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If you gotta do it do it right

Enda O'Doherty writes: Having recently, on an Irish newspaper website, been struck by the question in a headline “Are nurses over paid?” my immediate response was to wonder if it was instead journalists, or sub-editors (correctors/processors of text), or newspaper executives who were over paid, or perhaps overpaid, or even, God help us, over-paid. I hope I will not be regarded as a hopeless self-deluding nostalgist if I say that I think there was a time – and it was not so long ago – when people working for a newspaper would have known the difference between these formulations and which one – and it’s only one – was correct.

What has happened?

Well the simple answer it seems (though the simple answer is not always the right answer or the most complete one) is that the torch has passed from one generation to another, and the new one is dumb. As a recent article https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/01/books/benjamin-dreyer-english-grammar-writers-writing.html on the New York Times website by Sarah Lyall profiling publishing executive Benjamin Dreyer puts it:

Social media has spawned a generation of un-Strunk-and-White-ified people who appear to believe that punctuation is optional, that grammar is for the elderly and that ending a sentence with a period is a deliberate act of aggression.

Strunk and White, for younger and non-American readers, is the shorthand title of The Elements of Style, a classic US reference work on correct usage of English first compiled by William Strunk Jr in 1919 and revised by EB White (of New Yorker fame) in 1959. An equivalent on this side of the Atlantic might be Fowler’s Modern English Usage or The Oxford Guide to Style.

A style guide is first of all a tool for the person who wants to write “correctly” and to express herself or himself clearly and who feels a bit of expert help could be of use in this endeavour. It is therefore primarily a guide for the lay person, though if one accepts that not all people who write for a living come to the job already equipped with all the knowledge they will ever need, a book like this has a place on the work table too. But in places where professional writers work there is also another tool, which is usually known as the style book. This will incorporate some elements of the style guide (highlighting, for example, common misspellings, similar words with quite different meanings, cliches or hackneyed phrases best avoided). But the style book is primarily a custom-made tool for a particular publication or (book) publisher. It exists largely because in very many cases there is no one correct way of expressing something. And so, because a publication wants to establish in-house consistency of use, it has to decide which way we will choose to express this.

You may have booked a holiday flight for July 6 this year – or was it 6 July, or July 6th, or July the sixth? Perhaps it doesn’t matter very much. Individuals may be largely consistent in which one of these possible formulae they personally use, but they are unlikely to be wholly consistent. A newspaper or magazine aims to be consistent all the time. And thus a new employee will be told that we write July 6, and it happened on Monday (rather than it happened Monday), and 10 am (rather than 10 a.m. or 10am or 10a.m.) and summer (rather than Summer). It is not that any of the other versions are necessarily wrong. Other publications may use them but they too will try for consistency in use. You make a decision on which option you use and you stick to it. And it’s in the style book if you need to check.

Not all such decisions are value-neutral. They can reflect political attitude, or nationality. One newspaper may always refer to “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth” (on first mention) and thereafter to “the Queen”, whereas another (in a different country perhaps) will use “Britain’s Queen Elizabeth” (on first mention) and thereafter “the queen”. In Britain, the body whose officers train at Sandhurst is the Army. In Ireland the Army is the body which is trained at The Curragh. The body whose officers train at Sandhurst is “the British army”.

In the old days, when newspapers employed a sufficient number of sub-editors for a good bit of recreational reading to be possible at work, conversations would break out – and often go on for several minutes –about the fine points of the style book. And just occasionally one felt that for some people, knowing the style book was something to fall back on when you didn't know very much else. A style book will not tell you that the reporter’s sentence you have just read doesn’t really make much sense, or that his sentence seven flatly contradicts his sentence two. For that you will need your brain. There is pleasure – at least for odd people like myself – in establishing consistency and clarity. But perhaps the best thing that can be said about having style rules in a publication is that it asks the person who is processing the copy (not the person who originally wrote it) to be awake. If you are implementing style rules and actively looking for places where you must intervene you will no doubt spot that “6 July”. But with a bit of luck you’ll also spot that the sentence reads: “Mr O’Donnell said that his client had first arrived in this in this country on 6 July last year.”

