Archive for the Miscellaneous Grumbles Category

To Verb or Not To Use A Noun As A Verb

Like many writers I am a terrible pedant, and frequently become indignant not only about the misuse of apostrophes, but of hyphens too.  ‘There’s a big difference,’ I have been known to splutter, ‘between a man-eating fish and a man eating fish.’

However, like King Canute, if you try to command the tide to turn back you can end up drowning*.  Just last week a John Lewis advertisement in UK newspapers urged readers to ‘Trade-in your old TV,’ God help us.  If John Lewis doesn’t know that ‘trade-in’ is a compound adjective (as in ‘the trade-in value of your crappy old TV is £20’) and what they should be urging readers to do is ‘Trade in your old TV,’ then The End is clearly Nigh.

However, as a favour to a friend I recently wrote a fake US newsflash – you know, the sort that begins, ‘This just in’.  It concerned a string of unsolved grisly murders and I found myself writing a sentence that seemed to lead inevitably to, ‘pressure is growing on police to progress the investigation.’

Progress the investigation? That’s appalling. I mean yes, it’s the sort of thing a US news reporter might say, but I don’t have to endorse their mangling of the English language.  Except that, looking back at it, I found it difficult to find an expression that conveyed the same meaning in so few words.  And the more I thought about it the less offensive it appeared.  In fact ‘make progress with the investigation’, while grammatically correct, lacked the dynamism of ‘progress the investigation’.

Apparently there is a term for the (mostly American) practice of turning a noun into a verb; it’s called – big surprise – ‘verbing’.  Which is itself a splendid example of verbing, hideous yet unambiguous.  I first caught an American verbing a noun many years ago, when we were working on a show called ‘Letters Home’.  He said, ‘Letters home always impact on someone’.  Obviously he should have said ‘affect’, but then, ‘affect’ is such a feeble term.  He meant ‘have an impact’, and indeed, that’s what he said, albeit in fewer words.

I think I am slowly coming to the conclusion that pedantry is the sign of a mind grown sclerotic and lazy, insisting that words should always bear the same officially-approved meaning and be used the same officially-prescribed way.  Which, if one were to extrapolate, would seem to outlaw poetry, and I’m not having that.

Yes, there is a big difference between a man eating fish and a man-eating fish, but if you can’t work out which is which from the context you deserve to get eaten by a shark.


*I know Knut didn’t really think he could turn back the tide; he was merely demonstrating to his sycophants the hollowness of their flattery.

The Hauteur of the Auteur

In Sunset Boulevard William Holden’s screenwriter complains that ‘audiences think the actors make the words up as they go along’.   In time audiences became more sophisticated and dropped that silly idea – only, it seemed, to start believing the director made it up as he went along (and it usually was a ‘he’ back then.)

Few things irk writers more than the Cult of the Director.  William Goldman in his second volume of memoirs, Which Lie Did I Tell? has a good moan about it.  As I recall he blames Truffaut for spreading the rumour that Alfred Hitchcock was God, and blames Alfred Hitchcock for believing it.   Goldman cites North by Northwest as an example: apparently Hitchcock proposed the baddies should try and kill the hero with a tornado.  When screenwriter William Lehman pointed out that humans can’t control tornadoes, and came up with the famous cropduster sequence, Hitchcock used that instead and took all the credit.

The ‘director as auteur’ nonsense gained credence because it made the critic’s job easier if they could pretend every idea on the screen came from one person rather than from a team.   Even though critics and audiences are a little better informed these days, and understand that film drama is a collaborative rather than a solo effort, directors still sometimes get the credit for your good ideas. But then, sometimes you get the credit for theirs.

Directors have an enormously stressful job.  They have to marshal a huge and incredibly expensive army to create, within a limited time, a film where everything appears to happen spontaneously.  Often this is the result of long and careful planning, and sometimes it’s the result of a desperate scrabble to get something into the can before the light goes.  (There’s a great story about Orson Welles’s version of Othello, where the murder of Roderigo takes place in a Turkish bath.  Reviewers raved about the clouds of steam symbolising the passion and intrigue that impairs human judgement.  Asked how he came up with the idea, Welles explained that shoot had run so short of money by then they’d been forced to send all the costumes back to the hire company.)

Anyway… what directors don’t do is make up the words and the story as they go along.  The cheapest stage of any film shoot is the period the writer, or writers, spend in one room with a heap of paper, constructing, writing, and revising the screenplay so that every scene has a function and the story makes sense.  You can try to make a movie without a solid script, but you’ll usually end up with an extremely expensive mess.

Sometimes directors merely execute what the writer has put on the page, in which case you’d better hope your writing is as good as you thought it was. Sometimes they utterly mangle your work, because they didn’t understand it, or because they resented the fact that they didn’t write it.  Or indeed both.

And sometimes a director will add visions you never saw, evoke meaning and resonance you’d sort of hoped was there, and draw performances from the actors that make your story come alive in ways you never expected, to the extent that you feel surprised and proud to see your name on the finished work.  And if you’re lucky, and the director’s really good, it will look as if the actors are making it up as they go along.

Whatever happens, remember there’s one thing worse than your script being realised badly: it’s your script never being realised at all.