Pompous, Petty Pedantry

Occasionally, someone will show me an article, tweet, blog post, or other piece of media where some God of the Mount Olympus of Correctness blasts someone else (or a lot of someone elses) for daring to use language incorrectly.  Such articles run the gamut from smug to downright insufferable, and they are usually written with just enough flashy, stylish confidence that they seem more than superficially clever.  When my friends show them to me or post them to Facebook and say, “Thinking of Jill,” I try to separate what I have to believe (or hope to believe) is a compliment to my love for and respect for language from the apparent belief that I will be entertained by the shaming of some hapless person whose only sin is USING LANGUAGE WRONG.

I hate these pieces.

Here’s why I hate them in two short vignettes from my own life:

First story: Last year, I spoke at a conference to a packed room that was lively and responsive.  They laughed at my jokes, they participated in my unorthodox, somewhat interactive presentation, we all had fun.  There were a couple of hair-raising moments where I had to improvise, quickly sketching out something that would have been demonstrated in a video clip that wouldn’t load.  Afterward, people came up to me and said how much they enjoyed it.  Considering how much time and effort a colleague (who couldn’t join me in the actual presentation) and I had put in, it was extremely gratifying.

Then this gentleman came up to me and said, “I have to tell you how much I enjoyed your presentation, but I also have to say – you said ‘cite to’ – which is redundant. You should have just said ‘cite.'”  The glow of my pleasure dimmed a little.  I felt abashed and slightly ashamed, even though this had occurred during the moments I was covering for the video that did not play and I had been ad-libbing madly, laying the tracks of my speech just ahead of the oncoming train.  His comment, much as I tried to put it in context, stuck in my craw in the way that the one negative comment in a sea of positives always will.

Second story: Today I tweeted:

I was still riding the high of the truly inventive, hilarious show John and I had seen the night before.  I loved that show – I would see it again in a heartbeat.  I want as many people as possible to see it because I think it is Shakespeare for everyone: people who love Shakespeare, people who are afraid of Shakespeare, people who have never thought that Shakespeare could be for them.  Imagine my chagrin when I saw this reply:  

Again, I felt abashed and the glow of my pleasure was dimmed a bit, similar to the first story.  I was also irritated – why the hell does this guy even care?  Then I looked him up and realized, oh – he’s a drama critic.  This definition is crucial to his amour propre as a professional.

Two thoughts on this one:

First thought: If I had been a newcomer to theatre or to Shakespeare, instead of a lifelong participant in theatre as an audience member, a crew member, and an actor, I might have shrunk from ever seeing another show again.  After all, here’s a professional telling me YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.  Shakespeare is scary enough for enough people, after all, that it doesn’t take a lot to spook a person.  But in a context where live theatre in general isn’t exactly booming, I would gently suggest that picking irrelevant nits isn’t the best way to be an ambassador, especially for someone whose livelihood depends on a thriving theatre community.

Second thought: If I am anything, I am a librarian. So after having this grit of pedantry in my shoe for a while, I looked up “opening night,” because I’ve never heard of a more specific definition of this term than “the first night where people pay full price to see a show” (in other words, the performance after rehearsals and previews) and it suddenly occurred to me, “Is this dude even right?“ Every single definition that I was able to find (including in the Oxford English Dictionary) was merely this:

opening night n. the first night of a play, film, etc.

Now… was he wrong? I don’t know. There may be, somewhere, a definition of “opening night” that is more specific than the one I repeatedly found  (interestingly enough, my hardbound Third Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary doesn’t even have an entry for the term).  But the point is, neither was I wrong, and I certainly wasn’t wrong as a member of the audience hoi polloi who might not be expected to know the intricacies of professional usage in a specific context.

People like to treat language like math or a game – there are absolute rules of right and wrong and moreover there are points to be scored.  I find both approaches frankly tedious, but per my first thought above, I also think it’s dangerous.  Similar to experiencing theatre, people need to play with language to learn it and to love it.  If you hem them in and constantly tell them, “YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG” they will cease to love playing with language and that would be a shame.  Or worse.

