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Language lessons

The rush to be first and the demise of the sub-editor mean that grammatical errors are increasingly creeping into our copy. As Peter Sands points out, error-strewn text damages our credibility because readers do notice. Best to try to get it right first time…

By Peter Sands

Language lessons

The most depressing thing about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding was the almost universal acceptance that the word ‘invite’ is now officially a noun. Broadcasters and newspapers were equally guilty. They told us that there was a Royal wedding invite for the teenager who was at the London attacks, that guests arrived clutching their invites and that Oprah Winfrey 'looked lost, fiddling between pews with her bag and invite’. They meant to say ‘invitation’ but, hey-ho, this is 2018 and ‘invite’ as a noun is cool. After all, we live in a world where things are actioned and impacted on, so what’s wrong with the odd invite?

In isolation, it may not be the end of civilisation. But if it is symptomatic of a language that is spoken by 980 million people, one that can inspire, enrage and build vivid images, being treated with disdain by the mainstream media, its former guardians, then we need a call to arms. I understand, of course, that English is a living thing. Over the decades, I have broken the rules laid down by my old English tutors. I regularly start sentences with conjunctions. And, to quote the old Sun stylebook, anyone who says you can never end a sentence with a preposition isn’t worth talking to. I broadly go along with the paper’s guidelines that say: "Sun style is conversational. If you write it as you would say it, you’ve probably got it right." If that’s the yardstick, I guess the wedding invitations being replaced by invites didn’t upset many readers or viewers. But what comes next? Will sentences without verbs be acceptable? Should we abolish apostrophes? Do we replace the comma with the word like?

My issue isn’t with evolution. It is with the basic errors that appear daily in online publications – the consequence of speed, laziness, ignorance and, worst of all, an attitude that 'getting it right’ isn’t important.

Proud tradition

Believe it or not, newspapers have long been the guardians of the language. They introduced tabloid-speak and journalese but, overall, they have set high standards of grammar, spelling and structure. If those standards are not continued by their online offspring, what will happen to proper English? I don’t see it exercised in many other fields, certainly not in politics or the law. Will it be locked up in the dusty halls of academia, while the rest of us banter and, like, spiel and stuff as we like, like?

As a sub-editor, I spent my life ruminating over syntax and ensuring the newspaper contained no mistakes. As an editor, I believed I couldn’t tell those in authority how to do their jobs if I couldn’t do mine. And mine was ensuring the paper was written accurately. What is the credibility of an editorial, telling the government its Brexit strategy is flawed, if the message is littered with errors?

These days, I work for online publications and see first-hand that the need for speed and volume, often without a second pair of eyes, means mistakes. Do editors (and readers) just have to live with it or is there anything to be done?

Hannah Thaxter, editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post, summed up the challenge: “With technology, the worlds of work and home are more blurred than ever and reporters can be publishing content from anywhere, any time of the day or night. In the thousands of words we type on our keyboards, laptops, phones, tablets and other devices at work, at home, at a meeting, whilst feeding the kids, outside reporting on a fire or breaking incident or first thing in the morning before we've put our glasses on, the chances of making a typo – or worse still, predictive text or autocorrect typing it for us – are high.”

Thaxter is of the school that would prefer 100 perfect stories to 130 that contain a few errors. But not everyone agrees. One publisher, not a journalist, told me that minor mistakes are inevitable and an acceptable price in the quest for hits. It is an attitude that cascades through the ranks.

Readers notice

My position is simply that there needs to be a distinction between the deluge of social media noise and a respected, professional source of trusted news. Good grammar gives our publications authority and credibility – and readers still react to mistakes.

Neil Hodgkinson, editor-in-chief of Reach North-East, Humber and Lincoln, said: "In the early days, the rush to publish online created a bit of a Wild West when it came to accuracy. But it soon became obvious that the audience demanded proper grammatical standards and was very quick to fill the comments section with less than friendly suggestions as to our ability as journalists! If that audience is met with a diet of error-ridden dross, it will not return. I always say to my teams that I'd rather they spent an extra few minutes checking before publishing. Getting it right is just as important as getting it up.”

