Perhaps the teachers of English who tell me they read this column, and others in positions of influence, will profess themselves equally opposed to linguistic vulgarisms
Tabloid construction that will always remain an eyesore
Nigella Lawson, the celebrity chef whose suggestive body language attracts as much attention as her recipes, is not the only high-flying offspring of the former British cabinet minister Lord Lawson. Her brother Dominic was for 10 years the editor of The Sunday Telegraph, London. Anyone who regards me as a pedant should consider the role he found for my former colleague Chris Boffey. Boffey, as well as being excellent company, is a versatile journalist who has worked for one of Britain's trashiest tabloid newspapers and also four of its most respected broadsheets.
One of his duties as Lawson's news editor was to comb all page proofs before the presses began to roll each Saturday. Whenever he spotted a particular sort of tabloid construction, he was required to eliminate it. Thus, a sentence beginning "Journalist Chris Boffey ..." or "Celebrity chef Nigella Lawson ..." would be changed to "Chris Boffey, the journalist, ..." and Nigella Lawson, the celebrity chef, ...", although he might sometimes have settled for the simple addition of a definite article, as in "the journalist Chris Boffey...".
I share Lawson's distaste for the practice of placing a noun or adjective, or both, in front of a name without the definite or indefinite article. The point is fully covered in The National's style guide, which requires staff should not write "teacher Peter Sixsmith ..." or "rock star Bono ...", but "Peter Sixsmith, a teacher, ..." or "the rock star Bono ...". In other words, the description should appear before the name only if it is a formal title (President Barack Obama, for example) or when preceded by a, an or the.
Most readers of English language newspapers will have come across the shorthand device that Lawson and I find so annoying. The reason it irritates is that it not only reflects lazy use of English, but is unreal. No one actually speaks like that. If you doubt my word, try to remember the last time you heard someone talk about "Slumdog Millionaire star Freida Pinto" or "England striker Wayne Rooney". If such phrases sound foolish when spoken out loud, there is no justification for writing them.
Much as I try, I cannot prevent occasional incursions at The National. Most old habits die hard, and this one comes naturally to people who have previously worked for news agencies or tabloids. One colleague promised faithfully to observe our style rule, only to repeat the offence in his next article. "I spent too long at Reuters," he explained, blaming the urgent style adopted by the international news agency. "Still trying to get it out of my system."
Inevitably, the usage has spread from journalism to other forms of written English. Lynne Truss uses at least one such construction in her paean to pedantry, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Advertisers and publicists would be lost without it. Resisting it has become a lonely battle. But I hope I am being unduly pessimistic in fearing that most people do not notice, or do not care. Perhaps the teachers of English who tell me they read this column, and others in positions of influence, will profess themselves equally opposed to linguistic vulgarisms.
But I look in vain for assistance from my favourite British newspaper, The Observer. Good as it is, The Observer would be a lot better if its news pages were not littered with such phrases as "documentary polemicist Michael Moore", "property developer Sir Timothy Lipton" and even "performer Denise van Outen". Where is Chris Boffey when you need him? Alas, the gamekeeper has taken up poaching. He is now head of news at The Observer.
Colin Randall is the executive editor of The National and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org