evil were even then girding their loins. The cynics were deserting their principles and covering their positions. And a pattern of events was about to unfold that proves, once again, that you can't trust a manager who can't spell.

To cut a long story short, the return to work proved to be rather more temporary than expected. One day, in fact. Another reorg, another redundancy notice, and another twist to the tale of 2004.

This is a year that's already included two phone calls in March from an earnest reporter on The Times who accused us of being Belle de Jour, the energetic and literate London call-girl whose antics and opinions have made for one of the brightest blogs in town.

The Times believed its own clumsy analysis of stylistic and punctuational quirks in this weblog and Belle's proved they came from the same hand — thus confirming e-editor's pole position in the race for the Daniel Defoe/Moll Flanders Award 2004, and also crediting us with a range of athletic experience we had never, alas, so much as dreamed of.

This was followed, within weeks, by an abrupt elevation at work to a position of completely unexpected global prominence, endorsed with the now-traditional insignia of the BlackBerry and the sheaf of plane tickets. The slinky blue Mercedes Sports Coupe followed in mid-July, and the redundancy notice a week into August. So it hasn't been dull. And there's still more than a quarter of the year to come.

What's interesting, though, is that this flurry of ups and downs has had an intrinsic excitement of its own. Sudden change is energising — if you like that sort of thing — and it's already clear that being jolted into action can be a fantastic stimulus to thought and creativity.

Whims and notions that had been parked indefinitely suddenly become real possibilities. Is it time to shift back towards the financial services industry or the big consultancies, perhaps to gee up an underperforming publishing unit producing brokers' comments or sector newsletters? Is the idea of working in Germany or France ever going to be more than a pipedream? Should the e-editor concept stop being an exercise in altruism and start turning into a full-blown training and consultancy business?

The blood is not yet dry on the redundancy documents, but already the world seems pregnant with possibilities. There are still some loose ends to be tied up and farewells to be said, especially to the 40 or 50 writers and editors we've been working with in Britain and the US who seemed keen to buy into the e-editor approach. Then it's onwards, into the unknown. If 2004 carries on the way it's been so far, it's guaranteed to be an interesting ride. And that's about all you can really ask for. Bring it on.  
Monday, August 02, 2004
Wary blogging is not the best blogging. For reasons that cannot be disclosed here, we are having to be more, er, circumspect in the venting of opinions and the mounting of personal and easily recognisable hobbyhorses.

In practice, that means a certain amount of self-censorship and, inevitably, fewer impulsive, spur-of-the-moment postings.

It also means that some of the specifics and detailed bits of local colour that might have added piquant and salacious interest to this blog must now be left on the cutting room floor.

For example, we've been witnesses lately to some fine examples of business newspeak, where repeated and determined abuse of certain words has cowed many people into believing that their meanings have changed.

While we discuss this in the abstract, it's necessarily hard to make the issue come alive. People want instances. They want to feel the frisson of fear, as they suddenly realise that this is — or could be — about the very company they work for.

It's the Dilbert factor, the feeling Scott Adams generates that convinces you someone has told him all about your manager, your company, your fellow-employees, maybe even your own bad habits.

But many of these corporate verbal tics are so outrageous and perverse that they immediately identify particular companies. They have become part of one company's mutated lexicon, to the point where they are as unique and recognisable as a fingerprint or a DNA sample.

That makes it potentially dangerous to quote examples, especially for those of us without ample private incomes.

For example, a friend of ours works for an IT company that has become so tangled up in its own verbosity that it now thinks it can make words mean whatever it wants them to mean.

Like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, this company believes it can bend the English language to its will.

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that's all.'

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. `They've a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they're the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them!

Never mind the dubious punctuation in the last sentence. Never mind the fact that both Alice and Humpty come across as the sort of half-right pedants you want to shoot (or scramble) on sight.

There's never been a passage that makes the main point with such crushing force.

What you mean to say counts for nothing.

What matters is what comes out of your mouth or streams out from your fingertips on the keyboard. Nothing else means a thing. And no amount of corporate grunting and heaving will force those words to mean what the company wants them to mean.

