It's been a long week

A news story landed on my desk yesterday including the information that a felon had been jailed in July 2006 but is due for release on 20 December.

Nothing wrong with that but I found myself wondering why the month gets an 'in' while the day gets an 'on'.

Then I thought, Apus old chap, it's Friday evening. Go home.

Minutiae can drive you nuts

Good news on the eco front, according to a London free-sheet: Europe could meet its carbon emission targets "simply by planting more trees in forests".

I'm left wondering if only trees in large groups absorb carbon. In fact wouldn't it make sense to avoid planting trees in the middle of forests, where presumably there's less light reaching ground level? But then if you planted solitary trees in large enough numbers they'd become a forest anyway.

And if the engine-room denizens who allowed that phrase through had simply cut out "in forests" I could have read the story and got on with my life.

While I'm in ranting mood, there's an advert on the same page for "premium down jackets".

Down-filled, certainly, but a down jacket? Think how long it would take to sew all the feathers together. What's more they're available in "15 unique colours". Technically every colour's unique unto itself but is the manufacturer implying that nowhere on earth will you find any of its chosen shades replicated? What tosh.

Writers... doncha love 'em?

It's been a long day in the engine room. Among the copy that came our way was:

"the failure rate at annual test was 65.96%". A clear example of a writer switching off his common-sense module and writing whatever his calculator told him. Assuming the vehicle fleet didn't number in the thousands, 66% would make a lot more sense... or better yet, two out of three.

"the infectious energy extolled by the business development director..." The writer meant exuded, of course, though JD, being in his usual argumentative mood, pointed out that the director could have been extolling someone else's infectious energy...

"the sliding drawer". As any engine room denizen would delight in telling the author, if it don't slide, it ain't a drawer (which reminds me of the schoolboy joke: Q–what do you call a boomerang that doesn't come back? A-a stick).

Sometimes, after all, an object is defined by its function. For example, is a broken-down car still a car? Say you removed the wheels and engine...

I think it's time for my medication.

It's a drawer. It slides.

Parcel consumers

A news story submitted to us recently contained the phrase "commercial and domestic parcel consumers".

What exactly is a 'parcel consumer'? I can only assume it is someone or something that eats parcels. I am especially impressed that this can be done on a commercial basis...

(We changed the phrase to 'customers of parcels firms' or 'users of parcels services' - I forget which.)

Infinitesimal error in the Mirror

Bit of a blooper in the Daily Mirror today.

In a one-page feature, the paper "asks columnists to imagine what their lives would be like in a parallel universe". Nicola Methven of 'Nicola Methven's TV Land' (pictured) starts her answer by saying:

Apparently we could all be living an infinitesimal number of parallel lives in an infinitesimal number of universes.

Em, I think you mean 'infinite' rather than 'infinitesimal' (extremely small).

The Mirror also has the same article online, complete with error.

Hyphens: strong staff

A news story by one of our writers today highlighted the perils of omitting hyphens. It contained this phrase:

The majority of the 200 strong staff

Obviously the company only employs muscular people! I inserted the missing hyphen, giving:

The majority of the 200-strong staff

But then I decided to keep it simple:

Most of the 200 employees

Headline: Virgin named as top Rock suitor

Today's confusing headline of the day comes courtesy of the BBC News site:

Virgin named as top Rock suitor

It took me a moment to twig that the virgin in the story is Richard Branson's Virgin Group. Ordinarily the initial cap of 'Virgin' would have given it away but as the word started the headline the visual clue was lost.

Branson, of course, set up the Virgin Records music label so it then took me another moment to realise that the 'Rock' the story refers to isn't the music genre but the troubled British bank Northern Rock.

Before you ask, I first saw this headline on the BBC News homepage and totally failed to note the small 'Northern Rock' image which might otherwise have clarified things. A picture of Richard Branson's grinning visage may have been preferable. And it's not often that I say that.

Virgin named as top Rock suitor

You are a genius, here's the proof

I recently came across an online blog readability test which assesses "the level of education required to understand your blog". And as you can see from the image to the right, the test reveals that only geniuses can understand the Engine Room.

