19 August 2005

Journalist’s apostrophe?

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:17 am

apostrophe.jpgI promise not to let these pages slide into a punctuation witch-hunt (though would it be so terrible if they did?), but it now seems that my relaxed attitude towards misplaced apostrophes of last week may have been dangerously naïve, judging from the opening paragraph of this story on the front page of Wednesday’s The Australian. Now journalists are under pretty constant time pressures and it’s easy to slip up, especially when you’ve just typed a couple of legitimate apostrophes and feel like you’re on a roll. But they do have copy-editors and you’d think that the front page would deserve some special attention. I had to read this paragraph three or four times to confirm that it really was a mistake and that there wasn’t a noun I’d forgotten to read somewhere in there.

Which is why apostrophe abuse in this kind of case is much more damaging than the proverbial greengrocer’s apostrophe. By mapping eye movements during reading tasks, clever science-types have worked out that we generally don’t read a text letter-by-letter or even word-by-word: we skip all over the place, backwards and forwards, and sometimes don’t even look at particular words at all, instead preferring to fill them in based on our knowledge of the patterns of language. Newspaper articles are designed to be read quickly, with guidelines for the order of sentences and paragraphs to allow the reader to extract his or her preferred level of detail in the shortest possible time—which is why, for example, they usually start with a single-sentence summary paragraph. Fast reading involves a certain amount of word-skipping and loads more work onto the predictive parts of our brains. My theory is that when you scan a word with a possessive apostrophe in it you expect a noun phrase to turn up pretty soon afterwards, and when one doesn’t the wheels come off; the fluent reading you were enjoying seizes up and you have to limp back and pick through each word like a jerk to work out what’s actually going on, and it’s a total pain.

Back down at the letter-level, I’m sure you’ve all read this by now:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

But aoccdrnig to Matt Davis, who actually is a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, this isn’t exactly true: in fact, the scrambled words in the example are rather uniquely easy to decipher due to the words themselves (which tend not to have ambiguous anagrams) and the ways the internal letters are scrambled (often simple transpositions of letter-pairs). Language patterns above the word-level must also play a part here; for example if you’ve unpicked the hardly-scrambled “Cmabrigde” it’s much easier to predict the more-thoroughly-mixed “Uinervtisy” that follows. But it’s all very interesting.

9 August 2005

Desperate broadcasters

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:17 am

teri.jpgI’m tempted just to let this go, because any kind of comment is sooner or later going to involve admitting that I watched pretty much the whole season of Desperate Housewives on Seven. At least, I had the TV on while the show was on, which is all the ratings measure anyway—not that I’m counted in the ratings; if I were we might still be watching The West Wing. But so there it is. It had its moments but was overall pretty lame; Gabrielle was kind of hot, though clearly awful; and the “big mystery” story arc progressed at about the rate of a Phantom comic.

Of course Seven milked the show for much more than it was worth, doling out new episodes as if they (the new episodes) were pellets of rat-food doled out by first-year students of operant conditioning trying to confirm that the variable ratio schedule is indeed the most cruel and diabolical and difficult-for-rats-to-shake of all the schedules of reinforcement, padding these new episodes, or rather “all-new” episodes, with simply unwatchable “behind-the-scenes&#8221–type featurettes and other dross and filth, or just pre-empting them for other less-valuable programs during non-ratings periods. Not to mention the dubious technique of wedging each episode into the hitherto-undiscovered 8:40pm–9:40pm timeslot, thereby manipulating the ratings in ways I can’t even begin to understand; and the erratic ADD/ADHD-type repetition of the first few episodes already covered back when it all started.

But in screening last night’s series cliffhanger, which was generally better than most of the intervening episodes because one or two things actually happened in it, Seven reached a new ebb in its attempt to sucker some of its inexplicably massive Housewives audience into watching some of its other programming. The deal was: if you sat through the debut of Grey’s Anatomy—an apparently charmless medical comedy/drama offering nothing that Scrubs didn’t deliver every week in half the time with exponential levels of humour and pathos—you got to see a “secret additional bonus mystery scene” that had been excised from the first season of Desperate Housewives for undisclosed reasons. The implication was—I think the teaser actually said—that the hidden scene would solve some outstanding mystery that the final episode was just too solution-packed to manage.

Now I’ll tell you what the actual scene contained in a moment (ha!), but first I should explain that in fact I was watching all this stuff through the intermediary of my new personal video recorder or PVR, which quite ingeniously records a perfect copy of the digital broadcast signal on its roomy hard-drive for later playback. It can record two channels at the same time as playing back a previously-recorded or even currently-recording program, and it has buttons that instantly zap forward two minutes or 30 seconds so you never have to see any commercials. The networks hate them because of their potential to reduce advertising revenue, and try to reduce their usefulness by not transmitting information about upcoming programs (which would make setting timers etc so simple that why wouldn’t you) and increasingly screening ads in weird and unpredictable configurations.

