Victoria Coren Mitchell - Writer, Broadcaster & Poker Player

My Brother’s In Trouble Again

Friday, 25 July 2008

I see my brother’s in trouble again.
I was standing at the till in Marks & Spencer, queuing patiently to spend £50 more than necessary on some basic household items, when my old friend Michael Arnold from the Vic called my mobile.
‘I think you might be interested’, came his familiar laconic drawl, ‘in pages 14-15 of today’s Guardian’.
There were newspapers near the till so I picked one up and leafed through it. Yes, my big brother has been harassing some poor sub-editor at The Times again, shouting and swearing (via email) at some decent, hard-working, underpaid individual who does a less glamorous job than Giles on the same newspaper. But while I was reading – am I a bad person? – I alarmed my fellow queuers by laughing out loud from start to finish.
If Giles had taken the issue of the missing ‘a’ only a LITTLE bit seriously, and been only a little rude, I might have told him off for it. But the language is so ludicrously hyperbolic that only a pompous arse could read it without laughing. Knowing my brother, he was probably laughing as he wrote it. Laughing and swearing and banging his fist on the table. (I may, at some point, have him sectioned.)
But the fact is, Giles is right. He’s 100% right. The ‘problem’ with his email (as expressed by dozens of disapproving online commentators) is that he is taking the precise details of a sentence too seriously. But the reason why he’s so infuriated is that he is sending an email into a world where people who work in newspapers can actually think it is possible to take the precise details of a sentence too seriously. Wouldn’t that infuriate anybody? Anybody who cared?
I remember going to a drinks party when a former editor of mine, one of my all-time favourites, was leaving. Another colleague entertained the group with a speech about my editor’s famous pedantry. Historic emails were read out, in which he had questioned exact grammatical constructions and pieces of logic in fastidious detail. Ooh, the audience fell about. Hohoho, what a loony! And I wanted to kill them. I wanted to kill them for having jobs on a national newspaper – writing jobs, subbing jobs, editing jobs, which so many hundreds of thousands of people try and fail to get - and then thinking it was funny that somebody cared about language.
It just isn’t fair. Not fair. Those of us who grow up as linguistic ‘pedants’, who love the quirky, twisting internal logic of English spelling and try to respect it, who feel queasy at the sight of an apostrophe in the wrong place, who know that a joke can be made hilarious or humourless by the exact placing of a stressed syllable, should be able to get jobs as teachers or writers or editors without our colleagues taking the piss out of us for being wankers. Those are supposed to be the areas in which it’s okay to care about how things are written. If those people don’t care, who does?
A sub-editor on the Guardian should be ashamed to argue, as one of them does here that Giles’s email ‘lacks a sense of proportion’. What does he mean?
  If David Marsh (the author of that piece) was a surgeon, a soldier, a fireman, or perhaps the nightwatchman in a cancer hospice, he might reasonably argue that Giles’s feelings about the importance of the last sentence in a restaurant review are disproportionate. But he’s a sub! He’s got a job in the writing trade! He should think that sentences are more important than anything else in the world! And if he doesn’t, then it shouldn’t be his job to order and edit and change and ‘correct’ the writing of people who care more than he does.
  It’s particularly important with columnists, who write personal opinions with photographs of themselves at the top. We’re the ones who’ll get the hard time from people who disagree – we’ll get the online criticism from people who think we write badly, the hate mail from nutters. So we should at least have the right to make sure it is our own words that people are reading. If we aren’t the best judges of what makes good and funny writing, we should be fired and replaced. Until that happens, we should be allowed to make the final decisions about exactly what appears under our names – or at least be consulted.
  You might say that Giles still shouldn’t have expressed himself so strongly. I can’t help feeling awfully sorry for the person who originally received that email – despite the fact that he or she then leaked it for revenge. But I don’t know that my brother wasn’t sensible to get the rudeness in first.
  I once sent an email to an editor who had cut the end off one of my columns without telling me. Just chopped the end off and put it in the paper. I needed to tell him that it wasn’t okay to just remove things I’d written, and misrepresent what I was saying, without even warning me. But I opted for saying that in a rather cringing, apologetic, embarrassed tone. I wrote, inter alia

  “I know you’ll think all of this is silly, and it is in a way – plenty of much easier people will just send in the stuff, ignore the word count, never even bother reading it on the page and wait for the money. But I care a lot… and it’s really demoralizing to get chopped and cut without any consultation, as if the words are just so much ink to be moved around for reasons of page shape. It’s been going on for years, literally hundreds of jokes have been ruined by editing of one sort or another. When you write comic stuff, you have to feel confident or you just stare at the screen in a spirit of misery and self-loathing. But I really am genuinely sorry to be difficult, and I will have another go next week if you’re up for it?”

  He wrote back

  “Don’t dare be so arrogant and presumptuous. The column was better without the ending.”

  That’s where being apologetic gets you. So I can’t help admiring my brother, in making a point which is (in principle) absolutely right and proper, for making it with a bang rather than a whimper.




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nosher at 2:31 am on July 26th, 2008

[SHORTENED FOR SPACE] Hi Victoria, I seem to remember you confusing infer and imply on Balderdash & Piffle. So we all make mistakes… If you had any idea of the amount of cock-ups that subs save you from you wouldn’t find this amusing (although it is a corker of an e-mail), and no-one is more pedantic about English than the people who go through the copy you and your brother file. I’m confident that you have been saved from publishing pieces with hideously embarrassing errors every day by the same people but there are no emails saying ‘fuck fuck fuck fuck thanks for preventing me look like an imbecile by correcting effects to affects’. Check yourself before you wreck yourself.


