One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Skinheads, apostrophes and choonz


I finally got around to watching American History X at the weekend. I’d heard great things about it, and especially about Ed Norton’s performance. I have to say, I was…underwhelmed. It seemed to me to have ‘Made For TV’ production values – right down to its thick layer of cosy schmaltz. What particularly disappointed me was the lack of any nuance in the character arcs. So the basic plot seemed to be ‘Guy becomes a skinhead because he’s a bit mixed up after his father’s death…goes to jail…gets friendly with a black guy and changes his mind…but just too late to save his brother (who’s also had a change of heart, thanks to a kindly black teacher). And the Norton character…he simply appeared to be pleasant enough, articulate guy – albeit one who trashed grocery stores and shot people. The only development he went through was that his hair grew back. And where did the plot line about the teacher's seminars disapear to...other than the brother's unexplained take on his essay.

I’m sure there’s a great film to be made about American extremists, but this ain’t it. SE Hinton does this kind of stuff much better.

(Shame. I really rate Norton. For a much better performance, see him in the criminally overlooked 25th Hour)

Mind Yer Langwidge

This in yesterday’s Observer: Author takes on the queen of commas – about counterblast by linguist David Crystal to the self-appointed Language Police. What really got my goat was a quote from that reactionary humbug, John Humphrys.

'I think David Crystal is making a fundamental mistake when he says rules don't matter that much. I say they matter enormously. Take the example we always use on both sides of the debate: the apostrophe. It is either right or wrong. We wouldn't accept something being wrong in any other walk of life, would we?'

This is certainly true when we are dealing with something important - say, how to build a nuclear power plant or which side of the road to drive on (sic). When, however, the breaking of a rule has no other consequence than to upset the pompous (eg, which knife to use for fish; how to address a bishop; where to put an apostrophe), it is mere convention.

Seriously, though...can anyone think of a set of circumstances in which a misplaced apostrophe might lead to harm?

Giving ‘Poddage To…

The new Dylan
Asian Dub Foundation
Polly Harvey

…and in the ‘a bit silly’ corner:
Mieskuoro Huutajat. Shouting men from Finland. Check out their ‘Star Spangled Banner’ under Audio.
The Thurston Lava Tube. Named after a Hawaiian geological feature. For those who like their Beatles with extra cheez.
Apocalyptica. A Finnish string quartet who play stunningly excellent Metallica covers (sample available via the link).


Anonymous said...

It will be interesting to see what peoples take on the latest ADF project is. An opera with the English National Opera about Colonel Gaddafi. I see it's been partly comissioned by Channel 4 so will no doubt eventually hit the tv screens.


Edward the Bonobo said...

The new ADF thing does sound intriguing. I see that it's Ramon Tikaram (This Life, brother of Tanita) in the lead. Doubltess it will raise the usual anti-muslim paranoia if/when it hits C4.

I really wish they'd release a DVD of 'The Battle of Algiers' with the ADF soundtrack.

big bad johnny p said...

Harm no, (but if you include commas as well as apostrophes) confusion yes, although I suppose those most in line to be confused are those who try to insist on "correct" punctuation.

I'm all in favour of language being there to convey meaning, but it is possible, if these things are misused, to change meanings entirely. That is without going as far as adding words that are commonly used wrongly into the mix - flout/flaunt imply/infer etc

psychocandy said...

I've caused serious harm to people for apostrophe misuse! ;-) I also won't patronize establishments who misuse apostrophes in their signage or advertizing.

One of my biggest pet peeves is people who claim to be able to write but who never apostrophize at all.

Edward the Bonobo said...

Can I put it to both of you that in none of the types of case that you quote have you actually misunderstood what was being communicated to you? Yes, you were peeved/affronted/etc...but that was just down to your own personal issues.

Yes, Lynn Truss gives the comma example of:

Eats, shoots and leaves

The classic case of a 'confusion' caused by a missing apostrophe is from Kingsley Amis:

Those things over there are my husbands

And then there's the capitlisation example:

I helped my Uncle Jack off a horse

I put it too you, though, that examples such as these are so infrequent as to be the subject of humour. In real life - there's seldom, if ever, confusion.

On the other hand...there are many, many examples of confusing English which we are prepared to tolerate as correct. Was the building razed or raised? And are we sure that everyone knows what we mean by imflammable? Getting that one wrong could have nasty why allow it?

