McMillan & Goss
The Bard of Barnsley & Luke Carver-Goss

I’ve recently (and accidentally) been exposed to some differing views on apostrophes.
I went to see a performance by Ian McMillan (poet and host of The Verb), appearing with the excellent musician Luke Carver-Goss.  They did a piece called Apostrophe Amnesty Day.  McMillan’s point was that, for the most part, punctuation is artificial and doesn’t matter much.  (Nobody articulates punctuation marks, therefore they are a feature of the way we choose to transcribe the language.)  McMillan argues that those of us who criticise greengrocers for their failing’s (sic) in advertising their cabbage’s (sic) are just wasting our time (and sneering for the sake of our own aggrandisement, rather than for the benefit of greengrocers’ customers).
A piece in German from Nicholas Richards reminded me that the German language doesn’t use apostrophes for possessives.  I then got into a social discussion with an retired teacher who expected apostrophes to become the norm for plurals as well as possessives.  He laid the blame on the influence of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy for being the start of a fashion in education that encouraged expression over precision, rewarding creativity and not pouncing on every mistake.  (I’m not sure that this is a fair representation of Hoggart’s legacy).

So if apostrophes can be used everywhere, don’t they become meaningless?  If German can do without them (for possessives), can’t we?

Many features of punctuation came from printing conventions.  Take the use of the capital letter I for the personal pronoun; that only arose as an attempt by printers to give the word due weight.  Compare it with the its Western European piers: je, ich, ik, io, yo and jeg do not take capitals.  Then look at the word shan’t.  It’s an abbreviation of shall not.  If the absent vowel deserves an apostrophe, why isn’t there one for the double ell?

The conventions are artificial, so for the most part, I’m with McMillan in believing that content (meaning) takes precedence over punctuation.  However, they are also a matter of established custom and practice, and I’m a publisher.  I’m prepared to shrug at unconventional usage when writing is there to lead to another subject (cabbages, for example).  On the other hand, when writing is the deliverable, clarity matters; sloppy punctuation distracts the reader and gets in the way of  the meaning.  That’s why I see occasional rants about apostrophe abuse from the likes of Damian and Dawn.  Don’t expect any leniency from proof readers.

What happens when you write sketch comedy

Lovesy3I am being tracked by robots.  This is mildly disconcerting.  The way it works is like this: I put out a tweet announcing another new comedy sketch by David Lovesy – this one, for example.  The tweet is picked-up and retweeted by two or three Twitter Bots – software automatons that scour social media for postings relevant to a particular subject and retweet them.  This seems fair enough.  The things that we publish in this field would seem to be directly relevant to Comedy Bot.  The presence of SitCom Bot amongst the retweeters suggests that these things are not particularly fine-tuned, and indeed they seem to be triggered purely by the words “Sketch” or “Comedy” appearing in a tweet.  To illustrate the consequences of this, consider Writing Bot which seems to retweet messages containing the word “write” or “writing”.  I found, for example, that it had retweeted someone’s complaint that “I will need to write a big cheque”.  This is a direct application of relativism, the standpoint that, when taking a broad perspective, all writing is of equal value.

These bots are primitive.  Someone putting the resource into it might be able to programme a learning algorithm to examine someone’s online presence and deduce the relevance of their output as a whole to a particular subject and therefore choose whether to retweet them on the basis of context, rather than just simple trigger words.  That’s possible with today’s technology (though not necessarily with technology easily available to Twitter users).

I find this disconcerting when I think about the mechanics of Twitter.  Twitter posts are public utterances, but they are received only by followers of the writer or by people (or robots) who go looking for them.  So a robot retweeting content only matters to people who follow the robot.  So who follows a robot?  I can think of two easy answers to that question: journalists and obsessives.  These are people who would be looking for content relevant to a specific area of interest and might legitimately want to cast the net as widely as possible.  What these people will receive is a few nuggets relevant to their research amidst a raging torrent of noise.  Robots are, of course, also followed by other robots.  This happens when a twitter account is automatically set to follow accounts that have retweeted its postings.  The result is that, over time, Twitter will become a robotic mutual appreciation society with minimal human involvement.

