That? Is the question? by Bill Kirton?

Unfortunately, we live in an age where rising terminals are becoming the norm. It’s not only teenagers and the like who are now adopting an interrogative intonation for non-questions, the contagion seems to spread to some parents, other adults, role models, and even broadcasters and academics who should know better. That, however, is the hand that’s currently being dealt so, if, as writers, we want to ‘get down’ with them all, our punctuation should reflect our streetwise credentials. For example:

‘So Jenny went to the gig? but it was, like, soooooo baaaaad? that people were, like, getting up on the stage? and the drummer was hitting them with his sticks?’


‘The Critique of Pure Reason poses problems of interpretation? so students tend to look for synopses online? They think that will be enough to get them through their exams? And the comprehension and absorption of its metaphysical consequences? can be postponed ad infinitum?

There are, however, genuine, legitimate questions which are fundamental to producing fiction (as well as some non-fiction). They are, of course, Who? Where? What? How? When? and most important of the lot, Why? Most of my fictional output has been crime novels but I'm fairly confident that these questions play a large part in most genres, including the one which is deemed superior to them all, the 'literary' one. So here’s a blog which I think our US friends might call Writing 101.

This is the easy one. I know there are stories ‘peopled’ by things, objects,
usually treated  anthropomorphically: depressive but aspirational mops which live in dark basement cupboards with only an educationally challenged bucket for company; carbon molecules in the lead of a pencil burning with envy at cousins who form diamonds in the crown jewels but whose lives are transformed when they hear and begin to understand the meaning of ‘put lead in your pencil’; a discarded spittoon; and so on.

A step up from them in the league of fictional protagonists (although there are those who would deplore such elitism), come those which feature beasts, such as Animal Farm or much of the oeuvre of Dr Seuss. Then, at the top of the heap, there are  actual people. (Again, such hierarchical rigidity will cause the chorus of disagreement to swell even further.) In the interstices appear fairies, werewolves, starship captains, Hobbits, Paris Hilton, and so on, but in all the cases, answering the question ‘who?’ forces the writer to individualise them, distinguish them from the other mops in the cupboard or their fellow investment analysts in the Square Mile. Try it. Think up a name or pick one from the phone book and ask ‘Who’s this?’ In no time at all, you’ll find you have someone with connections, relationships, problems, aspirations.

Just as the answers to ‘who?’ work by reducing possibilities – choosing name, gender, marital status, job – so 'where?’ works in the same way. Drop your bucket and mop into a Chicago basement and their angst will be very different from that experienced by their counterparts in Surrey or a croft in Caithness. The place will impose certain customs, behaviours, cultural restrictions or opportunities. Complicate that by having a mop manufactured in, say, Cuba, find itself in the basement of Enron mere days before it stopped being ‘America's Most Innovative Company’ and the plot has already thickened.

Such restrictions are, in fact, liberating. By anchoring the narrative to a specific location, ‘where?’ offers a ready-made back story in which things as diverse as kilts, rosaries and cricket bats can provide instant colour and mood. Then again, mix them up so that you have a Scottish batsman employed by the Vatican to organise recreational pursuits for its nuns and the available textures multiply further. ‘Where?’ not only anchors characters, gives them specific substance, the ‘elsewhere’ which it implies also opens an infinity of alternative narrative layers, perspectives, and even universes.

And that’s enough to be going on with. I shall adopt techniques used so successfully by some of my colleagues on AE and return to my theme next month to complete the question set. Meanwhile, experiment with who? and where?. The richness your answers provide may surprise you.