Also...remember that it's not that long ago that civilised societies were largely illiterate. Getting to a state where 98% of people get it 80% right is pretty damned good! Why rail over the odd misplaced squiggly line? Which - I keep on pointing out - was how Jane Austen wrote her plural's.

big bad johnny p said...

I agree - as far as the examples you quote are concerned (which are exactly the type of thing I was meanining, have a star :D ).

I do encounter such lazy writing at work (which since it is computer related should tell you somehitng about the standard of literacy) that I do genuinely sometimes have to decide what the person writing it meant ie:

What they said


Something that makes sense.

Edward the Bonobo said...

But, but, but...

I'd argue that this is down to quality of expression, not literacy. It's perfectly possible to write grammatical, properly spelled, semantically correct gobbledegook.

And I'll tell you what part of the problem is: The Tyranny Of 'Proper English'. People think they're meant to write 'It is important to ensure that at all times the component is appropriately located in the manner prescribed within its mounting'. This is meant to appear more 'educated' than 'Put that there'.

Myself, from time to time I come across juniors who are unable to write prose. I force them to write in bullet points instead. That way, they learn to think in bullet points.

big bad johnny p said...

Re potentially "correct" gibberish, I agree - I have to read enough of it. At least when you strain it you can make some sense of it.

I am sure that some of that causes the lack of meaning I referred to before - if someone is being verbose and doesn't understand, for instance, the difference in meaning between explicit or implicit in terms of some instructions - you have a recipe for confusion.

What I battle for is clear, simple english.

psychocandy said...

Apostrophe usage is third grade English. It's not terribly common, any more, for students to drop out of school prior to their ninth birthday. Therefore, there is no excuse for anyone to use them incorrectly.

If proprietors, authors, etc, don't feel a need to communicate properly, that's their prerogative. Which books I'll read or businesses I'll patronize is mine.

And I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who don't know what "inflammable" means. Though I seldom see it used. Probably because the same people who are too lazy to use apostrophes are also too lazy to use a dictionary, so now everything's marked/labeled as "flammable".

I don't think the language should be "dumbed down" to accomodate the Average Joe. I think the standard for "average" needs to be raised.

Edward the Bonobo said...

I agree it's your prerogative.

Like David Crystal, I'm just having a dig. People get all hot and bothered about 'The Declining Standard Of English'. It's a real hot button for some - even to the extent of avoiding stores which misuse apostrophes. Relax! Eat a peach! (Peach's, 25¢ ;-) )

But language doesn't decline - it just changes. Always has done, always will. When people forget/ignore/change the 'rules', it says very little. about whether they are smart or dumb.

Of course, another thing to remember is that a relatively high proportion of misusers of the 'Greengrocer's Apostrophe' will have learned English as a foreign language. There's one school of thought that says 'They should damn well learn it properly'. The reality is that English was shaped by the need for the indigenous Anglo-Saxons to communicate first with foreign Danes, later with the French. Hell! We even 'dumbed down' to the extent that we lost our noun case endings and! Plus we started confusing our genitive -es ending with the French plural -s (Our plurals used to end in -en), and replacing the e with an apostrophe (in the early 19thC) has left us in a bit of a pickle, hasn't it?

Nah! There are two topics on which I am prepared to do battle against the Language Police. One is the alleged decline of standards. The other is the bizarre British intolerance of the influence of American English. Over here, the same people shudder equally over wrong apostrophes and -ize endings. (Forgetting that our -ise is a 20th Century invention and that -ize is strictly correct British English)

Edward the Bonobo said...


Consider this: Most skills have to be practiced constantly to be retained (can you remember your trigonometry?). Very few people have any cause to write joined-up sentences, in the normal run of things. Is it any wonder they forget third grade stuff?

Myself, without in any way boarting, I'd place myself in the 98th percentile for written presentation - after all, I enjoy writing and my cranium is replete with sesquipedalia. But you've seen my online stuff. I type phonetically, so an its can easily end up as an it's, a there or there as a they're. Of course, I know the rules fine well. Am I dumb? Or a particularly sloppy proofreader? Or just normal?

David McLaughlin said...

While I generally like to think I'd be less critical of others' writing than of my own, I've always worked in areas where our major product was written reports. In that situation, it is in my, and my employer's (Should that be plural?) interest that what goes out the door should meet some standard of literacy. So I can be a bit critical.

I'm with you on the 'Proper English' nonsense. Why use one syllable when three will do? We write "utilise" for "use" and "transportation" for "transport". Why write "to" when we can have "in order to"? And we're often expected to write in the passive voice!

