Tag Archives: spelling

Accuracy level of Guardian now a major concern for readers

My first reaction on seeing this Guardian media headline –  “Literacy level of recruits now a major concern for media, report finds” – was: I know – I’ve said it myself often enough.

But then I read the story. The story says absolutely nothing about general literacy. 

It makes the following points:

  • The industry needs more skilled advertising and media sales staff
  • Freelancers need to be up to date on technology and multimedia
  • Games and other creative industries are reducing the talent pool for journalism
  • Publishing is a highly qualified industry (not highly skilled, notice), with 45% of workers having a degree

Yet it deals with all this under an opening paragraph saying this:

The literacy level of young recruits at newspapers and magazines is becoming a major concern, a training watchdog has warned.

No – it simply hasn’t warned us of this. Not according to this story, anyway. Where’s the evidence? Where’s the reference from the report? Where’s the quote from Skillset?

In fact, the only halfway relevant comment the story offers from the Skillset report is this: 

…traditional skills such as good writing, editing and interviewing were “becoming even more important so that customers are prepared to pay for high quality content”.

Which may or may not be true – there’s actually no clear cut evidence that “customers are prepared to pay for high quality content”, or pay for content at all.

Even if it is true, this comment doesn’t touch on literacy per se – this is talking about communication skills and style, which is a different, if related, thing.

What’s worse, this isn’t just sloppy, sloppy writing – it’s sloppy sub-editing too. Any sub worth their salt would have picked up on this and certainly given it a more accurate headline…



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Why newspapers still need sub-editors #2

A really nice example of an “elephant in the living room” typo, from Bill Bennett’s Knowledge Workers’ blog.

As with investigative journalists, you’ll miss the sub-editors when we’re gone.

Won’t stop them getting rid of us though…

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Financial Times subbing fun

There’s more to sub-editing than shuffling commas around and checking spelling (vital, obviously, though these things are). And it’s something that it seems the subs at the otherwise admirable Financial Times seem to have forgotten yesterday.

Bear with me – digression first.

I find these days there’s a tendency for people to use proverbs, idioms and metaphors without really knowing what they mean. It’s partly the result of the rich heritage of expression that we in the English-speaking world have inherited from authors such as Shakespeare and from the Bible.

One example is “hoist by his own petard” (an older proverb given longevity in Hamlet). A petard is a bomb, and being hoist by one means you are blown up by your own explosive. Metaphorically, it means your cunning scheme has blown up in your face.

More people (including cleverish subs) are familiar with the phrase than know what it actually means. Which is why you get sentences saying things like “he was hoist by his own petard and then left dangling in the wind”. (I paraphrase, but that was a real example from the Guardian years ago.) The confusion is that a petard is something like an old-style pike, on which you are hoisted up like a sack of potatoes.

So far, so obscure. Now we’re getting to the FT.

Yesterday’s Financial Times carried an interesting example of this in a story about how old manufacturing cities in the North, the West Midlands and Scotland are suffering the highest rise in unemployment in the current recession. 

In it, Andrew Taylor, the paper’s employment correspondent, interviews Naomi Clayton at the Work Foundation. She says:

 “In the eye of the storm as job losses mount are the UK’s core cities and areas associated with traditional manufacturing – places which in many cases had yet to recover fully from previous recessions . . . ”

Well. That’s interesting. Because the phrase “the eye of the storm” is a reference to the behaviour of tropical cyclones. A cyclone is like a fairground roundabout – the closer you are to the edge, the faster and more violently it travels. Go to the middle and it’s pretty calm and safe.

So Naomi Clayton is actually saying that the UK’s core cities are relatively protected from the effects of the recession. It’s not what she means. Oh no. But it’s what she says. (She probably meant that those cities were in the teeth of the storm, or somesuch.)

