'Birmingham bans apostrophes from road signs'

Just a quick one – spotted a rather interesting article in Metro:

Birmingham bans apostrophes from road signs

Word of the day: documentalist

My significant other is training to be a librarian and was amused to come across the word 'documentalist' in one of her academic texts recently.

The OED Online defines a documentalist somewhat laconically as "a person engaged in documentation"; Wikipedia adds that "when the field of documentation changed its name to information science, the term information specialist often replaced the term documentalist". Shouldn't that be information scientist?

I'm not sure exactly when documentation became known as information science, but 'documentalist' can't have had long in the limelight as the OED dates it from as late as 1939 (and Merriam-Webster agrees).

As an aside: documentalists are not to be confused with mentalists such as Derren Brown...

BA: You can't smell a city from a plane

I took this shot with my cameraphone on full zoom, so apologies for the shoddy picture quality.

Anyway... does anyone else think this British Airways advert is bizarre? Granted, you may not be able to smell a city from a coach, but you certainly can't smell one from a plane.

Oh, someone on Flickr has had the same thought - and taken a better picture too. Never mind.

New Media Age News: British Airways launches global campaign

Flat growth

In one of our recent news stories, a union spokesperson was quoted as predicting "a flat growth of 3.275 million tonnes of road transport volumes, as in the fourth quarter of 2008".

'Flat growth' strikes me as an odd phrase, as it is in effect no growth at all. However Googling reveals it to be commonly used in economic contexts.

Here's an example from the BBC News website:

Example of the phrase 'flat growth' in a BBC News story

Anyone confused by the use of the phrase 'flat growth' in this headline would be enlightened by the first par ("the UK economy will not grow at all").

Headlines: Row, row, row your Metro

Page 11 of today's Metro contains a "row over bottle of wine" as well as a "row over CCTV in toilets". I know 'X in row over Y' is handy headlinese, but no more than one per spread, please.

Are you living? These people do.

Clutchslip has pointed out to me this ad for Admiral MultiCar:

Question: present continuous. Answer: present simple. Hmm.

(If you can't see the image, the text reads: "Are you living in a house with two or more cars? These people do and they all made big savings on their car insurance!")

In which JD rediscovers some blogs

Over the past few months I've been moving various bookmarks from various browsers on various computers into one Delicious account. It's been a real voyage of (re)discovery.

Today I thought I'd share with you some of the blogs I'd forgotten that I liked:

Figures of Speech - It Figures
Don't know your epitasis from your epitrope? This blog gives clear explanations of rhetorical terms (with examples). Interesting, and actually quite useful for reference.

The Journalism Iconoclast
A new media/web development blog from a high-profile advocate of beat blogging.

The Wall Street Journal: Style & Substance
A monthly bulletin from Paul R Martin, the 'stylebook editor' at The Wall Street Journal.

Pain in the English
People submit questions on English language usage. Other people try to answer them.

"News-based blogging" from a London-based freelance journalist. The news is all real, except when it's not. (Actually, this blog is a new discovery for me, rather than a rediscovery, but it seemed to fit quite well in this list.)

Photo special: dinning room and loft conversation

If you want a quiet life, I wouldn't recommend buying this house. After all, its features include a dinning room and a loft conversation...

Newspaper advert for a property with a dinning room and loft conversation
(I can't actually remember where this photo came from. I'm assuming I scanned it myself, but if anyone emailed it in – thank you.)

UPDATE 05/02/09: My mum has reminded me that she sent in the photo. Thanks, Mum! And apparently the house is still being advertised for sale...

From old FeedBurner to new Google FeedBurner...

I use FeedBurner to manage The Engine Room's feed, and as a result of Google buying FeedBurner a while back I've just had to move the feed to a new address.

Google promises that anyone going to the old address will be automatically redirected, so even if you read The Engine Room in a feed reader you won't have to do anything.

However if you are a perfectionist like me, you might want to subscribe to the new feed rather than the old one. The new address is:


If you have any problems with any of this, let me know. I probably won't be able to help, but at least I'll know. And if this whole post means nothing to you, have a cup of tea and relax.

