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The Economist publishes my criticism of former British prime minister Tony Blair

The Economist‘s May 31st issue contained an article titled “What I’ve learned” by Tony Blair in which he “reflects on the lessons of his decade as Britain’s prime minister.”

A few days ago The Economist printed my letter in response to Blair’s piece on its website (scroll down to the last letter):


Tony Blair lays out evidence for Iran’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Al-Qaeda’s having been “in Iraq before Saddam’s fall”. It’s unfortunate that Mr. Blair’s credibility is such that my immediate reaction was to wonder if he was exaggerating. Notably, Mr. Blair did not reflect on the need for accuracy and honesty in dealings with the public.

Mr. Blair goes on to write “terrorism recruits adherents on the basis of an appeal to human emotion”. How do accounts of yellow cake purchases in Niger and Mr Hussein being 45 minutes away from unleashing weapons of mass destruction differ from the terrorists’ tactic? It’s unfortunate that none of Mr. Blair’s reflections pertained to the need for world leaders to be honest and forthright when advocating a course of action—especially when making the case for war. Inflated, or “sexed up”, claims cause a loss of credibility which, in turn, can mean future threats go unheeded. And leaders who exaggerate these threats see their potential wasted and legacies tarnished.

Zach Everson
Washington, DC

(Please note the punctuation, notably putting commas and periods outside of the quotation marks, follows the standards for British English.)

I’m no longer a writer, editor, and consultant

My new title is grammar and strategy tsar.

From The Economist—Absurd titles: Tsarstruck“:

When, a few years ago, word came that British bird lovers anxious about the decline of the house sparrow had appointed a sparrow tsar, it seemed that the tsar vogue must have reached its zenith. France already had a crime tsar, London a traffic tsar, Japan a banking tsar, the European Union a foreign-policy tsar, and America had tsars for adoption, baseball, B-movies, manufacturing, record labels, you name it. No one, however, could outdo the sparrow tsar, or so you might think. Surely he would prove to be not so much the reductio ad absurdum as the dernier cri, the ne plus ultra in the once-rarefied realm of tsardom? But no. The latest newcomer, unless one has been added since you started this paragraph, is President George Bush’s war tsar.

Can electronic style manuals replace the paper format?

While reading last week’s New Yorker, in which two of my favorite writers had articles about two of my least favorite people (Jeffrey Toobin on Arlen Specter and Ken Auletta on Lou Dobbs), I noticed a small advertisement toward the back of the magazine:

The Chicago Manual of Style is now available online.

One of the great benefits of freelancing is that I can work from anywhere. Having to lug around style manuals, however, hinders my mobility. So the ad got me thinking about electronic style manuals: might they make it easier to travel?

Unfortunately, there are several drawbacks about this new product:

  • It only is available online. So if you are going to rely on it, you need to have Internet access.
  • Annual subscriptions cost $25. As the hardcopy costs $35 (with free shipping) on and the manual is not updated every year, the website is more expensive.
  • My copy of Chicago—as I’m sure is the case with many other writers and editors—is dog-eared. I’m not sure how to replicate that timesaver online.

Chicago, however, is available as a CD-ROM. I figured that format might better suit my needs as it’s only a one-time purchase and it doesn’t require Internet access.

Then I read the feedback on “The software implementation permits users to read only a single numbered paragraph of the book at a time: those who know the print edition will readily understand that having to click one’s mouse repeatedly to move from paragraph 17:148 to 17:149 to 17:150, each occupying just a few lines on separate screens, is an unbelievably cumbersome way to use this essential reference tool.”

So much for not having to cart around the big orange book any more.

Other style manuals have been similarly clumsy in their electronic formats. The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications, which I reviewed earlier, comes with a CD-ROM, but it does not work on Macs and most reviewers have deemed the disc useless. And while The Economist’s Style Guide is available online, other than The Economist I don’t know of any publications that use it.