If you have an age to read something more erudite on the subject, please see Stephen Fry’s essay here, or this kinetic typography video:

And of course there is always XKCD:

Overheard at our house, massive freaking hurricane edition

Our local news correspondent whack-job: “Tim, I’ve been to gas stations that don’t have gas, I’ve been to Radio Shacks that don’t have transistor radios…”

Jill: “But I’ve never been to me.”

Reruns and earworms and holidays oh my

Since I have the execrable “Do they Know it’s Christmas?” in my head, I figured I’d post a lightly edited rerun.  You’re welcome.


Back in 2004, John Scalzi posted an invitation to fantasize: if you had the ability to expunge one highly annoying but popular Christmas song from the world, which one would it be? He posited “Feliz Navidad,” which is an honorable entry. It has the requisite parasitic catchiness, yet is definitely awful – it will stay in your head, annoying you quite effectively long past New Year’s. But I would have to say it is not popular enough, and really, not quite awful enough to make my list.

Others in the comments ganged up on “Do they Know it’s Christmas?” which is another effectively awful tune. “Feed the world/Let them know it’s Christmastime.” Er… feed the world, let them know it’s Tuesday, for crying out loud. Feed the world, let them see next week! But I don’t think it has enjoyed enduring popularity past 1984, so it wouldn’t make my list either.  Or… er.  It appears the cast of Glee has remade it.  Joy.  I haven’t listened to it, but I won’t stop you if that sort of pain is your kink.

What would I pick? There is a lot of awfulness to choose from out there amongst the holiday fare, so it is a difficult task to pick just one. As it was, as I plowed through my mental inventory of dogs barking “Jingle Bells,” “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” (John’s personal pick for least favorite), Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” (Clarence has been waiting for that new saxophone for a very long time now), and “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which is hateful because it is so repetitive and interminable, I was able to narrow my hatred down to two selections:

1. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” There is so much to hate in this song, it is hard to know where to begin. It is syrupy and swoopy. Its subject matter is disturbing. It tends to be sung by treacly choirs of little kids doing basic choreography in time to the music (I should know – I was in one many years back). It seems exploitative and deeply, deeply wrong. Bleah. *Shudder*

2. “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” I may get some John Lennon-loving backlash here, but I can’t stand this song. It sounds like someone bleakly going through the motions of optimism. It is, in fact, wrong (“War is over now” – hah.  Really? Magical thinking in a holiday pop song.  Cute). But the crowning achievement of awfulness is Yoko Ono’s strangled yowl, aggressively commanding everyone within hearing range to have “A very merry Christmas/And a happy New Year/Let’s hope it’s a good one/Without any fear.”

You better watch out, indeed.

Overheard on chat

D: so far our last two immediate topics remind me of the book I just finished
me: well, then.
D: The Guinea Pig Diaries, by A.J. Jacobs
the guy who wrote The Know it All?
me: Day one: “WHEEK, WHEEK!”
Day two: “ooh – PELLETS.”
D: groan
oh please keep going
me: Day three: “Wheeek.  ::snuffle:: WHEEK!”
D: um, sarcasm
me: Day four: “OHAI!  LETTUCE!!  My day is WHEEEEEEEEEK, mofo!!”
me: sometimes the pitch needs a windup…
D: can’t breathe
for laughing
oh that’s good
me: glad you like.
D: oh boy

What is it about entitlement?

I don’t have much to say about this – just that it’s both entertaining and baffling.  I’m always astonished by people who are so blindingly egotistical and entitled that they manage to become unwitting self-parody.

Go, see, be entertained.

Similar to yesterday’s accent rant…

Yesterday, I went on a bit about using regionally-appropriate language, especially if the character in question is of a different nationality from the actor playing said character.  For my next unnatural act, I am going to go on a bit about regional pronunciation.

I had thought this rant was already written, but if so, I can’t find it.  I know I have had the conversation plenty of times.

Ever watched something set in or near your hometown?  Did the characters sound like they were locals?  Why or why not (show your work).

My example is this: back in 2000, the USA channel aired a made-for-TV movie of Robert Parker’s “Thin Air.” The bulk of this movie is set in the Massachusetts town of Haverhill.  There are two things I remember about this movie:

  1. I don’t buy Joe Mantegna as Spenser, and
  2. Nobody in the entire movie pronounced the town name like a Massachusetts native would.