One day, when we're feeling braver, we'll come back to this topic with a full-scale list of corporate gobbledygook, naming the names and shaming the shameful. For now, though, it's enough to remember that the principle should be hovering in the back of every e-editor's mind every working day.

Oh, and while we're here, Humpty Dumpty was right about the verbs, of course. They are the key to good style and clear expression, not least because choosing the right verb often rules out the need for whole clusters of adjectives and nouns that might otherwise be used to trim and balance the nuances of a sentence.

Lewis Carroll may have been a mathematician, but he knew more about the algebra of language than anyone before or since.

Monday, July 12, 2004
Just time for a quick and splenetic rant before bed. Three times in the past week we've come across one of the most odious clichés in the third-rate business writer's armoury.

There are several slight variations, but the main theme is something along the lines of "Given today's ever-increasing pace of change, businesses must...blah, blah blah."

It really doesn't matter what comes after this, because the intelligent reader has already sheered off to examine the truth of this first, dubious proposition.

No-one disputes that we live in a fast-changing world. In the past ten years alone, we've seen the arrival of the Internet, iPods, Viagra, camera phones and large-scale outsourcing (manufacturing to China, services to India).

But you don't have to know much about the world since the Industrial Revolution to know that it's an egocentric delusion to believe that today's world is changing faster than ever.

Let's pick another decade, almost at random. How do the 1870s, for example, measure up?

Well, they gave birth to adding machines and typewriters, barbed wire and telephones, light bulbs and umbrellas, cathode ray tubes and cash registers, photographic film and electric trams.

That seems like a lot of change to us. And just to prove it wasn't a flash in the pan, the following ten years added the flush toilet, petrol engines and motor cars, the safety razor and the a/c transformer, fans and irons and gramophones and tyres and seismographs and punched cards and typesetting machines.

We could go on (it's quite good fun researching this). The Twenties gave us frozen food, insulin and aerosols, electric shavers, television, penicillin, talking movies, cropdusting, loudspeakers and pearl lightbulbs. The Sixties and Seventies gave us moon landings and supersonic civil aviation, though, of course, we've given them back now.

All in all, the assumption that things are changing any faster today than they did in the past is not one that should be taken too seriously. Indeed, the closer you look, the harder it is to substantiate. The fact that it's a hackneyed, lazy way into an article is bad enough. The realisation that it's probably not true should strengthen the intrepid e-editor's resolve as he or she boldly strikes out the offending intro and leaves the piece starting with paragraph two.

Friday, June 18, 2004
Old jokes are the most reliable, and old controversies are the most likely to get people going.

Which is why the split infinitives battle is the pedant's all-time favourite.

We were going to show restraint and strength of character and resist all temptation, until the latest edition of Journalist, the NUJ's house magazine, managed to upset our hitherto steely resolve.

In its sanctimonious (and often downright wrong) Chief Sub column, this less-than-coruscating magazine started laying down the law about split infinitives in a way that made us want to connect the electrodes to its staples and give it a sharp jolt.

It rehearsed the usual academic arguments to explain away the whole notion of the split infinitive as a grammatical or stylistic sin.

It pointed out, correctly, that the infinitive does not include the word "to" (in "I made him go", the "go" is an infinitive, but there's no "to" in sight). And it emphasised, as many have done before, that the so-called "split infinitive" is not necessarily a grammatical mistake anyway (of which, much more, if you want it, at another time, in another place).

But it missed the practical point entirely.

Which is, in case you could possibly have failed to notice it, that we are currently suffering from a generation of semi-literate would-be writers who believe that the only possible place for an adverb is jammed in between the "to" and the infinitive.

If we see another "to better understand", "to more easily quantify" or "to much more clearly and comprehensively articulate" this week, someone is going to pay a terrible price.

Obviously, the fault lies with the Americans. As a nation, they wouldn't know where to put an adverb if their lives depended on it. But their pernicious influence on word order in business and commercial writing is now so overwhelming that even naturally talented writers of real, uncontaminated English find themselves lost and bemused.

We see them bending and distorting their sentences, or else frantically trying to find supposedly "logical" justifications for the word order they know, by ear and instinct, is right.

