It’s in the headline!

Ah, dummy copy. So dangerous.

Even more dangerous, though, is a mischievous art desk that doesn’t use generic placeholder text. I once came within a whisker of sending a story about Jamie Oliver to press with a picture caption that read “fat tongue Oliver hugging yet another piglet”. Ta Stu!

Headlines, standfirsts, eyebrows and picture captions: all are in the danger zone. The bigger the font, the blinder you get. It’s huge, so it must be right. Right? But if you’ve left the l out of public or the f out of shift, it’ll be in the headline. Guaranteed. Never trust page furniture.

I’ve half-inched these pics from other people’s websites, because I was looking for a collection to link to and couldn’t find one. To see them in their original homes, just click on them.


And here are some I’ve been sent since publishing this post.

Note to subs… (Spotted on Main Road. Photo courtesy of a coll... on Twitpic

thanks to @DNAtkinson
thanks to @liamkellyldn

A really bad one (the editor resigned over this):

thanks to @grouchotendency
thanks to @Andrew_Taylor
thanks to Melissa

And, going off topic as these things tend to, some different kinds of unfortunate headline.

Owly Images
thanks to higgins
Thanks to @KevGlobal

(The original headline said ‘Can Dec at last match Ant’ and the second said ‘Can Dec finally match Ant’. One page was updated, one wasn’t… AARGH.)

thanks to Alistair Dabbs

Any more for any more?

Edit: I’ve now been sent so many that this post is getting unwieldy, so I’ve moved it to a Pinterest board. Keep ’em coming.

Public-sourced photos? Cum off it

Incidentally, the name of my local Jamaican takeaway is…

This is a post of two parts, and, like some kind of popular Swedish novel, it won’t make much sense until they collide.

Firstly, have you noticed that Collins has made it free to search its online dictionary? Brilliant news. So, if, like me, you have a mind to, you can now compare word definitions from Oxford and Collins side by side. Perfect. Collins definitely has the edge in terms of nice, clean, ad-free design, as well as some lovely features such as usage graphs.

Anyway, I was raving about this yesterday, when someone pointed out a potential flaw on the Collins site. In an unbelievably trusting move, they’ve linked it up to Flickr. Yes, that’s right. Whatever word you search for, on the results page you’ll also get public-sourced images tagged with that word. WHAT?

As I’m incredibly mature and above such things, I immediately tried “breast”. Wow, boobies! Next, with chickens clearly in mind, I tried “cock”. Obviously. Try it, go on – down on the right-hand side of the results page. It shows just two images from a pool of photos with the relevant tags, so I don’t promise you rudeness every time. But there’s a strong chance of it.

Okay, enough of the Vangers. Over to the second part: the goth girl (she’s not really a goth, but bear with me).

Also yesterday, I had a read of Claire Maxwell’s blog, specifically her post on Sophie Dahl’s book. She’s very good, is Claire, by the way, and what I’m about to say is in no way a criticism – have a read for yourself, and then marvel that she writes like that at the tender age of just 18.

Anyway, Claire had written in her blog post: “It’s a cookery book-come-autobiography.” And this should be cum, rather than come.

cum: preposition used between two nouns to designate an object of a combined nature

Now I thought to drop her a quick message (and in fact I did, and she replied that she’d had a feeling it should be cum but couldn’t bring herself to write it – “my grandad reads it!”). But before I wrote the message, I got to thinking: if she doesn’t believe me, where should she look it up? I don’t want to incite a young lady to type cum into Google, for goodness’ sake.

And so, the Vangers and the goth girl collide. Of course, the new Collins page was the perfect place. I could send a link to the definition, thus sidestepping any potential need for Googling. But I can confirm that those of clean mind and only reasonable levels of curiosity should not scroll down.

On the bright side, I have learnt about some delightful features you can give characters on Second Life (and, luckily for everyone else, that photo is no longer being displayed).

Call it a hunch, but I don’t think this particular feature is a keeper. The overall service, however, gets a big thumbs up from me.

As to ‘as to’

I like to think I’m pretty well acquainted with language irritations (yes, I’m refusing to use the word ‘bugbear’). But yesterday, two people picked me up on one I’d never considered: as to.

I’d written a guide to using ellipses and asked for feedback from my colleagues. Both questioned the as to in the following sentence.