On the negative side, this suggests that Apus and I should use a smaller vocabulary and less complicated sentence structures, or just speak... more... slowly...

On the positive side, if you've managed to read this far then you yourself must be a genius. And if you regularly understand what Apus and I are banging on about, well then, Einstein's got nothing on you.

Actually, Apus and I probably just confused the readability test with our British turns of phrase - and by blogging about words no one has ever heard before, such as sidehill.

(Thanks to Mr Verb for this one, and for the plug.)

Morrinov, Morritini and Vodkat

I am amused that the supermarket Morrisons' own-brand vodka is called 'Morrinov'. I also hear an unconfirmed rumour that its vermouth is called 'Morritini'.

Still, either has to be better than the bottles of 22% 'Vodkat' (pictured) which you can buy in Asda and other cheap places; there's a good reason the Harrogate-based manufacturer can't use the word 'vodka'.

And trawling through the web to find out a bit more about horrible drinks I did come across a good tip: run cheap spirit through a water filter (you know, the type that sits in your fridge) to take the impurities out and make it more drinkable.

Unfortunately, I am not currently in a position to try this advice but if anyone else has the opportunity, I would love to hear whether it works. Thanks.

Amazon Kindle: yay or nay?

I've just changed the poll on the panel to the right. The new question is whether you would buy a Kindle, the "wireless reading device" (pictured) just launched by Amazon. The Kindle can hold up to 200 e-books and has a screen that "looks and reads like real paper".

The reason I'm blogging about the Kindle is because I'm in disagreement with our web editor as to whether the device will be a commercial success. I don't want to influence your opinion, so all I can say now is that one of us believes it will, the other believes it won't.

If you want to find out more about the Kindle before making up your mind, check out Amazon's Kindle product overview or the Wikipedia Kindle page. There's also information on Wikipedia about other E-book devices.

Anyway, I'd love to hear your opinion.

P-p-p-pick up a penguin

Shop signs can be irritating, not least the misuse of apostrophes, but some shopkeepers are to be commended on their signs.

For example, when the buffet at Balham station in South London is closed the sign on the door reads "Shut happens".

And the florist near the Engine Room's top secret base is boosting his pre-Christmas turnover by flogging some rather jolly stuffed penguins under the sign: "A penguin's for life, not just for Christmas – unless you're a polar bear, in which case a penguin might be for lunch."

Congestion delays journey times: huh?

It's funny that sometimes our writers can get in a muddle with even the simplest of sentences. The meaning is in there, but the choice of words is wrong. For example:

Congestion delays journey times

No! Congestion increases journey times. Congestion delays road users. It doesn't delay journey times.

(JD walks off muttering to himself...)

Foreign congestion

Eggplant, zucchini and an Australian

Continuing on the 'North American' theme: one of the dishes available in our staff canteen today is the American English-sounding eggplant and zucchini pasta bake – that's aubergine and courgette pasta bake to Brits like me.

Actually I believe our head chef is Australian, and that 'eggplant' and 'zucchini' are the favoured terms in Oz. Either our chef is unaware of some of the differences between Australian and British English, or he is trying to stamp his authority (and nationality) on the menu...

(Read my other staff canteen-related posts: pan-fried cat and fine herbs.)

Word of the day: sidehill

Some copy I was subbing yesterday kept making mention of a certain vehicle's performance on sidehills. Thinking 'sidehill' was a technical term, or at least a specific type of hill or slope, I was surprised to find that the Oxford English Dictionary just defines it as North American for 'hillside'.

We say 'hillside'; they say 'sidehill'. Let's call the whole thing off.

And now I'm off to have a wichsand.

(Incidentally, I'd love to hear from any North American readers as to whether they use 'sidehill', 'hillside', or both).

Use TLAs carefully!

TLAs (three-letter acronyms) have become an established feature of the English language, but until an acronym becomes universally recognised it should be used with care.

That's why I didn't assume Engine Room readers would recognise 'TLA', and why JD and I give our readers the full version of even a well established TLA the first time it appears in a story. This is clearly not a universal policy.

