Thursday, November 25, 2010
Liam Stebbing writing in the Irish Times reviews
The great Sunday Times editor Harold Evans tells a story about a fishmonger with a sign that reads: “Fresh fish sold here.” A friend who can only be a newspaper subeditor, eager for the fishmonger not to waste a word, persuades him to rub out “Fresh”, because naturally he wouldn’t sell fish that wasn’t fresh; to rub out “here”, because naturally he’s selling it here, in the shop; to rub out “sold”, because naturally he isn’t giving it away; and to rub out “fish”, because you can smell it a mile off.
It’s a joke that, in Evans’s book Newsman’s English , pokes fun at the art of editing the written word – an art that, for any serious newspaper, aims to ensure accuracy, clarity and brevity – by showing how wrong the process can go. Newspapers try to avoid mistakes, or at least inconsistencies, of spelling and syntax by adopting rules that together add up to a house style. When several hundred people write for a publication it’s a good idea to be clear, for example, whether they should use the spellings “gurn”, “recognize” and “judgment”, as the Oxford English Dictionary would have them, or girn, recognise and judgement, as some of its rivals prefer. Which is why many newspapers have a style tsar – or should that be czar? – whose role is to ensure that, presentationally at least, the newspaper speaks with a coherent voice.
That man, for the Daily Telegraph , is Simon Heffer, a columnist and editor whose e-mails to the staff of the London paper (which appear on its website: Google “Simon Heffer’s style notes”) can drip with disdain for any journalists careless enough to have made a dog’s dinner of the language they are paid to pay attention to. “There have been so many literals this week,” went one message, “that I suspect some of you either never could spell, or have given up trying. Perhaps my favourite was ‘hocky mom’, followed by ‘plumb compote’ (bring on the lead poisoning).”
The e-mails caught the eye of a publisher, who asked Heffer to expand on his theme by writing a book. And expand he has, to produce more than 300 pages of instruction on “the correct way to write . . . and why it matters”.
If you have forgotten some of what you learned in your English lessons – or, as Heffer suspects is more likely the case, your school had abandoned the teaching of grammar long before you got there – you’ll probably learn a good deal from Strictly English .
This ranges from the basics (and some of the minutiae) of grammar, and nuggets such as the fact that “jargon” originally meant “the inarticulate utterance of birds, or a vocal sound resembling it”, to explanations of the debt we owe prose stylists such as George Orwell.
And Heffer is himself a fine writer with a noble aim. As he puts it in his most recent Telegraph e-mail: “When we get a word wrong it is embarrassing. It demeans us as professional writers and shakes our readers’ confidence in us.”
He is certain who the Daily Telegraph ’s readers are. Strictly English includes advice on how to address the queen of England, when to use the abbreviation “Esq” after a person’s name and even how to spot when a civilian is pretending to be an army officer. (If he asks you to write to him as, for example, Lieutenant Smith “he is certainly an imposter of some sort, and you would be well advised to call the police”.)
Heffer is also clear that the Telegraph ’s readers “communicate with each other on writing paper, not notepaper . . . eat their turkey or roast beef for Christmas lunch, not Christmas dinner” and “in their houses (never homes) . . . have a drawing room or a sitting room, never a lounge”.
The full review at Irish Times.
Footnote on The Bookman's reading habits:
I am pleased I am not formally reviewing the above title as I am rather enjoying reading a few pages a day rather than ploughing through it to meet a deadline.
I have developed a new reading plan in recent months. Our house is on three levels. My office, laundry and garage on on the lower level, the living area on the middle floor, and the bedrooms upstairs.
So now I have a fiction title and a non-fiction title on each level so that whichever level I am currently on I have a particular book of each category to read.
I started doing this because I wasted so much time hunting for the one title I was currently reading. Murphy's Law always ensured the book was not on the same level as me!
I tend to read fiction very quickly so these three novels should all be finished within the week whereas I read non-fiction more slowly so that Strictly English, (which I must say I am enjoying hugely), could take me four weeks or more.
Also with fiction I tend to become totally absorbed and read long sections at each sitting as opposed to dipping in and out of the non-fiction. I also prefer to be alone when reading fiction whereas I can happily accomodate company when reading non-fiction.
I'd be interested to know how/when/where my blog visitors spend their reading time.