Tag Archives: seats

Free chairs for stage directions

This is going to be a rant about stage directions and seats, but I may take a while to get there because there are inconvenient corpses to dispose of, a siding of anomalous trains, and my dislike of the word preposition.

Verbs, nouns and adjectives are all defined by what they do – their grammatical function.  Prepositions seem to be defined by where they go: they are positioned in front of an object.  That, in itself, doesn’t tell me what they do.  “They’re words that go in front of other words” isn’t much help, and it makes prepositions sound trivial.  They’re not.  In English in particular, prepositions do a lot of heavy lifting.

Having spent the entirety of my schooldays not studying Latin, I have recently dipped a toe into the language and found that Latin prepositions are comparative lightweights.  Take the Latin word “in” for example.  As a preposition, it tells you something about the relationship between the subject and the object that it preposes.  Something, but not a lot.  “In aqua” tells you that something is in the water, but “in aquam” tells you that something is going into the water.  The preposition is the same, but here the case of the noun is doing the work to tell you the difference between the static state of being in the water and the dynamic plunge.  Furthermore, the Romans thought that tables were like water: they would say “in aqua” to mean in the water, and “in mensa” to mean on the table.  In Latin, the preposition tells you nothing about the nature of the object, whereas English prepositions not only tell you about the difference between a static relationship (in) and a dynamic one (into), but they also tell you something about the object, whether it is a container (in) or a surface (on).  (In case you are wondering about water being a container, it is a container of fish and inconvenient corpses.)

There are some exceptions to the English use of “in” with a container and “on” with a surface.  The ones that spring readily to mind concern public transport: I’m on the train.  Why do we say that?  If you want to specify the compartment of a train, you are in a carriage or in the buffet, never on, but we treat the complete entity of locomotive and carriages as a surface.  I wonder if this is some sort of historical hangover from treating a means of land transportation as if it were a flat-bed cart (or a series of carts – a baggage train).  That sort of origin is more likely with the evolution of road transport from wagon to bus.  Less clear with the railways.  A better idea might be the analogy with shipping, where one gets on board the ship because one steps onto the deck.  (I suppose that’s true of busses as well, since they have single or double decks.)   Anyway, I digress.

In most circumstances, “on” is used with surfaces.  It doesn’t matter what the object is, as long as it behaves as a surface: you can have a book on the table or a picture on the wall.  If you say “in the wall”, you are either referring to building fabric (another brick, or a hole) or it’s a very thick wall, and we’re back to the disposal of inconvenient corpses.

All of which brings me to chairs and some of the oddities that we have found whilst editing stage directions.  You can sit on a chair, and you can sit in a chair, but they are different kinds of chairs.  Some chairs are surfaces, some, generally softer and more comfortable ones, are containers.  If a stage direction says that Mabel is sitting in a chair, the reader will recognise that the chair is a container and therefore probably imagine some sort of armchair.  If Mabel is in a kitchen, sitting in a chair, the reader will wonder why there is an armchair in a kitchen.  It is much more likely that Mabel is sitting on a kitchen chair.  Similarly, nobody ever sat in a bar stool.  You can save yourself work by letting the preposition do its job in the imagination of the reader, but if that creates an anomaly (and Mabel really is sitting in an armchair in the kitchen), then you need to add words to clarify.

On or in?

If you enjoyed this rant about stage directions and chairs, there is more joy for you in The Problem Of Bums on Seats.

If you came for the chairs, but stayed for the prepositions, then may I suggest ‘Why Can’t the English Teach Their Railways How to Speak‘?

The Problem of Bums on Seats

Seats awaiting bums
Seats awaiting bums.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you that the reason that the language mutates so much is that we do not exercise enough of our vocabulary.  Firstly, if people don’t hear a word in use, they don’t know that it exists and therefore they feel the need to invent another one for the same purpose.  Thus are synonyms born.  Secondly, we learn words by hearing them spoken in context.  If a word is in infrequent use, then it is easy to make mistakes about the context and, by repeating them, to change the meaning.

There are particular problems with English.  It has a huge lexicon, with Anglo-Saxon roots supplemented by loan words ancient and modern.  Furthermore, it is spoken in many different countries (as official language or lingua franca) and so it mutates at different rates, giving the same word different meanings in different places.  Take for example “presently” and “momentarily”.

I still speak an old-fashioned variety of British English in which “presently” does not mean “at present”.  To me, presently is used to indicate the near future; a future time with a direct connection to the present.  For use of it in this sense, go back to your childhood, and look at The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter.  (If necessary, borrow someone else’s childhood for the purpose.)  Similarly, I can distinguish between “in a moment” and “for a moment”.  For the former, I would use “soon” or, indeed, “presently”.  To me “momentarily” has the latter meaning: fleeting; for the shortest possible time.  (So I can distinguish between “I will join you presently,” and “I will join you momentarily.”)  When I made regular flights into San Francisco airport, I was plagued by visions of my worldly goods flashing before my eyes before being dumped into the bowels of the airport, never to be seen again.  The cause of this discomfort was the announcement “your luggage will be on the carousel momentarily”.

Another example that causes particular grief in the Lazy Bee Scripts office is the simple verb “to sit”.  Sit is an active verb.  It describes an act of doing, not a state of being.  “The teacher told the pupils to sit and they sat.”  That past tense describes the act of having bent the knees and engaged buttocks with chair.  It does not describe the end point.  It tells us that the pupils executed the instruction, but not what they were doing afterwards.  The reason this vexes me (and causes loud expostulations from Sue, the proof reader) is that we keep finding scene-setting directions that say things like “the king is sat on the throne”.  Read that again, bearing in mind that “to sit” is an active verb.  The only way that the direction “is sat” can be interpreted is that it is something being done to the king: as the curtain rises someone forces him onto his throne.

This is one of those occasions where we have lost a word.  We need a word that indicates that as the curtain rises, the king is already in position on his throne.  Having forgotten the word, we butcher the language by using the past tense of an active verb to indicate a passive present.  To rediscover this word, approach your favourite chair and put your buttocks thereupon.  Now wriggle a little to achieve an even distribution of your weight on the supporting furniture.  When you are comfortable, you will realise that you have seated yourself.  The king is seated.