Wednesday, 12 December 2007

International Herald Tribune and Britishisms

When I worked at the International Herald Tribune in their marketing operations, one thing we had to be permanently alert for was what is known at the IHT as Britishisms creeping their way into corporate brochures, advertising, subscription letters, you name it. This wasn't so easy, especially as the worldwide marketing department was based in London and most of its marketing department employers - me included as the marketing director - and the advertising creative agency we employed were British.

Bottom-line: the house style of the IHT is American English Monday to Saturday included.

Or rather:

Bottom-line: The house the house style of the IHT is American English Monday thru Saturday.

I don't feel constrained on this blog to respect this rule, as I write now with a horrible mish-mash of Britishism and American style, and with no pedantic copy editor (American) in Paris pouring over my every word. I just tap and bang it out, so forgive me, typos, grammar and all.

To give you a flavour of just how tough it can be for Brits working at the IHT in editorial (and there aren't very many: Peter Berlin, the sports editor and of course managing editor Alison Smale being the two most high-profile ones, here is a lovely anecdote from an IHT employee on the subject (my apologies to her for originally describing Joyce as 'an ex-employee: she is currently on sabbatical):

I then started working in Hong Kong. HK Magazine was run by Americans, so I used "color" and "that," though the odd Brit would write in asking us why we spelled things wrong. The South China Morning Post was British-styled, so I switched to "colour" and "which."

I was never a big deal until I started at the International Herald Tribune. I have great respect for the IHT and the fact that it is one of the few places that care so much about the minutiae of style. Industry people aren't kidding when they call it the ultimate editors' paper.

But I have never seen "Britishisms" so reviled. IHT editors spend more time that you could imagine discussing, identifying and extracting them.

Once, I asked a colleague to read an FT Weekend column he might like. "On Cookery?" he gasped. "On Cookery? I can't read something that uses the word 'cookery'."

Before I went to the IHT, I was sure I knew the difference between the two. But the definition of what is acceptably American, at least according to some of our more conservative staff, is so narrow that even I can't figure it out.

"I'm going to visit my friend who is in hospital," I would say in my American accent.

My colleagues would groan. "God, there you go again. You and your British thing."

"What? what?" I'd go over the sentence again; it would seem perfectly neutral."

An American would say 'I'm going to visit a friend in THE hospital."

Same with "cinema," which some Americans say is too highfalutin', when one can say "movie theater." Or "cv," as opposed to "resume." "Gone missing" is another term I never knew was the providence of the British until I tried to use it in a headline about the Gol airlines plane that, you know, went missing in the Amazon last year.

"Stop using Britishisms," I was told.

"What was I supposed to say?"

"Americans don't say 'go missing'. We say 'disappeared'."

I argued that the two had different meanings. "Disappeared" seemed so final. "Gone missing" just meant it was missing for now. Knowing how deadlines work, the plane would inevitably show up right after we sent the paper to press saying it had disappeared.

My whole childhood, I swore, I said things like "Dad, have you seen my new sweater? It's gone missing. Has the neighbor's dog gone missing again? Stupid house keys have gone missing." I looked up references to "gone missing" in American media websites, like "See? CNN uses it..."The headline was changed to "disappeared."!DFE95C9AB5B43908!384.entry


Just for the record: a current marketing strapline used by the IHT is 'cognizant of every country, captive of none.'

Not when it comes to house style.


Joyce said...

Oy! Unless you know something I don't, I'm not quite an ex-employee yet. I am on sabbatical, but am set to return to work in April unless I get sacked for poking fun at the IHT online. (Oh, "sacked." That's another Britishism).

Ian said...

My apologies to Joyce for originally calling her an 'ex-employee' of the IHT. She is very much AN-employee of the IHT, currently on sabbatical. My apologies Joyce.

Joyce said...

Hi Ian, No problem. I really like your site, by the way. I just discovered it when you linked to my site, but now I have it bookmarked. : )

Anonymous said...

Get over it. You work for a U.S. publication, you use U.S. style. Period.

Why on earth would you make such a ridiculous series of comments? It's like complaining that "When in Rome, you must do as the Romans do."

It just proves you Brits still think you have a monopoly on the language. Get OVER the OLD AND DEAD days of EMPIRE. It's DONE. O-VER.

What would you think of an Indian working for the Times of London (more on that in a minute) who complained that Brits failed to respect, in print, his Indian English?

I work with Brits at a U.S. media outlet and I get SO tired of their petty little cabal. FOREVER WHINING about this very topic. "The Times OF LONDON?!?" they MOAN whenever CNN or ANYone uses this name for the London-based paper. "Ignorant Americans! It's just THE TIMES."


OBVIOUSLY the REASON Americans use "Times of London" is to distinguish the Brit paper from the Times of New York (ie. the New York Times), which is far and away the more familiar "Times" for a U.S. audience. Brits: GET OVER YOURSELVES.

By the way, as to "that" and "which" -- AP Style, the benchmark U.S.-English media stylebook, prescribes that "that" be used in essential clauses (oops, that's "restrictive clauses" to you Brits) ONLY so as to AVOID CONFUSION. Obviously any educated, literate American knows "which" is a relative pronoun and can be used in any adjective clause construction, restrictive or not--and look at SO much American literature and you will see it IS (try "The Sportswriter" by Richard Ford for starters). It's just that many if not most American readers--just like many if not most Brit readers--are not grammar experts and find random switching between "that" and "which" in restrictive clauses confusing. Evidently something of the reverse is true with Brits--they are confused at the use of the perfectly legitimate "that" in restrictive clauses and find it somehow "quaint." Whatever. That's a cultural prejudice.

As well, "which" to the American ear DOES sound pompous--this is a cultural prejudice, too, but a legitimate one THAT cannot be wished away any more than I can wish away the Brit predilection for tea and crumpets or spaghetti on toast (GROAN), or the ENDLESS Brit nostalgia for Empire. One of my Brit coworkers once lamented that the Brits and Nazis hadn't formed an alliance during WWII because having done so GREAT BRITIAN (what's so great about it?) might have RETAINED ITS EMPIRE.

Sooo laaame!

ANYway, the BOTTOM LINE is this: a newspaper, magazine, website, etc. is a PRODUCT, all said and done; editorial consistency is as important in a print-media (or printed new media) product as is any other product consistency. Copy editors are NOT engaged in "pedantics" but rather QUALITY CONTROL work that is VITAL to the integrity of a media product, on which your job and hence your lifestyle depends. Get OVER yourselves, Brits, and get thee to a Websters!