Medalling with English

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean –  neither more nor less.”

Lewis Carol, Through the Looking Glass

Historian, internationalist and writer Séan Lang recently took to twitter condemning a specific aspect of Olympic Games commentary:-

I agree with Séan that this is deplorable usage.  There is no need to turn the noun medal into a verb when perfectly good alternatives are available.  (In my view it also puts the emphasis in the wrong place.  The athlete’s objective is to win the race; the medal is a recognition of success, not, in itself, the purpose.)  Furthermore, in this case it sounds like another verb; when the Russian Athletics Federation meddled in the 2012 games, they were doing something entirely less honourable.

Where I depart from Séan is the statement “medal is not a verb”.  English is not a prescribed language.  We do not have the equivalent of l’Académie française to say what is and what is not proper usage.  Our dictionaries are compiled on the basis of the way the language is used (and has been used), not on the way it should be used.  Thus Peter John Cooper joined the argument, quoting the Oxford English Dictionary:

Medal (verb trans) To decorate or honour with a medal. 1822. “Irving went home medalled by the King” Thackeray.

Séan disagreed with the suggestion that this gave the permission of precedent for medal to be used as a verb.  He pointed out that in the OED citation it is being used adjectivally (describing Irving’s state).  All of which is to say that medal as a main verb is a recent coin; the OED points to its popularity amongst American sports commentators.  But all verbs were new once, and there is a lot of cross-over between the American and British forms of English.

I think I have a good feel for the language, and can make a reasonable guess at when and where particular words emerged, but I am often wrong; words that I think are neologisms have a long history and some I take for granted may be relatively new.  Fowler’s The King’s English (1906) has a whole section on Americanisms (which were to be avoided).  Amongst those, I was surprised to find standpoint, placate and antagonize, all of which, in spite of Fowler’s objection, seem now to be part of standard English.  One day, unfortunately, the verb form of medal may be as acceptable as the verb form of target.

This exercises me particularly because Lazy Bee Scripts edits plays for publication.  Plays deliver reported speech, so if a character is given a speech using forms that I deplore, what should I do about it?  That is the way the character is using the language to deliver a particular meaning.  The character does not know any better and, following Humpty Dumpty’s descriptivism, I should not correct it.  But does the author know any better?  Ay, there’s the rub.  One particular form that causes outrage in the Lazy Bee office is the use of “you better”.  This is becoming the dominant form.  It seems to be based on a mishearing of “you’d better”, a contraction of “you had better”.  The modern form seems to me ugly and lacking something, but what it is lacking is hard to describe.  (I think it lacks implicit conditionality, but what do I know?)  Try analysing “you had better”.  It seems to embody a grammatical case of the future looking back on the present: “your future would have been better if you had [taken a particular course of action]”.  Regardless of how that old form arose, the modern one sets my nerves on edge.  Nevertheless, we will accept it if the writer puts it into the mouth of someone who would use that form.  To do otherwise would be to render every script into grammatical sterility.  (On the other hand, give such a phrase to the wrong character and we will bat it back to the author or, in extremis, refuse publication.)

So if a word is used as a verb, then it is a verb, and I have to live with it.  (In some cases, this involves gritted teeth.)

Ceci n'est pas un verbe
Ceci n’est pas un verbe

Build your own Catalogue

Photo by @LozCreamFor several years, Lazy Bee Scripts has offered a catalogue of our stage works, downloadable from our web site as a PDF file.   The biggest problem with this was that it was permanently out-of-date.   We built it off-line, then uploaded it to the web site, and by the time we’d done the work, we’d published something else, so the catalogue was out-of-date.

