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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.
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.

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