June 2011

Link of the Week: A Pronouncing Vocabulary

Time now for another resource on pronunciation, the news announcer’s abiding obsession.

For this one, you have to set your wayback machine to 1857, the publication date of Elias Longley’s Pronouncing Vocabulary of Geographical and Personal Names, available (in the public domain) through Google Books. As the name suggests, this 205 page work contains extensive lists of pronunciations for place names, then personal names, then a shorter catalog of scriptural names. Because of its long-ago publication date, the book–especially the personal names part–is useful mainly for names of note at or prior to the mid-nineteenth century. It also uses an obsolete typographic phonography system (lots of funny Greek-looking characters) that is a little hard to decipher at first, but that is well-explained in the introduction and in a summary table immediately following.

For all its limitations, I find Longley’s Pronouncing Vocabulary a handy resource for names and places that often appear without pronunciations in dictionaries and encyclopedias, or without authority in many of the online sources I’ll be mentioning in future entries.

Link of the Week: Google Translate

One of Google’s many boons to foreign reporting has been its Google Translate service. There are several ways to access it. Google searches, for example, include a “Translate” link for any website that’s detected as being in a foreign language. And if you use Google Toolbar in your browser, it will put a ‘Translate’ control bar at the top of any page you visit that’s detected as being in a foreign language (including some that aren’t really foreign).

If neither of those cases apply to you, you can just go to the Google Translate page and type the URL of the foreign language website into the text box. Pick the source language (or let Google figure it out automagically) and your language, and POW, you have what’s usually a pretty good machine translation of the material. You can also type free-form text into the box (‘Where is the bathroom?’) and Google will translate that (‘Waar is de badkamer?’), adding a handy ‘Listen’ button so you can hear the pronunciation.

All this convenience and power comes with one big red-flag caution: It’s still a machine translation, which means it works well on simple, straightforward phrases, but is terrible at translating slang, idiom, and cultural context.

In the journalistic context, that means you can use Google Translate (or other machine translators) to get the gist of a foreign-language article and decide whether to pursue it further. But if you want to use any facts or quotes, machine translation isn’t good enough. For that, you’ll still (as of this writing) need to find a real, live fluent speaker of the language to translate it for you.

My first post on writing numbers for broadcast

How numbers are written out is one of the quickest ways to determine at a glance whether copy is intended for print/online or for broadcast. Numbers in broadcast scripts, in most cases, look nothing like those you’re used to reading on the page/screen, for the simple reason that the broadcast writer tries to relieve the news announcer of as much mental effort as possible, so she can concentrate on diction and performance. In short, you want to remove all the speed bumps that inhibit the anchor’s comprehension.

Also, spelling out numbers helps to get a more accurate time calculation from computerized word- or character-counting systems.

There are a few differences of opinion among broadcasters, but here’s my handy guide to spelling out numbers. They apply only to American-style broadcast writing.

In a nutshell, you are trying to transcribe the way the figure would be spoken aloud–within these parameters.

  • Spell out ‘one’ through ‘twenty.’
  • Use digits from ’21’ through ‘999,’ except…
  • Spell out round numbers from ‘twenty’ through ‘ninety.’
  • Use the words ‘thousand,’ ‘million,’ ‘billion,’ etc. where they would be spoken: “four-million;” “21-thousand-450.”
  • For a conversational style–between 1,100 and 10,000–use the word ‘hundred’ where it would be spoken, especially for round numbers: “45-hundred;” “62-hundred-and-50.”
  • Don’t use a dollar sign ($), cent sign (ยข), or percent sign (%). Spell them out as they would be spoken: “six-million dollars;” “87 cents;” “sixty-percent.”
  • Don’t use a decimal point (.). Spell it out as it would be spoken: “62-point-five million.”
  • None of the above applies to years. Write them with Arabic numerals, as usual.
  • For ordinals (“first,” “53rd”) all the same rules apply, except of course you use the ordinal abbreviations (“st,” “nd,” “rd,” “th”) where they mix with Arabic numerals.

I’ll discuss the question of precision (i.e. how accurately to represent a lengthy number) in a future post.