Please do not shoot the sub-editor. He is doing his best


Professor Geoffrey Pullum’s articles on Language Log are required reading for anyone who cares about language usage. So – speaking as a former sub-editor – it was almost an honour to see our sort pulled out for a bloody good thrashing in a recent post.

At issue was a leading article in the Times, which contained the gormless sentence:

Companies are gaming the system in order legally to minimise their tax liability.

The writer’s original copy had read: “to legally minimise their tax liability”. According to the professor, the person responsible for un-splitting the infinitive and mangling the syntax was “a sub-editor with a green eyeshade and a brain the size of a walnut, moving adverbs from positions where they modify what they are supposed to modify… to positions where they don’t even sound like vaguely reasonable English.”


Cracked: The brain of a sub-editor (Pic: Wikimedia Commons)

This was presented as evidence that sub-editors could be replaced with a computer or done away with completely, “letting sophisticated writers position their adverbs wherever they think the sense of the sentence demands.” (It’s worth noting that many publishers have had the same notion about getting shot of the subs, normally after a visit from the management consultants. The results are always unfortunate.)

He is quite right about the article in question and the idiocy of avoiding the so-called split infinitive, but I feel a duty to come to the aid of my fellow walnut-brains. It goes without saying that we subs fillet out far more barbarisms than we add. And in the latter case, we are sometimes acting against our own judgment.

Sub-editors are expected to follow the publication’s style guide. Whether it’s a work of wit and common sense that may be read for pleasure (such as The Guardian Stylebook) or an extended sneer peppered with inanities (Simon Heffer’s effort for the Telegraph), it is definitive. Orders are orders.

The Nuremberg defence is not one that cuts it with Prof Pullum. In an older blog post on similar shenanigans at the Economist, he wrote:

…editors and proofreaders have trained themselves to accept these offences against grammar (in the belief that they are upholding the standards of the magazine as laid down in the style book). Writers and editors alike have blinded themselves to the realities of the grammar of their native language, wrongly imagining that by doing so they are working in the interests of their readers.

Well, fair enough. Even the better style guides can be pusillanimous when it comes to shelving pseudo-grammatical bunk and following common usage and common sense. Newspapers should be using their privileged position to lead on these matters, not flogging dead horses to avoid a few angry letters from retired schoolmasters.

Here are five instances where – in my opinion – they ought to take a stand. In each case, I’ve looked at the style guides of the three quality newspapers, plus the Economist.


Split infinitives

GUARDIAN [] “It is perfectly acceptable, and often desirable, to sensibly split infinitives – ‘to boldly go’ is an elegant and effective phrase – and stubbornly to resist doing so can sound pompous and awkward.”

TIMES [] “Do not use except in famous quotes such as ‘to boldly go’ or in limited emphatic constructions such as ‘I want to live – to really live’.”

TELEGRAPH [] “Not a mortal sin, but most can and should be avoided. Be guided by the relative ease of understanding. To boldly go easily becomes to go boldly, or even boldly to go.”

ECONOMIST [] “Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.”

As with so much else in 2017, it seems utterly ridiculous that we’re even having this debate. Rules about the split infinitive are a nonsense on par with avoiding cracks in the pavement. The Guardian’s advice should be the last word on this, and all newspapers should take note.

The Telegraph’s assertion that “boldly to go” is as easy on the ear is plain bonkers. It sounds absurdly stilted, like the first half of some half-recalled proverb (“boldly to go, quickly to come”, perhaps).

The Economist just runs up the white flag, leading Prof Pullum to suspect they may be keeping this policy just to irritate him. See this, this and this.


‘Warn’ without a direct object

GUARDIAN [ ? ] No policy in style guide.

TIMES [] “Transitive verb that requires a direct personal object… however, we can afford some flexibility in headlines.”

TELEGRAPH [] “‘He warned that…’ is wrong. The speaker must warn somebody or ‘give a warning that’.”

ECONOMIST [] “Warn is transitive, so you must either give warning or warn somebody.”

This is a bloody stupid edict. Why should we waste two whole words in saying “The Chancellor gave a warning that…” rather than “The Chancellor warned that…”? There is absolutely no reason to ban intransitive “warn”, except to give the writers of style guides and green-ink letters something more to fuss about.