The following headline and sub-head graced the front cover of today's Western Mail, the Papur Cenedlaethol Cymru ('National Newspaper of Wales', as if you didn't know), below a photo of a Welsh rugby player:

Where's our missing £21m? Fears WAG has plundered cash intended to help disabled people

Readers of British tabloids will be all too familiar with the TLA WAG – it stands for Wives And Girlfriends; particularly when associated with highly paid sportsmen like the stalwart pictured over the WAG headline. In tabloid terms WAGs are known more for their polished appearance and high spending habits than their intellect, but stealing cash from the disabled? A new low even for the most dissipated WAG, I thought.

Not until the 20th paragraph did I learn that to the Western Mail headline writer, if to no-one east of the River Severn, WAG stands for Welsh Assembly Government. A Welshman on our writing team was as confused as I was; it seems WAG has yet to catch on as a TLA for the Assembly, even west of the border.

The moral? It's better to tell your readers something they already know than to baffle them by assuming knowledge they don't have. Mind you, it would have been a great story...

Untimely cliches banned!

It seems that even the great and good who write for the Times Literary Supplement need to be brought to heel on occasion – their engine room has issued a list of words and phrases that are not to be used in that august organ:

  • iconic
  • ironically
  • carbon footprint
  • time poor
  • black/Muslim/literary community
  • any reference to sex beginning in 1963, in conjunction with Philip Larkin

Other engine rooms, other gremlins

One of our cherished freelancers spotted the following headlines on

  • Arranging the death of a loved one isn't easy
  • 12 die in 30 minutes as car bombers target Shite area
  • Child sex field at family fun event
  • Shoreham wind turbine talks

and, every sub's nightmare:

  • Think of a headline
    56pt bold headline

Not to be left out, I must own up to a memorable typo at the end of a motor show preview some years ago: "See next week for a dull report". Yes, 'd' is right next to 'f' on the keyboard and spellcheckers, as we all know to our cost, don't pick up typos that make real words – but did that get me of the hook? Of course not.

Get those shoes out of here!

Spotted at the security desk of Gatwick Airport: "Footwear repatriation area".

I know security has to be tight nowadays, by throwing a chap's shoes out of the country seems a mite harsh.

Shoes: go back home

The strange case of Megan Thomas, 20

Quite amused by a story in today's Daily Mail about "a 20-year-old secretary at a private club [who] won a landmark discrimination case after claiming she was sacked for being too young for the job".

The secretary in question, Megan Thomas, had this to say:

I was upset to lose my job. I was told I was too young and if they had met me a few years later there may not have been a problem.

They also said that I was deceitful, sly and lacked integrity, which was hurtful and untrue.

So there "may not have been a problem" with Megan working at the club if she had been slightly older, even though she was – in the club's opinion – deceitful, sly and lacking in integrity. A great approach to recruitment there...

Think before you write: recruitment ad

A magazine in the group that employs JD and I includes a recruitment ad that is well written and tempting (the job offers 56 days' annual leave, for a start).

The role, we are told, involves managing sites at a number of remote locations. Fair enough.

But someone at the advertising agency must have been having a bad day when they wrote the headline: 'Camp Managers'.

Not compelled but required

Today a story thudded onto the engine-room floor which had me reaching for the OED.

It refered to a driver who was prosecuted for failing to take regular breaks which the law 'compelled him to do'. A moment's thought and a quick definition check confirmed that the author should have written 'required him to do'.

Why? Because the OED tells us that compel is 'to force or oblige [someone] to do something' and the whole point of the story was that the individual concerned hadn't.

New word: meanderthals

It's nice to be in at the birth of a new word. A chum recently mentioned that he's sick and tired of slow-moving pedestrians who suddenly change direction and cause chaos in crowded streets – he refers to them as 'meanderthals'.

Spot the meanderthal

In which JD is denied escort services

As subs, Apus and I sometimes need access to websites that are blocked by our employer's "internet use policy".

