Tuesday, 6 March 2012

BBC News website's confusion between hyphens and en dashes

Expensive readers,

I come out of self-imposed blog exile to enthuse about an issue that – what else? – greatly vexes me.

This being the BBC's insistence on using a hyphen in every single instance on their news site that calls for the use of a dash.

I sent them an email to that effect and, after some three or four months, received the following reply:
Dear Mr Velky
Reference CAS-1211233-0Z92S4
Thank you for getting in touch. We understand the distinction you are making. However, our production system does not readily make the full-length dash available. We are aware that there are ways round this - using Alt and 0151 on the numeric keypad, for instance. However, we do not consider it an issue that requires us to impose convoluted procedures on our staff.
Just as words such as "to-day" and "to-morrow" no longer require a hyphen, we believe other traditions are no longer requirements of our work. The main needs are clarity and expediency, and we are satisfied that using a hyphen instead of a dash does not hinder the understanding of our work, which must be our prime consideration. Indeed, we are not aware of having received another complaint along these lines.
Best wishes,
BBC News website
Several points, which I may as well post here rather than send to the BBC (whose customer services department – like all the worst of them – provides no email address to respond to):
  1. I find the tone of the reply, as with their first, needlessly condescending. "We understand the distinction you are making" they say, as though they had understood it perfectly well the first time I emailed, which they plainly didn't (they asked for "an example" – hmm, try every page of your website, perhaps?) or I'd not have had to send a second email to clarify it, and wait a further three months for their reply.
  2. "Our production system does not ..." Pah! Pathetic excuse. Change your production system to allow accurate representation of the English language, not the other way around, you arrogant fools!
  3. I think they mean “around” not “round”: if you go round something you end up back where you started, which is rarely the required result of this idiomatic turn of phrase, whose root meaning is “to overcome an obstacle”.
  4. Using "Alt 0151" produces an em dash (—), not an en dash (–), which is the standard punctuation point required for this usage online. I said nothing about em dashes, and the previous point about understanding the distinction has just been blown right out the water by their own foolishness, fools.
  5. BBC staff (or managers, to be precise) consider correct punctuation – or, at least, anything that's not a single tap of the key away – a "convoluted process". Further condescension, and further foolishness.
  6. As for that bollocks about hyphens; the formation of compounds is an entirely different matter to the conflation of punctuation points that serve entirely different purposes but merely look the same. Sod it, let's do away with commas too while we're at it, shall we? They look just like full stops and they're a whole one key's distance away. What other pointlessly luxurious "traditions" can we do away with next, I wonder? Correct spelling? Innocence until proven guilt? Me paying my TV license?
  7. "The main needs are clarity and expediency": so, the main needs are being clear and using fancy duplicitous cop-out words that are the opposite of being clear. Nice one.
  8. "We are satisfied that using a hyphen instead of a dash does not hinder the understanding of our work ..." Perhaps you are, but it lacks elegance and it saps your parenthetical or interrupting clauses of the very power the dash is meant to lend them in the first place. Do away with that and your nuance will be no different than if you'd used commas (or a single comma) instead of your substandard crappy dash–stand in hyphens.
  9. "Prime consideration", is it? A few sentences ago you were saying "expediency" (horrible word) shared that honour with "clarity". Or was that a slip-up?
  10. "We are not aware of having received another complaint along these lines". Probably because most of the poor fools out there assume what they read on the BBC website constitutes correct English usage. More. Fool. Them. ("Indeed".)
And on that note, dear reader, I urge you too to complain to the BBC about their lacklustre approach to punctuation. The freestanding hyphen simply is not a thing. (Ask Larry Trask, or Oxford Dictionaries, or Wikipedia.) You cannot base your use of objects on the fact that they look vaguely similar to other objects you'd use for the same purpose, or all hell would break loose.

Like this:

Clear enough for you? Expedient enough?

Still looks shit though, doesn't it?

I'm not even joking about this, just in case anybody reading this knows me not well enough to think I might be.

Fight this chaos, I beg you.

Yours, irate,

A Velky