In the following three cases, first consider whether you really need an ellipsis. Often, when the omission is at the start or end of a sentence, you can simply quote the remaining part without causing any confusion as to the meaning. However, sometimes an ellipsis is necessary for clarity.

It had never occurred to me, so I thought I’d ask Twitter. It turns out that objection is pretty widespread: as to was variously described as ‘faux formalism’, ‘pompous’ and ‘horrid’ – the kind of language that would be ‘written by a man in a bow tie’ and would ‘make one sound like a copper’. Well. That’s me told.

So, while I make no promises as to swearing off as to altogether, I’ll certainly be thinking before I write it again.

Here’s the Twitter conversation, if you’re interested. I’d also be curious to hear what others make of @catordog2’s claim that my use of any could change the meaning of the sentence. I’ll own up to it being superfluous (though I have chosen to retain it as I think it makes for a gentler tone, which is what I am going for here), but don’t see how it can change the meaning.

And, in case you’re wondering, I changed my as to to over.

Edit: in a classic case of oh-dear-it’s-already-been-written-and-better, I’d like to recommend Stan Carey’s post on as to. It’s far more sensible and comprehensive. 🙂

Why ‘post’, not ‘after’?

Dear businessperson,

You upset me when you write post but mean after. You lead me up the garden path with your tricksy words. See, I think you’re about to start talking about letters, mail and the Post Office. But you’re not. You just think after is a bit too dull, straightforward and English, and you fancy jazzing things up with a bit of Latin. But it’s really bloody unhelpful, actually.

Take this sentence (names have been changed to protect vulnerable parties): “What prospects are there for us post the proposals to tackle banana fraud?”

My eye doesn’t usually read a sentence in slow sequence – unless I’m deliberately reading slowly, I see the key words more or less at the same time. Consequently, when I look at this I’m expecting something about posting proposals. But is that what you mean? No. So I have to go back and read it slowly, and I don’t thank you for that, because I’m very busy and extremely important.

Now, what I really wanted to write here was that even in Latin, yes, even if we transported ourselves back to ancient Rome, you wouldn’t be able to use post like that because it’s a prefix. Postproposal, perhaps, but not post the proposals. However, having checked with a couple of people who actually know their Latin from their elbow (thank you @Nickety and @helendorritt) before making these wild assertions, I’ve discovered that I’m wrong. But, seeing as I’m wrong, I’ve decided that that’s not really the point.

The point is that when you wrote post, you meant after. So why not just say so? We don’t speak Latin, as I think I’ve just demonstrated (ahem). Also, although you meant after, I think that in this case considering would have been a better choice of word – if they’re proposals then the main concern is likely to be the concept rather than the chronological positioning. No?

In short, I’d just really like you to say what you mean. And if you do want to use post, other than in an existing word such as postmortem, posthumous, etc, save it for adjectival uses where after doesn’t quite suffice. Post-rant cup of tea, anyone?

Many thanks,

A. Reader

PS I am also fed up of reading about perfect storms. Please stop.

What I’ve been reading this week

Alert, alert, ranting sub in existential crisis. Well, not exactly. But it’s certainly true that I don’t find too much to rant about these days. Whether that’s because I’ve got it out of my system, I’m working with less rant-inducing copy or I’ve just gone blind, I don’t know. Anyway.

The more I know, the more I realise I don’t know. The more I realise I don’t know, the more inclined I am to listen to other people’s voices more and my own a bit less.

And so, I’m going to start sharing some of the interesting bits I come across, and thus bask in their reflected glory. Here’s a few things that have rocked my little world in the past week or two:

There was Ralph Fiennes, getting all worked up about Twitter ruining Shakespeare, or something.

“[Language] is being eroded — it’s changing. Our expressiveness and our ease with some words is being diluted so that the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us.” Read all about it (Daily Mail warning)

Blah. Much more interesting was this response on Language Log: Up in ur internets, shortening all the words.

If you weren’t too busy ruining language, you may have noticed that last week, a dog harnessed the power of electrostatic discharge – possibly in protest at local governance: Dog helps lightning strike Redruth mayor. This led me to a lovely post on Stan Carey’s Sentence First blog, on Crash blossoms.

There’s a hilarious post on Angry Sub-Editor’s blog, about the danger of promoting a sub-editor: Had they but one neck.

A little extract: “My gay friends tell me that sexual preference is hard-wired and so corrective therapy is pointless as well as immoral. You can say the same about being a sub-editor. Once you’ve been a sub-editor for a while, you can never go back. The down side is that there aren’t any cool bars where you can go and discuss gerunds and dangling participles.”