This morning I was subbing a feature on companies that offer vehicle escort services for abnormal or heavy loads – you might have seen these on the motorway yourself. The feature made reference to the sector's internet forum, but access to this was denied to me on the grounds that "the category 'sex' is filtered".

Thinking about it, I can understand why our internet use policy considers www.abnormalescortforum to be inappropriate... and while I'm not sure what the other type of, ahem, 'abnormal escort', would be, I'm sure there's a market out there somewhere.

More sentence illogic: if and that

Here's a sentence taken from some copy submitted by one of our writers. What's wrong with it?

One of three UK ports will find out this month if it has been chosen to run a freight ferry service to Norway

Assuming for a moment that a port can find out anything, one port will find out that it has been chosen, not if. All three, presumably, will find out if they have been chosen – I doubt that two of them will be left in ignorance.

However writing 'three UK ports will find out this month whether they have been chosen' does not convey the fact that only one will be chosen, so I simply changed the sentence to:

One of three UK ports will this month be chosen

(And yes, this is all just another excuse to show off the blog's new pullquote/blockquote icon...)

Headline: energy needs to grow

Recently I was thrown by a headline used on a BBC News Science/Nature story:

Energy needs 'to grow inexorably'

Missing the single quote marks, I took this to mean 'energy has to grow inexorably', leaving me wondering how energy can grow. What the headline actually meant was 'energy needs are set to grow inexorably'.

For once, this bit of verb/noun confusion wasn't even caused by a lack of headline space...

200 x (2 to the power of 5)

A little bit of dodgy maths in some copy submitted to us by one of our freelance writers today:

At fewer than 200 units a year, the UK market is small but set to double every year to reach 300 to 500 units a year within five years

Um, doubling 200 each year gives you 400 after one year, 800 after two years, 1,600 after three, 3,200 after four and 6,400 after five...

I was talking to Apus and we agreed that this sort of mistake is one of the hardest to spot when you are subbing. Typos, grammatical errors and inconsistencies jump out at you, but dubious figures and illogical arguments can be read through much more easily – especially when you are focusing on the language rather than the meaning.

But I caught this one, so that's OK.

Pedants rule: important milestone

Just in from one of our charges is news that an event will be an "important milestone". The OED confirms that a milestone is "an event marking a significant new development", so the writer was reporting on an important significant event – as distinct from...

Subbing. If you aren't a pedant when you start you'll soon become one!

PS, yes I know that the phrase "pedants rule" lacks an object. It's been another long day, OK?

Journalists eat pan-fried cat

A permanent feature of our workplace intranet is a 'restaurant menu' page outlining the dishes available that week in our office canteen. One of today's dishes made me laugh:

Pan fried cat
fish finished
with crushed
potatoes with
fine herb &

Quite apart from the haiku-like quality of the description, that first line break is rather unfortunate. It's a hard life being a journalist, but surely it hasn't come to this.

Oh, and I was pleased to see the return of my old friend fine herb(s).

Prison and prepositions

Slightly amused by a BBC News story on a prison break. Here's the headline and first sentence:

Convicts escape jail with ladder

Two convicted thieves have escaped from prison by scaling a fence with a homemade ladder.

Is it just me, or does the headline suggest that the thieves stole the ladder from the prison during their escape rather than actually using the ladder in the escape? Surely 'convicts escape jail by ladder' would be more accurate...

Not the actual ladder used

Etymologic: etymology quiz

One of the Engine Room regulars emailed in a while back to suggest that we should start featuring occasional quiz questions on the blog, for example giving an obscure word and a choice of four possible definitions for that word. Readers of the blog - that's you - would have to pick the correct definition.

Not a bad idea, I thought, and I filed it under 'stuff I'd like to do on the blog when I get round to it'. But then I came across Etymologic, which is a great online multiple-choice word game. As you can imagine, the focus is on the etymology (origins) of words as much as their meanings, but I recommend you give it a go.

In my last attempt, I managed a paltry six out of 10 - the etymology of 'jerky' (as in beef jerky) and the meaning of 'pilgarlic' were two of the questions that threw me... Let me know how you get on.

Etymologic: the toughest etymology game on the web