I haven't managed to find a misplaced apostrophe that was genuinely catastrophic, but I haven't given up looking yet. But in looking, I've come across one of my favourite Usenet groups -

Edward the Bonobo said...

Agreed - but it can go too far.

I once had to provide a report to someone who worked for an organisation that you yourself used to work for. We were made to spend an awful lot of time fixing utterly trivial things in the glossary. One was that we hadn't spelled out what NT (as in Windows) stands for. As you'll doubtless know, it stands for the same as the S in Ulysses S Grant. (Yes, I know opinions differ, but I checked. And besides, I don't care.).

Another example was that we included, just as an illustrative example of a non-critical machinery item, a marine sewage macerator. He asked us to include an explanation of what one was. My draft wording for the footnote was 'The fan that is hit by the shit.'

Plus, the damn fool made us change CVs to Curricula Vitarum - which shows both his pretensions and his ignorance.

big bad johnny p said...

I think I've almost argued myself round in a circle trying to agree with both you and psychocandy! :D

I can put with - don't have to like - poor English, without getting too hot under the collar about it.

I can put up with PC English - to an extent, and can even see the point of some of it. I have Bill Bryson ("Mother Tongue" I think) to thank for that.

But as I said before, what I struggle with is use of the wrong word. If accepting it leads to a situation where we have two words with the same effective meaning - in/flammable then I think the language is a little poorer. Not necessarily worse (as you say, language is always going to change) but poorer.

David McLaughlin said...

On curricula vitarum, I think we can agree on his pretensions, but I remain unconvinced as to his ignorance. There's a lengthy discussion of this in sci.lang.

As with most threads, it suffers from drift, which lowers the signal-to-noise ratio; but two good postings stand out: this one and this one I think show cogent arguments both for and against.

Edward the Bonobo said...


But in reply to both Johnny P and Dave, a greencocer's job is to sell me Banana' The fact that he's put up a sign advertising their cheapness, albeit mispelled, is a mere convenience for me. What I'm concerned about is the quality and price of his fruit. I don't even care much about his hairstyle, the colour of his shirt...whatever.

This is somewhat different to someone who's selling me words, whether in a professional report or (Psychocandy) a novel. I don't much care about Philip Roth's bananas.

Nah! It's curricicula vitae. each person has one life (Buddhists excepted).

Edward the Bonobo said...

Although ir's not that either, of course. It's CVs.

David McLaughlin said...

Although ir's not that either, of course. It's CVs

On that we can agree. The last time I brought up that thread in sci.lang, it was because someone had written "Curriculum Vitae's" in a bid for a large contract.

Edward the Bonobo said...

I'm not at all keen on things like fora or mimima or the comtention that data are plural, either.

I doubt that the people you use such words have the faintest clue what are the 'correct' plurals of wombat, anorak, kindergarten*, bungalow, pyjama, pizza, tsunami, fjord, opera**, breeze, tsunami, hazard...etc, etc etc (see more examples of English loan words) so they're content to anglicise them.

And then there's the story about the Cambridge mathematician who phones his colleague one Sunday morning:
"Come round at once! I wish to discuss certain cunundra concerning maxima and minima in connected pendula."
So his colleague says:
surely we can think of something better to do on a sunday than sitting around on our ba doing sa?.

*der Kindergarten -> die Kindergärten
**Well spotted. Opera are alrady plural.

David McLaughlin said...

I'm sure I've seen forums in a dictionary, but minimums is just wrong (although I accept that usage does change and dictionaries must lag behind that change). And although you may accuse me of pedantry when I use the correct plural, I think there's something perverse in using the wrong plural when you do know better.

And while I'm being pedantic, let me pick you up on "the comtention that data are plural". In this context, the subject of the verb is the word data, which is singular, so the verb should be "is". I'm sure it was a momentary lapse on your part, but I'm glad I've got it off my chest.

While I've got your attention (if that last paragraph of pedantry hasn't driven you away), a question from someone relatively inexperienced in this blogging malarkey. Do you get alerted when someone posts to an old thread in your blog, or does that rely on you noticing that the number of comments has increased? Only I've added a comment to last week's discussion of Intelligent Design.

Edward the Bonobo said...

I'm sure I can get notifications by RSS are something (but possibly not from work)...I just haven't set it up yet.

I think you've misunderstood my deadpan irony. 'The data is' is perfectly acceptable to me. I don't wince at 'are' - I might even use it myself from time to time - but I won't take any crap from anyone who corrects it either way.