Read it and weep.

And then there was a great battle, or something. The Guardian’s David Marsh wrote a post about the which/that rule for the Mind Your Language blog: That’s the way to do it. The explanation was more in-depth than one I had heard previously, but the rule basically the same.

What surprised me was the level of protest. Several people posted to say that the rule was fictitious, baseless and a misinterpretation of something Fowler once said. There’s a good post here: That which is restrictive and Arnold Zwicky has gone one further and collated an inventory of postings on the topic.

I’m quite swayed. Obviously, much of what I write/edit is constrained by house style(s). But I’ll admit to a little which/that experimentation outside of work. I know, I’m cuh-razy.

Outside of language-focused things, I loved my sister Kaira’s graphic short story on love in a modern age, and also Joseph Stashko’s blog post on shy people (and X Factor). And I don’t even watch X Factor.

A big thumbs down, however, to Christina Patterson’s ‘open letter’ to Miriam Gonzalez (aka Mrs Clegg) in the Independent: So good that you make me feel bad. “Seeing pictures of you … makes almost every woman in the country feel just a little bit worse” is the pay-off. Wtf? Speak for yourself, Christina. If you really must.

That’ll do for now. I may update this list when I remember what else it is I’ve been reading. Feel free to add further links below.

Giri giri, fula fula, yula yula

Ever since I started learning Japanese (which makes me sound much better than I am – sorry to disappoint, but when I say “learning Japanese”, I mostly mean “drinking with the Japanese”), I’ve had a soft spot for their onomatopaeic descriptions. They’re pairs of words that describe the sound something might make. Except that it might be something that has no sound – such as pika pika to mean sparkly or shiny, giri giri to mean arriving just in time (similar meaning to by the skin of your teeth), or muri muri, for “I can’t do it”.

I think they may be called reduplicative ideophones, but I’m not too familiar with the official terminology (feel free to wade in, those who are). I just like the words. So, as I currently have a Japanese guest staying/captive, here are ten:

fula fula
Being unable to walk straight when drunk (or exhausted, or carsick, etc). Fula is the sound of veering to the side, and comes from the verb meaning to call in at.

yula yula
The way a candle flame sways from side to side, or the way a voluptuous woman walks. Maybe oscillating.

kura kura
Feeling faint, dizzy or dreamy because you’ve seen or spoken to someone you fancy (particularly someone out of your league).

chika chika
When something is too bright and flashy, even garish. Similar to pika pika, but with a negative meaning.

bata bata
When you’re so busy that your actions become chaotic and confused. Bata is the sound of moving things in a hurry.

sara sara
Smooth or silky, like hair, or fine sand.

zara zara
Kind of the opposite of sara sara – used to describe rough, dry skin, or coarse sand.

kari kari
To be snappy, or short. I think it literally translates as snappy, as you can also call overcooked bacon kari kari. “Kari kari shineide” is “don’t be snappy”.

puri puri
A softer version of kari kari, meaning something more along the lines of touchy/irritable.

bura bura
To wander around, hang around or muck about without a purpose. By this point in the evening things were getting a bit tipsy, and my companion broke out into a song that went “chin chin, bura bura, sausage” (which means “cock, hanging around, sausage”) then looked at me as if that should explain everything. I’m not convinced it did, but I think it’s something like the opposite of mura mura (horny). Anyway. Moving swiftly on.

What I find particularly interesting about these is that none of them have kanji. That is, unlike almost all Japanese words, they don’t have picturegram symbols. Instead, they’re written in the phonetic alphabets. When they’re used to describe a sound, they’re written in hiragana, the traditional phonetic alphabet, but when they’re expressing concept, they’re written in katakana – an alphabet usually reserved only for foreign words and swear words.

However, there are a few exceptions – such as betsu betsu (to go halves), doh doh (to have self confidence or pride) and joh joh (to be in high spirits). These all have kanji.

I’ve been trying to think of similar words in English, but beyond itsy bitsy teeny weeny (weenie?) yellow polka dot bikini and higgledy piggledy, I’m not getting far. And they’re not really the same anyway, as they’re not exact repetitions. I suppose there’s so so.