Dangling modifier: 'liveried with the warning'

A nice dangling modifier from some recent raw copy:

In addition, the police continue to move their campaign trailer across the county, which is liveried with the warning: “Truckers beware, this is a lorry load theft hotspot.”

So the whole county is liveried... impressive.

Dangling modifiers and BK's meat scent
Dangling modifier: 'lorry drivers in Suffolk'
Dangling modifier: 'powder coat finish'

Another painful segue

The presenters on Mrs A's favourite house selling show are a constant source of delight. This morning's programme came from the seaside – Plymouth, to be precise. A city, we were told, "with a proud maritime history... and we'll be examining a flotilla of semis!" Quick, someone, call the word police...

Editorial tools: not entirely free from typos

In my job, I use a whole range of editorial tools. And those tools contain a whole range of spelling and grammar mistakes.

I appreciate that developers aren't sub editors, so all I can do is smile. Here are screengrabs of a couple of my favourites (the latter, I must point out, is now fixed):

A Grumpy Old Man rails against journalese

Thought I would share this, from Grumpy Old Men, the Official Handbook by Stuart Prebble:

Recently I heard a reporter referring to a burglar's 'fatal error' in leaving his DNA at the scene, and found myself muttering, 'Who died?' People are always doing everything 'at this moment in time' rather than 'now'. No report is anything other than 'in-depth'. No insight is less than 'profound'. No crisis anything less than 'serious' – what kind of crisis isn't serious? Every problem is 'spiralling out of control'. Every fire is a 'blaze'. Every rescue is 'heroic'. Every death from cancer follows 'a brave struggle'. Every day when a tragedy occurred was 'that fateful day'. No report is less than 'damning'.

Don't do it by halves

While browsing through my collection of old motor cycle magazines I came across: "the valves snapped in halves". This gave me pause for thought. Surely the phrase should be "the valves snapped in half"? But then I thought again. No-one would write "the valves snapped in quarter"; you'd write "quarters" or "thirds" or any other fraction you'd care to name.

Clearly you can't break something into a single half (unless possibly you're a zen buddhist). I was left wondering when this illogical use of the singular "half" appeared, and why. Hardly earth shaking, I know. I've been using "half" all my writing life and now I want to use "halves" but can't because no-one else does.

Subs! Copy editors! You have the power. Bring back halves!

Eye-watering segue

Culled from Mrs Apus's favourite house buying TV programme:

Vincent van Gogh came to Ramsgate to paint and Karl Marx came here to write. But neither were known as fans of retail therapy, and that’s a pity because today we’re going into the retail centre of town...

Word of the day: indentikit

Spotted in yesterday's The Guardian Guide:

How did a clutch of arty female electro acts end up being tipped as the future of pop? Blame Scouting For Girls, the Pigeon Detectives and the slow death of indentikit guitar music

'Indentikit': it's an adjective, and presumably a portmanteau of 'identikit' and 'indie' (an abbreviation of 'independent music') . Synonyms used in the article include 'landfill indie' and 'pseudo indie'.

I like 'indentikit' because 'identikit' is itself a portmanteau, of 'identity' and 'kit'. The OED Online's first mention of 'identikit' is from the Observer in 1961:

About forty police forces in this country are now testing an American device called an ‘Identi-Kit’, which is used to translate witnesses' descriptions of a person into visual terms.

So originally a brand name?

But back to the more recent 'indentikit'. Interestingly, it appears in the standfirst of the article but not the body copy - was it the sub's choice of word rather than the writer's?

Googling 'indentikit' throws up more than 5,000 results, but most of them seem to be accidental misspellings of 'identikit'. Googling '+indentikit +indie' gives 345 results, most of which predate the article in The Guardian Guide.

So this is a word that is new to me, but not newly coined.

News from the island: 3

It's all happening on South Island – witness these gobsmackers from the local rag which, as usual, takes an obsessive interest in the doings of the boys in the brass helmets:

Smoke alarm
Firefighers were called to an address in Binstead after a resident smelled smoke in her property last Saturday night. Three fire engines were sent to Hillrise Avenue at 11.41pm. The cause of the smoke was burnt food in a neighbouring property.

Woman freed in lift drama
Firefighters were called to free a woman stuck in a lift last Saturday morning. The woman, in her 20s and a member of staff at the Eden House residential home in Totland, raised the alarm at 8.45am after the lift developed a fault. She was freed about 20 minutes later.

