The kindest cuts of all

When readers write to point out inaccuracies, spelling errors and grammatical infelicities, they often end their letters and emails with the grumpy question: “Don’t you have subeditors any more?”

Well, yes we do. Unlike some other newspapers where the subediting strength has been cut to the bone, the Observer has a team of journalists working across all sections, editing text, checking facts and figures and writing headlines and other “furniture” for both the newspaper and the website, processing about 200,000 words a week.

Despite being a weekly publication, the subs face daily deadline pressures as sections go to press at different times. They’re human. They will miss errors and occasionally introduce some of their own, but equally, time and again, they silently save the paper from embarrassment.

I won’t identify the authors to spare their blushes, but here are some examples of deathless prose that never made it into the pages of the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper.

Apparently: “Chronic joblessness has taken hold in America, especially among the long-term unemployed” and: “Britain is about to be deluged by a mushrooming avalanche of roadworks.”

Advances in stem cell technology had a reporter imagining “would-be real-life animals from one of the most endangered species on Earth, emerging from a test tube to trot into wildlife parks”.

Subs on the travel pages have prevented you straying into the Calamari desert or learning the Acrylic alphabet while skiing down the slopes at Cloisters. And the Comment pages are not immune. “This is the final nail in the plank of contempt,” stormed one columnist while warning of an “imploding maelstrom”.

Subs on the financial pages have to wrestle with quotes from City types. “Everyone is always reinventing the wheel, giving 110%, finding ‘synergies’ (sacking people) and using perfectly good nouns such as ‘access’ and ‘impact’ as verbs,” despairs our business chief sub. “They also have a tendency to add the utterly redundant phrase ‘going forward’, meaning, apparently, ‘in the future’ to their every utterance. ‘We expect that there will be challenges going forward,’ is a typical example, where ‘going forward’ can easily be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence, given that it already uses the future tense.

“There is also the tragic habit of using Americanisms – often drawn from baseball – to give their statements that extra bit of vim. So business people are keen to ‘touch base’ with their clients, ‘play hardball’ with takeover targets and, naturally, ‘step up to the plate’ when the situation requires a ‘pinch hitter’. Economic analysts speak another language altogether. They talk of ‘growing’ profits rather than increasing them, of revenues being ‘ahead’ rather than ‘up’, and of strange things like q/q growth, 1Q10 expectations and ex-dividend sentiment.”

Here’s an example from one financial analyst. “While 3Q will see GDP print in the region of 0.6% q/q, the 4Q data will print significantly weaker at 0.2-0.3% q/q. Put that next to the darkening tone in the global data, and we think the UK MPC will respond with an expansion in QE.”

Or this: “We expect to invest further margin in our customer offer.” (They are cutting their prices). Or: “We’re learning into the build-out.” (Sorry, we haven’t a clue either) or: “We expect offshore energy liability premiums to trend higher, perhaps meaningfully.” One analyst intoned sagely: “There is nothing to detract from the buy case”, meaning, presumably, “buy these shares”.

Lest you think I’m just having fun at colleagues’ expense, there are serious points to be made here. Ever-tightening editorial budgets mean a diminishing band of reporters and feature writers is required to fill more of the paper. They will sometimes fall down these linguistic holes in the race to move on to the next piece, so the subbing safety net is all the more vital. It is perhaps, as one of our columnists was prevented from saying recently, “the elephant in the room that dares not speak its name”.

This column was originally published in The Observer on Sept. 26, 2010.

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