Tag Archives: Ian McMillan


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 a 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.

The Name of the Game

One of seventy-sixI recently saw a stage production of Brassed Off, set in the South Yorkshire Coalfield, somewhere near Barnsley.  In addition to learning to impersonate brass band musicians, the cast, from the south of England, had clearly spent a lot of effort on their Yorkshire accents, so that the speech came across very naturally.  (Most southerners attempting northern speech get hung-up on the contraction of “the”, as in “I’m off down t’ pit.”  Because it’s unnatural to southern speech, that contraction becomes the most important word in the sentence, spoken as a whole word, rather than the least important.  It’s the equivalent of a glottal stop, almost swallowed or, commonly, joined to the previous word.)  The only glaring error I spotted was when one character said “house” as if she came not from Barnsley, but from Sheffield.  (Crossing what poet Ian McMillan has referred to as the ‘ouse / ‘arse boundary.)

Brassed Off has a very specific location, and whilst this may present the actors with difficulties, it should be easy for the playwright to be consistent.  On the other hand, some plays have  universal stories, so geographically, they could take place anywhere.  It is the universal plays that set traps for the writer – a name that you have always used for a particular concept turns out to be specific to your region.  This is most obvious across national boundaries.  A story about a dramatic society planning their ‘AGM’ caused puzzlement in an American production of Death in Character.  An AGM is the Annual General Meeting of an organisation with a formal constitution; normally the time of the election of officers and presentation of accounts.  (The play concerns the murder of a pantomime horse, over which the production didn’t seem to bat an eyelid.)

Then there’s the business of what rooms are called.  If a play is set in a lounge, what do you expect from the set?  If you are American, you are more likely to think of the common room for visitors to an airport or hotel than the main reception room of a private house.

This all came to the fore when we were editing Not Another Nativity by Paul Cockcroft and stumbled over a children’s game.  It’s the game where somebody is “it” with the role of chasing after the other players and touching one, who then becomes “it” and the game continues.  So, you know the game; now what is it called?  In the script, it’s “Tig”.  Nathan  had never heard of Tig, but for Sue, from the south west of England, that was the right name.  Nathan and Nickie from the south east called it “Tag” and, from the north west, I called it “Tick” (or sometimes “Tickie”).  Another part of this game is a neutral status or location where a player can’t be tagged.  In the USA, this is “base”.  Nickie called it “home” (though, interesting, her daughter – same region, different generation – calls the game Tag, but the neutral space is “the house”).  Sue called it “Cree” or “Creevie” (for reasons we couldn’t fathom) and for me it was “barley” or “barleys”, probably a corruption of the French parlez – with the obvious connotation of a truce.  Anyone got any others?