Wendy H. Jones said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Brilliant post Bill. What a great imagination you have. I particularly liked the Scotsman entertaining, nuns which made my mind run riot with the possibilities. Soooooooooooo funny
Jan Needle said…
Can't be arsed to actually think about this fine post, Bill (sorry, I mean aksh'ly. Have you noticed the new pronounciation?), so I'll just drop in this query for an answer next week, I hope (hopefully, as English now allows, from the German hoffentlich). How do you represent the young lady thing (and older meeja ladies now, it seems) often called the vocal fry? I sat opposite one of these young creechers on a train recently, and she was on her mobile for about forty seven minutes vocally frying herself, and I was genuinely worried that by the time we reached St Pancras she'd have destroyed her vocal chords and become a lifelong mute (comments on a postcard, please...). The weird thing is that I couldn't even listen in to her conversation because the fry fascinated (and annoyed) me so much. Not as much as the 'upspeak' non-question question mode, which she deployed as well, natch. And what about the doubleisation of the humble but important word 'is'? The Today programme is a rich sighting site for this. As in 'the question is is what can we do about', etc. One day recently someone acutally (akshly, see above) managed to say 'the general feeling is is is', etc. I could be doing him wrong, but I think that was Jim Naughtie. Not, as we all know, a man who ever uses too many words to ask a questions. Oh dear, satire is is is is is is creeping in. I'm off to bed.
Susan Price said…
Great post Bill - made me laugh out loud. Looking forward to next month.

I really feel for that mop and bucket.

The verbal tic that really annoys me (apart from questions which aren't questions, which? - it goes without saying? - REALLY annoys me? - is 'off of.' - 'Take your feet off of the table. - Get up off of your backside.' Repetitive, ugly, meaningless and grammatically wrong.
Lydia Bennet said…
Well Bill your mop demands its own book, if not series, and I'd like to suggest Boris Johnson as perfect casting to play the eponymous mop. A fun and cunning post! I have no problem with how anyone chooses to intonate their speech, adults in Australia use the upward intonation as a matter of course. Therefore there's no need to specify it in our writing. As for vocal fry, Jan, anything young people do gets slagged off and they are told it's dangerous - cf rock and roll, and just about anything they've ever taken up - but I'm now wondering if this can be true, as so many have been doing it for so long including professional actors. At one time the posh lot were able to drop their final g a la Bertie Wooster and other verbal fashions so there's no reason us ordinary oiks can't have similar tics and tricks now. As for the 'is is' I've noticed that too, it seems to arise from a feeling there's something missing in the grammar of the sentence, and perhaps could be called an over-correction (as in adding h to vowels in an attempt not to drop any). All very fascinating.
Dennis Hamley said…
That's a really absorbing post, Bill. As for upspeak and the rising terminal; it's definitely an Antipodean thing and down there it can drive you mad. I've even known Kay lapse into it. But do I without realising? That's akin to the question of whether I gesture when I speak. I haven't a clue because I'm not aware of it though I don't feel I've kept my hands by my sides when I've finished speaking and I keep on forgetting to return to self-awareness in mid-speech to catch myself doing it. If I do make gestures, I can only hope they are not obscene. The sheer familiarity of speaking is misleading. I'm a real pedant about 'different from' but when I've finished saying something I have a sort of residual memory that I may have said 'different to' or even, God help me, 'different than.' Language really is changing and taking us with it whether we like it or not and not even extreme pedantry seems able to stop it.

The 'who?''where?','what?'process is endlessly fascinating. I suppose we all invest our characters with a series of 'givens'. It's when they refuse to obey them that we realise we're on to something really interesting. Looking back over this comment, I see I've used far too many inverted commas. I didn't realise until I checked. Does that prove my point or illustrate something I'd rather not know about myself? Well, they're staying there as an awful warning.
Jan Needle said…
While we're at it, what about the universal television presenter/reporter tic of separating and closing their hands as if they're playing an accordion all the time they're talking. It's apparently because we'd get bored and go to sleep if they merely talked to us (ie the camera). On Channel 4 last week a young woman was cruelly filmed by the cameraperson too high up her torso for the hand gestures to be seen - except that every few seconds her disembodied thumbs appeared above the skyline for a little waggle. I was still distracted. Normally I keep shouting at the TV 'bloody keep your hands still, can't you? You're doin me ed in.'

