Errors & Omissions: How do you like your swear words – with or without asterisks?

 

How do you feel about bad language and asterisks? In its early years this newspaper took a very robust, even puritanical, attitude. It believed that its readers were the kind of people who didn't have net curtains in their windows and wanted the unvarnished truth.

So the rule was, don't print a swear word unless it is important for the reader to know what somebody actually said; but if it is, then print the word: no asterisks.

With the passage of years and the succession of editors, this attitude has softened somewhat. The case for asterisks – that people want information but don't want a slap in the face at the breakfast table – has gained ground.

I think we perhaps need to look again at the whole question, at least in the interests of consistency. Clive Goozee has written in to draw attention to an anomaly in an interview, published on Thursday, with the outspoken Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy.

In the fourth paragraph, we quoted her as saying "I'm really p****d off." But in the second last paragraph came this: "There is no fucking way they are going to keep me away from my country of birth."

It looks as if somebody's eye was drawn to "pissed" but failed, farther down the piece, to register what is by anybody's standards a more shocking word. To print "fucking" without a qualm but to call for the smelling salts at the sight of "pissed" looks odd.

Just a few points: punctuation can be a nightmare. Consider this, from an interview with Andrew Lansley, published on Monday:

He said he took some advice from Ken Clarke who, as Health Secretary in the 1980s, was the subject of similar attacks. "Sometimes he'd say in Cabinet, 'blimey, you're getting it pretty easy. The doctors put my picture on billboards saying what do you call a man who doesn't take medical advice'."

That is a mess. Simply putting the quotation marks and capital letters right produces this:

He said he took some advice from Ken Clarke, who, as Health Secretary in the 1980s, was the subject of similar attacks. "Sometimes he'd say in Cabinet, 'Blimey, you're getting it pretty easy. The doctors put my picture on billboards saying, "What do you call a man who doesn't take medical advice?" ' "

That is technically correct, but the three quotations, each enfolding the next, like Russian dolls, are still a challenge for the reader, especially at the end, when one single and two double quotation marks drop in one after the other. However, there is a way forward. The outermost doll can be turned into reported speech and the innermost, being the slogan on a poster, can be put into italics. This is the result:

He said he took some advice from Ken Clarke, who, as Health Secretary in the 1980s, was the subject of similar attacks. Lansley reports that Clarke would sometimes say in Cabinet: "Blimey, you're getting it pretty easy. The doctors put my picture on billboards saying, What do you call a man who doesn't take medical advice? "

I think that is all right.

East is west: Bernard Theobald writes in to point out this, from a news story published last Saturday: "The remaining area in drought is south and west of a line from Lincolnshire to Sussex, taking in Oxfordshire, where hosepipe bans imposed by seven water companies remain in place."

Sub-editors should always take the trouble to imagine what the copy is describing. If you do that in this case you realise that "west" should be "east".

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