What’s more, it’s an injunction that is universally ignored in practice. The Telegraph has broken its own rule at least four times in the past two days alone:

…Time Team presenter Tony Robinson, who warned that…

Economists, however, warn that…

…heritage organisations, who warn that…

…the US investment bank warned that…

There’s no shortage of similar examples in the Economist. This is a perfect example of a zombie rule that doesn’t yet know it’s dead. Time to drive a stake through the corpse.


‘Like’ in place of ‘such as’

GUARDIAN [] “‘Cities like Manchester are wonderful’ suggests the writer has in mind, say, Sheffield or Birmingham; it’s clearer to say ‘cities such as Manchester’ if that is what she means.”

TIMES [] “Do not use as a synonym of ‘such as’.”

TELEGRAPH [] “When giving named examples of people or objects we should use ‘such as’, as in ‘He said that he admired players such as Jones, Smith and Brown’. The sense is that he admires those players specifically. If we used ‘like’ it would mean that he admired players with qualities similar to those of Jones, Smith and Brown.”

ECONOMIST [] “‘Authorities like Fowler and Gowers’ is a perfectly acceptable alternative to ‘authorities such as Fowler and Gowers’.”

If we were to take this one seriously, then “people like us are not welcome here” would have to mean “people resembling us, but not including us, are not welcome here”. That’s simply not how the word is used, and it’s difficult to dream up instances where this “exclusive” reading would be a useful one.

In any case, “such as” is a phrase that should always set alarm bells ringing in a sub-editor’s walnut. If we are saying “He admired players such as Jones, Smith and Brown”, did he simply say that he admired those three players? If that is the case, why not say “He admired Jones, Smith and Brown”?

This becomes important when an article says something like “Labour politicians such as Corbyn, Abbott and McDonnell have opposed the move”. Was it only those three, or are they representative of a wider group? What exactly is that “such as” prompting us to infer?


‘Data’ as a mass noun

GUARDIAN [] “Takes a singular verb (like agenda), though strictly a plural; you come across datum, the singular of data, about as often as you hear about an agendum.”

TIMES [ ? ] “Strictly plural, but can be singular through common usage.”

TELEGRAPH [] “Data are plural.”

ECONOMIST [ ? ] No policy in style guide.

The Guardian gets it right, the Telegraph gets it wrong, and the Times sits on the fence and gets splinters in its arse. “Data” as a mass noun is useful to us in the 21st century; “data” as a plural is not. Bugger the Latin. Once a word becomes a full member of the English language, it’s under our roof and it abides by our rules.


‘Due to’ for ‘because of’

GUARDIAN [ ? ] “Traditionalists argue that ‘due to’ should only be used when it is the complement of the verb ‘to be’, and could be replaced by ‘caused by’; otherwise, use ‘owing to’ or ‘because of’. The distinction, once routinely taught in primary schools but now assailed on all sides, especially by train and tube announcers, is being lost.”

TIMES [] “Must not be used as the equivalent of ‘because of’ or ‘owing to’. The phrase must be attached to a noun or pronoun.”

TELEGRAPH [] “Due to is used adjectivally and, therefore, needs a noun to modify (‘His lateness was due to rain’, not ‘He was late due to rain’). Illogically, there is no similar rule for ‘owing to’. The use of ‘because’ solves problems in this area (‘He was late because of rain’) and is preferred.”

ECONOMIST [] “When used to mean ‘caused by’, due to must follow a noun.”

For good or ill, a style guide’s job is to prescribe usage, not describe it; we have linguistics departments to do that. This time it’s the Guardian that fudges it, though it manages to sneak in a bit of Hefferesque snark toward rail workers.

Is there a single good reason to maintain the distinction between “due to” and “owing to”? I can’t think of one. Getting rid of it is long overdue. The newspapers owe it to us.

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2 thoughts on “Please do not shoot the sub-editor. He is doing his best

  1. Penelope Rance

    Stakes are driven through vampires. Zombies require their heads to be bashed in or removed, or to have their bodies burned in order to render them un-undead. Just in case you ever find yourself the sole survivor of a zombie plague, or on a bat spotting holiday in Transylvania…

    1. The Harlot of Wales Post author

      You are absolutely right. So, it’s stakes for vampires, a pyre for zombies… what’s the appropriate treatment for art editors?


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