Classical concerts: a no-rules approach

September 16, 2015 at 3:48 pm | Posted in music | 1 Comment
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I got all excited when I saw Gillian Moore’s Sinfini piece, Classical etiquette: the new rules. Finally! I thought. Someone arguing that people shouldn’t be keelhauled for sneezing in a quiet bit! Sadly, Moore’s new rules are basically the old ones, with a bit of ‘Calm down, everybody!’ attached.

stfu1Golly, classical music fans like telling each other how to behave*. When you attend a gig, know this: your fellow audience members are looking down on you for all sorts of human failings. Don’t decide you’re too hot in the middle of a piece, and try to take your jumper off; but don’t fall asleep because you’ve had a long day and it’s hot and you don’t dare to take your jumper off, in case you snore. Don’t have a cold, even in the depths of winter, in case you cough; never mind that you paid £50 for your seat and booked your train ticket and accommodation MONTHS ago and have been looking forward to this all year. Do know all the pieces in advance so that you know EXACTLY when it is safe to clap, but don’t follow the score, because that’s showing off. If you’re not sure when to clap, don’t clap until someone else has; but if you DO know where to clap, don’t clap too early, and never shout WOO! because that’s just attention-seeking, and absolutely DON’T stand up to clap, because others might not agree with you that the performance was so terrific it needs a standing ovation. And don’t take your kids, even if you think they might like it, because they might swing their legs in the wrong rhythm, and anyway it’s just smug parenting. And don’t forget to adjust your hearing aid.

I understand all this. I really do. I know that classical music isn’t amplified and you need to shut up in order to hear it properly. I get that performances will differ in subtle ways and you need to pay attention in order to pick these up and enjoy them. But some research suggests that coughing may indicate a lack of engagement, rather than a wilful attempt to spoil everyone else’s fun. Could people be allowed to engage with what’s going on a bit more?

I sometimes think I was born at the wrong time. Mozart-era concerts sound like a lot of fun. Apparently everyone was rowdily engaged, shushing each other in the quiet bits, applauding, yelling ‘da capo!’, chatting and laughing, and quite possibly chucking things if they didn’t approve. People got into fights over their favourite performers. It all sounds right up my street.

When I listen to music at home, I sing along, talk over the bits I don’t find that interesting, crank up the best bits and lie on the carpet. I nudge anyone who’s in the room and go ‘No, listen! I love this bit!’ I’ve been to classical concerts where I wanted to clap and whistle when I recognised the opening bars of my favourite song, like I would at a rock gig.

2 Princelet Street

Iestyn Davies, not singing in my living room, but, you know. Near enough. (Picture by Andrea Liu)

And it’s not all about me. I sometimes feel like we’re missing something else, something bigger, that we could be experiencing if we stopped looking on our fellow concertgoers as an irritation, and started taking notice of them. What would it be like if we tried to enjoy being in a room with a lot of other people, experiencing the music as a group, rather than all sitting in our individual seats feeling aggrieved that the chap next to us is manspreading and the woman in front is so ridiculously tall and trying in vain to pretend that Iestyn Davies is singing to us ALONE in our living room for our personal delight (however brilliant that sounds)? What if we weren’t scared to react to what was going on – if we turned to our neighbours and grinned, got to our feet and moved around, sang along and danced and interacted with each other? Maybe went for a beer in the bits we didn’t like, and worked our way to the front for our favourites?

Ah, you say, knowingly. It’ll never work. Tom Morris came a cropper last year with his no-rules approach to audience engagement at the Bristol Alternative Proms. With no etiquette to stifle them, the audience simply took the policing of other people’s behaviour into their own hands, forcibly ejecting a chap who tried to crowdsurf in the Messiah’s moshpit.

But this stems from the unhappy mixing of people who want to loosen up a bit, and people who don’t. Glyndebourne has separate performances for the under-30s. I think we need Performances for the Under-Disciplined. Then all the people who want to shoulder-poke can go to regular performances and tut loudly at each other’s programme-page-turning, and the rest of us can have some fun. I’ll bring the plonk, if you bring the sarnies.

* It’s not just classical audiences, of course. The ‘STFU’ above is in the Jazz Cafe, and even popular music has its shushers.

The perks of apostrophes

May 10, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Posted in language | 10 Comments
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This ad has been doing the rounds this morning, to the sound of garments being rent all over twitter.

dorothy perkins apostrophes

I got a bit excited, though. As a linguist, I was trained to assume that language behaviour is motivated. By this, I mean linguists assume people who know and use a language have (largely unconscious) reasons for speaking or writing in particular ways. I’m not saying no-one ever makes a mistake in writing or speaking; I’m just suggesting that we shouldn’t immediately write off everything that looks ‘wrong’ as an error, but instead think about why someone might have made that language choice, even if they weren’t aware of it at the time.

Writing is particularly interesting, because it’s easy to spot ‘mistakes’ and chastise people for ‘incorrectness’. The Rules are written down in dictionaries, style guides and grammar books. But writing isn’t simply about adhering to a set of (often arbitrary*) grammatical rules. While people delight in sharing this kind of thing…

… there are examples where the ‘correct’ written language can seem ambiguous or unclear. This is what I think is going on in the Dorothy Perkins ad. (More on this in a minute.)

So, you know the rule about plural formation, right? No apostrophes in plurals. Simple. Except even style guides give some exceptions, including plurals of some foreign words (folio’s), numbers (100’s) and letters (mind your p’s and q’s, the three R’s). Why the exceptions? I’d suggest it’s for clarity. The plural of folio is probably to suggest the correct pronunciation (foh-lee-ohz, not foh-lee-oss), while the others are probably to make sure readers interpret what’s written correctly (p’s versus P.S., 100’s versus 100 seconds…?).

