I wonder what human-robotic combo at the Pulitzer prizewinning Guardian decided it was a good idea to sandwich a jumping-in point for its lonely hearts enterprise Soulmates between comments on a story about convicted rapist and sometime footballer Ched Evans and 'related content'.
I had promised myself when I was about 30 that when I got to a certain age I wouldn't mither on about how things had got worse.
Now that I have almost reached my BlankZero birthday, I am convinced that one thing has got worse, or at least not improved. I refer to the relative illiteracy and lack of thoroughness of the apparently well-educated.
One way in which this manifests itself in journalism is the inability to get names, aka proper nouns, right. Now I have no prejudice as such against those with degrees (I have two, thanks). However, I have become increasingly old-fart intolerant of the youngish unteachable graduate who knows everything but is cavalier about names. One way to labour the point is to call the sinner Sebastian "Simon" or miscreant Clarissa "Carol" a few times.
Fewer and fewer young hacks now undergo ordeal by grieving family. This scenario involves being sent to cover a local funeral, getting the misspelt name of the deceased into print, and then fielding an irate phone call or being at the wrong end of a face-to-face verbal mauling from the dead person's burly, overwrought brother.
In my relative yoof, I once revise-subbed (a synonym for "fiddled with") a headline on a page lead at the Times and managed to render a French presidential surname, Mitterrand, minus the second R. It did not get into the hands of the readers, having been stopped in time, but the foreign chief sub rightly bollocked me (albeit in front of all my colleagues, following the finest Voltairean tradition of pour encourager les autres).
Now that such open, personal reprimands would probably be deemed bullying or harassment, they either occur in private or not at all. Paradoxically, in this age of electronic transparency, many an organ now hangs its dirty linguistic laundry out to dry online, so to speak.
Regular confessions of shortcomings appear under "corrections", "clarifications" and the like. A surprising number involve getting names wrong. I say "surprising", as many are mistakes that I think ought to have been prevented by proper subediting/copy editing.
Sadly - a frequent theme of my mutterings these days - globally known organisations and titles have decided to cut back on in-depth subbing/copy editing and have thrown nearly everything at producing more and more content. As the computer programming saw has it, "rubbish in, rubbish out". Most naming errors start with writers, but can be finished before the reader sees them by judicious editing.
There now follows a short stroll through the Proper Noun and Associated Adjective Hall of Shame. Giggle and/or wince as the mood takes you.
From the Guardian: "Colombia was misspelled as Columbia in a panel accompanying an article about security lapses involving the US president ('Red faces at White House over intruder failure', 1 October, page 21)."
From the Daily Mail: "A report of the Derby County v Reading match last Tuesday mistakenly referred to Derby player Will Hughes as Lee Hughes."
From the Wall Street Journal: "The first name of Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, was misspelled as Vincente in a Thursday Personal Journal article and accompanying photo caption about diplomats staying at hotels in New York for the UN General Assembly."; and "Belinda Ellis was a consultant with White Lily flour. A Sept. 6 Off Duty article about biscuits incorrectly referred to the brand as Lily White flour."
And another from the WSJ: "A Palladian window was incorrectly identified as a palladium window in a Spaces column on Tuesday."
I suspect, or at least hope, there is a business case to be made that publishing such blunders does reputational damage to established news brands and reduces the credibility gap between them and the start-up upstarts.
It may even mean that ageing pedants like me continue to find gainful employment, continuing to sort out copy and enlightening the younger generations about how to do the same.
But if the old school continues to construct its hall of shame in the palladium style, it could prove a costly mistake.
Kate and Gerry McCann, the parents of the missing Madeleine, have featured at least twice in more serious news outlets over the past few days. The couple received £55,000 in libel damages from the Sunday Times; and Brenda Leyland, accused of trolling the McCanns online, was found dead in a hotel.
When compulsory redundancy came knocking at the start of 2012, I had spent almost a decade as chief revise editor at the Times. During those years, I did a lot of hands-on subbing/copy editing, proofreading, tinkering with the style guide, dishing out advice - some of it solicited - and sending "encouraging" global emails to colleagues about producing a better-written newspaper.
I shared a small office most days with a fellow pedant or two, and between us we gave the pages a final polish, and occasionally saved a bylined writer's sorry tale/tail. And our daily guest was the duty night lawyer, one of a roster of outside barristers and solicitors hired by the in-house legal department for their expertise in media law.
They would read the pages as we did during the afternoon and into the evening, and between us we aimed to ensure as sparkling a read as possible that would not attract the attentions of Sue, Grabbit and Runne.
A stock-in-trade of the in-house media lawyer is preventing a broadcaster or publisher being sued for defamation, defined by the Oxford dictionary as "the action of damaging the good reputation of someone; slander or libel". Slander refers to anything spoken, libel to anything written.