Anyway. I don’t really have a conclusion, other than “look at these, aren’t they cool”. But I’d be interested to hear what others think of them, particularly people who know their linguistics or their Japanese, as I am very much an amateur in both fields. (I do like drinking sake, though.)

With thanks to 中野雅弘.

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To hyphenate or not to hyphenate

I’ve been looking at the search terms via which people come to my blog. And after from the filthy, the scary and the just plain weird (“blue ball with yellow hair”), the hyphen question is one of the most popular.

So, here’s a quick and simple guide to whether you need to hyphenate. It’s not definitive – some people will disagree – but it’s done me well.

There are various situations in which you need to use a hyphen, but the most common is the compound adjective before a noun. If adjectives and nouns are a distant memory for you, that means: two connected descriptive words, before a ‘thing’. If there’s no noun after the descriptive words, you don’t need to hyphenate them.


This is a long-term approach.
We expect this approach to be long term.
In the short term, we plan to continue with this approach.

The garden was full of sweet-smelling flowers.
The flowers were sweet smelling.

The 50-year-old law is considered outdated by many.
The law is 50 years old and many consider it outdated.
Note: when writing about people, hyphenate their ages even if no noun follows (a three-year-old girl/a three-year-old, but: she is three years old).

The house needed an all-over clean.
The house needed to be cleaned all over.

If anyone’s wondering where this eclectic bunch of examples came from, they’re all from genuine Google searches via which people have ended up here.

I hope that’s helpful. If you want to know more (I worry, I really do), you can download this guide to hyphens and dashes, which I wrote last year at Which? – hence the slight skew towards consumer goods.

Or, if you have a hyphen query and you’re still not sure what to do, feel free to leave me a question in the comments below, and I’ll reply as promptly as work and gin allow.

Go take a music bath

I came home on Sunday to find three Finnish blondes in my kitchen, busily cooking a cross between an apple crumble and a flapjack. This was courtesy of my flatmate Claire – clearly the Nicole Minetti to my Berlusconi.

One of them, Sana, was describing how Claire had taught her a new word: pickly hickly. Or was it pikelty hikelty? Ah no, it turned out to be higgledy piggledy.

“I love how you always teach me new words,” she said to Claire. “Like when you said to me ‘go take a music bath’ – I always remember that now.”

Claire and I look at each other. Go take a music bath?

“Yes,” says Sana. “Like if someone’s really bad at geography, you might say to them ‘go take a geography bath’.”

We are even more confused. So Sana relates the entire conversation leading up to the music bath comment.

“Aha,” says Claire. “You’re such a music buff!”

Love it. Not only all the wrong words, but also the opposite meaning.

Ellipses: how many spaces?

It’s an argument I’ve had (to my shame) a few times over the years. Personally, I prefer to use no initial space when I want to use three dots to convey a tailing off… (like that, see). But I use the standard space-dotdotdot-space to indicate that something has been omitted from a quotation (like this … ). However, many people choose to use both the opening and closing spaces in all instances.

It came to a head at Emphasis today, when we decided we needed a definitive ruling. Of those in the office who had an opinion, a slim majority felt there was a place for the space-free version.

I put the question out on Twitter, and used Storify to collate the responses. Click here to see what we decided.

A word in sheep’s clothing

aI get a new word delivered to my inbox every day, thanks to the wonderful Occasionally I already know them, more often I have a vague idea about them, and sometimes they’re entirely new.

Today’s was entirely new: refulgent. And it caught my eye doubly because it’s almost my surname.

Eww… but what does it mean? Repulsive? Redolent? Revolting? Stubborn? Nope. It’s an adjective, meaning shining brilliantly. So I will be off to the deed poll office in my lunch break. Cathy Refulgent has a certain ring to it.

Wordsmith says:

From Latin refulgere (to radiate light, to reflect), from re- (back) + fulgere (to shine). Ultimately from the Indo-European root bhel- (to shine or burn), which is also the source of blaze, blank, blond, bleach, blanket, and flame. Earliest documented use: before 1500.

When I tweeted this, @joelmgunter offered up the putrid-sounding pulchritude, meaning physically beautiful (that’s pulchritudinous as an adjective). Do feel free to try it out this this evening. “I hope you don’t mind me saying, but you’re looking most pulchritudinous tonight – positively refulgent.”

But watch out for bellicose reactions. Lovely though it sounds, bellicose means warlike or aggressive (Joel again).

Anyone have any other words that have a meaning that feels at odds with their sound?