And when we get into the realms of the split (or not) infinitives (or not), these natural talents are all at sea.

They've been taught that splitting infinitives is wrong. Then they've been taught that it's OK, or at least forgivable. Now they are being bludgeoned, by uninformed, cloth-eared peer pressure into believing that splitting is mandatory — and that the longer and more sustained the split is, the better it will sound.

The fact is, stuffing an adverb or an adverbial phrase in between "to" and an infinitive is usually wrong — on style and sound grounds, rather than any basis in grammatical theory.

Where the steps that would be needed to avoid it would result in worse atrocities, the smart e-editor goes, as always, for the lesser of two evils. This, as someone once said, is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know. And people who tell you they have a rule that overrides that are talking silly and ill-informed nonsense.
Tuesday, May 11, 2004
Another sortie to the States – both sides, this time – yielding an odd range of educational insights.

First and foremost, never mind Easy Rider and The Wild Bunch, we saw potholes the size of asparagus trenches on every major highway.

Anyone who dares to ride any kind of motorbike on the New Jersey Turnpike or most of the other roads we drove on is dicing with death at anything more than 20 mph. We may moan about the state of the M1 or the M4, but at least the road surface is not pitted and cratered like that.

Next came the dramatic realisation that America's beloved baseball could be every bit as dull to watch as cricket.

We'd seen highlights on TV, but they'd always consisted largely of people with oddly-spelled names (Andruw, Jaret, Derrek and Daryle) nonchalantly biffing and belting the ball over distant fences and high up into the crowd.

What we hadn't seen were the tense, finely balanced matches where the triumphant 1-0 winners manage no home runs in the full nine innings. That is about as exciting as one-nil to the Arsenal was in the bad old pre-French days.

But the third revelation was that it was really true that Americans don't understand the word "fortnight".

We'd been dimly, editorially aware of this for some time. But the stunned, blank incomprehension when we mentioned that we'd be in the US for a fortnight was a wonder to behold.

The assembled audience could not have been more baffled if we'd lapsed into full Shakespearean mode and said that we'd return a sennight hence.

Even the pedant's plodding explanation – fortnight, fourteen nights, sennight, a week – hardly seemed to help. The clear implication was that we were dredging up some archaic English term just to confuse them and hide the fact that we'd really be there for two weeks.

So, an interesting trip. And proof, once again, that travel's mind-broadening influence works in mysterious and ambiguous ways. For once, after half a month on the road, home seemed quite a good place to live and work.  
Sunday, April 18, 2004
After the brief flurry of interest in the odd Shakespearean word "concernancy", when Alistair Cooke used it in his very last Letter from America, we have seen another obscure 16th-century noun disinterred and given an airing in the last few weeks.

The new old word is "incuriosity".

It has acquired a fresh lease of life because of the army of pundits and punsters who have applied it to the President of the United States, Mr George W Bush, and his supposed lack of curiosity about US intelligence reports before September 11.

In particular, there has been criticism of Bush's lack of interest in an August 2001 CIA presidential briefing headed "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US".

Thinking back to their childhoods, the commentators have remembered the stories of Curious George, the amiable monkey who has starred in dozens of American children's books for more than 60 years.

From there, it's a small and irresistible leap to "Incurious George", and then on to persistent and repeated references to Bush's "incuriosity".

The punning connection with the friendly monkey seems to have been spotted first by Time Magazine, which used it in March. But it has since been taken up by many others, including the New York Times, which ran an editorial last week with the headline "The Price of Incuriosity".

The sudden popularity of this archaic term has been flagged up by Global Language Monitor, a Web site that tracks the use of particular politically-sensitive words and phrases in the media.

GLM has seen "incuriosity" race to the top of its charts, ahead of "quagmire" (as in "a Vietnam-like military situation"), "two Americas", "global outsourcing" (as in "how can we introduce protectionism to keep consumers subsidising American jobs?") and "war for oil", leaving far behind such outdated Iraq war terms as "embedded" and "shock and awe".
Wednesday, March 31, 2004
Hell. It was just three weeks ago that we were writing about Alistair Cooke's decision to give up Letter from America, and now he's dead.