There now follows a lawyerly caveat. Despite my years of witnessing the nightly practice of newspaper law, it has plenty of mysterious nooks and crannies, so everything I note beyond here is subject to generalisation and simplification.
However... for newspapers, a key way to prevent being sued for libel is to print what is true and to have credible proof, which can be presented in court if necessary, that what is printed is true. The onus in English defamation law is on the publisher, not the complainant.
(Thus Robert Maxwell successfully sued Private Eye for its suggestion that he was, er, borrowing and redirecting, aka stealing, from the Mirror Group Newspapers pension fund. The allegation was true, but Lord Gnome's organ has insufficient evidence at the time.)
Additionally, even if something is defamatory, a night lawyer will dispense on-the-fly opinion about the relative risk of legal action being taken. Traditionally, for example, politicians have been less likely to sue for defamation than showbiz types.
And so to the McCanns. They are parents whose child went missing on a beach holiday in Portugal. The couple came in for criticism and judgement at the time of Madeleine's disappearance from people who said, in effect: "If we were abroad in a child-friendly country, we would not leave our children in an apartment on their own. We would either stay with them or bring them to dinner with us, and really nobody would mind if they fell asleep at the table."
The McCanns are also doctors. I do not know them personally, so my view of the couple comes through the prism of the media. In my opinion, they seem somewhat cold and distant. But to make allowances, the way in which they have come to the public's attention is exceptionally unusual, and none of us knows how we would appear in similar circumstances.
Clearly the McCanns are entitled to the same fair scrutiny that anybody else is. They have instructed lawyers on several occasions regarding defamatory articles, and have won substantial damages. The McCanns have become prominent in the Hacked Off campaign for a post-Leveson settlement that increases press regulation. I understand their position, but fundamentally disagree with it.
A statistic I am fond of repeating relates to the classic textbook McNae's Essential Law for Journalists. It is almost 500 pages. We have an abundance of laws controlling the press, and by extension what is written on Twitter, Facebook and the rest of social media.
I am entirely in the Ian Hislop camp on the state of press regulation, and state press regulation. As the Private Eye editor has said, we do not need any more media regulation (as advocated by Hacked Off and the McCanns). What we do need is the huge corpus of current media law to be properly policed, cases to be brought appropriately to the courts, and punishments to fit any proven offences.
If I choose to break the law for journalistic reasons, I would not deserve or expect special treatment from the law, and would have to be prepared for the consequences.
There is a fine balance to be struck in defending freedom of speech on the one hand and individual rights on the other. The McCanns and the wider Hacked Off movement seem oddly fond of citing cases in which the law appears to deal adequately with press shortcomings as evidence that we require yet more press regulation.
Older men and younger women: now there's a subject I know something about.
First, let me declare an interest. I am an older man, metaphorically hurtling towards a BlankZero birthday, but I think I'm relatively safe in mixed company. And, by the way, I probably won't contemplate voting Liberal Democrat while Chris Rennard continues to enjoy the party whip in the Lords.
Of course, I'm nowhere near as ancient as the Methuselah Vince Cable, but I am the youthful Brooks Newmark's senior by about 0.35 of a decade.
I mention these two gents of the Commons political classes as they have both fallen foul of one of the oldest tricks of espionage and journalistic practice. It even has a name: honeytrap, defined by the Oxford dictionary as "a strategem in which an attractive person entices another person into revealing information or doing something unwise".
Dear old Vince, fairly newly installed in ministerial office in 2010, decided to show off to a couple of young women who came calling at one of his constituency surgeries. He strayed into heady political territory, mouthing off inappropriately - given his Cabinet responsibilities - about Rupert Murdoch, and of course the two young persons were really undercover reporters for the Telegraph, posing as supporters of Mr/Dr Cable's party, the Liberal Democrats.
There followed Vincesque wailing and gnashing of teeth. Moans were made about this and that Telegraph report to the Press Complaints Commission, and editorial knuckles were duly rapped.
Similar anguish about alleged press entrapment surrounds last weekend's (snigger, snigger) tale of Mr Newmark, who sent an online snap of his winky (qv), it is said framed by a fetching glimpse of his paisley pyjamas, to a "young woman" who was actually a male undercover (sic) reporter. The full tabloid exposé got an airing in the Sunday Mirror.
I got into a bit of a Twitter spat on Sunday with a Zoe Williams, of the Guardian, after I took issue with her piece suggesting that Mr Newmark should not have resigned his ministerial office for his action. I say "a", because I was as unfamiliar with her and her oeuvre as I'm certain she is of me and mine.
My own view is that Mr Newmark is now unfit even to be an MP on the ground that he is guilty, by his own admission, of an act of gross stupidity: "a complete fool". Of course, he also appeared to have undergone an irony bypass. He requested in a resignation statement that his privacy be respected.
