Archive | July, 2013

Omfg, je fangirl

30 Jul

I know how she feels – I’m a Castle fan myself. But, man, you’ve got to feel a bit sorry for the Académie Française. “To fangirl” has scarcely become a verb in English, and now it’s crossed over to France already?

Admittedly, there probably isn’t a sufficiently compact French word meaning “to become breathlessly excited in the manner of a female teenager over an attractive figure in the public eye”, and perhaps the Académie needs to work on that, because it’s none too clear how the youngest French verb on the block is going to function in its new home. It certainly doesn’t seem to conjugate in a regular fashion (nous fangirlons?) – at least not on Twitter – and it’s going to look frankly odd in the past historic (Emma fangirla pendant toute la soirée).

And my heavily corroded French fails at the sight of “complet”, which I always took to be an adjective rather than an adverb. Is it the done thing to shorten “complètement” when you’ve only got 140 characters to play with (in which case, the sense might be “I totally fangirl when Ryan makes references to Castle’s books”)? Or is “complet” a separate, idiomatic indication of surrender, as in the Anglo-Saxon fangirl’s equivalent “I’m done”? Either way, you suspect the lights are going to be burning late at the Palais de l’Institut de France.*

There have been some French incursions into txtspk, for sure, such as QQ1 (“quelqu’un” – someone) and PK? (“pourquoi?” – why?) But for every success, you can easily find a failure:

MDR is “mort de rire” (dying of laughter), the equivalent of LOL (laugh out loud), or, perhaps more closely, ROFLMAO (rolling on the floor laughing my … well, you get the idea). But OMG, with or without intensifiers beginning with f, appears to be as widespread in the francophone Twitterverse as OMD for “O mon Dieu.”

It’s commonplace to mock the Académie for its conservatism, its top-down prescriptivism, its fear of change, its lame insistence on “fin de semaine” instead of “le week-end” and “éblabla” (no, really) for online chat.  It’s customary to point to English’s capacity to absorb and borrow words from everywhere and still retain its power and identity, and enjoy the Palais’s feeble discomfiture over “les air-bags”. But descriptivism is easier when the tide of cultural imperialism is always flowing your way. It must be less funny when it seems that every discussion about youth culture or technology in your home country is more or less taking place in another language, give or take the articles and prepositions. If that was happening to English, I’d be feeling pretty prescriptivist too.

* Not that English-speaking fandoms don’t tune up the language a bit too. One of my favourite expressions, often denoting an inability to sufficiently express one’s admiration at a coup de théatre, is: “I just can’t.” It lacks a participle and an object, but it makes itself felt.


Warning sign

24 Jul

I’ve always liked the little warning the New Yorker puts at the top of its “Night Life” listings:

“Musicians and night-club proprietors live complicated lives; it’s advisable to check in advance to confirm engagements.”

I think what’s most appealing – apart from the commendably diplomatic use of the word “complicated” – is the combination of sympathy for the artistic personality mixed with concern for the magazine’s well-to-do sixtysomething readers, who it apparently fears may never have been exposed to the edgier side of after-dark entertainment.

You imagine an older couple on the Upper West Side reading it together at the breakfast table, fur coats and hats hanging by the door ready for their weekly night out on the town. “What about a rock concert, dear?” “How exciting! Shall we give it a try? It’ll be a lot racier than the Holbein retrospective.” “Yes – we’ll go, but we’ll be ready for anything. I’ll bring a blanket.” It’s certainly a better approach than the queueing-at-Tesco testiness of the complaints whenever Justin Bieber or Rihanna are late delivering product to their impatient consumers, who always seem to have somewhere else they need to be that night.

Dealing with wild, free-living, unpredictable Bohemians can be tricky – and production journalists would know, because we have to work with reporters. They’re not that much like musicians, of course, even though, on a scale of temperament that runs from scientist to pop star, they’re clearly nearer the latter than the former. But they’re not exactly actuaries either.

Home correspondents have to travel the length and breadth of the country, charm strangers, drink with criminals, hustle police officers, barrack politicians and cajole the bereaved, with one eye on the clock and the other on their laptop battery. Foreign correspondents and photographers have to drop their lives at a  moment’s notice, fly into war zones, source their own body armour, grease palms, adopt fixers, stand in front of bomb sites, and negotiate their own release from bandits. I say “have to” as though it were a chore: in fact, they enjoy it.

Sometimes they file so late they miss an entire edition. Sometimes two or three of you have to go and cheer them up in the pub where they’ve spent the whole afternoon with writer’s block. Sometimes you bump into them in the toilets refreshing themselves with the kind of stimulant you can’t easily find at a supermarket. And sometimes they make very strange mistakes: in one hard-hitting and passionate investigation I subbed recently by a highly respected veteran foreign correspondent, the sex of the protagonist changed from “he” to “she” halfway through.

