Friday, April 03, 2009

Capital clarity

PooterGeek responds to my post arguing that there’s no reason to use title case for ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ in their political senses; he suggests just such a reason.

His broad approach, which is utterly correct, is that such decisions should be made on the basis of what gives clarity for the reader. He offers, for instance, this:

“Gordon Brown always positioned himself on the left of Tony Blair at full meetings of Cabinet.”

Left and right (and centre) are words with more than one meaning; as this illustrates, there’s a risk of ambiguity. PooterGeek suggests that the above would be about seating positions, while the following would be about political stances:

“Gordon Brown always positioned himself on the Left of Tony Blair at full meetings of Cabinet.”

This is a fair challenge to what I’d said – I hadn’t thought of any reasons for this distinction. But, as a solution to the problem of ambiguity, I have just two quibbles with this: it’s insufficient and it’s unnecessary.

Remember that the aim of all this is to communicate clearly. I quite agree that the capitalised version is unambiguously meant in a political sense; the capitalisation will jar with some readers, but if we’re faced with a choice between smoothness and clarity, clarity must win.

However, the physical location version (“positioned himself on the left of Tony Blair”) is not unambiguous.

One can’t expect all one’s readers to have intimate familiarity with one’s own house style guide. The use of title case for Left and Right is far from universal – indeed, I’d guess it’s not even majority usage (the Times, Telegraph and Sun do it; the Guardian, Independent, FT, Mirror, Mail, Express and Economist don’t). This lack of consensus means a writer or editor can’t assume that readers will know that this publication is one that does employ the Left/left distinction, and so “on the left” here could suggest either politics or seating.

So this use of title case won’t in itself remove the scope for ambiguity. Something else is needed. And, indeed, that something else will do the job without any need for title case.

There are plenty of words with more than one meaning that can be used to create ambiguous sentences. Left, right and centre are examples. But in desiring clarity, the wrong question to ask is whether we can construct such ambiguities; the right question is whether we can avoid them without the use of special typographical tricks.

The three examples PooterGeek gives are ambiguous when taken in isolation; when part of a longer piece of writing, the meaning will usually be made clear by the context. But even setting this aside, we can try to rephrase.

In the above case, “Brown always seated himself on the left of Tony Blair” and “Brown always adopted a view to the left of Tony Blair’s” (or “Brown always presented himself as being more left-wing than Tony Blair”) would do.

To PooterGeek’s other examples:

“Nick Clegg was at the centre of a row between two long-opposed factions within the LibDems yesterday evening.”

This could be rendered as either “Clegg was the focus of a row” or “Clegg took a view somewhere between two long-opposed factions”.

“When David Cameron confronted last week’s meeting of the No Turning Back group with this apparent contradiction, many observers wondered if he was addressing his question to the right wing of the party.”

This could work with either “the appropriate wing” or “wondered which wing of the party he was addressing”.

I suggest that in all instances where left, right and centre can be presented as ambiguous between political and other meanings, we can rephrase, without clumsy verbosity, to avoid this ambiguity.

So I still think that the Left/left-Right/right distinction serves no purpose, and it has a real oddness on the page: title case has certain well-defined uses, and resolving ambiguities and vague political terms are mostly not among them. Given this, I think we should avoid it.

1 comment:

anticant said...

Historically, the terms Left and Right derive from the seating positions chosen by the radicals [Left] and aristocrats and clergy [Right] in the National Assembly during the French Revolution.