Ee, Bill, this grumpy old pedants' post is too much fun. I must get up off of my backside (sorry Sue) and do some work.
Bill, that's a great post although I don't mind upspeak at all. Or any other verbal tics really. But questions to get people writing are a Good Thing. (My favourite is 'what if?')
Susan 'off of' is US usage, and not considered incorrect there, although it does sound a bit strange this side of the pond. But we say 'out of' so why not 'off of'?
ps had to look up 'vocal fry'. Fascinating.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, all.

Wendy, the Scotsman and his nuns are all yours. Slip them into your next Shona McKenzie outing.

Jan, sorry to have awakened those memories of frying voices, multiple is-es but glad to know that the apoplexy I display when assailed by these various distortions and misuses of language is shared. At the risk of adding to your misery, may I add another recent development for you to consider, namely beginning sentences with ‘So…’, when nothing in what’s being said links to what preceded it? As when Melvyn Bragg on In Our Time asks an academic ‘Can you sketch in the background to x?’ and, in reply, receives ‘So in Ancient Greece, Aristotle was…’ etc., etc.
If you want any more, I have lots.

Susan, that harmless wee word ‘of’ is treated so badly nowadays. People are fed up of and bored of things, not to mention that classic ‘She should of known better’. Maybe in the mop and/or bucket novel, one of the two should be a depressed linguist hiding from the infelicities of the modern vernacular.

Brilliant casting, Lydia. Also, while I know you’re right in your mature acceptance of the ways language evolves and most of us are guilty of having been there and done that in our youth, there are so many more vices accessible to them than there were for me at their age that I consider my curmudgeonliness totally justified.

Dennis, you raise a familiar spectre. I’ve so frequently been dismayed at hearing contemporaries or near-contemporaries condemning their offspring’s verbal tics using intonations and mannerisms that actually reflect them that I suspect I must do the same. We are, it seems, doomed.

And Catherine, thanks for the ‘what if’’ reminder, I’ll need to ‘grow’ my next blog by including it (another pet hate – ‘growing’ a company rather than broccoli, for example). And you may have seen the Youtube piece on vocal fry but if you (and others) haven’t, it’s worth a look. It really sounds as if it hurts.
Jan Needle said…
And talking of Melvin Barge and In Our Time, what about the historic effing present, eh? Eh? Eh? Eh/ Eh? Pass me me strait jackt someone.
glitter noir said…
Beautifully done, Bill. Upspeak is very Southern also. If y'all know what I mean?
Lydia Bennet said…
'Off of' is also dialect in some parts of the UK (south west for example) and as such is perfectly correct. As Catherine says, we say 'out of'... though sometimes in other dialects, these little words are left out - in the north east we say eg 'I just want to get out the house' and we also use 'belongs' as 'belongs to' thus, 'I belong Whitley Bay' which means I come from there.
Lydia Bennet said…
Vocal fry has spread very widely Catherine since the first uses on TV or film, there are various theories but it's probably just something that's caught on. Used a lot by the 'manic pixie dream girl' type in the media.
I love tracking all these little linguistic changes but they don't bother me. 'Bored of' has completely overtaken 'bored with' now. Ask anyone under the age of about 40 which they would use and I can practically guarantee it will be 'of' - which is fine. I have US friends with an absolute horror of alright instead of all right whereas it's what I was taught at school. Valerie, we say 'out the house' here as well. I don't mind the historic present, either!
Nick Green said…
Is this rhyme Kipling?
'I keep six honest serving men, they taught me all I knew. Their names are What and When and Why, and How and Where and Who.'
Jan Needle said…
Since my son Wilf moved to Glasgow, if he's invited to order in a pub or restaurant, he now says 'can I get' instead of can i have. Ignorant get (which is northern English for git).
Lydia Bennet said…
of course one should say 'MAY I have' with a please thrown in.. ;) 'Can I get' is also US English, they use it in bars all the time. I found the people in NYC very polite in quite an old world way, except that they don't use please and thank you as we do, which to an English ear can sound rude - Give me a beer, can I get a beer, you feel like saying, what's the magic word? but it's just a cultural difference.
julia jones said…
All clever and luvverly - thank you

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