Monthly Archives: April 2011

The unholy see

The Telegraph stylebook says:

see: only an animate object can see anything. Avoid tabloid usages such as “last year saw a sharp increase in the number of deaths” where saw is a lazy substitute for resulted in, caused or simply “there were”.

Bravo. We get this sort of thing a lot: “2007 saw street parties to celebrate Gordon Brown’s ascent to power” or “the NHS reforms will see patients enjoy perfect health in perpetuity” or “chapter 6 sees the hero making some jam out of plastic fruit”.

I’ve tried to make sense of the idiom, even as metaphor, but I don’t get it. A period of time as the witness to the events it contains? A cause as the witness of its effects? I guess there’s some poetic value, but do the journalists who use the phrase have the clear purpose of personifying the setting or the cause? Rarely, if ever. And nothing is surer to drain the poetry from a phrase than a media flogging.

And it’s always sight, never another sense. You don’t get “2008 heard what sounded like trouble in the Middle East” or “next month will be overwhelmed by the stench of a gathering of G20 finance ministers” or “the rise in superinjunctions is fondly caressing a new threat to press freedom”.

But it’s not new. The OED gives as one meaning of “see”: 

Of things, places, etc.: To be contemporary with and in the neighbourhood of, to be the scene of (an event); to be in existence during (a period of time). Also of a period of time: To be marked by (an event).

1739 … Hail the Day that sees Him rise, Ravish’d from our wishful Eyes.

1837 … Eighteen rivers have seen their navigation improved.

1839 … These are the funeral and Tartarean years of which St. Augustin speaks, like that when Rome saw five consuls.

1895 … A bright cold morning saw us in the saddle at 6.15.

1907 … In 1906 Cambridge saw three or four of her most learned men compete for the Greek chair.

Hmm. Well, I don’t like it. I don’t bloody like it, that’s what. But this probably means it’s legit.

And yet… this string of venerable precedents only covers being the setting of some event – not being the cause. In those cases, I’m sure it is just the same sort of laziness that the Guardian style guide chastises here:

set to

It is very tempting to use this, especially in headlines, when we think something is going to happen, but aren’t all that sure; try to resist this temptation. It is even less excusable when we do know that something is going to happen

(Why the Guardian opposes “set to” but not “see” and the Telegraph vice versa I cannot say.)

“Set to” is a cop-out that allows (among other things) vagueness about what causes what; “see” can do the same.

What’s more, both have become such journalistic habits that they creep in even when all they do is take up space – weakening rather than strengthening the text. Look at this BBC headline from yesterday:

Why not “UK economy returns to growth”? Shorter, simpler, clearer, better. See?

Do not fear the delusional bugbears

Lisa McLendon of Grammar Monkeys asked on Twitter for people to suggest nutty non-rules of grammar – that is, things that certain people insist on but that aren’t really rules of grammar. These are usually things that a parent or English teacher has drilled into one’s head at an early age, that don’t have any clear rationale and yet still exert great psychological force.

My contribution was unoriginal – the infinitive, like the atom, can be split with productive effects – and I generally agree that the others listed are daftly arbitrary. (There is a very, very senior member of our organisation who I think would benefit from abandoning a few of his pet non-rules.)

But this got me wondering: what is it that makes a non-rule? Good language use is at root about conventions that are broadly accepted rather than decrees that are imposed from on high, so the concept of a grammatical ‘rule’ gets a bit fuzzy around the edges. Obviously a non-rule is a minority usage, but most minority usages – even if they’re consistent conventions within that minority – don’t purport to be rules.

And that’s the key: the delusion of grandeur. So a non-rule is a minority convention used predominantly by prescriptivists. It’s a village bugbear set loose to terrorise the entire land. But don’t be afraid: they can only hurt you if you believe in them.


In the middle of a large, urgent, high-profile publishing project beset by version control problems, the client emails the designer and me a hitherto-unmentioned 14,000-word appendix to the report we’ve been grappling with. Alarum. But apparently it may not be that big a deal:

I don’t think there is any need for a proof read (unless there are any glaring spelling errors)

There’s really only one way to tell whether something needs proofreading. It’s called ‘proofreading’.

Enhance your green credentials: recycle a cliché today!

The environment matters. A lot. But not as much as whether politicians are getting one up on each other. This is why so much political reporting of environmental policy is cast in terms of the changing image of this party or that minister – a priority most clearly, and unattractively, distilled by the phrase “green credentials”.

Journalists have worked tirelessly to turn this phrase into a brain-deadening cliché. Over the past decade it’s grown much more popular than other types of credentials politicians might want:


(I single out the Guardian not because I think it’s particularly guilty of cliché-mongering but because its search facility helpfully gives numbers of uses by year.)

The surge really gets going in 2006, as new Tory leader David Cameron decides that the environment is a useful issue to campaign on, and as the Stern Review produces its report for Gordon Brown. Usage falls back a bit towards the end of the decade as the economy becomes a more pressing issue, but the phrase remains popular.

And it remains horrible. Sorry, I’ve no better argument against it than that. Anyone who uses “green credentials” to mean anything other than biodegradable ID cards deserves to be put in thumbscrews.


I can’t help but feel that ‘24’ would have been more dramatically and commercially successful if Jack Bauer had been a copyeditor…

Caption/VO: The following events take place between 12am, which isn’t a real time, and either 1am or 1pm depending on whether 12am was supposed to mean midnight or noon.