Car reported stuck in water
Firefighters were called to free a car stuck in water in Spring Lane, Carisbrooke on Tuesday afternoon. When the crews arrived, the car had gone.

Restaurant escapes
Firefighters were called to the Village Taverna in Albert Street, Sandown at 9am last Saturday after a resident spotted a burst water main. The crew prevented a possible flood into the restaurant by turning off the stopcock.

Esplanade bins replaced
Defective* litter bins installed along the Esplanade and near St Agnes's Church, Freshwater Bay last year have been replaced by new ones.

* No, I don't have any idea what would make a bin 'defective'.

Not taken with Apple's ultra-thin metal keyboard

This week we've all received new hardware and software at work. I'm more than happy with my new iMac but not so keen on the ultra-thin metal keyboard:

The feet at the back are tiny so the keyboard rests almost horizontally on the desk, forcing me to adopt a rather unnatural typing style – somewhat like a chimp with cramp in both hands. I've tried propping it up with a book but that just makes it wobbly.

The biggest problem, however, is that ultra-thin means ultra-light; as I type, the keyboard scoots away from my across my desk. After every sentence I have to pick it up and put it back in place.

Admittedly, none of my team-mates has this problem so it could just be my over-vigorous typing style. I do tend to bash the keys with some force (and volume).

My colleague suggested holding the keyboard in place with Blu-Tack, but what's the point of having all this high-tech equipment if you have to stick it down with low-tech stationery? Instead, I'm moving back to my old, thick, plastic keyboard...

An interview with JD

No, not here – it's over on the Fuelmyblog blog.

Incidentally, I am now a 'template super-user' at work. Web champion, template super-user – what's next? 'Stationery overlord', perhaps...

...but beautifully formed

As JD's already lowered the tone with his golden globes reference I won't feel too guilty about sharing with you the name of my chum Peter's boss (and yes, it's genuine – it appears on my chum's pay cheque and I never joke about money): SM Allcock.

I have asked Peter to ask the boss if his parents have a dodgy sense of humour; sadly it seems Mr Allcock is so fed up with having the urine extracted that the subject is verboten.

Kneeling, begging and turning

Spotted this in a BBC News story on the Detroit Auto Show:

The slump brought the "Big Three" to their knees, begging bowls in hand, as they turned to the government for help.

Not a mixed metaphor as such, but kneeling and turning together sounds like a difficult operation. Holding the begging bowl can't help either...

Kate Winslet has a lovely pair of Golden Globes

All of the papers here in the UK seem to have covered Kate Winslet's recent awards wins, and I can only assume that they were dissuaded by the tearfulness of her acceptance speeches and the relative modesty of her attire from making crude references to her 'lovely pair of Golden Globes'.

I'm only saying because it's not like the tabloids to miss an innuendo.

Kate Winslet image by: Sipa Press/Rex Features
However the internet never lets me down:
And so on...

All well and good

In some circles the distinction between the adjective good and the adverb well is not as clear as it used to be; UK readers will be familiar with the sports reporters' jokey cliche "the boy done good".

But last night a TV documentary on the roots of the credit crunch featured an interview with a venture capitalist who has been making investments in run-down urban areas. He explained: “It’s possible to do good and to do well.” A well turned phrase which is a timely reminder, perhaps, of why it’s worth holding the line on English usage.

I recently came across a phrase (in a very old motor cycle magazine) which baffled me. A rider who had been beset by mechanical problems concluded his tale of woe: "Train home; too tired to mote." The only use I can track down for mote as a verb has to do with giving permission. Does anyone out there have any idea of what it might have meant in Edwardian England?

Yes, JD is on LinkedIn

Just a quick one from me today - I wanted to say that I do have a profile on the networking site LinkedIn and if any Engine Room regular wants to add me as a contact, that's fine. Just send me an email at engineroomblog@gmail.com and I'll give you my details.

I'm especially interested in building up a network with fellow subs, copy editors, editors, proofreaders and the like.

(Although my identity obviously isn't a secret, I don't give my full name on this blog or list the publications I work for. That's just to keep some distance between my professional life and my blogging life.)

