Monday, November 13

A grumpy old pedant, perhaps?

Following that terrible shark attack in Western Australia, I winced many times as news reports said the unfortunate surfer had lost his leg. The surfer, of course, lost a leg. Or, if it was the case, his right leg.

Pedantic? Possibly. But I remember myself more than forty years ago, a bright young fellow from Perth taking a place at the legendary horseshoe-shaped sub-editors table of Sir Frank Packer's Daily Telegraph in Sydney. I was in awe of the veteran subs sitting around the table, and with reason. If I'd let "lost his leg" through in copy, they would have mocked me mercilessly.

Another lesson quickly learned was to recognise passive voice and shoot it down. The Daily Telegraph of those days banned it totally, a ruling attributed to a former editor, Brian Penton. Today, I still dislike "Smith was hit by a runaway truck," preferring the active voice, "A runaway truck hit Smith."

Any sub-editor of my vintage would strike out "onto", making it two words (although an authority like Fowler's Modern English Usage does allow one word in some cases). The News Ltd style book that I half-inched when I retired says simply: "The style is two words, but only one is usually needed."

Yet I notice the Sydney Morning Herald invariably uses "onto" these days. Perhaps that august journal has adopted one word as style. And perhaps there's another explanation.

About a year ago, the SMH offered generous redundancy to its older journalists, and many accepted. When the older guys quit, did the newspaper lose those people who knew the difference between "onto" and "on to"? Perhaps a consistent grammatical style, once an important part of a newspaper's presentation, has become too expensive.

Usage does change, of course, and newspapers have to keep up. A few years ago, "e-mail" was common; today that hyphen has disappeared, although it's often still to be seen in e-commerce.

Nobody quibbles at "media" and "data" as singular nouns these days. "The media is to blame" and "the data has been released."

Later, perhaps, this blogsite may discuss the way newspapers reflect changing English usage, and even whether they still play their former role in setting public standards of literacy.

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