Looking back at the 9th March posting, we think it stands as a pretty good epitaph to the great talker's skills and talent.

One point we didn't mention then, though, which was well made in the excellent Radio 4 obituary programme today, was how deliberately Cooke developed a spoken, rather than written, style.

Even now, few people writing for radio really capture the broken, discursive shapes and structures of real speech. What we hear is generally the written word, spoken out loud – which is not the same thing at all.

Cooke consciously worked on a style that would sound like talking, rather than reading.

You can see the difference if you examine any of his scripts, which look, on paper, as if they desperately need the touch of a clever, and tireless, sub-editor. He knew better, and we should give him full credit for knowing exactly the effects he was trying to achieve.

We loved the voice, the unexpected detours, the way he meshed together the trivial and the sublime, and the way he was always there.

Now he's not. And we will be missing him for a long time to come.
Sunday, March 28, 2004
Good to see our friends at the Plain English Campaign grabbing some front-page publicity in the London papers with their hit list of today's most disliked cliches.

Top of the list was "at the end of the day", closely followed by "at this moment in time".

But some of the other words and phrases that were rightly fingered are much more subtly pernicious. We were pleased to see "epicentre" (used incorrectly), "bottom line" (used inexactly), "ongoing", "address the issue" and "going forward" named and shamed – not least because we hear or see them used, unblushingly, many times a day.

We've always had a lot of time for the Plain English campaigners and their steady, persistent efforts to bully, cajole and persuade government and industry to care about saying things in clear and straightforward ways.

But people in business often don't seem to realise how much they stand to gain from promoting their ideas or their products in lucid, understandable prose.

In fact, there still seem to be a good few dinosaurs around who are convinced that pompous, opaque verbiage helps, by making them seem serious and clever.

There was a rash of that sort of thing back in the 1970s, especially in the burgeoning IT industry, but we should have left that nonsense behind by now. We've got over nylon shirts, Ted Heath, the Austin Allegro (the only British car ever designed with a square steering wheel) and bubble-permed footballers. Surely we can just let the linguistic habits of that benighted decade die off, too.

For those interested in fighting the good fight – either as amateurs or as professional editors – there is a long and useful list of bullshit-free phrases, The A-Z of Alternative Words, on the Plain English Campaign Web site.

Many of the suggested substitutions will be second nature to most e-editors (delete "sufficient", insert "enough"; delete "on numerous occasions", insert "often"), but there are plenty more that most of us usually let through unchallenged.

The point is not that the Plain English Campaign's substitutes should always be adopted, but that the words and phrases the list highlights should always be tested for aptness and relevance before they are allowed to pass into print. And if we don't exercise that sort of judgement, no-one else will.

Saturday, March 20, 2004
Apologies for the break in transmission. Europe this time. Or, to be more precise, a very shaken and distraught Spain, dumping its government in Sunday's election in an agonized reaction to the horror of the Madrid bombings.

Real life and death tend to make e-editing issues pale into insignificance, so we have not made as much progress as we'd hoped on the next subject we planned to tackle here.

When we get round to it, perhaps during this next week, we will be looking at the big question of what practical steps you can take to improve editorial standards in a commercial editing environment, especially when there is no budget to spend on outside training.

We have some ideas and a few cheap gimmicks that have worked for us, but we'd welcome any other contributions we could pass on to other E-EDITOR readers. So if you know how to take underskilled and dispirited editors and writers and transform them into hard-hitting editorial teams, please get in touch and share the magic.
Tuesday, March 09, 2004
We were sad to hear, in the last few days, that Alistair Cooke had said his last "G'd evening" on Letter from America, bringing to an end a 58-year-old tradition.

But it was good to note that the very last Letter, broadcast on Friday 20 February, was right up there with his best.

It talked, inevitably, about the past – about the first Gulf War, about the first President Bush, about Clinton, about George W, about the second Gulf War and about Saddam.

