x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The culprit who broke rule number one

Among those that planned the look and tone of The National, there was agreement on not only what we did want, but what we did not.

Among the small advance party that planned the look and tone of The National, there was ready agreement on not only what we did want, but what we did not. None of our journalists, we resolved, would ever write that someone had been "nabbed" by "cops". No victim of an assault would be described as having been "bashed up". Such informality is commonplace in some English language newspapers around the world.

Without wishing to criticise the choices other publications make, we wished ours to be a little more elegant. There would be no screeching headlines, none of the tabloid breathlessness that exhausts discerning readers and no vulgarity or slang in reports on serious events. Discouragement of the examples given above hardly suggests the humourless inflexibility of an arch-pedant. But after 29 years on a broadsheet British newspaper, I had a sizeable list of other words and phrases that I felt The National could do without, and my list has grown longer on closer acquaintance with people from other parts of the English-speaking world.

It includes terms that would raise no eyebrows in educated circles in Boston or Toronto, but seem arcane or jarring to speakers of British English. There are many reasons why words fall out of favour. From The Times of India, which I enjoy reading even if cops do an awful lot of nabbing on its pages, I learn that scientists in the UK have predicted from computer analysis that dirty, squeeze, guts and throw are among English words that are likely to become extinct.

The researchers, from Reading University, attribute the phenomenon to natural changes in vocabulary; they state, by way of illustration, that half of the words we use today would have been unrecognisable to our ancestors of 2,500 years ago. That may be too long a process of evolution to be worth caring about, but there are more recent case histories. I would never use "garner" for gather or collect when writing, for example, about information or illegal materials obtained in a police raid, or Oscar nominations received by an actor. It has an antiquated feel that would probably deter most other British journalists. Yet Americans and Canadians use it without hesitation, and they are supported by the Concise Oxford Dictionary.

Garner could not have more impeccable roots: Middle English origin, meaning the period from the mid-12th to late 15th centuries, and deriving from the French verb gernier. Similarly you would need to search long and hard before hearing a native of the UK talk about a faucet when meaning a tap. American colleagues tell me the majority of their compatriots, irrespective of class or education, would use the longer, fussier word (which I am not sure most Britons could even define).

In the introduction to my style guide for The National, I wrote: "All the world's great newspapers have their own distinctive styles, and a newspaper without clearly defined rules of expression lacks heart as well as identity." It follows that, having made our choice, we had a duty to stick to it. Why, then, was this duty neglected on Jan 12, when a report about reckless drivers appeared beneath a headline saying police wanted the public's help to "nab" the culprits?

Complacency was to blame. So sure had I been that the word would never be used that there seemed no need to make specific mention in my guide. The episode provided its own object lesson. If most rules are broken sooner or later, they stand more chance of being observed if they are written down. Be assured that although that particular horse has bolted, the stable door has - after being left ajar for the purposes of these thoughts - been firmly closed.

Colin Randall is executive editor of The National and can be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae