A COUPLE of weeks ago I was saved by a sub-editor from committing an egregious error of history in this column.
No, I am not going to tell you what it was. We scribes get enough ribbing when errors get into print without owning up to the saved ones.
Sub-editors have a difficult job. They have to attend to minor as well as major things. The human mind does not like doing that: being both architect and builder, both financial planner and book-keeper. Usually people are good at the minutia and poor at the big picture or vice versa.
Worse, the sub-editor works to vicious deadlines. So many try to attend to the big picture and the minutia at the same time. Not many brains are good that that. They are likely to seize immediately upon a split infinitive or an errant homophones, but they might miss the obvious defamation, illogicality or error of obvious fact.
As it happens, university classes start next week and one of the courses I teach contains a lot of instruction in editing. I tell students that sub-editors should first read the article with their hands off the keyboard – to read for sense, logicality, taste, legality, completeness and newsworthiness and leave spelling, grammar and style for the second trawl through.
But often sub-editors cannot help themselves. Their fingers itch to fix style points, which should be the least of their worries.
Style is where you have a choice of two spellings or words, neither of which is wrong. Do you write “neighbour” or “neighbor”? Do you write “analyse” or “analyze”? Do you use honorifics like Mr? Do you write “the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith, announced” or do you write “Foreign Minister Stephen Smith announced”?
In a way, these options do not matter a fig, provided your publication is consistent. But I am not sure even about the need for consistency in style in the internet age.
“Heresy,” I hear the purists say.
These days people read material sourced from the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and elsewhere without the slightest jar being caused by different spellings. I even saw on The Age website an article with the word “favor” in the headline and two articles down the word appeared again, but spelt (or should that be “spelled”?) “favour”.
Do readers care? In some decades of journalism I cannot recall a complaint about spelling style, other than, perhaps, the occasional one about “license” or “practise” as nouns. But why spell the noun with a “c” and the verb with an “s” other than to make life unnecessarily difficult or to prove you are a smarty pants.
I used to rile against American spellings, condemning them as part of the MacDonaldsisation (or should that be McDonaldization) of the world. No longer. Most of the American spellings are more phonetic and logical than the English ones. “Center, meter and theater” are more logical than “centre, metre and theatre”. We don’t say “cent-re” or “theat-re” so why spell it like that?
In the past few years, I have relented on my opposition to American spellings because of my experience with the University of Canberra School of Journalism’s online newspaper, www.nowuc.com.au. It comprises news and feature articles by second- and third-year students, to give them a feel for the real thing.
We have a style guide – very similar to most broadsheet and ABC style guides – which dictates English and Australian spellings. But nearly all the students use Word and its spell-checker. Many students do not select British English. Indeed, most universities do not allow students to change options in programs, so they can’t.
Moreover, outside computers often have auto-corrects on them, so that if you type “analyse” it auto-corrects it to “analyze”.
I found myself spending a lot of time “correcting” “-or” to “-our” and “-er” to “-re”. Surely, teaching time could be better spent.
I abandoned “correcting” American spellings.
I suggest Australian newspapers do the same thing. They use a lot of US-sourced material full of American spellings. They will never adopt our spellings; we should adopt theirs. Newspapers are under a lot of pressure, so why waste resources on changing American spellings when a one-off edict to all their local writers will give them consistency with a lot less work.
This would be an easier spelling reform (and it is a reform – for the better) than trying to standardise vowels or getting rid of “ough” and “ph” spellings, for example.
Another reason for adopting American spellings is because they are the purer form. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary set the “-our” and “-re” spellings. Johnson’s dictionary became the standard more for superiority of its definitions and etymology than its spellings. Webster in the US kept the more logical phonetic spellings.
The American “jewelry”, “draft” and “pajamas” and cutting the “-ue” from catalogue and analogue all make more sense.
A further reason is that these days youngsters learning to read and write are exposed to more American-sourced material than a generation ago. If they see different spellings it might make then think that spelling does not matter, or worse that language standards like grammar and punctuation do not matter.
English spelling is hard enough without adding this unnecessary confusion.
But if we adopt American spelling there is no need to adopt some of their ghastly back formations. “Expiry date” is better than “expiration date”. “Transport” is better than “transportation”.
Other style points (where you can choose between two equally correct alternatives) are more important – using simple rather than pompous words. “Begin” is better than “commence”, “before” better than “prior to”, and “help” better than “assist”. Drowning people do not cry “Assist me. Assist me.” because “Help” is more effective.
In general, words of old English origin, like “help”, “begin” and “before”, are better than later Latin- and Greek-sourced words. That the old-English-sourced word for sexual intercourse is more direct and expressive illustrates the point, but this will have to be an exception to the principle in a family newspaper.
And that shows how editing time is better spent on taste than spelling. And better spent on saving writers from egregious history errors.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 6 February 2010.