Then it came right up to the present, too, as it talked about how George W Bush's poll ratings, consistently above 60% for month after month, fell below 50% when the CIA's former weapons inspector, David Kay, said the fateful words: "We got it all wrong."

And it deftly, elegantly, linked this through to the resurgence of Democrat hopes and the momentum building up behind Senator John Kerry.

Vintage artistry from the veteran commentator. But it also reflected, in a little throwaway line, Alistair Cooke's wonderful awareness and ear for language.

After running through the story of the 1991 Gulf War and its consequences, he neatly turned the course of his argument with the rhetorical question:

"So what, as Shakespeare asked, is the concernancy?"

Superb. Could there ever have been a more George-W-Bush-like word than "concernancy"?

Yet Cooke, of course, never got things like that wrong. Scurrying to the source, we quickly tracked down the Prince's teasing conversation with the foppish windbag Osric in Act V Scene II of Hamlet.

Hamlet dazzles Osric with one of the most ridiculously overblown and Bush-like speeches anywhere in Shakespeare ("Sir, his definement suffers no perdition in you; though, I know, to divide him inventorially would dizzy the arithmetic of memory...." and so on), before going on to ask him about the "concernancy", by which time the poor sap is completely lost and bemused.

It's a fine moment in the play. And just dropping in this strange word, with its unexplained but unmissable link to the President, created a fine moment in Alistair Cooke's last Letter from America.

We're going to miss that kind of link between language and life. We'll miss that feeling that, whatever else changes on Radio 4 or in the world at large, we can always come back – even after years away – to the calm intelligence and grace of radio's great stylist.

At 95, he can hardly be blamed for deserting his post. But most of us who've grown up, maybe even grown old, listening to that voice will miss it hugely. And most of us whose work is with words will miss his constant reminders of the art and craft of language.

G'd evening, Alistair. Get some rest now. And thank you again.

Saturday, March 06, 2004
We've been doing some analysis today of our own E-EDITOR Web site and blog statistics – and it certainly casts an interesting light on the importance attached to blogs on either side of the Atlantic.

The breakdown of hits by time zone was so unexpected that we had to check our figures twice.

In the US, and in continental Europe, awareness of weblogs is far higher than it is in the UK.

We knew that already, but we were still astonished to see that America accounted for 39% of the hits on this blog. Western Europe (the GMT/UTC-plus-one-hour zone) contributed 32% of the hits so far, while people in the UK were only responsible for 19%.

And that's pretty amazing, for a UK-based weblog that's largely about the trials and travails of the e-editor's lot in British industry.

When we turned to the main site at www.e-editor.co.uk, there was a more predictable geographical spread. The UK accounted for 55% of site visits, with the US on 25% and Western Europe on 5%.

Since the content of the blog and the site is similar and broadly complementary, it seems obvious that the marked differences are to do with the medium, rather than the message. And that has obvious implications for a lot of companies in Britain that are currently falling over themselves to launch weblogs for their clients and potential customers.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004
One of the problems in talking about the e-editor's work is the lack of hard facts. What we need is more empirical evidence about what we do and what is really involved.

That's why we have started putting e-editors into cages and measuring their pulse and blink rates while they work. It's why we've strapped electrodes to their hands and introduced scan path analysis equipment to track their eye movements. It's why we use real-time CAT scanning to observe their brain activity while they're writing headlines.

Or it might be, if anyone could be bothered.

Instead, to try to get some crude indicators of what e-editors really do at work all day, we've invested in some new capital equipment that doesn't rely so much on high technology.

We've got a clicker.

All the clicker does is count. Whenever you tap it with a finger or the flat of your hand, it adds one to the previous total. It's the sort of gadget they use to count cars in traffic surveys. Nightclubs give them to the bouncers to keep track of how many people are dehydrating inside.

But we're using them to see just how many decisions a sub-editor makes per page, per hour or per day. And the figures are already quite startling.

There were some similar experiments, years ago, where men were given clickers and told to click throughout the day each time they thought about sex. Though some of the clickers simply broke through metal fatigue, the surviving counters showed figures of anything from 400 to 2,000 clicks a day.

And our clicker experiment is already showing us just how many decisions we all take when we work our way through a piece of text.