The Economist is unsure whether enlightened government is bad or not bad

Here’s a letter to the editor I sent to The Economist:

Sir—I’m confused. In the print edition, your leader about Daniel Ortega’s election (“Dealing With Daniel.” November 11th) stated, “Enlightened government of the left, combining market economics with effective social policy, would be a bad thing.” The online version of the article claims that it “would not be a bad thing.” I mostly read the print edition; does The Economist tell its online readers that it considers Guantanamo Bay a lovely getaway for suspected Taliban, the demise of the Doha trade round fantastic, and Silvio Berlusconi the best thing to happen to democracy since Thomas Jefferson?

Since long-time editor Bill Emmott left the paper earlier this year, the quality of the copy has slipped. I read about a quarter of the magazine each week and usually find at least one mistake. Prior to Emmott’s departure it was close to flawless.

Freelancing, Word styles, Bill Clinton, and Russia: Articles worth reading

Here are some good reads on an assortment of topics:

  • Freelancing tips from an illustrator. It’s obvious that Megan Jeffrey has 17 years of experience freelancing; there’s not a single suggestion with which I’d disagree (link via Lifehacker).
  • Macworld: Save time with Word’s styles. One of the biggest ways to make publishing a document more efficient is to get everyone in an organization using Word’s styles. It makes an editor’s job easier, as he or she won’t have to waste time reformatting a document and instead can focus on improving the text.
  • The New Yorker: “The Wanderer”—The ex-presidency of Bill Clinton. This article in the September 18, 2006 issue isn’t available online, but it’s worth picking up at the newsstand. David Remnick’s profile of President Clinton is fascinating and examines his work fighting HIV/AIDS.
  • The Economist: Russian health and demography—A sickness of the soul. It’s hard to think of a country that put the first man in space as having problems usually reserved for developing nations in Africa and Asia, but that’s what former superpower Russia is facing.

Oh the scandals in those trashy British papers!

Ok, so this row isn’t as juicy as the ones in other British media outlets, but the battle over grammar in The Economist (see my earlier post) continues to rage:

Like, duh
SIR — David Legard used sarcasm to criticise The Economist for employing a popular phrase (“it’s sooo yesterday”) that flummoxed his language students (Letters, August 5th). But if he really does “appreciate excellent written English”, how can he not appreciate your use of humour? English constantly evolves and to anyone who thinks the language should be preserved in a state of petrified perfection I say: it ain’t gonna happen, dude.

Colin Webb
Perth, Australia

More concerns about The Economist‘s grammar

It seems I’m not the only person to have questions about The Economist‘s grammar. From the letters in the August 3, 2006 issue:

Like, er, awesome
SIR— The Human Genome Project is “sooo yesterday” (“A study with a lot of balls”, July 29th)? I mean, like, wow. My advanced language students use The Economist to appreciate excellent written English. Like, unreal. Perhaps we should switch to a different text? Like, Hello!?

David Legard

The Economist used a hyphen after an adverb ending in “ly”—did it err or am I missing something?

From Mr Bush’s first veto in the July 22, 2006 Economist (subscription required):

And a decision by Mr Bush in 2001 allows federally-funded scientists to experiment on the few dozen embryonic stem-cell “lines” that already existed then, which can be propagated in a laboratory [emphasis mine].

I don’t like pointing out grammatical mistakes unless I’m on the clock or they’re amusing (yes, I know that the capitalization of the tags on this site is inconsistent—it’s a software issue, however, and not a grammatical one). In fact, I try not to edit when I am reading for pleasure—it slows me down.

When The Economist breaks a convention, however, (and not just by using quirky British English) I run to my grammar books.

From the adverbs entry (p. 36) of The Economist Style Guide (remember when I wrote that this book was a good reference?):

Adverbs do not need to be linked to participles or adjectives by hyphens in simple constructions: The regiment was ill equipped for its task; The principle is well established; Though expensively educated, the journalist knew no grammar. But if the adverb is one of two words together being used adjectivally, a hyphen may be needed: The ill-equipped regiment was soon repulsed; All well-established principles should be periodically challenged. The hyphen is especially likely to be needed if the adverb is short and common, such as ill, little, much and well. Less-common adverbs, including all those that end -ly, are less likely to need hyphens: Never employ an expensively educated journalist [emphasis mine].

Did the impeccable Economist err or am I missing something?