Of course they’re not absolutely all like that. Specialist and technical correspondents such as economics writers are as sharp and as sober as you might expect, and consumer affairs journalists are a splendid middle-class combination of resourcefulness and indignation. And even though it takes place in noisy venues and late into the night, journalism’s not really rock’n’roll. But we could probably do with our own After Dark-style warning at the top of the newslist: reporters and photographers lead complicated lives; it’s advisable to have people check what they do in advance of publication.


Signs of the Tribune

18 Jul


Right, we won’t. Will. Won’t. Hang on. How many intensifying negatives did we decide the English language could support? Or is this, in fact, a very British kind of litotical imperative (“Put it this way, old man: I’m not asking you not to take it”)?

There’s something decidedly odd going on with signs in this building. We came across this beauty a few months ago:


and it baffled us so completely that we had to call in the awesome human computer that is Language Log to decipher it. And  last year – I swear – I saw a sign on the exit from the lift lobby that read: “Please use the other side of this door.” The Tribune’s a pretty liberal organ, but I didn’t think we were capable of quite such dimensionally enhanced thinking as that.

I don’t know what’s causing it, but I strongly suspect that the sheer density of sub-editors in the building* has created a sort of syntactic gravity well in which clear and well-expressed thoughts are drawn into orbit, accelerated centripetally and collided under not-entirely-controlled conditions to create new forms of meaning that exist only for fractions of a second before winking out of existence (or being wearily corrected on the revise desk). That would certainly explain all the sentence fragments that seem to be lying around in the copy. Not to mention all the discourse particles, y’know?

* In terms of numbers, not intellectual capacity, thank you.

Today, today

11 Jul

This blog today declares that it’s getting a bit tired of this sort of thing:

Picture 23

And, just for good measure, in the second paragraph:

Picture 24

When I was young, I used to think that all news was written in the past imperfect, but of course papers are often making readers aware about events that haven’t yet happened, or significant approaching deadlines. What tense, then, do you use if you’ve received advance notice of a newsworthy announcement scheduled for tomorrow, and you want to write a story about it to go in tomorrow’s paper?

You can understand why writers opt for the simple present tense in these cases. The paper will come out on the same day as the announcement is made, so, broadly speaking, the two events are happening “at the same time”.  Plus, it also sounds strong and declarative, which newsdesks like. But it also sounds strikingly stilted, like an opposition leader with a timid manner reading a speech off his notes. And though the opposition leader might be able to get away with it by speaking in the first person (“I say today to conference …” etc), it just sounds plain odd in the third person.

The best way to phrase same-day-as-the-paper stories is simply to take a view on which event – the paper coming out or the news item – is actually going to happen first. And, because newspapers become available the previous night and are widely distributed and sold before breakfast, the answer is nearly always that the paper beats the news – in which case, the simple future tense is the most natural choice to address the subscriber with her Tribune propped up on the marmalade, briefing herself for the day. “The NHS will ask today whether it is fair for people to accept a transplant if they or their families will not agree to donation,” and so on.

In fact, it’s a much easier problem to solve than reporting things that might or might not happen between the time the paper goes to press and the readers get their copies, at which point the multiple deployment of the future perfect can be a sight to behold: “It is expected that the vote will have taken place by the early hours of this morning, by which point some senators are likely to have been detained in the capitol for more than 24 hours.”

The situation is slightly complicated by a sensible rule we have at the Tribune to avoid adding “last night” to opening sentences merely as a way of creating spurious urgency in print copy (“Unions were locked in urgent talks last night as the strike ballot deadline approached…”, that sort of thing). Because most of our print news stories go up on the internet first – and because, in the age of 24/7 rolling news, a story from “last night” is hardly the last word in immediacy – we write around it altogether in opening paragraphs, specifying days and times later on in the piece if necessary.

That’s usually easily done by abandoning the imperfect and employing the perfect or the present continuous, according to whether the events in question have concluded or are still going on: “Unions have been locked in urgent talks as the strike ballot deadline approaches”, or, perhaps, “Politicians are speculating feverishly over the identity of a stalking horse said to be planning to unseat Margaret Thatcher”. But even here, the natural choice is not the simple present tense. That’s never the natural choice, unless you’re Damon Runyon.


Unsafe structure

1 Jul

We’ve had our disagreements, structuralism and I.

Years ago, wrestling with an undergraduate dissertation on Raymond Chandler, I wanted to make something of the fact that, though the majority of Marlowe’s California can be traced on a map, radiating faithfully out from Wilshire Boulevard, there is one significant place that can’t be found: Bay City. Plonked down somewhere on the coast, it is both uncharted and the wrongest of what Auden calls the Great Wrong Places that the American crime novel inhabits: throughout Chandler’s series of books, Marlowe never once manages to leave there without getting physically beaten up.

