That which we call a rose, by any other name…

This is a tip for authors.  Specifically it’s for playwrights, but it might be applied (with caution) to other fields of writing.

Our editors and proof readers keep finding inconsistencies in character names.  It’s not just an issue for first-time writers; we see this from experienced writers as well.  There are, of course, some identifiable causes.  During the writing process, names may change over time.  A character may have an official name, but (legitimately) be addressed by other characters using a nickname or diminutive.  A name may, in the wild, have multiple spellings; the writer may use several variations in the course of a script.  Misspellings of names are not necessarily caught by a spell checker.  The result is that speeches for the same character get assigned to multiple names.  Whilst a decent proof reader or editor will catch most of them, they may not catch them all, and, in any case, they should not have to.  It is the writer’s job to decide who they are writing about, to choose a character name, and stick to it.  (It’s the writer’s choice; a writer in two minds should not force the editor to arbitrate.)

So, what can a writer do to check a finished text for name consistency?
This tip assumes that you are using Microsoft Word.  (I’ve created the examples using Word 2007.  Other versions of Word will behave similarly.)  Other wordprocessors will do similar things, but you’ll need to find the controls for yourself.  (It also assumes that you’ve written a play!  If you work in another genre, you’ll need to decide how to apply this.)

Overview

What we’re going to do is to find every instance of every character name that should be in the play and we’re going to colour it red.  Any name that is left (in a speech assignment or direction) that isn’t in red is likely to be a mistake of some sort (either a mistake in the character name or a character missing from the character list.)

Find and Replace Basics

Open your script in Word and go to the Characters’ page – the one with the list of character names.
Open the Find and Replace window (hereafter, with Microsoft spelling, called a Dialog).  The keyboard shortcut to do this is Ctrl H.  It will probably look like this.

findandreplacedialog
Expand the dialog by clicking on the [More >>] button.  That will get you to the options we’re going to use.

Find the Lady

In our example, we’re going to find Cinderella.  So we type Cinderella into the Find box.

I’ve also checked the “Match case” box.  In some cases, this may help.  (Firstly it may help you identify character names with case errors.  Secondly, if you have a name that is also a common word or part of a common word, it avoids most instances – for example the syllable “King” may be a character name or may be part of “thinking”.)

findcinderella

The Lady in Red

Now we’re going to replace Cinderella with Cinderella – but we’re going to format the text so that it appears in red.

replacedarkred
With your cursor in the “Replace with” box, you can change the replace formatting by (obviously) clicking on the [Format] button and, from there, select “Font…”

Another dialog pops up, in which you can set the font colour.  (Although of course the dialog wants you to set the font color.)

replacefont

I happen to have chosen Dark Red.  Chose something that stands out for you – and a colour that you haven’t used for any other purpose.  (And what other purpose would you have for coloured text?)
Click [Okay] to return to the main dialog.
Click on [Replace All] and all your Cinderellas will blush dark red.

Rinse and Repeat

Follow the above steps for all the characters named in your character list.
When you’ve done that, you are ready to look at the text.  What you should see, is red text at the start of every line of speech (and everywhere else a character name is mentioned).  However, what you may see is something like this…

misplacedcinders
What stands out there is a different name for the same character.  Correct it!  Check the whole script, correcting as you go.

Clean up

Finally, when you’ve checked and corrected, go back to the Find and Replace dialog.  This time in the “Find what“ box,  clear all the text but set the Find [Format] to find the font colour Dark Red (or whatever you used.)

In the “Replace with” box, clear the text and set the replace font colour to “Auto” (usually another word for Black, assuming that Black is your default font colour).

replaceauto
[Replace All], and you will have cleaned up all the ruddy text.

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The Horns of a Dilemma

Detail from Judgement by Jacob de Backer (16th century)Once again, I find myself drawn to bad language.  As usual, the cause is e-mail or, rather, e-mail filtering; a recent customer newsletter was rejected by a small number of (school) e-mail systems on the grounds of profanity.  It is not my intention to write offensive newsletters (they are mainly about new publications), so the compilation strategy is to avoid swearing.  In cases where words only have vulgar meanings, this is easy.  It gets harder, as I have mentioned before, where words have multiple meanings dependent on context.  Filtering is not good at context.  I am returning to this topic because the offending word was an odd one.  I think the cause of the problem was the title of David Pemberton’s Dance with the Devil.  Why is the devil banned from my communications?  The question is whether or not “devil” constitutes profanity.

That may seem obvious.  You could argue that the devil, being in opposition to God is, by definition, profane.  However, that which is profane is not necessarily profanity.  (Profane means ‘not sacred’ whereas profanity is swearing or other language that should be avoided in polite society.)  It might also be argued that ‘devil’ is a religious concept: a personification of evil.  But if you go to the source material, you will find relatively little about the devil in the Christian bible – mainly the temptation of Christ (by Satan) as described in three of the gospels, and various instances of “casting out devils” (describing demonic possession).  This should not be such a surprise: Christianity is monotheistic, believing in one omnipotent god; any elevation of the devil beyond the occasional anthropomorphic personification of evil would be to recreate a dualistic system along the lines of Manichaeism (which held that the universe was a perpetual struggle between equal opposing forces of good and evil).  So where do we get the notion of the devil as a consistent figure – the one with the horns and goat’s feet?  Largely through a combination of later Christian mythologizing and mediaeval art.  The former is a matter of joining biblical dots (notably from the books of Ezekiel, Isaiah and Revelations) to create a more coherent whole than appears in any of the sources.  The second is a matter of laziness.  In Anna Karenina, when Tolstoy said “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” he was talking lazy rubbish.  All happy families are different, but it is much easier – more dramatic – to describe the myriad ways people make each other miserable than it is to depict happiness.  Similarly, depicting the tortures of hell and the attendant demons is far easier than a dull depiction of the tranquillity of heaven.

So what we have is the over-elaboration of a metaphor.  Does that constitute profanity?  I don’t think so.  You can’t discuss the religious concept unless you name it.  I suppose that there is an argument to be made that representations of the devil (such as the 16th century one by Jacob de Backer shown here) constitute profanity, but it’s a pretty abstruse argument.  Then we have the original source of my problem: ‘dance with the devil’ is a metaphor, not a literal depiction or instruction.  Old Harry appears in similar expressions like ‘devil in the detail’ and nobody takes those as literal or offensive.  (At least, I don’t know of anybody who does.  Would anyone care to speak, for example, for the Plymouth Brethren in this respect?  I pick on them as a group who take such things very seriously and much more prescriptively than most of society.)

So are there any instances where use of ‘devil’ constitutes profanity?  Well yes.  You can call someone a devil offensively.  You can also tell them to go to the devil.  These days those uses constitute a vanishingly small minority when compared to legitimate religious use and common metaphor.  So filtering out e-mails that contain the word devil is every bit as lazy as the mediaeval depictions of the tortures of hell.

Apostroplexy

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:-
SeanRetweet

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.