Perhaps one of the reasons those young people cited by Sarah Lyall think (if indeed they do think) that all this talk of correct usage is so much twaddle is that laying down the law on such matters does in fact often greatly appeal to eccentrics and snobs of one kind or another. (Incidentally, the disaffected “young people” will be gratified to hear that they now have the support of a number of left-wing university sociolinguists, who increasingly see notions of correct usage as instances of class oppression.)

If you entrust to one person the power to make an unlimited number of ex cathedra rulings on language you are likely to end up with a mixture of common sense and sheer caprice. Thus Benjamin Dreyer, who is “copy chief” at Random House and the author of a new style guide, dislikes the word “reside”. I’m certainly with him there. The proper, and quite adequate, word is “live”. And the same goes for “commence” and “start”, “require” and “need”, and many, many more. Then there is that appalling verbal contagion somewhere between facetiousness and preciosity which has infected newspaper features departments everywhere, sparing few. You know the one that makes you unable to write “book” or “write” or “restaurant” or “pub” or "drink", even “writer”. No, it must be “tome” and “pen” and “eatery” (yeuch) and “hostelry” and "beverage" and “scribe”. Where did they get this disease? I know actually. In school, but they should have left it there. Another good piece of advice for the excitable young: “Go light on exclamation points ... No, even lighter than that. Are you down to none yet? Good.”

Dreyer can certainly spot the horrors but he is also apparently dismayed by perfectly ordinary things, like the British spelling “manoeuvre”, whose “unpleasant extraneous vowels” evoke for him a cat coughing up a hairball. Calm down, Ben, it’s simple: it rhymes with Hoover. He is not the first one – but again he is right – to have had a go at the eccentric style rules of The New Yorker, which insists on using a diaeresis, two dots over a letter (rather than a hyphen), in words with double vowels, like re-elect (“reëlect”) or pre-existing (“preëxisting”). He adds: “That ... magazine also refers to adolescents as ‘teen-agers,’ ” i.e. with the clunky inclusion of a hyphen in there. He writes: “If you’re going to have a house style, try not to have a house style visible from space.”

The temptation to eccentricity and the deriving of unreasonable enjoyment from arbitrary power are perhaps the two chief dangers lying in wait for the aspirant style guru. In the newspaper I long worked in, there was an odd style rule about the correct denomination of the 1914-18 conflict that had been in operation for longer than anyone could remember (from 1919 perhaps). It was “the first World War”, the first being lower case. No one knew why. No one remembered who had made the rule in the first place or what the reasons for it had been. But for decades it remained, and, I'm told, remains the rule. In fact when a working committee charged with revising the style book recommended to the editor that we should finally join the rest of the world in writing “First” that august and powerful person said No – on the grounds, apparently, that this charming little quirk was part of what we were. 

To go back to where I came in, it is no doubt tedious to hear it but there probably has been a considerable erosion of knowledge of grammar and syntax (and of the degree to which correct grammar and clear syntax are valued) from the good old days when parsing and analysis were beaten into us in primary school with a three-foot ruler. But that, in my view, is not the main reason for the fall-off in standards in newspaper reports. That has a largely economic cause. Since Google has gobbled up much of the advertising revenue that newspapers used to depend on profitability has been severely compromised and this has led to huge staff cutbacks. Newspapers today are in fact producing as much news, and probably more, with only a fraction of the human resources they used to be able to put into processing it. The staff who remain are working harder but simply cannot produce work to the same standard that might have been expected (if not always delivered) twenty years ago.

No, I take back what I suggested in irritation at the beginning. The journalists are not overpaid. They are over ... that is over- ... ah, got it ... OVERWORKED.