The Law of Unintended Consequences

So here’s the thing. Last week, I decided at the last minute to post a tongue-in-cheek little piece that I’d knocked up very quickly, without necessarily intending ever to share it with the wider world. This, of course, was my ‘Journalist’s Guide to Writing About the Royal Navy’.

The response was astonishing. During the last week, this site has received far and away the most traffic it’s ever had, and the post attracted an unprecedented number of comments. I’ve lost count of the number of times the link to it has been retweeted. I even had several re-blogs, a concept of which I’d been entirely unaware until that point. I thought I was aware of the power of the Internet, but nothing prepared me for this!

The vast majority of comments and tweets about the post were complimentary; the sentiments expressed in it clearly struck a chord, and it’s gratifying to know that so many people still care very deeply about the Royal Navy and the way in which it’s reported. Several of those who tweeted about it or commented on the post added their own personal gripes about reporting of the navy, or of the armed forces more generally, and I’ll focus on just one of these later in this post. A few people took me to task for my own factual slips – quite rightly so, too (yes, I know, people living in glass houses, etc). However, a few also berated me for taking a pop at journalists. A couple of respondents raised the point that in several cases, sloppy reporting in the media was actually a consequence of sloppy press releases from the Ministry of Defence; point taken, and indeed, I’d made that point myself, albeit in relation to a press release from Buckingham Palace, in my old blog a couple of years ago. But suggestions that I might somehow have a broader anti-journalist agenda are actually unintentionally amusing. For the record, my partner is an award-winning, career Fleet Street journalist (and she’s finding this whole business hilarious). So was her late brother. Several of our friends are journalists; several of my former students now have very successful careers in journalism. Enough said, apart from the item with which I’ll conclude this post.

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One complaint that I didn’t air in my list of a dozen common reporting errors, but which was highlighted by a number of respondents, was the increasing use of the definite article before ‘HMS’ in TV bulletins – ‘the HMS Illustrious is on her way to the Philippines’, and so forth. I quite agree that this is entirely wrong in terms of accepted usage, but thinking about it has made me wonder whether that accepted usage might be changing. In one of my very earliest posts in this blog, I discussed the question of how warships were referred to in the seventeenth century, and concluded by making this observation:

Before [the second half of the eighteenth century], British warships…were never named without the definite article, and ‘His/Her Majesty’s Ship’ was never, ever, abbreviated. This might seem to be one of the pedantic oddities of the Quinton journals, but it’s simply an attempt to stay true to the practice of the times. This is why the title page of Part One of The Mountain of Gold begins ‘His Majesty’s Ship, the Wessex’and Part Three ‘His Majesty’s Ship, the Seraph’, and why you will never see the abbreviation ‘HMS’ in any of the books. I think this piece of semantics has two important consequences. The definite article seems to me to make the ship more unique, more distinctive, more of a ‘personality’ in its own right; while the full form, ‘His Majesty’s Ship’, reminds us that this really was a ‘royal navy’, the property of the monarch…

Of course, the inevitable happened: it was pointed out to me that I shouldn’t have a comma before the ship’s name. (Mea culpa; proof, perhaps, that 1970s grammar school educations weren’t as perfect as some modern pundits suggest they were.) But the key point is this. It was once simply wrong to name a British warship without providing the definite article, and at some stage, there was a gradual change from that old accepted usage to the one that now holds sway. In the present day, though, acronyms are all-pervasive, and are increasingly treated as words in their own right (LOL). So if the ‘longhand’ meaning of ‘HMS’ is hardly ever used, and the acronym is effectively regarded as a word – and, indeed, if substantial numbers of people don’t know what the acronym actually means, as one suspects might be the case – then are we moving into a new era where ‘the HMS’ will become the accepted form? (One might add that ‘the USS’ has always been grammatically correct, so the creeping adoption of ‘the HMS’ might simply be a reflection of wider cultural Americanisation, which my spell check tells me should be ‘Americanization’.) If this really is the case, it would be distinctly ironic, because it would actually be a move back toward something closer to the original way of rendering the names of warships. Or, to put it another way: what goes around, comes around.

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Finally, here’s something that I came across by chance in the library of the National Maritime Museum last week. It seemed particularly apposite!

Members of the London daily press seldom write books, and for the very good reason that they do not have the time. The week, Sunday included, is too short for them, and although it were enlarged to eight or ten days for their accommodation, they would be no better off, because the same inexorable demands would continue to be made on them. At the close of the last Parliamentary session, two or three newspaper writers in the prime of life died from overwork. So it is always, and so probably it will be always. The older members of the London press could not, if they tried, reckon up the number of fellow workers who have fallen at their side, young, and seemingly robust, but physically shattered by the ceaseless strain upon their faculties. Serving the public too well, they killed themselves, and be it said to their honour and the public shame, they were never once remembered.

That was part of the preface of the book Dockyard Economy and Naval Power, written by the journalist Patrick Barry.

It was published in 1863.

 

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