The Times, July 7, 2018

This is quite instructive. ‘The firing line’ is the squad which carries out an execution. If you are the target, you are ‘in the line of fire’. In other words the phrases have opposite meanings.

The Times’s own style guide agrees with these definitions. Then it adds: ‘In common usage, the strict sense of firing line is almost never needed and the distinction is now quite lost; there seems little reason to object.’

To which I would say: (1) Presumably the Times will never again carry a story which mentions firing squad executions past or present, or if it does, it will be quite happy to mix up the terms; (2) By whose reckoning is the distinction ‘now quite lost’? Not mine; not that of many readers of the Times who expect (forlornly) to see accurate use of English; (3) The two expressions are of almost identical length: by my calculations the first is the equivalent of 12 characters and the second is 13, so you can’t claim you need one or the other to make a headline fit.

I find this acceptance of completely wrong usages very depressing. In my time I have been accused of being a pedant for wanting to use the right word or even the right spelling. For the Times to condone incorrect usage shows just how far  standards have sunk.

This is further illustrated in an internal memo from Times assistant editor Ian Brunskill. Dealing with the ‘line of fire’ topic, he remarks that ‘our critics would insist’ on the right usage. How tiresome of them! To insist! Who do they think they are?

He goes on to a really thorny matter: ‘begging the question’. This is very widely misused. This is my entry in Style Matters:

begging the question: This is also known as a circular argument, involving making a firm conclusion on the basis of an arguable proposition. For example: ‘Why did God make parasitic worms?’ This begs (or avoids) the question of whether God exists. This is obviously a very specific usage, and suffice it to say that 99 times out of a hundred the writer actually means to say ‘this raises/leads to the question . . .’

Mr Brunskill writes: ‘We used beg the question when ask or raise the question was all we meant, infuriating a reader who urged us to resist “an ignorant, tiresome misuse of an expression which has its own, different meaning”.  He almost had a point.  The style guide acknowledges that the specialised meaning of the term “seems worth preserving”.  However, as with line of fire,  a national newspaper will rarely have occasion to use beg the question in a strict or technical sense (to describe in logic an informal fallacy whereby an argument assumes its own conclusion).  So we may as well use it as most other people do, if we have to use it at all.’

So he knows better than his own paper’s style guide. One therefore wonders what the point of it is. It is obvious that Brunskill regards the ‘infuriated’ reader who ‘almost had a point’ as an old buffer. No doubt we can look forward to the complete abandonment of any attempt at correct use of English. Oh, wait a bit – it’s already happening.




The Times, July 10, 2018

This is a good example of how to kill a story. You have got to make the reader think it is worth continuing, not give it all away in the first line. Given that you have pictures, I would do it like this:

This is the dramatic moment when a gunman opened fire on a woman driver at point-blank range.

If I had been subbing this I would have wanted to know who took the video and why it has taken nearly two months to release it. I would also not have used the expression ‘dark-skinned black man’, which sounds silly, and you don’t need to put 5ft 8in ‘tall’. This is the way to do a description:

Police said the attacker was black, about 5ft 8in and of medium build.

A balaclava by definition covers part of the face. If it didn’t, it would not be a balaclava.


The Times, July 3, 2018

What does the word ‘rescue’ mean to the average English speaker? Does it mean ‘bringing to safety’ or ‘finding someone who may continue to be stuck in a perilous situation for an indefinite time’ as the story clearly says? I cannot understand how a headline on the front page of the Times can show such a lack of comprehension of the language. It should say ‘Found’ rather than ‘rescued’.


i newspaper, June 30, 2018

(44 words) A requirement of subbing is that you give at least a cursory consideration of the words you are sending from your screen, even it means looking away from social media or card games for a moment. ‘Under the hammer’ is not only a cliche which I must have seen 10,000 times in stories about auctions, but when you are dealing with something fragile such as a sculpture it conjures up an obvious silly image.

This could have said ‘when it is auctioned’ and ‘series of sales’.

It would also have been more interesting to say that the work had just re-emerged after being forgotten for 200 years than giving the tedious name of the series of sales.

And what does that headline mean? Anything at all?

This is how I would have done it:

Forgotten but
still worth £1m

A sculpture last seen in public 200 years ago is expected to fetch £1million when it is auctioned at Sotheby’s in London on Wednesday. Antonio Canova carved Bust of Peace for his British patron Lord Cawdor but its origin was forgotten as it passed down the family. (47 words)



i newspaper, June 30, 2018

Ok, this is what I think: it is stupid to give only the ‘after’ picture and not the ‘before’ one for readers to compare the two, especially if you then invite their views on the restoration. Half the story is about another restoration job which is not pictured at all. Cretinous.


As for Jackson, well, he had an insatiable taste for the baroque, which he sometimes sated with a shopping spree

Will Gompertz, Arts Editor, BBC News Online, June 30, 2018

Definition of ‘insatiable’: impossible to satisfy

Definition of ‘to sate’: to satisfy to the full

So obviously one of them has to go. The problem lies with ‘insatiable’ which applies to a desire or appetite. You can’t really have an insatiable taste. I am not sure you can even qualify ‘taste’. You either have a taste for something or you don’t. The makers of Marmite have built the brand on this. The best thing to do is probably change the phrase to ‘craving’ or ‘thirst’.


        i newspaper, June 26, 2018

Imagine you are a sub on the i newspaper, and a story comes up containing the name ‘Forthland Road’. Do you think:

(a) ‘Hmm, that’s an unusual name, I’d better check it’;

(b) ‘Well, if Simon Kelner wrote it, it must be right’;

(c) ‘Who cares? I certainly don’t’.

As every Beatles fan knows, the correct name is Forthlin Road; there is no road in the country called ‘Forthland’.

The word for a house in a continuous row is a ‘terrace’ house. ‘Terraced’ refers to sloping land carved into level steps for cultivation. I am sorry to say that many authorities get this wrong, but now you can get it right.



i newspaper, June 19, 2018

‘Laconic’ means ‘using very few words’, usually in connection with speech, as in ‘His reply was laconic’, or occasionally in connection with writing style. It cannot be used in connection with swinging glasses, whether in your hand or with your feet.


After 211 years of ale-making, Daniel Thwaites Plc has this week been forced to declare the premature closure of its brewery following an invasion by travellers who razed the place to the ground over the last Bank Holiday weekend.

Mail Online, June 16, 2018


You need to look at the story to appreciate this one. Not only is ‘to the ground’ unnecessary because ‘to raze’ means ‘to reduce to ground level’, but it is not true – the building is still standing, as the pictures make clear. What, if any, thought process went into this?


The Times, June 14, 2018

(63 words) This is almost certainly the most useless court report I have ever seen. Among the basic things you must cover are:

What court is it? (Southwark Crown Court)

When was the hearing? (Yesterday)

What are the charges? (24 serious sexual assault charges against 11 boys aged between 14 and 16, alleged to have taken place between 1970 and 1988)

What is the plea? (Not guilty)

Is the trial continuing? (Yes)

Instead we get two sentences which more or less duplicate each other. The identity of the prosecuting counsel is not interesting. It baffles me how such sub-standard work can get into the paper. Is there no revising done at The Times? Or is it no longer considered necessary to do it right? Is the attitude that any old thing will do if it fills the space?

This is how I would have done it:

Former DJ and pop star Jonathan King, 73, lured teenage boys to his flat in Bayswater, central London, for sex by pretending that Page Three girl Samantha Fox was his girlfriend, a jury at Southwark Crown Court heard yesterday. King denies 24 charges of serious sexually assaulting 11 boys aged 14 to 16 between 1970 and 1988. The trial continues. (60 words)