Spending an hour or so on a light "first pass" edit on a piece of fairly technical IT material can easily involve 150 to 200 separate editing decisions. At the other end of the process, proofing, too, can rack up extraordinary numbers very quickly.

There'll be much more detail and analysis of the figures when we have more results to work on. But the first, dramatic insight is that it is not at all surprising that e-editors occasionally make mistakes.

If people are taking several hundred discrete editorial decisions in the course of a working day, it is hardly surprising that they may get some of them wrong. The managers who come back to us gleefully pointing out a typo here and a verbal infelicity there should be aware that the individual who perpetrated these crimes has probably taken 700 correct decisions that day, all of which are likely to go wholly unremarked.

If there are two errors out of 700, that may not meet the engineer's beloved Six Sigma quality standards, but it's pretty good going in the real world.

The concentration – indeed, the sheer stamina – needed to do this kind of work is seldom understood. And at least, by doing some rough and ready research into the number of decisions various document types and levels of editing involve, we're starting to shed a bit of factual light on a previously hazy area.

If anyone else likes the idea of investing £10 in a clicker and joining us in our experiments, we'd be very happy to share the results with a wider audience. We know there are marketing companies, charities and construction firms and legal partnerships tuned in to this blog and to e-editor.co.uk, and we'd welcome the chance to add some input from the widest possible range of sources. It's time we had more facts to back our arguments, so let's get clicking.
Friday, February 20, 2004
Heartening news from San Francisco on Tuesday, where the decisive point in the first round of the legal row about same-sex marriages turned on a punctuation mark.

"The way you've written this, it has a semi-colon where it should have the word 'or'," Superior Court Judge James Warren told conservatives who had drafted an application for a "cease and desist" order to stop the weddings of gay and lesbian couples.

"I am not trying to be petty here," said the judge. "But it is a big deal." He refused to grant the order, saying: "I don't have the authority to issue it under these circumstances."

Like every working e-editor, Judge Warren obviously felt it was about time the world's overpaid illiterates were held to account for their pompous, careless drafting.

The wording of the application tried to insist that the City of San Francisco should "cease and desist issuing marriage licenses to and/or solemnizing marriages of same-sex couples; to show cause before this court."

This inept and slack phrasing got what it deserved, though Judge Warren did miss a golden opportunity to point out that the "and/or" was just as bad and stupid as the controversial semi-colon. After all, if you cease to issue and solemnize, any possible "or" is already covered.

But it was the sheer blank idiocy of tacking on that phrase "to show cause before this court", without any syntactical effort to link it to what came before, that caused the anti-gay case to fail.

Judge Warren finally came up with the imaginative compromise of a non-binding cease and desist order, which will eventually be discussed at a compliance hearing on 29 March – by which time tens of thousands more couples will have been married.

Far more importantly, he struck a resounding blow for the court's right to rule on what was in front of it, rather than what a bunch of blustering millionaire lawyers hoped they were saying.

As we've mentioned before (see Punk Punctuation on the main e-editor.co.uk Web site), you can manage very well without semi-colons in your life. There is almost no instance in which you actually need them.

In the hands of an expert, they can produce fine and subtle effects. But we're not working with artists of this calibre most days. And, as the San Francisco court case shows, a lazy, ill-considered semi-colon in the wrong place can be a very expensive mistake.
Friday, February 13, 2004
One of our correspondents in the e-editing front line points out that there is no particular name for the kind of disastrous single-character typo we were writing about recently.

He thinks maybe there should be.

For new readers starting here, the discussion was about those tiny, one-letter literals that can turn a piece of text on its head, and yet slide effortlessly through any kind of automated spellchecker.

The familiar "millions/billions" problem is one example.

The charmingly poetic "Hertfordshire/Herefordshire" metamorphosis is another.

We've seen "thread" and "threat" cause chaos recently, and "is/in", "in/on", "on/of" and "of/off" all carry plenty of potential for confusion.

Since these minor slips have such a capacity to scramble the DNA of the surrounding copy, our man in the trenches believes they should be dubbed "sense-wreckers".