The credit crunch is over - recession is here

Last week the editor-in-chief made in plain to us subs: our publications should now refer to the 'recession' rather than the 'credit crunch' or even the 'economic downturn' .

Not a surprising call, but it's always good to have guidance.

Incidentally, BBC Breakfast last week used the term 'the long slump', which I thought sounded suitably sinister.

In which JD's boss isn't paying attention


My boss:
How do you spell 'zucchini'?
Me: C-O-U-R-G-E-T-T-E.
My boss: No, zucchini. It's what Americans call courgettes.

A zucchini, or a courgette

Portmanteau into space: balloonatic

Knowing JD's appreciation of portmanteau words I made a note of one I heard coined by the splendidly named Barth Netterfield during a TV documentary about the BLAST project (a clever low-cost international programme involving the use of balloons to take telescopes into space; well worth a look on Google).

Barth, who was the programme's Canadian Principal Investigator, coined a word to describe anyone crazy enough to explore the history of the universe by balloon: balloonatic.

A clever name and a clever idea: after enough setbacks to make the documentary gripping stuff, the technology worked perfectly.

News from the island: 2

The Middle East, the credit crunch... there's no shortage of bad news. Fortunately the news from the Isle of Wight is rather more comforting:

Town councillors have given the green light to demolish Yarmouth's public toilets at Bridge Road and replace them with new ones.

Fire crews put out a small fire in the bedroom of a Ryde flat on Sunday. Two pumps, police and ambulance crews went to the property. Nobody was injured.

Shock! Production staff eat healthy snack!

Working here on the production desk is not a great way to stay slim.

Deadlines mean we sometimes miss, rush or postpone lunches, which encourages us to snack. Our lovely freelancers often bring in cakes and other treats to, erm, keep us sweet. And at Christmas, even the manufacturers in the industry we cover send us goodies (or rather, send the writers goodies and they filter down to us).

Recently I kept a record of all the bad snacks to appear over the course of a working week:

Monday: Wine gums
Tuesday: Doughnuts, liquorice allsorts and Maltesers
Wednesday: Little Guylian chocolates and a giant Cadbury Fruit & Nut chocolate bar
Thursday: Biscuits (I was on a training course)
Friday: Mini Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolates

And they wasn't even a particularly bad week.

So when, through Fuelmyblog, I was sent some suspiciously healthy-sounding 'mixed seed bars with hemp' to review, I decided to share them with some of my production colleagues.

The bars in question were '9 Bar Original' from Wholebake and here's what my workmates thought:

Design editor: "It's rather nice."
Group art & production editor*: "I've had these before, they're lovely."
Digital assistant: "It tastes like a Tracker bar."
Group art and production editor (again): "No it doesn't!"

Back home, my girlfriend jokingly asked whether they would get her stoned (there's a big picture of a hemp leaf on the packet, as you can see from the picture below). She then tried one and declared: "Absolutely delicious - so good that I would happily replace my afternoon snack with it."

So, positive opinions all round. Perhaps next time I'll be sent something shoddy so I can have fun writing a critical review...

9 Bar Original from Wholebake
Oh - just for the record, the presence of something slightly healthy in the office today didn't stop us also eating some stollen and a packet of Cadbury Mini Rolls.

*Our group art and production editor would like it pointed out that he has his own blog - North downs and beyond, "thoughts and reports of the natural world from north Surrey". Can I have that payrise now please, Steve?

London Lite, Apple, iTunes and headline-writing

The London Lite made an interesting headline choice today. Here's the headline in question and part of the story:

Apple slices 20p off iTunes songs

Apple is introducing a new pricing structure to iTunes, meaning the cost of some tracks will fall by 20p to 59p. From April, a three-tiered system will see songs priced at 59p, 79p and 99p. Currently, all tracks cost 79p.

The London Lite could easily have gone with a negative rather than positive headline - after all, some songs are increasing in price by 20p. It would have been just as accurate, and we all know that bad news sells.

So why didn't it? Perhaps because the headline writer liked the play on words of 'Apple slices', or perhaps because the original press release was also positive (as press releases invariably are). Perhaps, for some reason, the London Lite didn't want to upset Apple. Who knows?

