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Confessions of a sub-aholic

A four-month stint at The Straits Times' backbench was one of the most intellectually and emotionally satisfying periods of my admittedly short (so far) professional life.

The term "backbench", as the parliamentary reference suggests, is used for the sub-editors at the back-end of the newspaper, as opposed to reporters who face the public. Sub-editors get short shrift, probably because most people outside the print newspaper industry do not seem to know what they do - or that they even exist.

They are the hard-working people who prepare all the text, images and pages for the printing press in the middle of the night. As New York Times reporters wrote in protest of impending lay-offs for copy editors: "they save our 'buts'".

(Writing witty headlines - another useful sub skill.)

But while senior subs seem to command an encyclopaedic knowledge of the ins and outs of the English language, there is a higher power to which we all must turn - The Straits Times stylebook, a document so antique that it reminds reporters not to use a lowercase "L" for the number "1" on whatever the ancestor of the word processor was 25 years ago.

I have an unabashed love-hate relationship with our stylebook, as my inner Hermione Granger wars with, well, my inner Hermione Granger.

To omit the hyphen and write of a "20 strong women's team", the stylebook says, "suggests the women have muscles in places where they perhaps should not have them". Well, alright (I'm sorry, I meant to say "all right"). Go on and body-shame those women. I'll let you skate down the road to hell yourself.

Nerdy sub-editor Hermione is the sort of person who knows the difference between "due to", which modifies a noun, and "owing to", which modifies an adjective.

Reformist sub-editor Hermione thinks it is well past time we allowed organisations to have "spokeswomen", not just "spokesmen".

Revolutionary sub-editor Hermione also wants the default pronoun for people of unspecified gender to be "they", not "he".

And confused sub-editor Hermione, who is all in favour of replacing "elevator" with "lift" in newspaper copy, does not know why we hew to the British consensus on "lorry" but still use "pick-up truck" and "tipper truck".

The past tense of "spell" is not "spelled"; it's "spelt".

But the past tense of "burn" is not "burnt"; it's "burned".

(Both parentheses and semicolons are frowned upon - as are exclamation marks - and, fun fact, "semicolon" is an exception to the rule of hyphenating "semi-" as a prefix.)

"Shareholders", but "bond holders" - that one has always tripped me up.

The stylebook inevitably starts as many fights as it prevents.

For all that it cautions us to "avoid male chauvinistic adjectives such as the fairer sex or the weaker sex", there are times when I get angry at the generations before me, doubtless mostly male, who have crafted this manual.

To omit the hyphen and write of a "20 strong women's team", the stylebook says, "suggests the women have muscles in places where they perhaps should not have them".

Well, alright (I'm sorry, I meant to say "all right"). Go on and body-shame those women. I'll let you skate down the road to hell yourself.

(I jest, but mostly because the stylebook warns against "mild blasphemy" like the word "hell" appearing in a family newspaper.)

And "young people" is not the same as "youths", because, for some reason, youths are lads - as though the English language has failed to consider that young women may now also step outside the family home and show their face in public!

(Yes, I dare to use an exclamation mark!)

Also (and never "in addition"), for every time we are grateful that the stylebook saves us the debate over whether "under way" is one word or two, someone is ready to go to blows over whether we should de-Americanise (or is it "de-americanise"?) place names that contain "center" or "harbor".

All that said, subbing is an exercise in both prudence and humility.

The stylebook, for all its many flaws, comes out strongly against allowing language that could justify ethnic animus to slip through checkers' and readers' careless implicit biases.

Strike out any mention of race or nationality that is not relevant to a story, it reminds us. "The test is: Does the nationality form a vital part of the story? If not, leave it out."

And in a time when the swastika is flying again in the West, it explains: "The term 'Jew', used in a derogatory or vulgar way, is taken to mean an usurer or someone who drives hard bargains... This label is banned, even in quotes. It is racist and distasteful."

The stylebook is indeed a product of its times - and so I itch to see it updated, a desire that comes not least because I take very seriously the impact that words have in shaping society.

This is a responsibility that every one of us in the industry must carry, whether the answer is clear-cut - referring to a transgender person with the wrong pronouns is just plain wrong, for one - or less so, as in the debate between the terms "people with autism", which avoids reducing individuals to a single condition, or "autistic people", which reaffirms the pride that some may feel in how their brains are wired.

It goes without saying that those are not hypothetical scenarios, but real situations that we have been asked to weigh in the daily course of our work.

And of course, I have my own selfish motives for changing the stylebook, as do we all.

I can live with the bans on "total" and "currently", despite the twinge of guilt when I write about "total returns" or "current accounts".

But one day, the Oxford comma will finally have its day.

• #opinionoftheday is a column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 08, 2017, with the headline 'Confessions of a sub-aholic'. Print Edition | Subscribe