The Economist’s coequal humo(u)r

From time to time, I like to regale you with tiny anecdotes from our daily routine at The Economist, especially when they display our quirky side.

For instance, an editor might remark, as she anglicizes an acronym I use, that a word “either has to look odd to us [Brits] or odd to them [Yanks], and we opt for them.”

Well, this week I woke up on Monday to get a message from our editor-in-chief that he would quite like a three-page (3,000-word) Briefing on California’s water wars, since the piece that was meant for that slot was not ready to run this week. Due to the inhumanely inconvenient times zone I am in (ie, California, when my bosses are in London), this meant I had to deliver the piece the following day (Tuesday) for London to be able to wake up to it on Wednesday and publish it on Thursday, ie today. This is the piece.

So I wrote the piece in quite a hurry and sent it. Then, on Wednesday, I worked with the fact-checker and map guy, Phil Kenny. He came up with a great map, the clearest depiction of California’s water infrastructure I have yet seen:

CA Water map

The editors are then supposed to send me the “subbed” (jargon for edited) “copy” (jargon for text) and, this being The Economist, forgot to do so. So I went to a yoga class. By the time I came back, it was late at night in London.

In our process, a correspondent sends his article to a section editor, who subs the piece and then sends it on to the editor-in-chief or a deputy, who then sends it through to a “night editor“.

I had heard that our night editor last night was Johnny Grimmond, the author of our style guide. Johnny guards our quaint British usage as Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the underworld, watches over Hades. You can call him, as you can call me, a pedant, and we would be proud of it.

I immediately knew that Johnny would pounce on one particular phrase of linguistic interest. The water legislation currently being negotiated in California contains a very important phrase that is also ugly and stupid in a characteristically American way. Which is to say that, in the same way that Americans gave the Anglophone world the word proactive (why not active?), the legislators in Sacramento now want to impose on the state’s environmentalists, farmers and urban water users

co-equal goals.

While doing my interviews for this story, I had kept a straight face every time the phrase came up, because I am keen not to appear, you know, loony or snippy. In my article I refrained from any overt pedantry. But I knew that Johnny, in the safety of his London office in the wee hours, would not. His cursor, I was sure, would find the pompous American redundancy faster than you can swat a greasy Hamburger with a cricket bat.

And so I asked a colleague with access to the system to send me the copy. My eyes skipped over the paragraphs until they alit on the one in question. I started grinning even before I read the new sentence:

The details of the legislation negotiated so far are complex, but its main feature is a phrase, “coequal goals”—though how coequal goals differ from equal ones is not clear.

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Editing as “desophistication”

Every writer has stories about editors–the great ones and the other ones. But I wanted to share what Johnny Grimmond, our doyen of style at The Economist and author of our Style Guide, has to say on the matter. I have already quoted Johnny on the vital issue of like versus as (never to be confused!). Here now is what he says about editing (British spelling, of course):

It is quite easy to rewrite an article without realising that one has done much to it at all: the cursor leaves no trace of crossing-out, handwritten insertions, rearranged sentences or reordered paragraphs. The temptation is to continue to make changes until something emerges that the editor himself might have written. …

The moral for editors is that they should respect good writing. … A writer’s style, after all, should reflect his mind and personality. … Editors should exercise suitable self-restraint. … Bear in mind this comment from John Gross:

Most writers I know have tales to tell of being mangled by editors and mauled by fact-checkers, and naturally it is the flagrant instances they choose to single out–absurdities, outright distortions of meaning, glaring errors. But most of the damage done is a good deal less spectacular. It consists of small changes (usually too boring to describe to anyone else) that flatten a writer’s style, slow down his argument, neutralise his irony; that ruin the rhythm of a sentence or the balance of paragraph; that deaden the tone that makes the music. I sometimes think of the process as one of “desophistication”.

Shakespeare’s “Like You Like It” & my favorite grammar felony

Nothing deep today, just getting something off my chest and on the record (I heard that’s what blogs are for): It drives me nuts when people–dare I suggest that Americans are especially prone?–don’t know how (not) to use the words like and unlike.

Just to avoid the charge of snobbism, I’ll take an example from my very own (and very British) employer, The Economist, where an esteemed colleague this week let the following  slip into the sub-headline (what we call the “rubric”) of an article: Unlike in America, terrorism in Europe is often home-grown

Yuck! Pfui!

Now the exegesis, which I will also take from my esteemed employer, since we happen to have an (in)famous style guide (memorizing it may be the best investment you ever make in your life; I’m still working on it):

Under the entry for Like, Unlike, Johnny Grimmond, the Style Guide’s author, writes in his genius style:

Like and unlike govern nouns and pronouns, not verbs and clauses. So as in America not like in America, as I was saying, not like I was saying, as Grandma used to make them, not like Grandma used to make them, etc. English has no unas equivalent to unlike, so you must rephrase the sentence if you are tempted to write unlike in this context, unlike at Christmas, or unlike when I was a child.

If you find yourself writing She looked like she had had enough or It seemed like he was running out of puff, you should replace like with as if or as though, and you probably need the subjunctive: She looked as if she had had enough, It seemed as if he were running out of puff.

Like the hart panteth for the water brooks I pant for a revival of Shakespeare’s “Like You Like It”. I can see tense draftees relax and purr/When the sergeant barks, “Like you were.”/And don’t try to tell me that our well has been defiled by immigration;/Like goes Madison Avenue, like so goes the nation. — Ogden Nash

Fine, so what could my colleague’s rubric have said instead? The easiest re-write would have been: Europe, unlike America, often suffers home-grown terrorism.

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