Shop talk

22 Apr 2019


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

ANYONE who works professionally with words, or has an interest in language and etymology, recognises the importance of standardisation. In the book publishing business where fine-tuning is key, the number of pages of a publication can be increased, and time is not too tight for the copyeditors and the proofreaders, there is generally the luxury of the knowledge that once printed and put on the shelves, their work will (probably) weather the test of time.

Not so in the print news industry, particularly dailies, where space is finite and unpredictable (because of advertisements), the deadlines tight, and the need for accuracy trumps all other concerns. Copyeditors in newsrooms around the world rail against having to spend precious minutes deciding whether a certain word is hyphenated or not, and other such niggling concerns (though this exercise has become much faster and simpler in the days of Google), when they ought to be spending time on double-checking whether the prime minister actually did use this or that figure with reference to whatever. Succinctness, speed, and precision are essential — and can be sometimes brutal when the printing press, the beast that must be fed, awaits.

Speed and precision are essential, and can be sometimes brutal.

So it is that most large publications over the years develop style guides and handbooks for staff to have instant recourse to about grammar and standardisation rules that ought not be breached. Sometimes it is a collective and deliberative exercise involving senior copyeditors and section heads; at other times it is a body of knowledge that has grown organically through the years. Each handbook says something about the person/people who put it together, and in some cases it is fairly obvious that someone somewhere became irritated and acerbic enough to put down in writing what an edited copy ought to look like.

In the case of many of the international publications, many style guides are available online, and are open-access. For a person in the business of peddling words, they are invaluable — and also, for many, informative and entertaining ‘light’ reading. That of the UK’s Guardian, for example, is somewhat light-hearted and shows a nod towards humour. That of Times magazine is far more detailed, but somewhat pedantic and dense.

I’ll confess I like style guides, and have recently come across an old one that has proved quite edifying — some entries reflect quite clearly that the person who put it together was in the business of editing and one day simply grew impatient with all that he was tasked with correcting on a daily basis, the same misdemeanours repeated over and over again.

The entry on the term ‘fall down’, for example, tersely says merely that ‘nobody ever fell up’. Another redundancy cited is ‘for the month of February’, or ‘for the purpose of’ — journalese that so many appear to be addicted to — where simply ‘for February’ or ‘for [whatever]’ would suffice. The entry on ‘future prospects’ draws a clear line in the sand: “prospects are always of the future.” Alarm bells are also sounded over too free a use of the word ‘unique’, for very few things in this world of ours are really so.

Across the world and through the decades, journalists have been accused of corruption or have been looked upon by their readers with trepidation. This may be and has been true in some cases. But it is also a truth that there are legions in the industry that are committed and honest, and captivated by the very ideology and ethics of their profession — and they wouldn’t be in them if many of them didn’t have varying degrees of self-scepticism and humour.

In this regard, one of the delightful books I have read is called Secrets of the Press, first published in 1999, comprising a series essays by experienced UK journalists on the insights and experiences they have gained. There is a rather charming piece of writing Christopher Munion titled ‘Into Africa’, which recounts the world of the press when passing information on to the newsroom from remote locations involved tickers, shorthand (to save the newspaper money, which depended on the letter count), and before that, on the telegraph system. Other essays lament the demise of Fleet Street, the long-time home of the press, and mourn the moving of the industry to Canary Wharf (accomplished, in reasonable part, by the oligarchy of Rupert Murdoch).

But it being best to end on a high note, the first essay quotes a poem by Hilaire Belloc, The Happy Journalist: “I love to walk about at night / By nasty lanes and corners foul, / All shielded from the unfriendly light / And independent as the owl. / By dirty gates I love to lurk; / I often stoop to take a squint / At printers working at their work. / I muse upon the rot they print.”

The writer is a member of staff.

Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2019