Why does this matter? Because words mean things, and if you get them wrong, it can have serious effects. A potential libel action for one (as one sub of my acquaintance discovered when he mistook the word “scam” [a fraud] for “wheeze” [a jolly jape]. You don’t want to get them mixed up in a headline, let me tell you.) 

The Financial Times example is actually tricky for the subs’ desk to handle, as it is in a quote. The fault lies with employment correspondent Andrew Taylor, who either didn’t notice or didn’t understand that she was saying the wrong thing. 

Of course, it’s a bit awkward to correct someone’s speech when you’re in mid-interview. But in a different case, if a slip of the tongue or ignorant expression turned out libellous or significantly distorted the meaning of the copy, it’s well worth double-checking to make sure they are saying what they think they are.

The moral? Don’t use expressions unless you are absolutely sure what they mean. Journalism can stand being stripped of its flowery metaphors better than it can stand being inaccurate.

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Independent cuts sub-editors – and it shows

Apparently desk editors at the Independent are to take on subbing duties at the paper, according to a Guardian story from April 1. That’s the sort of thing that should be an April Fool’s Day joke – but I found out it wasn’t when I was unlucky enough to buy a copy of the Indie on Easter Saturday (I was in London and wanted to get a What’s On-style guide, and I hate the Guardian, so I figured it was the next best option).

Anyway, I ended up glancing through the paper as well, you know, to get my money’s worth. The paper featured a double page interview with Nick Fraser, editor of the BBC documentary series Storyville about economics. Apart from the fact that he’s a convinced Keynesian, which is difficult to correct as you can’t sub people’s misapprehensions, I was shocked – shocked I say – to see the piece had numerous glaring subbing errors and literals towards the end. It’s as if the subs started well, and then gave up halfway through the piece. For example:

I absorbed the work of Keynes on the Central Line between power cuts during the Three Days’ Week.

Um. I think that was the Three-Day Week. A historic event that was probably before the time of whoever “subbed” this piece. Later (errors in bold):

The kinds of fake debt or securities legitimately traded has allure, it’s equivalents today “zombie bank” and “vulture fund”, have rather less.

(The whole sentence is garbled, but if anyone wonders why “it’s” is wrong, please don’t seek a job in newspapers).

And then:

This is what Liaquat Ahamed told me. “Economics doesn’t always tell you about wehat really happens. There are too many theorirsts and paractitioners concoct them to order.”

There was also a US spelling of characterized, but I think we’re a bit beyond that in terms of proofing crapness. Jesus. Come on guys – this is a national newspaper we’re reading here. 

I know I’m a sad obsessive (I mean, strictly speaking, I would have changed the headline from “Do economists know any more than us?” to “Do economists know any more that we?”), but this goes beyond a slip of the keyboard.

Those of you who are eagle-eyed enough to have actually read the story online on the Independent web site will have seen, with relief I hope, that the paper has corrected a number of the typos (though not, tellingly, the non-possessive “it’s”). 

It’s just more evidence that the problems with print journalism (too costly, too inflexible) may be too much to bear. Online-only Independent before too long? Contrary to its protestations, I wouldn’t be so surprised. Might even be a better paper…

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Young people write in txtspk – shock

Via the Communicators in Business web site – a link to a government report that finds young people leave school or college minus key everyday learnings such as how to write in real English rather than SMS speak, or how to take a phone message:

The report finds that although many schools, colleges and universities are preparing their students well for the workplace, provision is patchy and many employers have to spend time and money on new recruits to give them everyday skills, like answering a telephone correctly, or taking a message, how to write reports in English, rather than text-speak, or what a filing cabinet is for.

In fairness, I used to be a bit rubbish at effectively taking phone messages, partly because I suffered from a bad case of teenage for a number of years and also, oddly, because I am old enough to have missed out on the phone-as-my-entire-life stage that young people seem to go through in more modern times. Still, I imagine they’ll learn. The problem, as I have posted before, and will no doubt again, is that the later you leave it to try to instill this stuff as the basic rules of communication, the more difficult it will be to absorb…

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