That imaginary dystopia somewhere off the known track of the coastal highway, that interplay between reality and fiction, fascinated me. But when I talked to my supervisor about it, he wouldn’t have any of it. A rigid structuralist, he would not allow that most of the city was “real” and that Bay City was, uniquely, “fictional”: instead, the whole of Chandler’s Los Angeles was no more or less than what could be divined from the system of signifiers and images used in the book. External reference was not permitted: to a structuralist, the only evidence for the nature of a character or a place is contained within the work; characters, events and locations are defined solely by their function in the structure of the book. “Los Angeles”, for the purposes of the novel and the dissertation, was no more real than Bay City was. My map of California could not be unfolded; the question could not even be raised.

That was my first encounter with structuralist criticism, and I was simultaneously startled and infuriated. Analysing a book in terms solely of motifs, images, parallels and metaphors was both revelatory and stifling: in a magic realist novel, for example, you could track the appearances and disappearances of  a unicorn in a barrio and discover patterns of extraordinary complexity and significance. But you couldn’t comment on the largest and boldest artistic effect of all: the fact that there was, magically, a unicorn in the barrio in the first place. Structuralism revealed beauty in poetry that it hadn’t even occurred to me to look for, but rendered romans à clef and allegories meaningless. It was simultaneously soaring and restrictive, grandiose and rigid.

But it was better than what came after.

Because when the revolt began against the increasingly grand claims made for  structuralism (culminating in the superbly hubristic assertion that language was only being held back by the limits of human experience – that “culture is the prison-house of language”), it went not for the overambitious critical superstructure, but for the linguistic foundations on which it was built. Deconstructionists demolished the idea of a glorious system of signifiers not by dismantling the system, but by dismantling the signifiers themselves. Words were not solid bricks in the architecture of  a language, but untrustworthy and crumbling – weakened and discoloured by ambiguity, creating distracting and unpredictable patterns for the audience, making writing a hugely uncertain proposition and reading a solitary effort of interpretation that never produced quite the same effect from one imagination to another.

But that cogent and undeniable point – necessary, perhaps, to prick the pomposity of an out-of-control critical movement – created a whole critical movement of its own: one that didn’t so much read as despair of reading. Post-structuralist and deconstructionist academics came to glory in the impossibility of successful communication, wrote and then struck through words in their own essays to dissociate themselves from the “freight” they carried, relished the “condition of interpretive uncertainty”, celebrated the “death of the author”. Where generations of critics had found moving and delicate achievements of romance, humour, intrigue and surprise in the literary canon, deconstructionists found only dissonance, ambiguity and failure – over and over and over again.

Work after work, genre after genre, was left devastated and denuded of meaning by exactly the same method, for exactly the same reason, as though visited by locusts. And ultimately the effect – after the initial shock and disruption to traditional critical viewpoints – became repetitive and pointless. As my Shakespeare teacher at college put it in one of his books:

‘After the umpteenth exposition of the scandalous arbitrariness of the signifier and the endless deferral of meaning in yet another Shakespeare play, one begins to see the force of the complaint that deconstructionism, when confronted with a text, ‘can only endlessly rediscover its own first principles’, and to concur with Stephen Greenblatt’s opinion that ‘deconstructionist readings lead too readily and predictably into the void’.”

In the end, in a buzzing environment full of young dons positing alternative viewpoints – from New Critics to unreconstructed Freudians – it was easy, and a relief, to leave postmodernism behind and rally to a different flag. But you don’t encounter that combination of nihilism and condescension, even briefly, without it leaving a mark. And when I became a sub-editor, and first encountered descriptivist linguistics, all those old memories came rushing back.

I have no linguistics background: although so much of structuralist and post-structuralist criticism is derived from the work of Ferdinand de Saussure and those who later opposed him, I know it only from its literary manifestations. And I understand that descriptivism, based as it is on the observation of language in the wild, is ostensibly democratic and non-judgmental, founded only on the unarguable truth that language changes. I know. I grasp the arguments.

And yet… when “enormity” is shown to have slid back and forth throughout history between its two very different meanings, I sense, not the democratic spirit ushering in a wider and more popular understanding, but a delight in confusion, a restless relish for change. When “literally” is demonstrated also to mean its paradoxical opposite, the achievement, as always, seems an uncomfortably deconstructionist one: ambiguity has been preferred to clarity; the signifier has been destabilised. What you thought was safe ground is not safe after all. What you thought was communication was misunderstanding. What you thought was success was failure.

In a sense, the structuralists and the post-structuralists are both right. Language is both our greatest cultural achievement and our most alarmingly fragile one. It’s pointless to deny that the bridges we build with it are shaky: they may even be slightly unsafe. Writers and editors need to bear that in mind always: but that’s because we are the ones who are trying to build the bridges, with the only materials we have to hand. Of all people, we should be the ones to keep believing that we can cross the gulf and reach someone on the other side. It seems strange for us to be the ones pulling violently at the foundations to see how much we can make the bridges shake – to be the ones trying to send the travellers on them tumbling, all too readily and predictably, into the void.