x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

As fortune would have it, today the words fit perfectly

Overwrite is a verb with three possible meanings, according to my Concise Oxford English Dictionary, and none of them is the one I had in mind as I considered possible topics for this week's column.

Overwrite is a verb with three possible meanings, according to my Concise Oxford English Dictionary, and none of them is the one I had in mind as I considered possible topics for this week's column. You may overwrite by writing on top of other writing. Using the same meaning in the context of computers, the word refers to the act of writing over existing text and eliminating what is there to begin with. A second meaning is to write "too elaborately or ornately", while a third is to accept, as an insurer, "more risk than the premiums income limits allow".

My edition of the Concise OED fails to offer a further definition: to write a letter, speech or article at excessive length. It is something most journalists do. One of the most common tasks known to sub-editors is having to trim verbose prose to give it a sporting chance of fitting the page. Hardly a week passes without the need for me to cut words from this column. The first draft invariably runs closer to 700 than the desired word count of about 600.

Sometimes, however, the writer is blameless, submitting a report at excessive length because the editor over-commissioned. I once asked a bright but journalistically inexperienced intern, of Asian origin, to visit English cities with large Muslim populations and obtain the thoughts of ordinary people on the events and aftermath of September 11. It was part of a significant project for a British newspaper that also involved political analysis, a detailed opinion poll and other interviews. I hoped my protégé would supply 1,500 words; such was his dedication to duty (and inability to summarise) that he wrote three or four times as many. Then the production editor responsible for designing the pages in question informed me that he could take no more than 700, a length he later decided was also too ambitious.

I cannot remember exactly how I broke the news to my contributor that I had been obliged to massacre his fine work, reducing thousands of words to fewer than 400. Such things happen on even the better newspapers; at least we helped the writer seek a home, in a serious-minded journal, for the complete article. Ten days ago, it became obvious to me that I was beginning to overwrite - my definition - last week's column on spoken English, especially on radio. I was reminded of the cuts I made when a reader wrote to ask whether I was too young to have appreciated the cricket and tennis commentaries of John Arlott and Peter Ustinov respectively. I am not too young, though Mr Arlott is a distant if pleasing memory and I do not recall Mr Ustinov's work at Wimbledon.

With more space, I might have mentioned Mr Arlott along with other voices which, from childhood to the present, have given me great enjoyment. The Wikipedia entry for the American comedian Bob Newhart contains much about his television, cabaret and film work. But it is for listening to such classics as The Driving Instructor and Introducing Tobacco To Civilisation that I remember him most fondly. Victor Borge also made me laugh out loud with his Phonetic Punctuation sketch, though I wonder how well it has fared with the passage of time.

The most glaring omission from last week's column had nothing to do with spoken English but a lot to do with why I find radio news preferable to the televised variety. I have been quietly campaigning against those infuriating hand gestures every television reporter now seems to regard as indispensable. Listening to the radio, there is not the slightest risk of seeing them. If you have never noticed this irritant, pay attention when next you watch television news; you will never forgive me for mentioning it.

Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae