Archive: speaking

There is something quite fascinating about the announcements made on trains. Is there any form of public speaking that varies in quality more.

Sometimes the announcements can be delivered in an unbelievably apathetic tone, like it’s the last thing the train guard ever wants to do. A lot of it just sounds plain rotten. Sometimes they are so slapdash that you wouldn’t guess that making these announcements was something these people did as a job, several times a day.

Other guards take the other extreme, taking a bit too much pride in the announcement. A lot of them try to talk posh, with sometimes disastrous consequences. Then you get the ones that think they are stand-up comedians.

I recently bought a CD that revels in this all. The MMs Bar Recordings, by Sandra Cross, is a collection of recordings of conductors making various announcements about the buffet bar situated on Coach F of Midlands Mainline trains running between London and Leicester.

The sound quality is variable, and the quality of the announcements even more so. But this is, of course, the whole point.

Listening to this record, which lasts almost 30 minutes, I found myself asking questions like, “who ever says ‘bottle of pop’ these days?” And, “why do they always say ‘for the price of £3.50’ rather than just ‘for £3.50’?”

There is a comedian who tells a joke, but delivers it in the most bored tone. Countless conductors say ‘expresso’, with a phantom ‘x’. There are mis-steps, slip-ups and technical glitches. There are real laugh-out-loud moments.

I just love the concept of this CD. It takes something ostensibly mundane, but asks you to analyse it carefully. It reveals so much. I am reminded of the John Cage quote about noise: “When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.”

These announcements are designed to be ephemeral. Most conductors treat it as such. Most people on the train will avoid listening to it. But put it on a CD and it becomes essential listening. 30 minutes’ worth of announcements made between 2006 and 2007 are now immortalised.

The MMs Bar Recordings is possibly the most bonkers album I have ever bought. And I love it.

Outrage has broken out among pedants everywhere, as it was revealed that Waterstones has dropped the apostrophe from its name.

Waterstones is hardly the first business to make this move. For instance, Woolworths was, up until the 1980s, called Woolworth. But people called it Woolworths, so the company adopted it.

Note how many people also say Tescos instead of Tesco. The supermarket has not yet caved in to this!

There are countless other examples. A few years ago Big Rab took some snaps of some of the businesses in Dumbarton that have either dropped the apostrophe, or added an extra ‘s’. They include famous names like Barclays, Boots, Greggs and Ladbrokes.

Waterstones logo

I have to admit I thought Waterstones was already part of that club. In fact, they had indeed already dropped the apostrophe — at least on their website. To the right is the old logo as it appeared on the website. (For what it’s worth, I am dead against the lowercase ‘w’, which has now been changed back to uppercase in the new logo.)

Time to drop the apostrophe?

I do sometimes wonder if the apostrophe is more trouble than it’s worth. I am sure it could be dropped from the language without it causing too much distress.

Of course, people will always contrive examples that supposedly prove how necessary the apostrophe is. But the context normally gives you everything you need. After all, we don’t ‘say’ apostrophes when we are speaking.

The apostrophe is probably one of the most widely misused punctuation marks. Yet while pedants love to point out greengrocers’ apostrophes and the various other widespread misuses, there are few times where this actually provides a barrier to communication. If you genuinely don’t understand what is meant by the greengrocer’s “Apple’s 25p each” sign, then you have a bigger problem than the greengrocer.

I work in St Andrews. The name of the town doesn’t have an apostrophe. According to the University of St Andrews Special Collections department, this is because the town predates the introduction of the apostrophe into the English language.

So perhaps it’s time once and for all to put a stop to the newfangled apostrophe.

Happy new year. What are you calling it? “Two thousand and twelve” or “twenty-twelve”? It was a topic of conversation among my friends on New Year’s Day. There is also an interesting article by Ben Zimmer.

I have long been in the “twenty-twelve” camp. I said “twenty-eleven” and “twenty-ten”. I often even said “twenty oh one” for 2001 and the rest of that decade. In that instance I had to cave in to convention — almost no-one else says that.

My logic has been that my chosen pronunciation follows the convention that was used in previous centuries. No-one would say “one thousand nine hundred and twelve” or even “nineteen hundred and twelve” for 1912. Nor do many people say “one thousand nine hundred and one” or “nineteen hundred and one” for 1901. In this case, “nineteen oh one” seems natural enough to most people. So why not “twenty oh one”?

Saying “twenty twelve” also saves on syllables, as the Ben Zimmer piece points out. Ben Zimmer seems optimistic that the “twenty twelve” format will catch on from now on. I do hope so as I don’t think I could stand an entire century of what is (in my view, at least) a more pretentious and wasteful pronunciation.

But why?

The question is, why would a clumsier, longer pronunciation catch on? How could it usurp the convention that has been used for previous centuries?

My inexpert theory is that people just got so excited about the fact that they were living in the year 2000 — otherwise known as The Future™. So once the year 2000 was over, people wanted to drag it on for as long as possible.

“This is the year two thousand! …and one.”

“The London Olympics will be held in two thousand! …and twelve.”

Personally, I think living in the year 2000 is so 2000, so I will be saying “twenty twelve”.

Update: Via @talesfrom on Twitter, I have learned that the Guardian style guide recommends the use of “twenty-twelve”.