Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sub-editing Skills Are Tools For Life

Despite my talkative, rather exuberant and seemingly fiercely opinionated self, I am an easy-going type who glides through life without major gripes. In certain instances though, even I turn into an animal and those who habitually read my rants about the state of literacy know to what extent the problem irritates me. Some friends have now reached the stage of not sending me emails any longer, just in case I send them back proof-read and with a FOR FUCK'S SAKE DID YOU GO TO SCHOOL in bold at the bottom. As if! That only happened once, when someone wrote pallets instead of palate when talking about food, but of course she deserved the abuse as she really did not know the difference. In general, people need not fear; the animal side of me is only ever released when I come across gross grammatical misconduct in printed reading matter.

I cut plenty of slack to blogs and emails, notes, letters and online diaries. In fact, when I spot my own shortcomings, I always leave them right here, for I feel that editing my own diary would destroy its reason for being. Mistakes and inaccuracies reveal an interesting sub-text regarding my state of mind weeks, or months, down the line, and I would not really want to sanitise that. However, I am always highly strung when I read formal stuff and it was with great pleasure that, just short of two weeks ago, I came across an article by Professor Luckhurst, who teaches journalism at the University of Kent, in The Times Higher Education. The Prof said that

[...] Bell is vehement about the value of sub-editors. He does not lack confidence as a writer and he has not been successfully sued, but he never wants to publish a column that has not profited from a good sub's attention to detail. In the ten years that I worked as a newspaper executive and then as a columnist, I took the same view. Subs are almost always underpaid but they are only rarely under appreciated by the writers whose reputations they safeguard, and then only by fools.


Nothing in a newspaper or on a website should be published without someone checking it for grammatical, factual or legal errors. Editors pretend that they read every syllable published, but I know from harsh experience that such Stakhanovite effort is not possible for every article on every page of every edition. The finest correspondents make mistakes. To err is human and, at least in this respect, journalists are members of the human race, despite what popular opinion contends.


Excellent subs are not disposable relics of a bygone era. They are the keyhole surgeons of journalism; fast, precise and adept at ensuring that prevention averts the need for expensive or embarrassing cures. At best they write attention-grabbing headlines and turn convoluted codswallop into plain, comprehensible English.

A good sub should be treasured, rewarded and respected.

Find the full article right here.

And so I experienced jubilation which was soon after supplanted by bafflement. I mean, how on earth could The THE, with its penchant for the fact that left, right and centre and literally and missing apostrophes possibly publish a piece that talks of the need for sub-editing? Is it a not-so-veiled cry for help? Are they being humorous and self-deprecating? Or do they really think they are up to scratch? Well, exactly. I shuddered at the thought, set fingers to keyboard and wrote to them:

I cannot be the only reader who thought Professor Luckhurst’s piece about sub-editing painfully relevant to the current state of The Times Higher Education.The possessive singular of nouns that end in -s, such as Charles, Keats, Williams, Yeats, is formed with 's, and not with a lone apostrophe, as the regular writers, and some of the occasional contributors, seem to think. Exceptions to this rule are possessives of ancient proper names ending in -es and -is, such as Empedocles, Damocles, Isis, as well as the noun Jesus, which only take the apostrophe.

Cutting down on the misuse of literally when it does not make any sense (I would surely love to see you literally explode with anger), as well as on the misuse of since in place of as would be extremely welcome. And can we please erase the fact that from the written form? It is ugly, clunky, unnecessary and can always be avoided. Finding all of the above, and then some, within these pages is embarrassing and infuriating in equal measure. Surely, you cannot possibly have a sub-editor?

Believe it or not I even got a reply. And it turns out they do have a sub-editor, which really throws a spanner in their works if you ask me. She says:

Many thanks for your comment. I would like to reassure you that the THE does indeed have a sub. Indeed, we have several. We try hard to produce a magazine that is as accurate as possible within the time constraints imposed on us.

As I am sure you are aware, the tradition of using an apostrophe and s with personal names is a matter of style. Some believe that where names end in an s, x or z sound, an apostrophe and s should be used, but this is a matter of style and our style is not to use the additional s. While you may find this usage conflicts with your personal preference, it is not wrong.

I like your oblique reference to Christopher Howse and Richard Preston’s book She Literally Exploded: The "Daily Telegraph" Infuriating Phrasebook. We do try to avoid unnecessary phrases and infelicities where possible and aim to be succinct and accurate at all times.

I hope this will put your mind at rest.

And there, right there, my entire education collapsed into a little heap of grammar sprinkled with a matter of style! Right there, as my eyes gazed over those four little words, it is not wrong. Referring to the grammatically accepted construction of the Saxon Genitive as a 'tradition' where 'some believe' one thing while others believe another as 'a matter of style' is worthy of throwing oneself off a building nothing shorter than the Sears Tower. Oh my God, I went to university for nothing. I studied Old English, grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation, Latin for a matter of personal opinion. Next thing I know they will be saying that using subjects in sentences is really a matter of personal preference as we can all understand who is talking anyway.

By this stage I got so desperate that I decided to let it die, except the Grammatically Just part of me couldn't let go, dammit. And so I wrote back:

You're right Ingrid, I was indeed aware that there are two ways to denote possession for singular nouns ending in -s, as every experienced academic knows that the one not taking the -'s is only used by tabloids, illiterate bloggers or BBC News Online. It is not a stylistic difference in any shape or form, as this is a grammatical rule which is not subjected to the capriciousness of the writer. Check reputable grammar (and style books), not 'skillswise' lessons by the BBC.

Thank you very much for your reply. My mind is at rest now; you need a bigger, and better skilled, team.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...