Clarity. I saw a sign advertising coffees and tea’s. Why the apostrophe in tea’s only? Possibly because the writer unconsciously worried that teas might be misread (or misunderstood) as tease. (Yes, yes, I know this sounds nuts. I know the plural of pea is peas. Bear with me.)

I think there are several possible motivations for what’s going on in the DP ad.

  1. Making sure people read words correctly. If the plural of maxi is written as maxis, how do you stop people from reading it as ‘max-iss’ (and failing to understand it)? The writer is trying to be clear.
  2. Distinguishing one sense (meaning) of a word from another. Yes, the plural of pencil is pencils, not pencil’s. But DP doesn’t sell pencils you write with; it sells pencil skirts. Minis – they’re cars, aren’t they? The writer forms the plural with an apostrophe to make sure that the reader understands that the word is being used in a different sense, and that DP hasn’t suddenly branched out into selling automobiles and stationery. Again, it’s about clarity. (Note that dresses and savings are pluralised without apostrophes, as these words are used in their primary (normal) sense.)
  3. Maxi’s, mini’s, pencil’s and skater’s are actually abbreviations of noun phrases: maxi dresses, mini dresses… So the apostrophe indicates something missing (which is, incidentally, a well-established use of apostrophes that is drummed into EVERYONE at school. Why not extend this to mean more than just a letter or two being omitted?).

In fact, it’s possible to see this as linguistic innovation, rather than fall-of-the-Empire type lassitude. In my first year at university, we were told to keep an eye out for this kind of stuff, as it might indicate ‘a linguistic change in progress’. So, in a couple of hundred years, when apostrophes are routinely used to distinguish one meaning of a word from another and style guides have whole sections on when to use pencils and when to use pencil’s, you’ll put aside your harp, look down from the clouds, remember this blogpost and smile.

P.S. Yes, yes. I know hundred’s shouldn’t have an apostrophe. I can’t explain that one. Sorry.

P.P.S. I’m not saying these choices are made on purpose – just that they are made for a reason, even if the writer her-/himself isn’t aware of that reason.

P.P.P.S. I should say that I am in no way arguing that this use of apostrophes is beautiful, stylish, or shouldn’t make you want to shave your head, climb a lamppost and start picking people off with a crossbow. I’m just saying it’s interesting.

* For a lovely, cogent, witty explanation of the arbitrariness of grammatical ‘rules’, see The Stroppy Editor.

The real rules of the road

March 22, 2014 at 11:10 pm | Posted in cycling | 6 Comments
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It’s clear that many motorists ignore much of the Highway Code. However, the reasons for this have been obscure until now. As my teenage neighbour sloped out of her driving instructor’s car yesterday, a dog-eared scrap of paper fluttered to the ground in her wake. I picked it up, and realised I’d stumbled upon a top-secret document of extraordinary importance, which supersedes the Highway Code in all circumstances.

The Motorist’s Rulebook

1. Get out of the GODDAMN way.

a. Stopping or going slowly? Move over as far as possible. Up the pavement, preferably. Pedestrians? They’ll shift.Dorking Dene Street

b. Park quickly. Come on, it’s not a bus. You can get it in there. That’ll do.

c. Move quickly when someone lets you out, even if it means simultaneously steering, changing gear and doing that left-right-left thing with the indicators to say ‘thank you’.

2. No holding ANYONE up.

a. No indecision, particularly at roundabouts. Go, damn you. Go!

b. Overtake immediately. You don’t need to see round the corner. It’ll be fine. Go on. Go ON.

c. Speed limits: stick to them if you must, but NO driving at 30 in a 50 zone. Or 40. Or even 45. We have places to GO.

d. The faster vehicle has priority. Like, DUH.

3. Life on the road must be FAIR.

a. Let someone out, but not EVERYBODY, fgs. One car, or two if you don’t mind us assuming you’ve stalled. Then drive on. Think about all of us, waiting. Places to GO.Traffic Queues - - 1288920

b. Take turns. If you’ve already had to wait at three pinch points, it’s OK if you force your way through the fourth. We understand. When it’s your turn, it’s your turn.

c. No CHEATING. No driving up the bus lane. No forcing your way into queues. If you do this from a motorway slip road, expect us to pretend we can’t see you.

4. Driving is a SERIOUS business. Absolutely NO enjoying yourself.

Eagle-eyed readers will spot that this explains a LOT of driver behaviour around cyclists. Here are some cyclist habits that irritate motorists:

i. Travelling at less than the speed limit

ii. Zipping up the inside/ outside of lines of trafficCyclists on Killyclogher Road, Omagh - - 584320

iii. Moving off slowly from lights/ at roundabouts

iv. Taking the lane

v. Wanting to turn right

vi. Riding two abreast

vii. Chatting, laughing, smiling, having fun

viii. Getting to work before them

Note that item (i) violates Rule 1a (get out of the GODDAMN way when moving slowly), forcing the motorist to obey rule 2b (overtake IMMEDIATELY). Item (ii) is in direct contravention of Rules 2d (faster vehicle has priority) and 3c (no cheating). And item (viii) flouts both Rule 3c (no cheating) and Rule 4 (no enjoying yourself). I’m sure you can match the rest up on your own.

This is, of course, the clearest argument yet for separating cyclists from motorists. We operate according to different rules; we’re simply not compatible. So I propose the provision of safe, custom-built, off-road tracks. Here, motorists can overtake, intimidate, scold and generally hassle each other, leaving the roads for the rest of us to go about our business slowly, calmly and happily.

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