I'll have that stake rare

Another rather sweet quote from Mrs Apus’s favourite TV house buying programme: “All the stakes rest on this property.”

So how do Mars rovers celebrate?

According to a recent BBC News story:

The US space agency's (Nasa) Mars rovers are celebrating a remarkable five years on the Red Planet.

That leads me to wonder how exactly the Mars rovers are "celebrating". Spinning around gleefully? Moving their robotic arms up and down in jubilation? Or perhaps they are observing the anniversary in a more restrained fashion. Who knows?

While I'm on the theme of celebration, I'd like to mention that The Engine Room is, today, Fuelmyblog's blog of the day. And look, we've been sent a little badge:

Educated censor

I’ve been watching a TV history of the RKO studio which recently covered the post-war communist witch hunt; fascinating, if deply depressing.

The programme also covered Howard Hughes’ purchase of the studio and the close interest he paid to its female stars. Hughes was clearly keen to make the most of their more outstanding attributes – a censor reporting on The Outlaw complained of Jane Russell’s “bathukolpian posing”.

Bathukolpian doesn’t figure in my the OED Concise, but the excellent Online Etymology Dictionary includes: bathukolpian "big-breasted," 1825, from Gk. bathykolpos, lit. "deep-bosomed," from bathys "deep" + kolpos "breast."

I cherish the whimsy that the word was coined by classics scholars as a way of commenting on passing totty without giving offence (“I say, Carruthers, look at the kolpoi on that – bathys or what?”).

Writing web headlines: search and searchability

Just a quick note to say that my second guest post on Pam Robinson's 'Words at Work' blog is now up. It focuses on how to write search-engine-friendly headlines for the web without compromising on quality.

Normal service will be resumed tomorrow...

Have fun with homonyms!

BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a history of variety and last night’s instalment featured the 1938 launch of the long-running show Bandwagon, including Arthur Askey’s ‘chestnut corner’ routine. During this he and his partner ‘Stinker’ Murdoch rattled off a succession of hoary old schoolboy jokes designed to make the audience groan. But I’d somehow missed one of them during my schooldays so it made me smile, while doffing my cap at dear old Arthur for incorporating two homonyms in a one-line gag:

Stinker: “What do your people do?” Arthur: “They’re in the iron and steel business – my mother irons and my father steals!”

I have a weakness for homonyms and, thanks to a chat on the subject with JD when we shared an engine room, I knew there was more than one variety of the breed. But being woolly on the details I looked them up. The OED duly confirmed that a homonym is a “word of the same form as another but different sense; homograph or homophone...” Little the wiser I turned to Wikipedia, which warns that there are many contradictory views on this subject; I found whole sites devoted to each variant.

However, www.editingandwritingservices.com offers the following which I found illuminating, with good potential for wordmanship.

Homonym One of two or more words having the same sound and often the same spelling but different meanings. Examples: quail (cower), and quail (bird); fair (appearance), fair (county fair), and fair (reasonable).

Homophone One of two or more words pronounced the same but different in meaning, origin, and sometimes spelling. Examples: cite, sight, and site; sea and see; your and you're; bow and bough.

Homograph One of two or more words spelled alike but different in origin, meaning, and sometimes pronunciation. Examples: bow of a ship, a bow and arrow, and a bow (deference/manners).

Heteronym One of two or more words that are spelled the same but that differ in pronunciation and meaning. Examples: bass (voice) and bass (fish); polish (shine) and Polish (from Poland); tear (rip) and tear (from eye).

So iron/iron and steel/steal are both homonyms, but steel/steal is also a homophone and iron/iron isn’t (though the “sometimes” in these definitions remind us that they are open to argument). Iron/iron aren't homographs as they share a root; neither are steal/steel as they are spelled differently. Neither pair are hetronyms as they are pronounced the same.

Wikipedia sums it up thusly:

“The words bow and bough are interesting because there are two meanings associated with a single pronunciation and spelling (the weapon and the knot); there are two meanings with two different pronunciations (the knot and the act of bending at the waist), and there are two distinct meanings sharing the same sound but different spellings: (bow, the act of bending at the waist, and bough, the branch of a tree). In addition, it has several related but distinct meanings - a bent line is sometimes called a 'bowed' line, reflecting its similarity to the weapon. Thus, even according to the most restrictive definitions, various pairs of sounds and meanings of bow and bough are homonyms, homographs, homophones, heterophones, heterographs, and are polysemous.”