And of course the free-to-air model depends on people watching advertisements, and if we all stop watching—and if they find out about it—the quality of programming may eventually suffer. But I think there are solutions. One is product placement, which I don’t object to as long as it’s done with restraint and slots into, rather than manipulating, the host program. Look at all the real-world products that found their way into Seinfeld with hilarious results: the Junior Mint, the Pez, the Jujyfruit, Snapple, Häagen-Dazs—if you do it right, there’s nothing wrong with it. The other solution might be to make commercials that people can stand to watch, rather than the brain-damaged half-attempts that befoul our prime-time viewing. Anyway, the point is that my trusty Topfield PVR5000t allowed me to swiftly track down the lost scene from Desperate Housewives—thinking only of this blog and you, Loyal Reader—without having to watch more of Grey’s Anatomy than I wanted to, which wasn’t much.

So completely unsurprisingly that lost scene, which had been likened to the Dead Sea Scrolls or at least that new Vivaldi just discovered by clever Melbourne musicologist Dr Janice Stockigt, consisted of immaculate psychopath Bree and her creepy man-friend George being busted shopping for garden supplies by her therapist Dr Goldfine, played by—and this almost makes the whole thing worthwhile—Sam Lloyd, who is brilliant as hangdog lawyer Ted Buckland from Scrubs. The scene has no bearing on any part of the plot, such as it is, and was either removed by American ABC for that reason or by Seven so they could jam in some more commercials and trick some viewers. An appalling display.

Last night’s Media Watch showed Ten’s Action News trying on two separate occasions to rope in viewers by showing tantalising excerpts of near- and actual tragic events and asking “Did they make it? Stay tuned!&#8221, which is analogous but of course even worse. The one where they didn’t make it was stretched over two ad breaks! And don’t think I haven’t noticed that Ten is still claiming that 3.7 million people watched the first incarnation of The 4400 either.

In closing, I’d like us all to take a moment to remember Desperate Housewife Teri Hatcher in her finest moment, playing the spectacularly-endowed Sidra in Seinfeld‘s fourth-season winner, “The Implant&#8221. That’s Elaine stumbling towards her in the health-club sauna, about to be saved by her controversial breasts. Look at the terror! Look at the range!

7 August 2005

Go camel!

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:17 am

camel2.jpgPeople complain a lot about the misuse of apostrophes, but most of the time it’s a cosmetic problem; you can usually tell what the writer was trying to say, and one apostrophe more or less can demonstrate ignorance or carelessness but doesn’t usually result in ambiguity (those who ask “a tomato’s what for $1?” are really just being perverse). I don’t condone it, but there are other problems more often overlooked.

Take hyphens, for example. English generously allows compound modifiers, which are adjectival or adverbial phrases of more than one word. You can stick them just about anywhere a single adjective or adverb might go. But because there’s more than one word involved, it’s not always obvious which words are modifying what. For example, “man eating fish” could be either a shark or a bloke at Doyle’s. This is where hyphens come in: if we all agree that compound modifiers are internally hyphenated, then the first meaning is always and only expressed by “man-eating fish” and the second by “man eating fish&#8221, and everyone’s happy. But if we don’t stick to the rules, the whole thing breaks down.

Take this headline from the AAP:

Camel racing children to be repatriated.

Now, call me perverse, but I first read this as suggesting that there was a race between a camel and some children to see who would be repatriated first. The camel’s some kind of queue-jumper. It’s kind of a funny image. But in reality it’s quite a sad story about Bangladeshi children trafficked to the Emirates to be camel racers. Now they’ve been replaced by robot jockeys (which luckily is another amusing image) and are heading home. So the headline should of course have been:

Camel-racing children to be repatriated.

Some argue that insisting on the hyphenation of compound modifiers is old-fashioned, and it’s true that sometimes you can get away without them. For example, “very interesting blog entry” contains a compound modifier, but it would look a bit weird to hyphenate it. There’s no issue of misinterpretation, so why bother. But particularly when it’s a noun-verb modifier, you’re often going to run into ambiguities and the hyphen is an elegant solution, as long as everyone sticks to it.

Not all ambiguous headlines can be solved with hyphens. By way of gratuitous example:

Farmer Bill Dies in House

Prostitutes Appeal to Pope

British Left Waffles On Falkland Islands

Deer Kill 17,000

But if everyone played by the rules, these would all be sorted out:

Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim

Shot Off Woman’s Leg Helps Nicklaus to 66

Hospitals Sued By 7 Foot Doctors

According to John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, literary Russian is even more fond of compound modifiers than English is. He cites this extract from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita:

Ot fligelej v tylu dvortsa, gde raspolozhilas’ prishedshaja s prokuratorom v Ershalaim pervaja kogorta Dvenedtsatovo Molnienosnovo legiona, zanosilo dymkom v kolonnadu cherez verxnjuju ploshchadku sada.

Which he directly translates as:

From the wing at the rear of the palace, where lodged themselves the having-come-with-the-Procurator-to-Jerusalem first cohort of the Twelfth Lightning legion, drifted smoke towards the colonnade across the upper courtyard to the garden.

Which is obviously great.