All my life, the name “Haverhill” has been pronounced “HAY-vrill” (well, the i is more of a schwa, but I can’t be bothered to find the encoding for schwa – I’d rather take the time and effort to type about how I can’t be bothered to do a simple Google search).  But all the characters in the movie (including alleged natives of that town) called it “HAVE-ur-hill.”  Even the people trying for a Massachusetts accent.

Now, I’ve done it.  All of my New England readers have run screaming from the room.

So, instead of just watching the movie (or turning it off, which would have been a better option), I kept waiting for someone – ANYONE to pronounce the town name like someone who had spent even a week in Massachusetts would*.  And when they didn’t (not a single person did), I kept flinching and putting my tongue between my teeth the way you do when someone skrees a chalkboard.

Please, oh people who spend vast amounts of money to make television entertainment, get’chiself some real local cullah if yer gonna make ye’self some wicked pissah entuhtainment.

*Well, anyone who was trying to impersonate a native.  My Indiana-born-and-bred grandmother still calls Worcester “WUR-ches-ter,” when EVERYONE knows it’s “WUS-tah.”**

**I think that’s the key to the Mass accent – fewer syllables.

You’re not fooling anyone, you know.

A small note to people who make movies and television with actors not using their native accents:

It really doesn’t help when the non-native character’s dialogue is decidedly… native.

An example?  Sure, I can give you an example.   For unknown reasons, BBC America has decided to air the television show “Demons ” for us Yanks.  Aside from making a sane person wonder why they produced a show which is essentially “A British Buffy in London” (you can see why I don’t write titles for television), they decided that the teen-with-a-destiny’s mentor had to be American.  And for that American, they cast the toweringly magnificent blusterer, Philip Glenister.

So, okay.  Glenister is apparently working on his American accent.  Why?  Maybe he looked at Hugh Laurie’s career and said, “Well that bloke seems to be doing pretty well for himself,” and signed on.  Maybe he wants to get into Hollywood movies.  Maybe… who cares.  At any rate, he wanted to stretch his skills.  All fine so far.

Except, he seems to be having trouble with it.  And again, I don’t really care all that much.  Accents can be tough, and I would imagine doing an American accent in England is probably doubly tough.  It is probably easier to do an accent when you are filming in that country: after all, you can just turn to upwards of 90% of the crew or walk down the street on your lunch break and hear the accent you’re going for in that case.

But here is where my patience breaks down.  If you are a British* writer, please consult an American about the American character’s dialogue.  If you don’t have an American friend, find one.  Because the final nail in the coffin of an actor’s attempt at an accent is to hear them say something that 99.9% of the people in that country just wouldn’t say.  When Philip Glenister, struggling manfully with a midwestern-neutral American accent** says something about the main character’s dad dying in a “car smash,” that’s where I just stop giving the benefit of the doubt.  Because we say “car crash” or “car wreck.”

Unless you’re a pretentious git*** like me who has spent a fair bit of time in the UK, read a lot of British literature,  and watches more British media than is probably good for her, then the following sentences wouldn’t come out of an American’s mouth unless it was put there by a writer:

  • So Jess, I says, get your skates on or we’re going to miss the queue for the motor-coach.
  • Her problem is she would always take the lift in an emergency, when the notices all say use the stairs.
  • The Skoda wasn’t half ruined in that lorry smash, but you don’t hear me whingeing about it.
  • That bloke’s bird is a silly cow.
  • Eat your tea.

I could go on.  But I won’t.

*Or an American writer writing a British character, I am sure – but I am not British, so I don’t get to do that rant.

**Hint: pick a geography.  Make the character a New Yorker or a Bostonian or Texan… ANYTHING but the neutral news-anchor “nothing” accent, because those accents will give you something to anchor the accent to.  Dipthongs are your FRIEND, Phil.

***We don’t say this either.

Yay! New “Simon’s Cat”!


More of Simon’s Cat!


If Buffy met Edward Cullen from Twilight.  I love it.  (Video embedded below – if you’re on an RSS feed and don’t see it, please click through).