So, we’ve finally bitten the bullet and done the programming necessary to generate the catalogue to order.   Now any section of the catalogue (or the whole catalogue if you don’t mind over 550 pages of PDF) can be generated at the click of a button.   As a result, it will be up-to-date at the time you click the button.   The buttons in question are on the Catalogue page of the Lazy Bee Scripts web site.   (It’s under the [Browse] menu, in case you need to find it again.)  The catalogue breaks down into many sections, so there are lots of buttons.

Good, that’s one problem solved.
The next problem is that it doesn’t necessarily do what you want it to do.   This is a general problem of catalogues: they are organised in a specific order.   (In our case, we have multiple sections, with an alphabetical listing of the scripts in each section.)  The normal way to solve this is an index.  This is fine if you are looking for one and only one thing: an index will tell you the page number on which you can find it.  However, if you are looking for a choice of things – say play scripts with a duration of 30 to 50 minutes for two women and one man – then the index would point you to pages 4.1.4, 4.3.1, 4.1.10, and so on (if, indeed a single index entry would do that).

On the Lazy Bee Scripts web site, we have a search engine that solves the indexing problem: you can enter all sorts of criteria (numbers of actors, length, style, set complexity, and so on) and it will return a list of suitable scripts.  (Those plays for two women and one man, for example.)  What’s more, it links to the text of every play, so you’re a click away from reading the script on-line.

That’s great for one person searching, but what if you have a group of people who want to choose scripts from a list?  Some time ago, we added the ability to create a reading list from search results.  The list can be shared, so multiple people can look at the contents (and add or remove scripts from the list).  So far so good, but what if members of your reading committee don’t like sifting through potential plays on-line?

Okay, we’ve done it.   We’ve added another button to the search results page.  Any time you do a search on the web site, you are invited to [Save/Print as PDF].  Click that and you can save your search results (or your reading list) as a PDF and pass around printed copies to your heart’s content.

Effectively, you can build your own fully-customised, up-to-the-minute catalogue.



* There are many reasons for creating a catalogue.  The image accompanying this blog post comes from Chichester Library where Twitter user @LozCream took the picture without any explanation.

A linguistic menu, including brussels sprouts, champagne, Cornish pasties and french windows

(A game of spot the odd one out)

Opening for a set-designer
Opening for a set-designer

One of the most frequently heard questions in the Lazy Bee Scripts office is “should this have a capital letter”?   The proof reader, usually Sue, has stumbled over a word which either has a spurious capital of an absence of an upper case lead.   Mostly, the answer is clear, but sometimes we have to scratch our heads.

The most common errors concern forms of address.   If you are speaking to your father, you address him as Dad with a capital because you are substituting for his name (Eric).   Similarly, Your Majesty takes capitals as it stands in for Liz.   On the other hand, “my dad” refers to an example of a generic type (the class of fathers), so takes lower case.

The real head-scratchers are things like the ones in the heading.   Can you spot the odd one out?   No, it is neither the windows nor the pasties.   The anomaly is champagne.

The examples all take their name from a geographical region.   The rule should be that if the item can only come from the particular area, then it is using the region as a proper noun.   That’s why Cornish pasties have the capital.  That style of pasty – the semi-circular enclosure, with a thick crimped crust on the curved part of the perimeter – is recognised as a regional delicacy.  (The thick rim is there so that miners with dirty hands could grip something whilst eating the more gastronomically interesting filling.)  The pasties with the ridge down the middle – like a small, edible Stegosaurus – are Devenish pasties, or oggies.

In the case of french windows and brussels sprouts, the items can be made or grown anywhere, so the name is an indicator of the style, rather than specific origin, and takes lower case.  The same applies to cheddar cheese (to Sue’s distress, as she grew up close to Cheddar), since the documentation of a standardised manufacturing system allowed the cheddar method to travel the world.  (If you are interested in this from a cheese-making viewpoint, rather than a purely linguistic one, then try, for example, The Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury.)  Sampling the case of champagne, we find that it really ought to be capitalised, because it comes exclusively from the Champagne region, but the word has been so long in English as a generic that it has been allowed to stay that way.