[Counter-Typo Unit, Los Angeles. Jack Bauer stands next to Chloe O’Brian’s desk]

Jack: You’ve gotta get me back on the case. Chase is a good freelancer, but he doesn’t know the writer like I do, he doesn’t know what to look for.

Chloe: Jack, you know you’ve been relieved of operational duties since you ignored the new tone of voice guidelines.

Jack: Look, if you play it by the book you’ll be sitting here collating comments until it’s too late. We’re only gonna get this done if we do it under the radar. Stall Bill with queries about the image credits while I unstack these modifiers.

Chloe: Well OK, but I’m not comfortable with this.

[Chloe’s computer beeps]

Jack: What have you got?

Chloe: It’s… I don’t understand it. It’s a new draft.

Jack: Let me see.

Chloe: This doesn’t make sense. We’ve already been working the first one up since they sent it through. That puts us six hours behind!

Jack: What the hell kind of mess is this? We need to take out that dangling participle right now, or it’s going to undermine the entire paragraph!

Chloe: But Jack, the President’s covering email says it should just be checked for typos!

Jack: Dammit, Chloe, we can’t trust the President. You see what he says – “it should just be checked” – in the passive voice! We edit by those standards and this whole operation will be for nothing.


[Underground car park. Jack and Tony Almeida eyeball each other warily.]

Tony: The war on terrorism was a mistake, Jack.

Jack: How can you say that?

Tony: We were wrong! Whatever way you cut it, it’s a category mistake that should never have made it past our first review. You can’t go to war against an abstract noun, it doesn’t make any sense.

Jack: Tony, what’s happened to you? I know you’ve had it tough, but surely you still know that the war’s against not an abstract noun but the concrete activity it denotes? And that ‘war’ here is metaphorical, suggesting a sustained effort only partly consisting of military actions but no less resolutely pursued?

Tony: Is that the way you’re doing things round here now, Jack? Metaphors? Have you any idea what kind of misconceptions this could lead to?

Jack: Dammit, Tony, I don’t have time for this! Have you got the details of those references for the footnotes or not?

Tony: Hell, sure. Take ’em. I don’t care any more. But Jack?

Jack: What?

Tony: They’re in Vancouver format.

Jack: You son of a bitch.


[Jack’s desk. Chloe approaches.]

Chloe: Jack, here’s the immunity certificate back from the White House.

Jack: My god, look at this. Two – no, three – conflicting sets of comments on the same proof!

Chloe: They must have passed it around. The red pen is the Attorney-General, the green is the Vice-President’s suspicious-looking assistant and I’m not sure who the blue pen is. They haven’t signed.

Jack: But it’s printed in blue! You mean to tell me we’ve got a blue-on-blue incident here? How the hell do they expect me to unsnarl this?

Chloe: I’ll help talk you through it. Let’s start by making the cuts.

Jack: OK, you’re right. Top of page one. Do I cut the red or the green first?

Chloe: Cut… the red. No! The green!

Jack: They’re too close together! I can’t risk it.

Chloe: This is no good anyway: these proofing symbols don’t follow any conventions I recognise. We need to know authorial intent.

Jack: Tell Johnson to prep interrogation room 1. I’ll make them talk.


[Bill Buchanan’s office. Bill sits behind his desk; Jack stands]

Bill: Jack, I’ve got to have that proof now.

Jack: Bill, you don’t understand. The changes that have been made aren’t the ones I marked up.

Bill: I know, I asked Morris to take a look. They’ll be his edits.

Jack: That doesn’t make sense – why would you get us both to edit it separately?

Bill: I’m sorry, Jack, but I didn’t know I could trust you. For what it’s worth, I do now.

Jack: Well OK. Even so, Morris is sharp: he wouldn’t have left all these run-on sentences like this. Bill, I think CTU’s been compromised!

Bill: Don’t be paranoid, Jack. Just give me the final proof.

Jack: No, listen, Bill –

Bill: I want the proof!

Jack:You can’t handle the proof!


Bill: Isn’t that Jack Nicholson from ‘A Few Good Men’?

Jack: Yes, yes it is. Sorry, Bill. I just couldn’t resist.

Bill: Look, you’ve got to stay focused. We can’t risk losing internal consistency. If you start parodying other self-important conspiracy dramas, what the hell does that do to our house style?

Jack: I’m sorry. I haven’t slept much lately.

[Chloe enters]

Chloe: Jack?

Jack: Yeah?

Chloe: It’s your daughter, Kim – she’s been kidnapped by extremists again. They’ve sent through a demand, but…

Jack: What is it?

Chloe: It says, “You must stop targeting our operatives with your surveillance equipment.”

Bill: How can we – the grammar – I think we’re looking at a multiple interpretation here!

Jack: Do they mean stop using our surveillance equipment to target their operatives or stop targeting those of their operatives who’ve stolen our surveillance equipment?

Chloe: That’s all I’ve got. There’s no intel on what on Earth they thought they were trying to write.

Jack: Goddammit, this is a FOX show! There’s no room for ambiguity here!

[Closing credits]

Update: See episode 2, in which Jack is sent to kill Osama bin Laden. (Or is it Usama?)

The true meaning

We are already planning our corporate Christmas card. The “basic objectives” for this project are:

  • To wish all external stakeholders a happy Christmas and to strengthen stakeholder relationships.
  • To showcase the Blenkinsop Foundation in a celebratory and festive fashion. 

I’m trying as hard as I can to resist proposing this text for the card:

 We wish you a merry Christmas and a strengthened stakeholder relationship.