We're inclined to think that's a bit prosaic (though, admittedly, we can't do any better ourselves at the moment). So we'd welcome any inspired suggestions that might start here and eventually win themselves a place in the next edition of the New Oxford Dictionary of English.

And in the meantime, we'd like to remind you of one perennial sense-wrecking literal that every e-editor must have let through – and cursed – at one time or another.

The "not/now" pairing generates some of the most exquisite and decisive reversals of sense, from "We will not (now?) invade North Korea" to "That was lovely – I'm now (not?) going home to my place."

It's a classic, savoured over the centuries and defiantly immune to any kind of spellchecking or grammar tool Microsoft's illiterate geeks will ever be able to hurl at it.

As we've said before, it's glitches like this that guarantee our careers. But it would be good if we could come up with a truly resonant name for these little pivotal points that so readily send our readers charging off in totally wrong directions. Do send us your suggestions.
Monday, February 09, 2004
He’s not a bad person. He’s made a lot of money before, and he’s making a lot now. People trust him and he has a good reputation. He knows about mobile phones that cost $10,000. He’s confident and well dressed, with double cuffs, a smart car and more Air Miles than you can shake a stick at.

And today we saw something he’d written.

Writing factual business and technical material is part of his job. So it came as a shock to see the weird combination of pomposity and ignorance that characterised every sentence of his prose.

The punctuation was shocking – but you get that a lot. People pretend it’s because they are in a hurry. But we’ve never found that writing fast makes you lose the ability to find a full point when you need one.

The spelling was awful – though he’d spellchecked everything. It wasn’t that the words didn’t exist in English. It was just that every “their” was “there”, every “you’re” was “your” and “thou” for “though” gave the whole text a curiously biblical aura.

But the material really took off and soared as he warmed to his theme.

Phrases emerged that were entirely, stunningly, barbarously original: “a seen from a show”, “rapped as a gift”, “businessmen wearing suites”, “long hall flights”, “sweat talking the check-in girl”(!), “travellers pacing up and down the isles”, “baggage stowed in the hole” and “people… tiered at the end of the day”.

There was even a macabre acknowledgement of the fragility of flying machines, when they “hit the grown in an accident”. Unlucky to reach maturity and be picked off like that, you might say.

Now this isn’t dyslexia. And it’s not the result of someone being forced at gunpoint to take up a pen or pull up a keyboard.

This guy feels the urge to share his thoughts with the world outside office hours, above and beyond what he is required to write for his job. He wants to write. But he does not have the skills or the aptitude to do it.

Because he’s a friend, we’ve got to break it to him. We may even end up helping him to put this stuff right. But is it fair to encourage him in an enterprise where he is doomed to be so reliant on others?

There’s a broad assumption in business today that everyone can write. That’s true enough, at the most basic level. They can all manage C-A-T – and C-E-O and R-O-I, too, for that matter.

But what e-editors know, and no-one else seems to, is that very few people can string three or four sentences together without getting something badly wrong.

Tired clichés, impenetrable jargon and half-assimilated business theories are everywhere. You know it. We see it every day. And unless we can find some better ways to demonstrate how lost credibility translates directly into lost profits, we are all going to hell in a handcart.
Friday, February 06, 2004
My word, the Web can be an unforgiving place, if you are careless enough to let your guard down.

In the ordinary world, even in the most demanding editorial circles, it's usually no more than a minor faux pas to use double quotes when single quotes are required. Just a slight breach of house style.

But do that in the wrong place on your Web site and all hell breaks loose.

We know. We lost the whole of the main E-EDITOR site for a few hours yesterday, just because of a pair of the wrong calibre speech marks on a Javascript style page.

The entire site looked as if it was "under construction" in the most terminal way, and would certainly not have drawn any casual visitor back for a second look.

Apologies to anyone who may have been inconvenienced by the temporary inability to reach our disquisitions on punk punctuation and Norse linguistic relics in English newspaper headlines (now updated, by the way, thanks to constructive comments from an eminent scholar in this field).