Cameron’s Fig Leaf

FigFlag2As I write this, there is a referendum campaign in progress about whether or not Britain should leave the European Union.  I have to say, I don’t like it.  Not, the European Union, the referendum.  I have never liked the idea of a referendum and now I have realised why.

The point of a referendum is to allow the whole voting population to make an informed decision.  The problem with that is in the word “informed”.  Most of us aren’t.  Some of us hoped to be informed by the referendum campaign, but again, we have a problem of semantics: this time, it’s “campaign”.  Once the starting gun has been fired, we find ourselves being addressed by politicians whose aim is not to inform, but to persuade.  At that stage, they have made up their minds and their objective is to promote their opinion, not to share the truth.  Thus if there are facts to be had, and those facts do not support the views of a particular side, then that side will do its best to muddy the waters, so that the electorate are no longer clear on what is a fact and what isn’t.

It can be argued that we should have informed ourselves before the start of the campaign.  That is a hopelessly naive position.  One cannot be an expert in every field, and in any case, to whom should we turn for this information?  Not the press.  Reporting of the EU in the British press is not even adequate; at best, summits are covered superficially, at worst we get lies (the straight banana stories) that support the proprietors’ agenda.  (In addition to any political part of the newspapers’ agenda, there is the basic commercial imperative to sell newspapers.  We buy gossip and we buy artificial outrage.  We don’t buy factual reportage.)

The referendum is a political fig leaf.  It’s purpose is to hide embarrassing divisions in a political party.  (The current referendum is a way of avoiding divisions in the Conservative party; the 1975 referendum – on the original EU accession treaty – was held to avoid divisions in Labour.)  It overcomes the need for politicians to do their job: their job – the job for which we elected them – is to inform themselves and make decisions.  As it is, they are playing solely for their personal advantage; they have made up their minds and they are misinforming us.

So, after all that, will I be voting in the referendum?  Certainly.

I look at it from a business viewpoint and a personal one.  For business, I want the largest possible market with the fewest rules.  Those rules need to apply to everyone competing in the market.  (That’s the famous level playing field.)
I find myself dealing with a lot of rules imposed on business – taxation, employment law, employee pensions, copyright law – all of which come from the British government and all of which are necessary to ensure that I behave fairly towards my staff, towards my suppliers and towards the country as a whole.  The one bureaucratic constraint I face from the EU as an on-line trader is VAT.  For on-line sales, I need to apply the VAT rate of the receiving country.  The UK applies a zero rate of VAT for physical books, but the standard (20%) rate for electronic copies of the same books.  France applies a reduced rate (5.5%) for books and for electronic copies.  Germany applies the standard rate (19% ) for books and electronic copies.  This is the result of nation states behaving as nation states and trying to gain advantage over one another (or do favours to particular local lobbies).  As a business, we have to keep track of this; I would distinctly prefer a regime of one set of VAT rules and one set of VAT rates throughout Europe. From that viewpoint, I want more European integration, not less.
From a personal point of view, I want to travel with the minimum of hassle from border controls (from which viewpoint, a vote to leave is a vote for more bureaucracy).

I shall be voting to remain.

How Long is a Piece of Theatre?

How long is...So you’ve written your play, now you want to know if it’s the right length.  At one level, that doesn’t matter: the ideal length for your play is the time it takes for you to say what you want to say.  The perfect play might last three minutes or three hours.  To someone selecting a play, however, the run time matters.  Does it fill an evening’s entertainment?  Does the length justify the effort of constructing the set?  Will it fit within the time limits allowed by a competition?  From that viewpoint, some way of estimating the length will be useful.

At this point, I have good news and bad news.  The good news is that you can make an estimate.  The bad news is that it won’t be perfect.  Firstly, some aspects of timing are outside the writer’s control: stage business, scene changes and slickness of production.  Secondly, style make a lot of difference to run time; for example, compare Samuel Beckett’s lengthy pauses to the manic pace of a Ray Cooney farce.  Estimates of stage time will be approximate. So what’s the best approximation?