Even people with the disadvantage of being Harvard-educated multimillionaire government ministers ought to be capable of exercising some judgement in answer to the question: "Is it OK for me, a married man with five children and with a brief in the Conservative Party for encouraging more women into Parliament through Women2Win, to send a picture of my schledium to a complete stranger?"
(My screen grab, above, of the organisation's website is from before Mr Newmark was semi-airbrushed out of its history. Then you saw him, now you don't. Although he still gets a text credit. Awww.)
Those of us who are often at the end, so to speak, of the journalistic production line need to have similar concerns as editorial lawyers about the likely provenance and veracity of copy. After us, stories are in the hand of the reader, the written-about and their lawyers.
Yes, some journalistic methods are underhand, but then so can be those of parliamentarians who, say, cook up expenses claims, incubate dodgy dossiers or take inappropriate advantage of their position.
Journalistic sting operations tend to be targeted and, whatever the protestations of the alleged victims and their apologists, often illuminate and amuse the rest of us while embarrassing the stung. I have no sympathy for senior politicians who display unacceptable naivety and get caught out.
The Newmark saga shows an imperfect, supposedly free, robust and knockabout press doing its work: keeping professional politicians with an apparently heightened sense of entitlement on their toes.
We should be grateful that stingers are often playful, investigative journalists who do care about accountable democracy in Britain and are not agents of hostile governments and groups.
First, credit where it is due: Channel 4 News had a terrific story last night about the scandal of hospital building funded by the so-called private finance initiative (PFI) programme, with the focus of this exclusive tale on the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.
PFI seems to resemble a bit of a wheeze in which public hospitals got built very quickly, making politicians such as Gordon "Referendum Resurrection" Brown look incredibly brilliant, clever and caring; and their private financiers continue to get rewarded handsomely over decades from taxpayers' money, making them look incredibly brilliant, clever, rich, grasping and greedy.
The "furniture" on a story has a job to do, whether on the interweb or newsprint. A headline should draw the reader in, being eye-catching and full of SEO (search engine optimisation/sexy exceptional oohs) goodies.
A good standfirst will give a bit more context, and the byline and any accompanying mugshot will reassure that here is someone I like reading and trust - a no-brainer in the case of the excellent Cathy Newman.
So then we come to the crossheads (type centred) or sideheads (type set left): the mini-headlines or, if you prefer, large bits of text that break up chunks of copy, tell you what's coming in the next few paragraphs and should encourage you to read on. Should.
I think this story is so good that little coaxing is needed to read on. But whoever wrote the unbelievably dull and jargon-rich "Ongoing investigation" in this sidehead needs to go on a refresher course.
We old-school subs are programmed to replace "ongoing" with "continuing" in all circumstances. "Ongoing investigation" is pure essence of plodspeak. Just because most of the Old Bill, as my detective father used to tell me about his colleagues, can't speak or write proper English in public does not mean that journalists have to regurgitate their mangled notions, especially in sideheads.
Maybe something like "Fire safety fears" would have been a little more to the point.
I have to sort out - as in viciously and unmercifully cut - plenty of management-speak in the commercial copy that I edit. It goes with the territory, and I am happy to do it.
You really wouldn't want to hire me for financial advice, as I'm almost a complete klutz in the investment department. In turn, I don't expect too much from business types when they try to write. They pay me to make their jargon-rich nonsense fit for human consumption - and so perhaps more likely to persuade someone to buy their message and their brand or product.
What is almost unforgivable is when people who should know better - journalists, broadcasters, lawyers, politicians, advertising copywriters and academics - insist on persisting with the linguistic redundancies of the commercial classes.
I have a number of bêtes noires, and among them are "going forward" and "moving forward". The redundant use of these phrases has reached global epidemic proportions.
They do not need to be banned. They are perfectly acceptable, for example, in commentaries for any sport where territory is gained with possession of the ball or its equivalent, such as football ("soccer"), rugby union, rugby league, (field) hockey, (ice) hockey and American football (ritualised violence with side-effects including head injuries, buggered-up knee ligaments and domestic abuse).
That leaves a vast arena where permanent exclusion of these management-speak favourites is essential. In a metaphorical sense, "going forward" and "moving forward" imply something that is going to happen. The future is being talked of. So, logically, they become redundant when, say, a tense points to the future or when a noun or verb - plan, prospect, hope etc - looks ahead.
I had a bizarre exchange on Twitter a few months ago (below) when I tried to make this rather simple point to someone at the illustrious Brookings Institution think tank. (This was, by definition, a public conversation, so I have no hesitation in reporting it here.)
I had no idea that, more than 30 years after I bailed out of academe into what many would consider to be the more turbulent and intellectually shallow waters of journalism, my mental flabber would be somewhat gasted.
As a pedant of a scientific bent, I'm seizing this eve-of-Scottish-referendum moment to try to explain - simply, I trust - the basics of opinion polls, specifically sample size and accuracy.