David Young at 2:35 am on July 26th, 2008

I seem to recall an TV advert Giles did for Birdseye in which explained that some preservative is used in food production but that it would be better

“if it was taken out’.

rather than

‘if it were taken out’.

Am I mistaken in thinking that he violated the rules of the subjunctive?


Andy B at 12:14 pm on July 26th, 2008

I’ve edited and been edited, and as such have been on the giving and receiving end.

Giles was right to complain: it was poor editing. But I can’t condone the tenor of his letter. There’s already an atmosphere of mutual distrust - “They’re deliberately sabotaging my beautiful words”/“Did this writer even read this back to herself?”, and vitriol like that only hardens the battle lines. If it helps, Giles, my friend thought your picture looked gorgeous.

Chris Rees at 7:52 pm on July 26th, 2008

100% support to Giles - I was unaware of any background and laughed long long long and very loudly.

Victoria Coren at 10:38 pm on July 27th, 2008

Interesting question DY, I *think* one can be flexible with the subjunctive these days. There’s actually a line in the blog post itself, “If he was a surgeon or a soldier…” which I considered changing to “If he were a surgeon or a soldier” but I thought this was probably optional & “were” felt a bit formal for a blog. But I might be wrong. A good sub would know of course…  ;-)

E Ohashi at 12:14 am on July 28th, 2008

If only all office communication was as colourful as Giles’! 

If I were to sub-edit however, I may suggest that rather than finishing with “All the best”, he consider signing off in the manner that I do with my clients – “In the meantime, if you have any questions or queries, then please don’t hesitate to contact me.” 

(I’m hoping there is an unstressed syllable in there somewhere…)

Victoria Coren at 2:55 pm on July 28th, 2008

To ‘Nosher’
Ah, but you’re wrong! I am often sending grateful emails to Stephen Pritchard - the very brilliant man who sometimes subs my Observer column. It’s not so much about mistakes, as I really am obsessive enough to make them very rarely, but he will sometimes point out some faulty logic, a legal problem or a better word I could have used, and I send effusive, thankful replies! The editor discussed in the above post (whose leaving drinks I went to) was also a regular recipient of my grateful thanks for his clever subbing and his readiness to run things by me if he wasn’t sure. And if you can find an example of me confusing “infer” and “imply” anywhere on the entire two series of Balderdash & Piffle, I will give you two hundred pounds.

Snowman at 3:08 am on July 29th, 2008

It’s infuriating. An editor recently chopped the whole middle section of an article I wrote for him that contained all the gags.
It must be infuriating to have the entire ending of a letter or article removed.

Martin at 8:48 am on July 29th, 2008

Off topic, do you still play at the Vic? I’ll be in London on August 4th and 5th and I’ll go only if you’re there.

James at 5:24 pm on July 29th, 2008

I read a piece by Giles Coren in the Sunday Times magazine a few weeks ago and thought it was rather enjoyable (some especially good stuff about squirrels, I seem to recall). Having said that, I now feel somewhat cheated as I appear to have missed all the blowjob references he claims to include in his writing. I’m going to dig out the article and have another read of it…

By the way, what is the difference between infer and imply?

Victoria Coren at 12:59 am on July 30th, 2008

I’m slightly drunk so this might not be perfect, but “implying” is what the active person does (to suggest or hint or indirectly mean something) and “infering” is what the passive person or recipient does (to read a meaning into something where it isn’t directly said). Of course I still play at the Vic, though not sure if I’ll be there on the 4th or 5th as I’m supposed to be playing poker in other places on those nights. Good luck, VC

Martin at 12:52 pm on July 30th, 2008

If you’re not gonna be at the Victoria casino on Monday or Tuesday next week there’s no point in me going, maybe I’ll see you one day at a major tournament. Good luck wherever you’re playing.

Sean at 10:46 am on August 4th, 2008

Hi VC, I work on a subs desk in London (and play poker - though rarely at the same time). Obviously your brother’s email has been discussed here with some amusement. I was impressed by your familial defense.

Andrew Ryan at 9:37 am on August 11th, 2008

The nosh joke was a bit lame anyway. Yes, Giles has a better ear for Yiddish than the sub-editor, but I think most readers would find the phrase ‘looking for a nosh’ meaningless. Many would miss the blow job reference, and an even greater number would. think that ‘a nosh’ was grammatically incorrect.

charlie at 5:40 pm on August 21st, 2008

‘Only a pompous arse,’ is soooo right this e-mail is a peach and so well written, Giles is one articulate, funny man ... As an Edinburgh boy i had no idea that a blowjob could be referred to as ‘a nosh’ ahahahaha i do now - canny wait to use it.

anon at 10:20 pm on August 23rd, 2008

Your brother e-mail was hilarious and I agree with him 100%

michelle meola at 11:51 pm on September 21st, 2008

PLEASE see the YouTube clip below regarding Giles’ email:

Victoria Coren at 10:00 am on September 22nd, 2008

Lol, he seems to have been very inspiring to the creative minds on YouTube - I like this one

Apply food stamp at 12:50 pm on September 25th, 2008

I wanted to research this subject and write a paper. Your post says what a thousand words would not. Nice job.

erugsmump at 6:49 am on October 11th, 2008


Martha Louise, who is the only daughter of King Harald and Queen Sonja, gave up the title of ‘royal highness’ upon her 2002 marriage to writer Ari, and has a reputation for not standing on ceremony.

ArcticWolf2110 at 11:24 pm on November 15th, 2012

Too right! People think we are what they call ‘grammar nazis’, but I’d much rather live with a fascist linguistic system than none at all!

Victoria Coren

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