Page Count

The most common way of estimating is Page Count, with the usual approximation being one minute per page.  The basic flaw in this is that it assumes that everyone uses a standard page layout.  They don’t (and, in my opinion, they should not – a play should be written in whatever format works best for the writer.  See, for example ‘Was Solzhenitsyn a Synesthete?‘).
The run time of a page of a play depends on:-

  1. The size of the paper (US Letter paper, used in North America is a different size from A4, used in most of the rest of the world).
  2. Page margins.
  3. Line spacing (single spacing? double spacing? single spacing within a speech and double spacing between speeches?).
  4. The point size of the font.
  5. The packing of the type face (monospaced fonts like Courier will occupy much more space than a highly-packed proportional font like Times New Roman).
  6. Average speech length.
  7. Style (a one-minute Beckett pause should consume a full page).
  8. All the performance issues over which the writer has no control.

Average speech length can cause major variations in estimated run time.  Compare the terse David Mamet to the long-winded George Bernard Shaw.  By my estimation, the first nine speeches of Mamet’s Duck Variations consume 23 words, whereas the first nine speeches of Shaw’s Arms and the Man weigh in at 296 words.  (In 11 point Courier1, those nine speeches of Mamet’s will occupy nine lines, but Shaw’s will occupy 31.)  Typically a page of Shaw, with ten words per line, will take much longer to read than a page of Mamet with three.

Word Count

Word Count does away with the first five factors affecting page count and most of the sixth. Just take the text from the opening scene-setting direction through to the final curtain and count all the words2.   All you need to know is that 10,000 words of script will occupy around an hour of stage time and pro rata from there – so 1000 words take six minutes3.  This is the same sort of estimate as the estimate behind Page Count, but Word Count does away with most of the variability in Page Count and will therefore, typically be more accurate with the additional advantage that it needs fewer rules.

Spurious accuracy

Just because Word Count is more accurate than Page Count, it doesn’t mean it’s perfect.  In addition to the issues of style and performance, some aspects of the writing may lead to an inaccurate estimation of duration.  Consider the following stage direction:

Carl takes a revolver from his briefcase, cleans it carefully then loads five bullets.

Word Count would say that takes five seconds, but that careful cleaning might last a minute. Then consider

Whilst Fran is talking, Carl takes a revolver from his briefcase, examines and cleans it slowly and carefully then loads five bullets, leaving one chamber empty.

Word Count allows nine seconds for this (the same action4), but actually it takes no time at all, because the time is occupied by Fran’s speech.  Directions can throw the estimate out in either direction.  (Note that this also applies to Page Count.)

On the Lazy Bee Scripts web site, we give an estimated length of each play based on Word Count.  We use the same measure throughout for consistency, and we base our category boundaries and the web site searches on that estimate.  Typically, this will mean rigid boundaries where reality is more fluid.  This is at its most problematical for one-act play competitions, where (typically) the rules require plays to run for between 20 minutes and 50 minutes, with penalties for breaking the rules.  Something that we estimate at 55 minutes may come in below the 50 minute boundary in a pacey production; a bit of creative stage business may make an 18 minute short play into a one-act festival piece.
For festival performers, the moral here is not to be too rigid with the published timings; find a piece you like, then test the length based on the way you intend to perform it.  For authors writing for festivals with time constraints, aim to give a cushion around the boundaries – but bear in mind my opening remarks about the perfect length.

  1. The speeches that took up 31 lines in 11 point Courier used 23 lines in Times New Roman.  Courier is a waste of space.
  2. Your word-processor will usually do the counting for you.
  3. I had been using 10,000 words per hour as a rule of thumb for several years when I came across a statistic that the typical speed of spoken English is 170 words per minute.
  4. Long-winded stage directions will distort run-time estimates.