Subbing the world

Righting copywriting wrongs, one word at a time

Good words from the New York Times

After Deadline logo

I only just realised that I hadn’t added the New York Times‘ splendid After Deadline blog to my blogroll. Slapped wrists all round. The mistake has been rectified.

The latest entry tackled split infinitives (yes, you can) and The Great And Question – which so incensed me, I created a little booklet about it that some of you may have seen.

Author Philip B Corbett (middle initials are a legal requirement for American males) also addresses the question of using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun (no, you can’t).

The whole blog is done with wit, good humour and common sense. In fact it’s much better than mine, dammit.

Filed under: Good words, Grammar, Useful

I can but highlight your error

Ode Less Travelled cover

I’ve started reading Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, and it’s a marvellous thing. (I’m afraid I’m one of those people who thinks virtually anything Stephen Fry does is marvellous.*)

The quote from the Independent on Sunday, though, is less so.

‘You can’t but marvel…’?

In this context, ‘but’ is used as an adverb, essentially synonymous with ‘only’:

‘You can only marvel at Fry’s easy familiarity…’

So what the quote actually says is, ‘You can’t only marvel at Fry’s easy familiarity…’

Which rather begs the question of what else you might marvel at. There’s certainly plenty more to marvel at in the book, but something tells me this isn’t what the generous reviewer was getting at.

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*Fry, on the other hand, would detest this blog. Absolutely revile and abhor it. Just listen to his splendid podcast on the subject (Series 2 Ep 3), where he boils grammatical pedants alive in a cauldron of furious metaphors. Quite right too. Bastards.

Filed under: Grammar

A missing ingredient

Waitrose poster

I spotted this at Dorking station the other day. And because I am sad and nerdy, all I could see was a great gap of white space between the words ‘best’ and ‘loved’.

That phrase is a compound adjective – a descriptive term made up of two words put together. And that means it needs a hyphen in the middle to connect them.

Without the hyphen, the meaning slips slightly out of focus. The two adjectives get into a fight, or at least stand apart from each other, instead of cuddling up together and conceiving a new verbal being containing something of each of them.

Okay, so it’s not as serious here as it might be elsewhere. If I describe Delia as a fat-frying woman, I’m clearly talking about what she’s doing on the stove. If I describe her as a fat frying woman, she’d probably go off in a huff. (Actually quite dangerous when you’ve got fat frying on the stove.)

I know it’s tiny and trivial, and that very few people will be confused by the poster. But how hard is it to drop in a little hyphen?

And in any case, by Jove, this is Waitrose after all. One expects a little more.

Filed under: Grammar, Typos

An oldie but a goodie

Going over some old stuff, I found this, which I spotted on the BBC website, way back in 2008.

Great tits BBC

A good lesson in the importance of capitalising proper nouns.

Filed under: Grammar, Typos

You lot are worse than me

Jay Rayner quote

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UPDATE: After this went up yesterday, Jay Rayner got in touch (see comments) and explained that the fault above was not his. So as you read the post, bear in mind that he got subbed by the Observer before he got subbed here. Sorry for the error, Jay. I’m just glad we didn’t pick up on anything by Giles Coren.

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Before I started this blog, I feared for myself as the most pernickety, grumpy, nyeh-nyeh-nyeh-y old pedant ever.

But you people are beating me on that score. Hands down.

Look what Stephen Green tweeted: this page from the Observer, in which Jay Rayner has mentally grouped ‘health and safety’ into a sort of compound singular, and treated them as such in his copy.

Stephen’s having none of it. And who’s to argue? Jay could at least have capitalised the nouns: Health and Safety. The suggestion of a proper noun would have acted as some sort of defence.

Perhaps an ampersand, too, would have helped reinforce the sense of a single thing: Health & Safety. Like Marks & Spencer.

But leaving those two words nakedly ordinary, in simple lower case, renders them undeniably separate and simple – weaklings among the literary herd, helpless as the verbal jaguar that is Stephen Green leaps from the undergrowth and savages them both to the floor – them and their silly little ‘is‘.

I’m getting a bit scared of my readers.

Filed under: Contributions, Grammar

Officious, verbose AND dumb. Oh my.

David dropped me a line with this, which needs no further comment from me:

Maybe sign

Filed under: Confusing, Downright ugly, Grammar, Jargon, Tone of voice, Verbiage

Unrealise your potential?

Richard Weston, aka design blogger AceJet170, has been in touch about something that, he says, ‘makes [his] head hurt’.