Realistically, you probably survived the ordeal. So did we. But it was a salutary reminder for us that all writing, whatever the context, has the ability to turn round and bite you in the leg if you allow your concentration to slip, even for a few seconds.
Tuesday, February 03, 2004
Questions about how to deal with abbreviations crop up every day for most e-editors, and provide an almost inexhaustible source of conflict and confusion.

Part of the problem arises from the fact that everyone — qualified or not — seems to have a firm, fixed opinion about how they should be handled.

Some want every abbreviation written out in full on first mention and followed by an apologetic cluster of initials in brackets. That may be fine for the London School of Economics (LSE), but it's bloody stupid for IBM.

Writing "International Business Machines (IBM)" takes a world-renowned brand name and hides it behind the name the company used in the days when cutting-edge hardware was controlled by punched cards.

It's technically correct, because IBM is still registered as International Business Machines. It's also pedantic, arrogant and crassly inconsiderate of the reader's comfort and comprehension.

Rule One, in all writing and editing, must be to respect the reader.

Anything that breaks the flow, that causes a hesitation or a double-take, should be reworked. So if people know the BBC, the FBI, IBM and BMW, CNN and the MCC by their initials, that is how these names should be written.

If there is real doubt about whether an international readership will recognise what you're talking about — and if it will aid understanding — the full names can be given afterwards, either in brackets or set off by commas ("the BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation, has been criticised in the Hutton Report").

But it is at least arguable that spelling out ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) or, indeed, BMW (Bayerische Motorwerke) is unlikely to help anyone but a telecoms technician or a German-speaking motor enthusiast. And both of those are already likely to be familiar with the abbreviations.

Common sense, that rare commodity, is the best guide. If the business you work in can't bear the uncertainty and ambiguities that come with dealing with this kind of language issue on a case-by-case basis, try to win approval for a style guide that can tolerate the occasional well-thought-out exception.

If you can't get that, you'll end up with a strict rule that says that every abbreviation must be written out once and followed by the initials in brackets.

It's a sign of inflexibility. It's a signal that the business involved would rather be consistent than right. But it's also to do with safety in numbers. And if you look around, you'll see depressing evidence that that's where most companies want to be — tucked into the middle of the herd, sharing the body heat and feeble lack of ambition of the rest of the dull, bovine mass.
Tuesday, January 27, 2004
How can you tell whether something in the text in front of you is a) brilliantly original, b) a hackneyed cliché that you just hadn't come across before, or c) a reference, homage or allusion to or quote from a particular person or work?

The question arises from the way our unbridled delight in the line "Still composing at an age when most people are doing the opposite" (see below) was dampened by someone who muttered darkly: "Yes. Very smart, But it's just a quote from Monty Python."

Well, he was right, more or less. There is an excellent Python song called Decomposing Composers, and it just so happened that we hadn't stumbled across it. So we gave awed credit to Mark Lawson of the BBC for what may have been no more than an opportunistic adaption of an old Michael Palin ditty.

In the transient, informal world of bloggery, that's no great disaster. But the question remains: how can you avoid this kind of problem in a more serious business context?

And the answer, as so often in e-editing, is to turn to Google.

Just tap your key words or phrase into the Google search box.

Look at what the initial search throws up (in this case, hundreds of references to mathematics and software — two fields where the juxtaposition of "composing" and "decomposing" could hardly be expected to trigger joy or amusement).

Choose a few of the terms that occur most frequently as your "exclusion keywords" and enter them into the search box, each with a minus sign in front ("-numbers" and "-systems" worked well here). This will slash the number of results when you search again.

Keep doing this until you winnow out most of the irrelevant technical references, then scan through the first page or two of returns from your latest search.

If you see an obvious source for the turn of phrase you're interested in, you can then follow it up easily. If there are few uses of the phrase left, you can be reasonably sure it's not an overworked cliché.

But if there are almost none, what then? Why, then there may be someone in your office who is producing genuinely original material the world has never before enjoyed. And that would be a pretty scary thought for most of us.
The live blog for everybody who lives and dies by the word. The UK's top guide to editing better and getting more respect for it is at www.e-editor.co.uk.

  • 12/01/2003 - 01/01/2004
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