But if you want to research polysemes and capitonyms, you’re on your own.

It's time for place for learning

The Daily Telegraph reports that a new primary school has banned the use of the word “school” in its title because it has “negative connotations”. Instead the school is to be known as “a place for learning” after its governors decided the word school is too “institutional”. The head teacher (“primary educational facilitator”, perhaps?) says: “We want this to be a place for family learning, where anyone can come... we wanted to de-institutionalise the place and bring the school [sic] closer to real life.”

Predictably, the Plain English Campaign has condemned the whole idea as “ridiculous”. It cites other recent examples of a “political correctness agenda” including “knowledge navigators” (teachers, though I think educational facilitator is more accurate and slightly less silly); the glorious “education centre nourishment assistants” (dinner ladies); “idea stores” (libraries); and an attempt to ban the word “inmates” for prisoners in case it offends them.

You really couldn’t make it up.

Telegraph.co.uk: Primary school drops word school from name...
The Engine Room: A library by any other name

Writing web headlines: web versus print

Pam Robinson, former news editor at the LA Times, recently asked me to write a guest post on web headlines for her 'Words at Work' blog. I got so carried away that I wrote two - and the first one is up now. It focuses on some of the differences between print and web headlines and the reasons for those differences.

My second post will look at how search considerations influence the writing of web headlines, and all being well I'll have it up by tomorrow evening.

After that, no more moonlighting from me for a while - unless someone pays me well or asks me really nicely!

A doughnut is a doughnut

One of the more obscure TV channels has a habit of dropping 60-second 'celebrity news' bulletins into the middle of movies, and last night I failed to hit the remote quickly enough to avoid a gushing report on the German premier of the film Sex in the City. Which would be of no interest to the Engine Room, had not one of the stars (sorry I can't tell them apart) told the crowd of film buffs: "Ich bin ein Berliner".

The original use of this phrase, of course, was in President John F Kennedy's famous speech near the Berlin Wall in June 1963. He used it to warn the Russians that the USA would not abandon Berlin, which remained a thorn in the side of the Warsaw Pact.

Cynics have pointed out that JFK should have said “Ich bin Berliner” and that including the “ein” meant he was claiming to be a sort of pastry known as a berliner, rather than a resident of the beleagured city. (Presumably in the same way hamburgers and frankfurters are snacks or residents of Hamburg and Frankfurt, depending on the use of the indefinite article?)

No doubt the Germans, and Russians, knew exactly what the President meant as context is everything in such cases. And in the context of a film premier, the use of that defiant Cold War rallying call indicates that the self-important actress concerned is definitely a doughnut.

Boots throat lozenges: when 24÷3=12

Spotted on the back of a packet of Boots own-brand throat lozenges:

Adults and children over 6 years:
Suck one lozenge.
Dissolve the lozenge slowly in the mouth.
Repeat this dose every 3 hours, if needed, up to a maximum of 12 lozenges in 24 hours.
Do not exceed the stated dose.

I'm not a maths genius, but I do know that 24÷3=8. So why warn people not to exceed 12 lozenges in 24 hours?

And if people are going to disregard the first part of the instruction ("Repeat this dose every 3 hours, if needed"), what makes Boots think they will pay heed to the second part ("a maximum of 12 lozenges in 24 hours")?

One quote, two opposing interpretations

A Daily Mail article from last year (click for a larger image):

Scan from the Daily Mail, September 2008
I am intrigued by the quote from Ann Robinson at the top of the second column: "We cannot under-estimate the impact higher household energy prices will have on customers."

Presumably Robinson means that the impact of higher energy prices shouldn't be underestimated; that to do so would be unwise. However when I first read the article I took her to be saying that it was impossible to underestimate the impact of higher prices; in other words, that the impact would be so small as to be negligible. This, obviously, conflicts with what Robinson says next.

One quote, two opposing interpretations. Context indicates which one is correct.

Online version of the story from This is Money

Happy new year, by the way, and I hope your energy bills aren't too high in 2009...