As well it might. Richard had spotted this online:

If you can’t read that line top right, it says, Untap Your True Potential. This was the bit that gave Richard pause.

He’s also spotted this:

Untap headline

Hmmm.

Random capitals aside, something weird is happening here. It’s one of those peculiar misunderstandings that leads people to say things that are the exact opposite of what they mean.

The problem may result from a confusion with phrases like, ‘Unleash your potential’.

Trouble is, ‘Un-‘ is a negative prefix. It means you’re doing the opposite of the verb concerned. Unleash means not to leash – a linguistic point of particular importance to dog handlers.

What the lines above mean, of course, is ‘tap your true potential’.

That sounds rather ugly, though. You’d probably say, ‘Realise your true potential’ or, indeed, ‘Unleash your true potential.’

Untap your true potential’ is not only the opposite of the intended meaning, it’s also pretty meaningless. You can’t ‘un–‘ something, unless it’s something already done. (Like ‘Untying the furious copywriter’.)

So you could only ‘untap your potential’ after having tapped it. Which wouldn’t make much sense.

Sadly, a Google of this phrase shows how rife it is. There’s even a Facebook group:

This is nothing new

Of course, there are other, accepted phrases that mean the opposite of what’s intended.

Famously, for example, our American cousins say, ‘I could care less’, when what they really mean is they couldn’t care less.

We also say that a man who’s quick to anger has a temper. But if he gives vent to that anger, he loses his temper.

That doesn’t make much sense. You don’t get angry by losing your anger.

Temper, it turns out, has a pretty interesting and complex history. But this isn’t an etymology blog, so if you’re interested, have a look at Wiktionary and this blog post. You start to see how this confusion might have come about.

The point is, we’ve ended up with phrases we all understand, but which contradict each other completely. Purely through usage.

This suggests that a nonsensical construction like Untap your true potential could quite easily become part of the language, simply because enough people use it incorrectly for it to come to mean the complete opposite of what it says.

Now my head’s hurting, along with Richard’s. And yours, probably.

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PS: If you have any other examples of phrases that mean the opposite of what they say, do let me know. Thanks.

Filed under: Confusing, Contributions, Downright ugly, Grammar

‘There has never been more ways’?

NHS poster

This is just one of those irritatingly unnecessary mistakes. And made by a brand big enough and old enough to know better.

‘More ways’ is plural, right? Surely we don’t have to debate that.

So you’d say, ‘There have never been more ways’, wouldn’t you? Not, ‘There has never been more ways’ (which is what ‘There’s’ means in this case). Right?

Right.

Unless you’re writing an NHS Smoking Helpline campaign, apparently.

(Spotted at East Surrey Hospital, by the way.)

Filed under: Grammar, ,

Enhancing, red eyes removal

art shop sign

Danny Gray has sent me another doozie, via Twitter.

It’s hard to know where to begin, really. ‘Spotted in window of a photo-“art” shop in Manchester,’ Danny says, which is at least a clue to what on earth they’re going on about. (In Comic Sans, no less.)

It’s so bad, I wonder if it was written by someone for whom English is a second (or quite possibly third) language. If not, it’s simply scary.

It may be that I’m now officially middle-aged, but I can’t help feeling there’s more of this sort of writing around. I don’t know as much about current English education as I should, but it does make you wonder (in a disturbingly Daily Mail sort of way) about the standards being applied.

RSA pic

Last year I went along to a fascinating debate at the RSA. Jeremy Paxman and Anne Atkins debated the state of English, and whether it was ‘on the skids’. (Listen to the audio recording here. It’s very good.)

There was much talk (especially from Atkins) about the diversity and creativity of English, and the folly of assuming it could ever be defined in a set of ‘rules’.

A lot of it made a lot of sense. But then, Atkins (like Paxman) is highly educated, and fluent enough in ‘standard’ or ‘traditional’ English to enjoy the delights of mucking about with it. My worry is that too much concern about letting people feel ‘free’ can leave our understanding – and therefore use – of language so vague and ill-formed as to be next to worthless.

As in cooking, creativity and play can lead to all sorts of wonderful innovations. But unless you have enough mastery of the basics, you just end up in a mess, like the sign above, and feeling distinctly undernourished.

Filed under: Confusing, Grammar, Punctuation

Let's start with this blog. The name's just not right, is it? It's much wider than sub-editing. It's just as often about words that are technically correct, but tonally all over the place. Oh well. Anyway, please feel free to send me your own examples of horrible copy (but please, no more erroneous apostrophes): mike[at]reedwords.co.uk

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