David Powles, editor of the Eastern Daily Press and Norwich Evening News, said: “No one emails me to argue that we put a story on page 5 when it should have been page 7 – but they do get in touch about errors.”

All the editors I talked to told me that grammar and spelling remain a priority – so why do we still see daily howlers? Powles said: “This is a big issue in newsrooms at the minute. We know resources aren't what they were ten or 20 years ago and we know new pressures have, quite rightly, been put on existing editorial teams because of the push on digital. It's a constant battle and like most places, there are periods when we have to remind everyone to take more care. It's enormously vital – but then, I feel, so is the need for us to be fast."

What is really needed is a return to a culture where mistakes are not tolerated. I teach young journalists – national and regional, online and print. Almost all boast a degree or post-grad in journalism. After red-penning dozens of wrong possessive apostrophes, missing hyphens, misspellings, incorrect pronouns and mismatched verbs and nouns, I ask if anyone has gone through their copy in detail before. The answer is usually ‘no’. They have spent three years studying a degree in journalism and still write ‘a 27 year old engineer was electrocuted but suffered only minor injuries’, ‘its not known what the Cabinet are discussing’ and ‘Mo Salah who's 32 goal season broke the record’.

It takes time and determination to learn the basic tools of their trade. And if the message from the top is that it doesn’t really matter, why should they make the effort? If the newsdesk allows misspellings in headlines and text on the website and if journalists get no feedback on basic errors, they will, understandably, believe grammar is a low priority.

One thing is certain – it isn’t going to get easier. The industry isn't about to whistle down a black hole and bring back legions of sub-editors. The drive to be first and to get more out there is going to become more intense. As Thaxter said: "Accuracy, above all, still stands as a motto in newsrooms but the pressure on reporters to be both fast AND accurate is heavier than it has ever been.”

I am reluctant to accept that mistakes are simply a fact of modern publishing. I am certainly not prepared to accept that they exist because we don’t care. Every journalist needs to take personal responsibility, a professional pride and a mindset that says every mistake damages his or her credibility and that of the publication. And all editors need to set a clear and well-policed standard – and instruct, not invite, all staff to meet it.

A guide to getting it right first time

* Adopt an attitude that everything needs to be 100 per cent accurate.

* Words are the tools of your trade. You need to master the language (punctuation, spelling, grammar, pace).

* Make a checklist of your weaknesses and deal with them.

* Watch out for common mistakes. They include:

- Misspellings. The spellcheck is your friend, use it.

- Apostrophes. The most common mistakes are 'it's' and 'its' and ‘who’s’ and ‘whose’. Every time you write them, ask yourself if it is the right one. Learn that it is Sainsbury's, Morrisons, Tesco (not Tesco’s), McDonald’s, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson's disease.

- Wrong pronouns. Always check what 'it' or 'they' refer to. Companies and the government are singular – so take 'it', not 'they'.

- Missing hyphens. You can't have three-year-old without hyphens. Three is plural, year is singular. X Factor has no hyphen, Xbox is one word.

- Spacing between words. It used to be someone else’s job to check, now it’s yours.

- Changing tenses.

- Too many or too few commas. Subordinate clauses need two.

- Overuse of clichés and jargon.

- Homophones. We get hit by lightning and we make something less heavy or brighter by lightening it. Other common errors are allowed/aloud; complement/compliment; elicit/illicit; fair/fare; flair/flare; principle/principal; sight/site and stationary/stationery.

- Names and places. I recently saw Prince Phillip and Jimmy Saville. Both should have one l. Learn the names of celebrities, sports people and politicians who have odd spellings - check all others. It’s George Osborne but Sharon Osbourne, Gregg Wallace, Greg Davies, David Davis, Colin Farrell, Will Ferrell. Oh, and it’s Middlesbrough, not Middlesborough.

* Absorb your publication's stylebook. It is there for a reason.

* Avoid using words for their own sake. For example, what does ‘a number of cars’ tell the reader? Just say ‘cars’.

* Read your copy, all of it, before pressing the button. Assume it is wrong. Go on a mistake hunt. Triple check names and places. Finish by running the spellcheck through – and then giving it all one final read.