For an opinion poll to be believable, at least two conditions must be fulfilled.
First, the people being polled - the sample - must be representative of the wider population as far as possible, on criteria such as anno domini and gender. Or, as we self-appointed wags like to say, appropriately broken down by age and sex. This is known in the political polling trade - psephology - as "weighting".
Second, the sample needs to be of sufficient size to tease out any significant trend in the sample, and hence the population. Hold on to your school desks, children, as I take you through this tiny step by step.
It is logical that the smaller the sample, the dodgier the conclusion. If I have a crowd of representative Scots crammed on to a football pitch and ask only the bloke on one of the penalty spots for his voting intentions in the #indyref, I may conclude that there will be a 100 per cent Yes, No or Don't Know result when the referendum refs blow their whistles for full time tomorrow night.
The trick with sampling is to poll the smallest number of people you need to get a meaningful - that is, "statistically significant" - result. Asking a million people for their opinion when you only need to ask 10,000 will waste time and money. So far, so bleeding obvious.
Now for the tiny bit of maths. The magic phrase to grasp is "1 over the square root of n". That is how you calculate how much you can trust the result of an opinion poll, where n is the size of the sample: what pollsters call the error.
Suppose, foolishly, you poll only nine people from your sample on the simple Yes/No question "Do you ever wear a kilt?" and don't allow any Don't Knows. You calculate the error as 1 divided by the square root of 9; that is, 1 divided by 3. So the error is 1/3 - a third, or 33.33333 etc per cent. Not much Kop, in footballing parlance, and deserving of a statistical yellow card.
Most reputable polling organisations go for samples of 1,000 - in which case, the error is about 1/32, around 3.1 per cent - or spend more for samples of 1,500 (error about 2.5 per cent), or even 2,000 (error about 2.2 per cent).
So if I can poll a weighted sample of 1,000 in Sutherland, my favourite rural destination in Scotland, and 73 per cent say they sometimes wear a kilt, I can be confident I have obtained a statistically significant result.
The calculated error of 3.1 per cent suggests that my figure for kilt wearers could be as small as about 70 per cent or as high as 76 per cent. The 27 per cent figure for those who say they never wear a kilt could be as high as 30 per cent or as low 24 per cent. The difference between the two responses is said to be "statistically significant" and I can have high confidence I am not talking sporran-adjacent nonsense.
I hope this explains why there can be controversy when a sample size in an opinion poll about #indyref voting intentions is only 500, with an error of about 4.5 per cent. If I obtain a 54-46 split from my sample, the ranges can be 58 to 50, and 42 to 50, respectively. I cannot have great confidence that I am sampling anything other than error in my methodology.
Anyway, come Friday morning, the opinion polls and their sampling errors will be ancient history because - as we all know in that politician's cliché - it's only the real vote that counts. Until the next opinion poll, anyway.
While a news story should always correctly answer the curiosity of readers about the who, what, when, how and why, they can get especially irritated if the where is wrong.
The slightest error about local geography can prompt a flurry of complaints. Often there are nuances about which street is in, say, the hypothetical town of Seaville and which in its dock area, Seaport, that only locals can discern.
A distant journalist at a newspaper office in London, with only an online map for guidance and a deadline five minutes away, can be on a hiding to nothing.
So some geographical faux pas are more understandable than others. This recent example, openly confessed by the Guardian, is particularly bizarre.
St Pancras station is only six minutes' walk from the newspaper's office, which is just over the London borough border at Kings Place, in Islington. I think. At least, according to the red dotted line on Google Maps.
Beginners, start here. Yes, that's something of a tautology.
One of the many tasks of the proper subeditor/copy editor is, to use the technical term, cut the crap.
It may be invidious to pick out an individual. John Harris, of the Guardian, is merely another of the countless exponents of "added bonus".
A bonus is "an extra and unexpected advantage", says the Oxford. Since the meanings of "added" and "extra" are synonymous, young JH could have saved himself five keystrokes by simply writing "bonus". And many more in future if he follows my advice for most of the times that he writes "bonus".
Deliberate deployment of tautology is best left for the poetic, eg, the "bosky wood" of Rupert Brooke.
Tautology is likely to be a recurring theme in these pages. One of my favourites is "ruling military junta", which can invariably be rendered accurately as "junta". Well done, the Wall Street Journal and no end of others.
My attempts to stop literals popping up in copy that I have subbed mean I'm a day late to this particular mock-the-Daily-Mail party.
But comparison of the first (top) and second (above) versions of the shouty WOB (white-on-black) furniture serves as a painful reminder to all of us handling the written word in a rush: there is a universal rule of journalism that stories about illiteracy are subject to typo karma.
And of course I've read these few lines through a ridiculously obsessive number of times because I know I'm in danger of overlooking my own typos or worse.
Richard Dixon has